The Long Ships (1964)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 December (1.20 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

With some films, the troubled story of their making is far more interesting than the finished products. Reading about the background to The Long Ships, I’m left wondering how it managed to make it to the screen in any cohesive form at all. In truth it’s a mess of a picture, no denying that, though it isn’t without entertainment value and there’s lots to recommend about it, but I think about the problems it experienced throughout its production and find the fact we have a movie to enjoy at the end of it all to be approaching a minor miracle. The industry is full of such instances, of course. Cleopatra‘s a famous example of endless production problems, and I’ve recently been watching Hearts of Darkness, a chronicle of the ‘what could go wrong did go wrong’ making of Apocalypse Now, and as with The Long Ships I’m amazed there wasn’t a point where they didn’t just give up and go home. The reason was obviously money, too much invested to stop them from calling a halt, yet I end up admiring these people who exhausted themselves to the point of suffering breakdowns in getting the job done. If the finished films aren’t masterpieces, then there’s a point of accepting that we’re simply lucky to have something.

The Long Ships was made in an attempt to surf the wave of popularity for historical epics, most notably The Vikings, indeed it plays like a clash of the peoples from that Fleischer film and Anthony Mann’s El Cid in pitting Norsemen against Moors. There’s actual historical precedence for meetings between these two very different races, as the Vikings made incursions into Moorish Spain in the tenth century, only to be repelled. Accuracy wasn’t the first point of order for the production, however; neither was a desire to remain faithful to its source material, Frans Bengtsson’s two part novel that weaved the fantastical tale of the race and rivalry between both sides to acquire a fabled treasure. The rights to the story were acquired by Irwin Allen, who hired famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff to direct it. The choice of Cardiff seemed logical enough, given his astonishing and evocative photography for The Vikings, and the aim seems to have been to emulate that film’s success.

Cardiff later related that he thought the job would be much easier than it would turn out to be, believing it wouldn’t be so different from his experiences shooting The Vikings. Big mistake. Tito’s Yugoslavia was behind much of the film’s investment, with the production running from a studio in the Communist country. The hope was that it would encourage better relations with the West, but working there was a difficult experience. Sidney Poitier, already an Oscar winning actor and expecting star treatment, found Belgrade to filled with loathing towards him following incidents of locals clashing with African students brought in on scholarships. Richard Widmark, who was signed to play the ‘Kirk Douglas’ role, arrived with his own problems and demands, calling for nothing less than a complete rewrite of the script. This almost led to Cardiff’s departure from the production, before Widmark was persuaded that the new screenplay was a complete farce and they returned to the original.

Both lead actors had an unhappy time during the production, Widmark threatening to walk out due to clashes with Allen, and there’s something about these problems that is reflected in their performances. Widmark and Poitier act their parts as though they’re appearing in entirely different films. The latter, appearing as Moorish King Aly Mansuh, sports an incredible bouffant and plays it straight, lending his character a degree of solemn nobility, whilst Widmark comes across as a light-hearted adventurer, almost a comic performance. He plays Rolfe, a Viking marauder whose ship is wrecked off the coast of Africa. Destitute and left to sing for his supper, he’s earning a pittance by recounting tales of an enormous church bell moulded from solid gold. By chance, Aly Mansuh has been pursuing the bell all his life and captures Rolfe, demanding that he gives up the location. The Viking escapes before he can be made to talk and eventually makes it home to his father, Krok (Oskar Homolka). The family’s ruined thanks to Krok’s building of a funeral ship dedicated to the king, but Rolfe steals the boat alongside his brother, Orm (Russ Tamblyn), and a crew, with a mission to head back to Africa and find the bell, which he believes he has heard ringing and therefore knows its location. But the Moors are never far behind, and eventually their paths will lead them to seek the object together, with an air of mistrust making their mutual cause an uneasy alliance.

The plot’s rambling and a number of characters are really short-changed. Tamblyn, who’s third billed, gets very little to do and is forced to wear a costume that appears to have forgotten it needs a bottom half. A storyline that involves a kidnapped Viking princess amounts to virtually nothing, and there’s little better in store for the gorgeous Rosanna Schiaffino who plays Aly Mansuh’s favourite wife. Widmark and Poitier dominate the proceedings through sheer force of will and possible script rewrites that brought them both to the fore, at everyone else’s expense. Homolka’s role seems to demand only that he laugh hysterically at everything, as though Krok is stumbling through the entire film in a drunken stupor.

Despite everything, and there’s a lot of ‘despite’ in The Long Ships, it’s very good fun, maintains a fast pace for a two hour film and has no trouble using liberal amounts of gore (largely implied, but it does stretch the boundaries of its certification). One Moorish method of execution, a killing machine called the Steel Mare that forces the victim to slide down the length of a sharp blade, is rather blood-curdling and needs to be seen in order to be believed. Cardiff’s involvement ensures the whole production looks ravishing, its modest budget belied by some beautiful photography. It also benefits from a lovely opening sequence that narrates the legend of the bell. Designed by Maurice Binder, of 007 credits fame, it has monks shown in silhouette sourcing and crafting the bell, and it’s wonderfully done, if tonally different from anything that follows. But then that nicely describes the entire movie, a messy collage of scenes and images that come together fitfully. It isn’t consistent, but neither is it uninteresting.

Widmark and Poitier would go on to star together in the following year’s The Bedford Incident, a far more interesting, relevant and cohesively told Cold War film that better represented the strengths of its performers. In contrast, The Long Ships feels like what it is – a dumb fun adventure yarn, one that is spoken of negatively by those who were involved in it, and when you consider the production difficulties and somewhat sloppy outcome that isn’t a surprise. It was a victim of poor timing, audiences’ love for historical epics on the slide by this point, which only adds to the sense that the cast and crew would rather forget that it had been made. However years later, when this doesn’t matter and we can enjoy it on its own merits, it’s a surprisingly decent watch, rambling, silly and uneven to be certain, but not without some merit. I certainly found it an easy way to pass two hours, and when I think about the other films I mentioned that experienced troubled productions – Cleopatra and Apocalypse Now – that’s saying something.

The Long Ships: ***

Halls of Montezuma (1950)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 6 October (4.20 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

We tend to think of films illustrating the pity of war as a very modern invention. One is drawn to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with its slick editing and lives cheaply thrown away on the Normandy beaches as the ultimate statement. Or how about the Oliver Stone directed Vietnam movies and their visceral, angry message making? But it’s not the case, of course. Hollywood has been making features carrying an anti-war message for as long as it’s been in business. The director of Halls of Montezuma, Lewis Milestone, scored a considerable hit and won Oscars for his 1930 entry, All Quiet on the Western Front, a powerful piece of work about the horrors of the western European trenches during World War One, told from the perspective of ordinary German soldiers. Perhaps the message of these films got a little lost when the cinema of war became all about the action adventure, the sight of Clint Eastwood joyously gunning down countless oncoming Nazis in Where Eagles Dare that drowned out the pacifist message told elsewhere.

Halls of Montezuma was billed as a paean to the glory and endeavour of American marines, fighting in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, but it’s a far more complicated work than that. True, there are successes as the Japanese (in a sign of the times, they’re referred to constantly as ‘nips’) are pushed back, the film showing an example of how that happened. But there’s also a toll, an ever present price to pay, as the men commanded by Lieutenant Carl Anderson (Richard Widmark) are decimated, and not for the first time. The routine story of the marines’ efforts to take a Pacific island from their enemies becomes a highly personal tale, vignettes that explore their lives away from the front giving us a precious insight into their characters, their hopes and fears. Anderson was a Science teacher before enlisting, and helped a student (Richard Hylton) to overcome his debilitating stutter. Years later the kid, Conroy, is in Anderson’s platoon, but struggles with panic attacks about going into battle, forcing the pair to remember their previous encounter. To his men, the Lieutenant might appear to be a stolid commander, yet he suffers from terrible migraines, and ‘Doc’ (Karl Malden) holds the tablets that will help him, which makes him recall when he first took on the job of dispensing them.

The difficulty of each mission is made clear to the men as they disembark from their ships and make for the beaches in their landing crafts. They look ruefully back at the relative safety of the ships receding into the distance, before the guns open up to clear their passage onto the shores. Everyone knows the Japanese are tough fighters. What they don’t know is whether they’ll make it back off the island, and the film shows their acknowledgement of this horrible reality. Once on land, the job takes on extra levels of impossibility as the marines come under attack from a hidden missile silo. Their only chance of success is to discover the location of the base and order the aircraft to destroy it; otherwise their attack will be halted.

The plot takes in the interrogation of captured Japanese soldiers, daring incursions into enemy territory and the deaths of much of Anderson’s platoon. That he survives and indeed prevails is presented as a bittersweet notion, not only for him but also Jack Palance’s cynical Pigeon Lane, who’s faced up to death many times and despite protecting the redneck private, Pretty Boy (Skip Homeier), is unable to save him. In Halls of Montezuma, war is hell, a necessary hell but always a struggle against the conditions, enemy soldiers and internalised stresses. It foreshadows the HBO mini-series, The Pacific, with its sobering look at what life at the front was really like, and serves as a neat counterpoint to the number of Film Noir entries being made at the time. It’s very easy to imagine Widmark’s emotionally wrecked Anderson as a Noir character once he returns home, wrestling with the guilt of all those dead comrades that he’s doomed to bear for the rest of his life.

Halls of Montezuma was a lavish production, utilising the co-operation of the United States Marine Corps and filmed in and around Camp Pendleton, which remains the USMC base just outside San Diego. The filming of battle scenes was compiled with stock footage of actual landings, which jars a little now as the ‘joins’ are obvious but was standard practice at the time. Its focus on the people rather than the action makes for refreshing viewing, its message of real lives being spent on strategically important spits of land coming across very powerfully, its values writ large. Amidst a good cast, I was impressed strongly with Widmark’s performance. Here playing the film’s hero, he nevertheless managed to develop a complex, multi-dimensional character rather than a straight, square jawed lead, clearly feeling every casualty for which he feels responsible.

Halls of Montezuma: ***

How the West was Won (1962)

When it’s on: Friday, 2 January (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s a neat comparison to suggest that Cinerama was the IMAX of its day. The latter, those colossal cinema experiences, are quite special in their own way, but with home cinema easily available and many big new releases available on IMAX, it can’t replicate the extent to to which Cinerama really was a big deal.

From 1949 to 1952, cinema audiences dwindled dangerously with the advent of television. As more American homes welcomed an ‘idiot’s lantern’, the number of people up for a night at the movies dropped by nearly a half, and Hollywood moguls scratched their heads over what to do about this crisis. The answer, inevitably, was spectacle. TVs invariably were 9″ screens, capable of producing black and white images, so the solution was to serve up something in theatres that the goggle box just couldn’t show you – sprawling films, featuring casts of thousands, made on a massive scale and in full, glorious colour. Little surprise, perhaps, that this was the era of the swords and sandals epic, the likes of Quo Vadis wowing the masses with expensively made feasts for the eyes. But it didn’t stop there. Ever earnest to undermine television, Hollywood came up with filming processes that widened the screen, given grandiose names like Vistavision and Cinemascope and offering more and more detail to awestruck audiences. ‘Widescreen’ was nothing new; as early as 1927, Abel Gance took advantage of a three-panel process called Polyvision to increase the scope of Napoleon and showed all those extras having at each other in contemporary military uniforms.

But even by these standards, Cinerama offered something unique. Fred Waller, who previously had attempted a logistically ludicrous process that used eleven projectors casting their images onto a dome, developed a system in which three cameras recorded simultaneously. The results would then be projected separately onto the left, central and right panels of a huge curved screen, done in such a way to produce a single, seamless image. A seven-channel sound system was an accompanying innovation, all designed to give audiences the feeling of being virtually immersed in what was being shown on the screen. Early exhibitions of the process, the wildly successful This is Cinerama (1952) was a showcase of what it could do, opening with a Roller Coaster ride that was shown from the perspective of someone sitting in the front car. The experience for viewers must have been amazing; This is Cinerama was a huge hit, more so for the limited number of screens that could support it.

Travelogues that took cameras to parts of the world previously inaccessible to the public made up much of Cinerama’s output through the rest of the 1950s, until it was decided to make dramatic films specifically for the process. The first was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. The second, and perhaps the ultimate expression of what Cinerama could create, was How the West was Won. It cost $15 million, a vast investment for the time, employed a cast of thousands to rub shoulders with some very big stars, took in the work of three prestigious directors, and created a sprawling saga that ran for more than two and a half hours.

It’s difficult watching How the West was Won on a small screen to appreciate the impact it must have made on Cinemara audiences. The film was designed for those looming curved screens, so something is inevitably lost on an ordinary television, even on a modern LED. For certain, there are better Westerns. The tight plotting of the very finest the genre has to offer goes out of the window in favour of a smash and grab from classic Western stories – castle rustling, showdowns with Native Americans, train heists, gunfights. It’s all in here, stringing together a loosely arching plot that tracks the Prescott family over half a century as they emigrate westward. The story takes in their experience as pioneering emigrants, the impact of the Civil war on their fortunes, along with that of the railroad, and the brief period of lawlessness before civilisation catches up with the mass migration of humans across the continent.

The conversion of a film intended for Cinerama onto a flat widescreen format presents further problems. At times, it’s possible to see the ‘joins’ on the screen, particularly when the shot is filled with blue skies. Added to that is the strange sense of perspective; it’s a little like watching the film on a cylinder, objects moving horizontally towards the screen from the right background before appearing to veer off towards the left rather than simply straight across it. To compensate for perspective issues, directors made actors stand in the dead centre of the screen and could never favour close-up shots. When two people converse, they were unable to look at each other in order for the illusion to work on Cinerama, yet on a ‘normal’ screen the problem returns and characters talk whilst peering off into some middle distance.

These, however, are minor issues and never really ruin the film, rather it’s possible to sit back and luxuriate in some quite gorgeous photography. One of the enormous benefits of Cinerama was its ability to show off the American landscape in beautiful, crystal clear images, and How the West was Won features the west at its most brilliant, natural and barren, indeed much of the intention was to illustrate a land untouched by the footsteps of modern man. It’s a thing of staggering visual pleasure.

The show is helped by the presence of an excellent cast of actors, a compendium of some the Western genre’s leading lights. Some, like John Wayne and Harry Morgan as jaded Generals Sherman and Grant, are little more than high profile cameo appearances. Gregory Peck is fine as a card playing rogue who also possesses a heart. There’s James Stewart, too old to be the fur tracker who captures Carroll Baker’s heart, but bringing class to the screen, and he’s involved in one of the film’s best action scenes when he helps the Prescotts beat off river pirates led by Water Brennan (and including in their ranks Lee Van Cleef). The film’s second half focuses strongly on George Peppard’s Zeb, the son of Baker and Stewart, who fights in the Civil War before helping the security of the railroad’s building and coming across Henry Fonda as a cynical and grizzled frontiersman. Zeb also has moral struggles with that classic Western anti-hero, Richard Widmark, who oversees the railtrack’s construction at any cost and whoever it affects, and later fights physically against Eli Wallach’s train robber, Charlie Gant.

There’s a lot going on, so much that the film was split into five segments, three of which were directed by Henry Hathaway, with George Marshall taking on the railroad story and John Ford covering the Civil War. All three experienced frustration with the Cinerama filming, the needs of the camera taking precedence over their normal shooting style, and they all wound up using objects like tree trunks to cover up the bits where audiences might see the ‘joins’.

How the West was Won is far from the best Western, but equally there’s nothing quite like it. Apart from the Cinerama aspects, it’s possible to see the film as marking the end of an era, a sort of compendium of the genre’s best bits from its classic era, before it moved into darker and grittier territory with the advent of the ‘Spaghetti’ films and Clint Eastwood.

How the West was Won: ****

And with that, readers, we’ve reached the end of the holiday fortnight. It’s been a blast writing these pieces, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them, perhaps one or two have even inspired you to watch a film you might otherwise have ignored. The bad news is that I can’t sustain this pace over a normal working week, however I have had too much of a good time to simply stop, and will be keeping FOTB going, probably on a reduced, two-three reviews per week basis. It’s your readership and support that has kept it going, so thanks for all the Follows, Likes and Comments, and I hope to see you throughout 2015!

Warlock (1959)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s Western released at the tail-end of the genre’s golden age, turns out to be a complicated affair. Characters are morally obscure, and with a lengthier running time than normal for the 1950s, back stories and motives are expanded upon. It also has a foot in both camps – complex plotting and characterisation versus an old-fashioned set-up and trappings of 1950s cinema, which makes it difficult to pin Warlock down. The two hours of film serves up some sag, but it’s never less than intriguing and, best of all, when the climax arrives (in Warlock’s case, the finish turns into finishes as a series of resolutions are reached) it’s never clear who will emerge standing.

Warlock refers to a small town, which plays unwilling guest to a gang of rowdies. The law quickly emerges as inadequate. Sheriffs are picked off with each visit of the villains; a wall on the gaol features a list of names, each of which has been chillingly crossed out. In desperation, the townsfolk put their money on the line and call in the services of Marshall Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a Wyatt Earp type with a history of clearing just the sort of trouble they’re experiencing. Accompanying him is Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his constant shadow. The pair don’t come cheap, but they quickly see off the thugs, and by their deed even convince one of their number, the conflicted Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), to turn his back on lawlessness and become Warlock’s Deputy Sheriff.

All straightforward enough, but as the story progresses so the characters unravel. Blaisedell starts as the ultimate vigilante solution, quick on the draw and effortlessly authoritative. Yet his ‘super human’ status is undermined. The Marshall’s tangled relationship with his right-hand man runs deeper when we discover Morgan goaded him into killing someone years ago, earning him the endless resentment of Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), who subsequently takes up with Johnny. Even more critical is Blaisedell’s sense of hubris. There comes a point in the film where his belief in his own godly status takes hold of him, which becomes dangerous when it’s clear he needs to leave Warlock in order for it to have a chance of settling down.

It’s a brilliant performance from Fonda, some years away from Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, yet already hinting at the cold ruthlessness in those blue eyes. But if he isn’t exactly a good guy, then Quinn’s Morgan is greyer still. The devotion he displays to Blaisedell is touching enough, and has led to suggestions of a latent sexual subtext, something Dmytryk denied. I guess that angle’s there if you want it to be, but I prefer to see him as simply clinging on to the better man, perpetually ‘owing’ the Marshall for his gunfight with Miss Dollar’s lover (which happened because of Morgan’s love of Lily and his jealous obsession with seeing off her man, indeed it’s a fatal character flaw that’s seen him stick with Blaisedell). One thing Morgan most certainly happens to be is corrupt. When Johnny goes out to meet the gang on Warlock’s streets, Blaisedell should be by his side, only Morgan holds him at gunpoint, leaving him to stare at the ensuing action impotently from his window.

And then there’s Widmark, Dmytryk’s frequent collaborator and earning top billing in Warlock despite Fonda’s presence. For me, he’s quickly becoming one of the more interesting actors I’ve written about on these pages, and after being offered the part of Blaisedell initially, he’s more powerful as Gannon, seeking atonement and trying to steer his gun-happy brother away from harm. He features in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, where he visits the gang in their hideout and tells them to stay away from Warlock. It sounds like a fool’s errand, and that’s just what it becomes as he’s brutally attacked by the thugs and has his shooting hand stabbed. Only the timely intervention of Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley) spares him from further harm.

Warlock isn’t perfect. The last half hour is a series of climaxes as the various issues dominating the narrative come to a head, and each loses weight while another comes around the bend. The best turns out to be Johnny’s showdown with McQuown’s men, partly for the switching of sides by one of the gang but also because it marks Gannon’s moment of redemption. Morgan’s end feels like it goes on for a very long time, though Quinn does a good job of keeping his character’s pain hidden beneath drunken bravado.

I’ve chosen the poster used in this blog because I think it sums up Warlock nicely as a film of interlocking lives and the events leading them to this point. It’s certainly an interesting piece of work and I love its move away from characters who are either GOOD or BAD, rather real people with legacies that are part explained but mainly stay with them on the screen, motivating everything they do.

Warlock: ***

The Bedford Incident (1965)

When it’s on: Thursday, 14 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Back in my University days, I did a Politics module about international relations during the Cold War that gave us a decent grounding in the big picture but failed to provide much insight into the sensibilities of the atomic era. This has been filled in by popular culture from the time and even in more recent, 1980s efforts when East-West relations took a chilly turn and the likes of Threads and When the Wind Blows tapped into the real dangers of what might happen if one side took a single step over the line.

It’s certainly difficult these days to imagine the real fear felt by ordinary people in the decades following World War Two, let alone what went through the minds of those patrolling the faultlines. The latter is explored in The Bedford Incident, a thriller made in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. The eponymous USS Bedford is a destroyer hunting Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. Shot in black and white and given a documentary feel with little use of music, the film focuses on two central characters. The first is Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), the Bedford’s captain. Facing him is Sidney Poitier’s urbane reporter, Ben Munceford, on board to profile Finlander and get a feel for Cold War engagements.

The film is told principally from Munceford’s perspective. Though Poitier isn’t in every scene (that said, he’s often lurking in the background, quietly taking it all in), it’s made clear that what we see of Finlander and his crew is from the point of view of an outsider. Life on the ship is made out to be strange and different. Munceford is airlifted in with the ship’s new doctor, Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), who marvels at the fact none of the crew ever take time off sick. A research team – which includes a brief appearance from a young Donald Sutherland – constantly pores through waste deposited in the sea by Russian ships for clues. What emerges is a captain who runs his boat and everyone on it with an iron fist. A true cold warrior, Finlander continually berates crew members who make a mistake and, when the threat of a nearby sub arrives, pushes everyone to the limit in pursuing it.

Whilst Poitier is perfectly fine in a role that doesn’t challenge him, Widmark owns the film from the minute he appears. It’s obvious his character inspired the sadistic marine commander played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. As I watched Finlander, Nicholson’s famous rhetoric about needing him on that wall stuck with me, only the captain’s even more dangerous because he’s on ‘the wall’ at the very moment Munceford arrives on his ship. He clearly despises his reporter guest. The withering look Widmark produces whenever Munceford asks him anything is utterly delightful – these are men from absolutely different worlds, with nothing at all in common. The film doesn’t even need to make anything of Poitier’s colour, simply filming the pair of them to add that extra layer of cultures colliding.

The ‘incident’ in the title refers to the culmination of the Bedford’s submarine hunt. This dominates the running time, with very little happening for swathes of the film as the ship relies on nothing but its sonar for traces of the Soviets. The pursuit through the ice, during which there’s a very real possibility the submarine has given Finlander the slip, is visually arresting, as are the brief appearances of its periscope. Relentlessly chasing and teasing a nuclear vessel creates its own tension, which builds as the submarine needs to surface, the Bedford closing in like a school bully. This is suspense that will either lapse like the missile crisis or get worse, and with two boats perfectly capable of obliterating each other we’re left with a powder keg of trouble.

I wasn’t prepared for the film’s end, a bold finish that actually pays off those many minutes of men stood around, staring at screens or the freezing waters, the camera returning sporadically to the clock to show the passing of time during which Finlander keeps his men effectively on red alert. Tony Scott’s submarine thriller from the 1990s, Crimson Tide, carries shades of The Bedford Incident, but it’s a sign of the thirty year gulf in audience expectations that the latter carries more gloss, swearing and violence whilst having much less to say for itself.

The Bedford Incident: ***