The Man from Colorado (1948)

When it’s on: Thursday, 8 September (4.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Man from Colorado is set at the close of the American Civil War. Glenn Ford plays Owen Devereaux, a Union Colonel who is appointed Judge for his region in Colorado. His right hand man in the army, Del Stewart (William Holden), becomes Marshal and his second in command. Justice under Judge Devereaux is swift and brutal. He orders hangings on the flimsiest of evidence. Death is pronounced as a matter of course and with a straight, unscrupulous face, but Stewart knows better. He remembers an episode shortly before the war ended, when Devereaux’s detachment trapped a Confederate force into offering terms of surrender and, despite waving the white flag, the Colonel gunned them down. Devereaux gives instances of insight into his own condition, writing after the slaughter that he has no idea what’s happening to him, but the rough justice continues and drives an irreconcilable wedge between Stewart and himself.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has existed for as long as human beings. Since ancient times there have been investigations taken into the psychological effects of war, clearly one of the most stress-inducing human experiences, and as long ago as the Civil War formal medical studies into the condition were undertaken. PTSD as a consequence of World War One, especially the experience of living for weeks in trenches, was known as ‘shell shock’, a term redefined as ‘battle fatigue’ in the global war that followed. The shattered mental states of soldiers returning from Germany and Japan in 1945 spilled over into popular culture, notably in Film Noir, in which PTSD became a prominent player in attempting to explain the rationale of its damaged heroes and their struggles to adjust to civilian living. Westerns too chose contemporary issues for storylines transposed into the Old West, and in The Man from Colorado Devereaux is an obvious sufferer. One of the film’s neater themes is that lack of understanding from other people to his psychological state. Stewart recognises his friend’s ‘sickness’ and urges him to take a break from his duties, but his is a lone voice and otherwise everyone is unaware of the particulars of Devereaux’s malaise. You can imagine it really being like that, a PTSD sufferer resorting to almost psychopathic levels of violence without the realisation from him or anyone else of the reasons for his behaviour.

The best thing about Ford in his performance is that Devereaux’s countenance is precisely the same as in his heroic roles – resolute, fixed, always with that undercurrent of violence behind the eyes but maintaining a sense of control. It’s terrifying at times, the sense that to some degree Devereaux thinks he’s dong the right thing, the part of his personality that caused him to question himself eradicated and leaving those around him to challenge his behaviour. The real-life friendship between Ford and Holden spills over into their acting, their ease in each other’s company and the latter’s air of disillusionment as he finds Devereaux taking a path he can’t follow. The clash and split between these two veterans who we are led to believe have been through the horrors of war together and survived should be devastating enough, yet the film adds an unnecessary extra dimension in Ellen Drew’s Caroline, the love interest for both men. Drew’s fine in the part, but the plotline seems thrown in to add a conventional layer of romantic added tension, which isn’t needed. The exploration of PTSD and its effects is enough.

A cool $1 million was lavished on The Man from Colorado, the sum showing in the film’s sprawling township set, part of which was destroyed in the climactic fire scene. Production problems were reflected in the recycling of directors, Charles Vidor being replaced by Henry Levin, which caused the shoot to be extended and costs escalating as a consequence. Whereas the former carried the more celebrated body of work, turning out the classic thriller Gilda two years earlier (which also starred Ford), the latter was a sure hand and developed the film as a Western with Noir themes, helping to show the genre as a format for reflecting prevalent issues within contemporary America. The result is a fine, tense drama, perhaps not quite all it could have been yet well paced and certainly entertaining.

The Man from Colorado: ***

Stalag 17 (1953)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 April (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst not on the top table of films directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, for my money) Stalag 17 is certainly interesting and stays in the mind for some time after having watched it. It’s adapted from a play, which was written by two war veterans about their experiences as prisoners in an Austrian camp, by all accounts a tedious and melancholic existence of men cooped up together. I’ve chosen the above poster deliberately as I think it conveys well the cramped living conditions experienced by the men, though don’t be fooled by the blanket wearing blonde – she represents the Russian women who are confined in the neighbouring bunker, distant objects of lust to the men starved of female companionship.

The story takes place in 1944. American Sergeants who have been captured by Germany are being held in Stalag 17 in Austria, and find they’re treated well enough. They can have a laugh with their jovial guard Schulz (Sig Ruman), and the Commandant is a decent fellow (played by Otto Preminger) who only makes one request – no escape attempts. That’s fine where Sefton (William Holden) is concerned. Settling down to an opportunist’s life of organising horse racing events – mice do the racing – and selling moonshine, Sefton is the classic small-time capitalist, happy to eke out the remainder of the war at the Germans’ expense because he knows that if he does get away he’ll be plunged straight back into the conflict, possibly even the dreaded Pacific theatre.

For everyone else, day follows monotonous day. There’s a neat thread of gallows humour in the movie, featuring desperately bored men doing crazy things to have a craic or wind each other up. The Betty Grable obsessed Animal (Robert Strauss) and his pal, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), come up with an unlikely whitewashing stunt in an attempt to make it into the next camp and acquaint with the Russian women. Life goes on. The trouble is that escape attempts are made. At the start of the film, two men use a tunnel they’ve dug beneath the bunker to flee the camp, only to run into an armed squadron outside, obviously prepared, and they’re gunned down. The clear indication is that someone inside Stalag 17 is a traitor, feeding the Germans information about everything that’s happening, and the finger of suspicion is pointed squarely at Sefton, the one who seems to enjoy the easiest relationship and enjoy the most perks with his captors. Sefton hasn’t helped himself by betting against the escape ending successfully. As the two mens’ bodies are left outside as a grisly warning, the feelings against Sefton start turning violent. It leaves him in the most difficult position, alleging himself to be innocent yet not believed and forced to spend his days alongside people who now hate him.

Stalag 17 is told from the perspective of Cookie (Gil Stratton), Sefton’s dogsbody and an observer who can make out the downbeat emotional tenor of the bunker. It’s his experience we follow, and for the time it was quite new to witness a war film without much action or any real heroics, let alone a character that can be identified as the ‘hero’ figure. That certainly isn’t Sefton, cynical and hard-edged, making it clear that he’s only looking out for himself. Holden was reluctant to take the part, seeing few redeeming qualities in his character, though it can certainly be argued it’s a realistic one and there are moments, as he faces exile from the other Americans whilst siting alongside them, that he can quietly analyse what’s going on to unearth the real traitor. As Stalag 17 did well both commercially and with the critics, Holden clinched an Oscar for his portrayal, albeit one deferred from his previous work with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard, and helped to set the tone for prisoner of war anti-heroes in numerous films and TV shows that followed.

The mystery at the heart of the film is only one element, though, with much time elsewhere devoted to the day to day goings on, the Americans’ efforts to win cheap victories over their captors by masking their smuggled radio wires, the hi-jinks of Animal and Shapiro, the monotonous routines with no one knowing how long they are going to have to eke it out for. Whilst lacking some of the more brutal sights of other ‘prisoner’ films, it sets an atmosphere of quiet despair and rootlessness, and whilst it succeeds in the depiction it takes a very long time to make viewers share their conditions. There’s a much tauter film at the heart of Stalag 17, but any suspense struggles to emerge amidst the drudgery.

Stalag 17: ***

Damien: Omen II (1978)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 1 August (11.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The best thing about The Omen, Richard Donner’s horror hit from 1976, was its degree of ambiguity. There was always the possibility that the nastiness surrounding Damien Thorn was simply a series of unfortunate events. Perhaps Gregory Peck’s increasingly hysterical pappy just couldn’t deal with any of it, searching for ever fantastical reasons to explain the awful things that had happened. By the sequel, Damien: Omen II, any doubt has been removed. Damien clearly IS the Antichrist, the son of Satan, and just like in the first film he’s moving in powerful American circles with a shady cabal of worshippers smoothing his path to the top.

It’s telling that producer Harvey Bernhard was unconcerned about Donner not returning to helm the sequel, however he felt the film wouldn’t work without Jerry Goldsmith. The original score, an Oscar winner, was plundered for Damien: Omen II, whilst Goldsmith worked in fresh, choir-heavy stylings that sounded just as portentous and doom laden. The music is by some distance the film’s highlight. What it becomes, at its core, is a series of killings committed to celluloid. The level of imagination that went into all those screen deaths – they range in degrees of grisliness – is to be commended. The one that lingers in my mind is the poor bloke who drowns after being trapped under a sheet of ice, but there are demises to meet anyone’s taste, including a rather nasty mutilation by raven, as the bird – depicted as an agent of evil – pecks out a woman’s eyes before she comes off worse from her collision with a juggernaut. It’s no way to go.

The plot surrounds young Master Thorn’s journey of self-discovery. By now a teenager who’s been adopted by William Holden’s wealthy industrialist and is receiving the best military academy education, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is being groomed for greatness. The deaths continue to mount up around him. Anyone who begins to question his identity is dispatched, either by the devil worshippers aligned around him or by diabolical circumstance. Whilst the boy develops into a naturally charismatic future leader, it’s the revelation of who he really is – drilled home by his mentor, played by Lance Henriksen – that makes for the film’s finest scene. Reading Revelations and realising that he is indeed the Antichrist of prophecy, Damien initially rails against his own destiny, running out into the night and demanding ‘Why me?’ But soon enough, he’s reconciled with his fate and prepared to stop anyone standing in his way. It’s left to Holden, as the ‘Gregory Peck’ of the film, to thwart him, whilst the infernal agents – including those nearest to Holden – close in…

Holden was slated to star in the original, before he bowed out as he wanted nothing to do with a film about Satan. The bottom line must have been a stronger pull, however, as he jumped at the opportunity for the sequel after The Omen’s success. Looking his age (Holden was 60 when the film was released), his character has little to do for much of the running time but remain bemused and unaware as the deaths pile up. Better value by far is Robert Foxworth as the Machiavellian manager of Thorn Industries. Obviously evil, he focuses the business on agriculture and controlling food distribution to the Third World. A shocked Holden reacts by, er, going off on vacation, leaving Foxworth to simply carry on. The narrative prospects offered by Thorn Industries’ infernal direction are interesting enough, but remain unexplored as another demise waits around the corner.

Donner was off making Superman when this project came up, after which Mike Hodges was installed as director. He had walked away within three weeks following a string of arguments concerning resources. The producers then turned to veteran director Don Taylor, who came with a reputation for completing films on time and within budgetary limits. Taylor turned in an efficiently shot piece of work. Goldsmith’s score is more powerful than any of the events taking place on the screen, whilst an original ending in which Damien died was rejected in favour of the inconclusive one used in the finished cut, as the possibilities of a third chapter remained open. Yet without an actual resolution, the film becomes little more than a series of deaths that could have taken place during any time in Damien’s life. It has its moments, particularly revolving around Damien’s moment of discovery and the efforts of the worshippers to propel him to the top of the tree, but on the whole it’s a squalid effort, focusing on lurid gore and offering little hope to anyone standing in his way.

Damien: Omen II: **