Film 2019: Superman II


I dunno. And I used to like this film so much.

Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.

I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.

Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.

And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.

The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.

Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.

The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.

But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists  on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.

Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).

But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.

Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.

So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.

Bollocks.

Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.

So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.

I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….

 

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Film 2019: A Canterbury Tale


Amongst Powell and Pressburger films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death will always be my two favourites, but each time I watch A Canterbury Tale, it sets me to rethinking that preference. Opinions may always change, and I can foresee a day when this minor-key film, made in black and whie in 1944, between those two films, may slip between them in my preference and estimation.

Despite coming after the controversial Colonel Blimp film, A Canterbury Tale aroused no ill-feelings and enjoyed the full co-operation of all those required to make it, including the British Army. It’s a long, and in some ways sprawling experience, deliberately taken at a gentle pace in keeping with the Kent countryside in which 90% of the film is set. After the War, like Colonel Blimp, the film was cut savagely, and for America The Archers were forced to replace narrator Esmond Knight with Raymond Massey, and add bookends featuring Kim Hunter (both were then filming A Matter of Life and Death) that, ironically given the subsequent treatment of Colonel Blimp, turned the film into one massive flashback.

The film can be described in deceptively simple terms as a detective story, though the mystery is given away at the beginning. The detective story – who is the Glueman and why is he pouring glue on the hair of young women? – is non-existent as a whodunnit, and almost mystical as a whydunnit, and is used solely to provide a narrative spine for the film’s other and primary concerns. The film is in truth a love story, not a human love story, although three such relationships underlie it, but a love story to the Kent countryside of Michael Powell’s childhood, married to a mystical sense of the unity of time and place that derives from the Canterbury pilgrims of time past, bound on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Three of the film’s stars were unknowns at the time of filming, each in their first role. Two, Dennis Price and Sylvia Sims, went on to substantial careers but the third, US Army Sgt. John Sweet, was the true amateur and in many ways the most important figure in the film. The part was originally conceived for Burgess Meredith but the producers opted for a complete unknown, to glorious effect.

Three strangers get off a train on a dark Friday night at Chillingbourne Station, ten minutes from Canterbury. Two ave been posted there, the third leaves the train in error. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, a cinema organist in civvy street, is posted to the Army camp, Alison Smith, a former shopgirl, is posted as a Land Girl to a Mr Thomas Culpepper, and US Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on the 72 hour furlough, first in Canterbury, then London, and misunderstands the call for ‘Canterbury next station’ (the station master is a minor role for Charles Hawtrey).

Walking up to the Town Hall to register their presence, Alison is attacked by the Glueman. The trio chase her assailnt into the Town Hall, wherein he ‘disappears’. No effort is made to doubt the instant suspicion that he is the local Magistrate, Mr Culpepper (Eric Portman): magistrate, gentleman farmer, enthusiast for local history, and a kind of quasi-squire to the village. He’s also a classic women-hater, though hate is too strong for his actions. He dismisses the idea of Alison working for him on his farm (she is taken on by a woman farmer with far less prejudice), as he dismisses the idea of women – his mother excepted – as being worth botthering with.

Culpepper’s motives can be discerned by his concern, indeed overwhelming enthusiasm, for sharing his local knowledge and love of his place on Earth by lectures to the soldiers: he is pouring knowledge into their heads. There’s an interlocking off-key logic to his antics as the Glueman. He is warning off the local girls from going on dates with soldiers when ‘their’ men are in the Services, overseas, and he is diverting the soldiers to his lectures by cutting off their ability to get dates. When confronted, as the film enters its final and extraordinary sequence, Culpepper acknowledges his guilt on Earth but is unrepentent of his actions by reference the the greater good that he sees.

He’s got away with it so far mainly because he is Mr Culpepper. He is a part of the Village, almost of the land itself and as such cannot be suspected. It takes three strangers to suspect and, with simplicity, obtain the evidence no-one else would look for.

What Culpepper doesn’t suspect, despite his rootedness in the Pilgrim’s own land, is thatPeter, Alison and Bob are themselves pilgrims, bound for Canterbury to receive blessings that all need in this ongoing War. Alison, despite her self-confident forthrightness, is a lost soul. Once she spent thirteen days in a caravan outside Chillingbourne with her geologist fiancee. They couldn’t marry because his father opposed it, thinking a shopgirl beneath his son. Alison has the caravan, in storage in Canterbury, but Jeffrey was a pilot who was  shot down.

Bob too is a lost soul. He’s a conscript to a War in a country far away, a chance visitor to aland far different from his own in Oregon, but in which he, the outsider, the observer, sees far more correspondences than he could ever imagine. He and the wheelwright are both men of wood, talking the same language, both gently surprised that their practices 5,000 miles apart, are identical. He receives an invitation to lunch as if he was an old friend. But Bob, like Alison, has no future. He has a girl, back home, a blonde about whom he says little because Bob Johnson doesn’t talk that way, but what he says reveals the depth of his feelings: a walk in the woods, silent for two hours and hen both saying the same thing at the same time. The one you can be silent with in comfort is the one, but she no longer writes to him. The War has taken his future away too.

Peter, the cyncical, over-bright, slightly sneering one, is different. Alison and Bob are lost but they have kept their souls: Peter has lost his. A classically trained organist with dreams of becoming a church organist, he has settled for playing in a cinema. An easy life, on good money, nothing to do, nothing to be for, he regards action and achievement as ridiculous. Peter is the empty man and its no coincidence that, despite his growing liking for Culpepper – all three grow to like him as they investigate him further – he is the most determined to see him face justice. Peter has lost touch with that part of him that could create and has become creation’s other face, destruction.

What of Culpepper himself? Throughout the film, until that final sequence, he isimpervious, giving up nothing of himself, only showing his humanity in his  thirst to preach his land. He is a misogynist, and it’s not hard to see him as a repressed homosexual (Portman himself was gay). His automatic response to Alison is dismisssal, coupled with disdain for her being female. Yet as the film progresses, he has to make adjustments, and you can see each stage in his face.

First, she attends his lecture (later, when he is explaining his motives as the Glueman, she simply siggests he might have invited the girls to his lectures too). He’s supercilious with her until she identifies herself as the fiancee of the geologist who discovered Belgian coins on the Pilgrim’s Way, coins that found there way into no Museum: Alison admits she has them.

Then when she disturbs him on Sunday afternoon, on the Way, lying in the long grass, looking at the clouds, the fact Alison shares the same imaginative sympathy he possesses, that she can hear the horse, the harness, the conversation of the pilgrims of the past, sees him open up in genuine interest in her. It’s a brief moment of harmony, shattered by the passing of Bob and Peter, unaware anyone is present, confirming that the three have identified Culpepper as the Glueman.

Pilgrims made their way to Canterbury to receive blessings or to do penance. To reach whatever end there is, they must arrive in Canterbury. All three Pilgrims, and Culpepper, share a carriage on the same train on Monday morning, he to the Bench, they to the aims that will separate their brief alliance forever. Despite Culpepper’s admission of his motives, Peter is determined to bring Justice and punishment down on his head. Alison is on her way to the Agricultural Commission, Bob to meet his buddy Micky Roczinski.

What follows is a glorious and shamelessly emotional ending. Bob meets Micky outside the Cathedral that has awed him, awed him enough that he has needed to keep his feet on the floor by remembering that his grandfather, his line, built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, in wood, ‘and that was a good job too’. Micky’s a cliche American, big, boisterous, loud-mouthed, but he is an instrument of Heaven in his way. He is carrying letters, from Sidney, Australia, from Bob’s girl: she has joined the WACs. Micky Roczinski gives Bob Johnson his future back.

Alison finds her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It’s immobilised, its tyres requisitioned, but worse still it is lifeless, dark, dusty, full of moths eating its curtains, Jeffrey’s greatcoat. Almost bizarrely, Culpepper has followed her.  He is  clumsy and awkward, beginning by gently castigating any importance a caravan has, a transient thing that one time or another, has to move, a thing that never becomes part of anything. He’s clearly abut to offer Alison somehing more permanent, established, in a place he knows she loves. What Culpepper cannot see is that whilst Alison loves Chilingbourne and the Pilgrim’s Way, she loves it throughh Jeffrey, and whilst he may not be here to share it with her again, she loves it through, of and because of him.

But pilgrim’s come to Canterbury to receive blessings. The yard owner steps up, with news he has had to hold, not knowing where Miss Alison is, only that she’s coming to Canterbury. Mr Jeffrey’s father is here, wanting to see her. He’s waited two weeks. His business with her is important. He has news: Mr Jeffrey is in Gibraltar. Alison sways a moment as her future is given back to her then, a typical English girl, she rushes into re-airing the caravan. It will be needed again, it will be shared. Culpepper has gone, unable to share her good fortune. His penance has begun. It is  Jeffrey’s father who escorts Alison into the Cathedral, who touches her shoulder, who smiles on her, reconciled and caring only that they two have a blessing to be shared.

And Peter? Before he parts from Bob and Alison he lets slip that this is the day, his lot are off. Canterbury is seeing them off, with a march through the town and a special serviceat the Cathedral. Peter still has no thought but pursuit and vengeance. But Superintendent Hall is that the Cathedral, more concerned with the day than any petty reports. Peter pursues him. But inside the Cathedral, gazing up at its vast, stern, majestic interior, his soul is restored to him. The elderly church organist climbs to the organ loft. Peter follows him, restoring a lost page of music. He gazes at the organ in awe. The cynical, crusty old man recognises a fellow musician. He played the organ in a circus. He does not disapprove of Peter’s choice of career, but he completes the blessing by inviting Peter to play the organ: first, for his own pleasure and redemption Bach’s Toccatta  and Fugue, then, for the men he will serve beside, and to Bob and Alison who do not know it is their partner, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Last time I wrote about this film, I speculated about what happened afterwards to Bob and Alison and Peter. For Bob and Alison I foresaw, I still foresee, marriages, peace-time contentment, long lives. But for Peter I still see nothing but a death in battle. Bob and Alison were given back their futures, but Peter was given back his past, his soul. There is a darkness about him that I cannot see alleviated. His blessing is to reach his future in a state of grace.

There is so much else that I love about A Canterbury Tale, so many simple lines, momentary descriptions, the unhurried depiction of life in wartime that nevertheless has not broken the bond between people and place. Culpepper is an extreme example of this and, in comparison, a strident version. Everyone else is simply living what he longs to express. Not for nothing is the final shot the boy’s armies, local kids all, great-grandfathers now if they have lived this long, playing with the football Bob buys them, as reward for their alliance.

And US Army Sgt. John Sweet, in later life a teacher. That he is an amateur is self-evident, alongside the rest of the cast. But it is that stiltedness, that awkwardness that brings a truth and an honesty to his remarks. Bob is the stranger, the alien, but the one most ready to absorb, and be absorbed into his surroundings, to see what is diferent and what is nevertheless the same about this oddball place. You can tell he loves Three Sisters Falls, that he will never leave there once duty returns him, but he will never forget.

A minor film? No, not at all.

 

Film 2019: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films, a strong contender for the favourite, but at the very least an immovable choice for the ten I would take to that mythical desert island with the improbable electricity supply. It’s a film that was born out of a cut line in another film, that was made in the face of War Office objections and the personal enmity of Winston Churchill, that spent most of its first forty years in a cut-to-ribbons version that destroyed almost all of the film’s subtlety and glory, but which, since 1983, has been restored to its original length and re-mastered.

I saw it for the first time in 1983, when the restored version was on release, playing mainly in art cinemas around the country. In Manchester, that meant the Cornerhouse, just behind Oxford Road Station. I knew The Archers (the writer-director-production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) well from A Matter of Life and Death, and Roger Livesey from the same film: here was an actorwho never received the fame and the starring opportunities he should have. In fact, he gothis starring role in Blimp because Churchill intervened to prevent Laurence Olivier being released from the Fleet Air Arm, but Olivier could not have been as good in the role.

The film was originally going to be titled ‘The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy’, and Livesey’s part is of career Army officer Clive ‘Sugar’ Candy, but a meeting with the legendary New Zealand cartoonist David Low led to permission for The Archers to use the name of Low’s great creation, Colonel Blimp, in the title, and to depict Candy, at the beginning, as the visual Colonel: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, clad only in a towel in a Turkish Bath, unfailingly polite and unfailingly wrong-headed. It was fitting in that the film was, in part, a satire on the British Army and its hidebound attitudes, its habit of always fighting the current war with the weapons and tactics of the last one, though Low was afterwards gently critical of the way ‘Blimp’ was sentimentalised and made sympathetic when it Low’s creation he was everything but.

The film actually came into being thanks to a line cut out of Powell and Pressburger’s preceding film, One of our Aircraft is Missing. This was an official propaganda film, about an RAF Bomber Crew shot down over Holland and being assisted by the Dutch Resistance to return to England (it’s not in the boxset but I am acquring a copy for later this year).

The crew are a mixture of types and ages and the line that was cut-out was spoken by the crew’s oldest member, a baronet, to the youngest, a working class lad. I’ve seen several different versions of what the line was, but this is taken from a Michael Powell interview in 1981: “”You know, you’re very like I was when I was young and you’ll be just like I am when you’re old.” The editor who cut that commented that there was an entire film in that line, and as this was David Lean, he should know.

The film’s storyline is neatly inverted. It begins at the end, in 1943, with an Army exercise intended to test the London Home Guard’s ability to defend the city. War starts at midnight, which infuriates one Lieutenant, ‘Spud’ Wilson, since German attacks don’t start by prior agreement. Since his girlfriend, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon is drive to the London Home Guard commander and has let slip things she shouldn’t have, Wilson launches a sneak attack at 6.00pm, capturing the General and all his staff in their Turkish Baths. The General is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.

Wilson can hardly keep his contempt for this fat, moustached old buffer out of his manner. Enraged at being held to judgemet by a young man who doesn’t know how Candy got his big belly, why he grew his moustache, the General grapples with Wilson, sending both into the bath. The camera pans along the bath to the young Lieutenant Clive Candy, emerging from the far end, home on leave from the Boer War in which he has just won a good Victoria Cross.

The film moves forward in great sweeps. In 1902, Candy responds to a letter from a Governess in Berlin, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), about countering anti-English propaganda. He ends up having to fight a sabre-duel with Oberlautnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (Anton Walbrook) in which both duellists receive cuts requiring them to stay in a nursing home for a long time. There, they become friends, and Theo more than that with Edith: they become engaged. Only then does Clive realise he has fallen in love with Edith too, that she is his ideal woman.

By means of a procession of shots (literally) of stuffed animal heads on the walls of Clive’s den, we move forward to November 1918, and the last night of the Great War. Crusty Brigadier-General Candy is tryin to get a train for his leave, and some food, and winds up at a convent housing seventy nurses from the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of whom, Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr) is the spitting image of Edith. After the War, Clive manages to trace Barbara and, despite the twenty year discrepancy in their ages, persuades her to fall in love with him and marry him. He has less luck with an embittered Theo, Prisoner of War of a defeated Army, who then looks with contempt on a soft people who want to become friends again, to build Germany up again as they knocked it down.

That Barbara is clearly good for Clive is plain to see. She travels with him on all their postings, time passing in the turning of the pages of a photo album, tricked out with invitations cards from all over the world, until the pages fall blank, aand we see only a Times personal column add from Candy, thanking all his friends for their support over his irreperable loss. The rows of heads resume.

We reach October 1939. Military chemist Theo Kretscmar-Schuldorf, resident in England since 1935, a widower who has lost his sons to the Nazi Party is being interviewed in front of the Enemy Aliens Tribunal to determine if he is to be interned. Theo speaks, eloquently, in the film’s most spellbinding scene (a tour de force of underplaying by Wallbrook) of why he came to England after Edith died, but only Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy’s intervention, sponsoring, rescues him. The friendship resumes.

After retiring in 1935, Clive’s back on active duty, but not for long. His attitudes are  too old-fashioned, too ‘sporting’ and ‘fair’. He just does not understand the Nazis, and that if they win there will be no further fighting against them, not as Theo understands and desperately tries to impress on him. But his driver, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon, also challenges him, suggesting his leadership and, more practiclly, his contacts, would be essential to setting up the Home Guard as it needs to be.

One final, shorter transition, this time by Picture Post covers and features, takes us to 1943 and the start of an Army exercise. We see scenes deliberately left out at the start, completing a composite picture. We’ve seen Clive Candy’s life, and his seemingly final defeat. But the film closes on a sympathetic moment: Clive’s home has been bombed, its basement become an emergency water tank. Clivestares into the water, rememberinghis promiseto Barbara not to change until the floods come. But the floods have come and he has still not changed… Reminded of himself, the old man salutes the Army, with great warmth.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is nowadays accorded all the respect Churchill and Co. tried to deny it. It is a classic, a British epic, a magnificent structure. I’ve given but a fragment of it above, a straight-line summary of its plot, but none of its life. From start to finish, the film is distinguished by a high class of acting even down to the smallest of parts. It is greatly comic, in innumerable moments of naturalistic asides, and beautifully observed and timed vignettes, not one of which overstays its welcome by even a second.

It is also unashamedly romantic, though its leadingromantic tries at all times to conceal his feelings, just as a military officer of its extended periods would. There is love, most beautifully expressed in Barbara’s shy devotion to her older husband, and devastation at the loss of such a lively young woman so young.

Despite the War Office’s misgivings, the film is resolutely anti-Nazi, and Wallbrook’s soliloquy at theTribunal, with the ambient sound dying away as everybody abandons their duties to listen in respectful silence, is the centrepiece, his quiet bitterness at what he has lost, in particular regard to his sons, expressed by his own, ironic use of the words ‘Heil Hitler’, a reading I doubt more than the tiniest handful of actors could have equalled, and none bettered.

Yet the point they took is easy to see. Though he wasn’t concieved as such, Candy is Blimp: bluff, hearty, bound by the limits of his own experience and the tenets of a public school, and shockingly wrong. Clive receives his final dismissal from the regular Army for his intended words in a cancelled radio broadcast that he would rather be defeated than stoop to the enemy’s methods, and it is Theo, presented throughout as the more cynical yet more practical, and more aware, man, who is the more intelligent and perceptive of the two: the Good German, the man who gets it.

In the end, though, the film is a magnificent achievement, its three principals performing superbly. Special mention must go to Deborah Kerr, playing her first major role aged 22, and mastering three different roles superbly. Watching the film is always spellbinding: I am absorbed in it, watching as all the little tangentsand diagressions dissolve into an inevitable whole, admiring anew all the little set pieces – despatch riders delivering orders, a room of highly decorated men greeting a defeated enemy, Theo’s speech – for their individual grace, and for their mosaic-like quality in a film of genuine brilliance.

In 1995, New York film critic Anthony Lane commented that (Blimp) “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English”. That’s very true, but Michael Powell previously pointed out that it was “… a 100% British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I’ve always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind.”

In these times, it does us well to think on that.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies


And so it goes.

There’s a greater sense of closure about the end of the third Hobbit film than there is about its equivalent in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though technically it’s only the halfway mark. There’s a much stronger feeling of we-shall-not-come-here-again that leaks in from outside where, save the unlikely event of Jackson and Co. signing on to do any kind of adaptation of ‘The Silmarrillion’, we will not be in Middle Earth after this.

Funnily enough, I have little to say about the third film. When I saw it in the cinema, I found it overwhelming, and that was just the theatrical release. I said at the time that whilst it wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, it was the first one that I would have paid to see a second time on condition they started it immediately.

Though I’m not blind to the film’s major flaw, it is a stunningly visceral experience, throwing itself at you and refusing to let your attention slip for the least moment. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is in reality because, despite the breadth of its scenes, it’s a single-minded film. The sub-title says it all: build-up, battle, aftermath, that is the whole of the film and it benefits from an absence of diversion.

Well, not entirely. The film opens in media res, a direct continuation from the second part’s cliffhanger, and that’s the film’s single biggest awkwardness. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson greatly offended Christopher Lee by cutting the scene of Saruman’s death from The Return of the King, yet when you see it restored in the Extended Edition, you see that it’s right: the scene belongs in The Two Towers and is an awkward, out-of-place tailpiece shoved in upfront.

The same goes for Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and his death. The whole sequence takes twelve minutes of this film, and it’s spectacularly done in all respects, but it’s still a holdover. It’s part of The Desolation of Smaug and it should have played out in that film, not this. It’s significant that the title card The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t come up until that part’s finished.

From then on though, I’m on the ride and there’s no getting off and I’m incapable of analysing things any further. Except to say that, even in comparison to Billy Connolly’s wonderful cameo as Dain Ironfoot, my favourite scene is still the battle of the White Council in Dol Guldur, saving Gandalf, confronting the Nazgul, and banishing Sauron to the East, and to Mordor. And the one reference in all the films to the renegade Valar, Morgoth.

Of course, the old argument still prevails, in respect of which I continue to disrespectfully disagree with those who sneer, and would pose them a question. Three of the Dwarves who set off on this foolish expedition die during the Battle, Fili and Kili, the two youngest Dwarves and Thorin Oakenshield’s nephews, and Thorin himself, King under the Mountain. His line is ended. In the book, all we are told is that Fili and Kili died: how, where, doing what, not a thing. Thorin’s death is given hardly more detail. Given the significance of those deaths, their importance to the story, how would you have wanted a single film faithful to the nature of the book  to have represented them? By thrusting them out of sight as Tolkien did for his audience of children?

To date, I have not seen one person who has slagged The Hobbit off for its ‘elephantiasis’ make any practical suggestion as to how the story might be adapted in the way they think appropriate. And this is without answering the question of how such an adaptation might be made to be consistent with its filmic ‘sequel’?

No, I’ll take my Hobbit the way Peter Jackson served it up and be content, though I remain intrigued by the thought of how Guillermo del Toro would have proceeded had he remained in charge of the film and its original two-part concept. Especially the second film, which would have occupied the sixty year gap between the two books. On day, if I ever get the chance to visit Earth-2, I shall report back to you.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

Film 2019: The Red Shoes


I’ve stayed with the Powell/Pressburger box set for a second week for two reasons. The first is that this is a working Sunday, which means I wanted something familiar, a known quantity. The other is that this is the biggest box set in my collection, with as many films as four of the other six put together, and if I just watch one every few weeks, there’s going to be a long series of these films at the end.

The Red Shoes is a classic British film, released in 1948, and starring Archers regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and ballerina Moira Shearer in her first acting role. It’s a film about ballet, for which The Archers effectively created their own ballet company, choosing rightly to cast dancers who could act rather than actors, and incorporating an uninterrupted fifteen minute ballet, composedand choreographed for the film, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’ – as is the film, naturally.

I’m in no position to comment on the ballet elements of this film because I’m a complete ignoramus in this sphere, a true don’t-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like. Better people than I have praised the film in this regard (and dismissed it contemptuously) and I’m happy to go with their interpretation.

The three principals are Boris Lermontov, Director of a ballet company (Walbrook), Julian Craster, a gifted musician and composer (Goring)and Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a dancer with the capability to be a great dancer (Shearer). The latter is the girl in the Red Shoes, both in terms of the ballet and in her own life, and though Shearer is by a distance the weakest actor in the production, the story centres upon her.

Lermontov – based primarily upon Sergei Diagheliv with elements of J Arthur Rank and Michael Powell himself – is the consummate artiste. He lives for dance, eschews what we would call human emotions, and is contemptuous of those who dilute their potential or their achievement by falling in love: dictatorially, he will sever relations with them instantly.

Lermontov is the incarnation of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Pram in the Hallway’ belief. Dance is his life, and no other considerations must be allowed to divert even the tiniest fraction of commitment to that. And he will not tolerate those who do that.

Which is going to be the cae with both Julian and, especially, Vicky.

It’s a long time in coming. The film takes a realistic amount of time to building this pair up as the different yet parallel successes they are going to be. Julian, a more forceful personality, more convinced of his own genius, is the dominant element in this act of the film: he starts as a music student whose Professor has stolen his work, is offered a lowly musiiical role with Ballet Lermontov and progressing to rescoring ballets and then the composition of the music of the Red Shoes Ballet.

Because of Shearer’s limitations, which the film works around brilliantly (though not unnoticeably), limiting the number of lines she has, and using her as a still point, a point of silence around which things happen, Vicky’s progress is quieter but more determined. She believes in herself and her abilities but, paradoxically, lack’s Julian’s overt confidence in that talent. Only in the ballet senes does Shearer truly come alive, and she is dynamite: passionate, emotive, tireless, dominating the screen.

The inevitable happens: Vicky and Julian fall in love. It comes out of the background, with no open signs to the audience, who are put in the same position as Lermontov, to whom it is no mere surprise but a shock, a shock that threatens to overturn his plans. Julian is fired. Unable to persuade Lermontov to rescind this decree, Vicky quits.

Some critics see this development as springing from Lermontov developing personal feelings for Vicky, and given the sequence of events, it’s a distinct point. I can only say that I have never felt it in the film. Part of it may be from the fact that Walbrook was gay (but so too was Goring), but the careful and complete portrait of him created by the film at every point means that I can only see his interest in Vicky as being her potential ability, and the possibilities of developing that further than any other dancer he has worked with: Svengali instead of lover or husband. Goring is far more convincing as someone wanting to spend his life with Vicky. There is a beautifully touching scene as the pair cuddle in the early hours, in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, moonlight on the Mediterranean Sea, and Julian drifts into the future, imagining an eager and beautiful young women asking him what was his happiest moment…

But this is not just a film about ballet, but rather a film about obsession, and ability, and the drawing of lines, and besides the tragedy of the Red Shoes must be played out. Vicky accompanies her Aunt on a holiday in the Med whilst Julian supervises the First Night of his Opera. Lermontov finds her, draws her back to dance ‘her’ ballet, TheRed Shoes. Julian arrives from London to take her home. He and Lermontov blaze at each other over Vicky’s future. As I said before, Lermontov is concerned with Vicky the Dancer, Julian with Vicky the Woman. His is the deeper, more holistic love, but Vicky is the Dancer and the Red Shoes cannot beremoved whilst there is dancing to be done. Julian accepts his defeat gracefully, unable to move outside his love for Vicky, whilst Lermontov is only triumphant.

Vicky is wearing the Red Shoes. It’s an intentional inconsistency, a moment of artistic unity, not chronological accuracy. Crippled, broken by her loss, by the destruction caused by having to choose at all, Vicky is drawn away by the Shoes: down the stairs, out of the theatre, across the road, and with Julian running with hopeless desperation to stop her, she makes the only choice that is entirely hers to make, and throws herself under the train.

Oh yes, it’s melodrama, but ballet is melodrama, the elevation of feelings and urgencies into emotion that cannot be contained, and so Vicky’s sacrifice is entireky in keeping with the film. The Red Shoes Ballet is danced with an empty spotlight highlighting all the moves Vicky can no longer make. Her last, dying request to Julian is that he undo the Red Shoes, returning herself to him for a final moment.

Though I barely understand half the film, I am absorbed by it. Walbrook and Goring are sensational and so, in her very undetstated way, is Shearer. The film makes not merely a virtue but a triumph of her limitations, relying on her still presence in scenes to create a sense of effect on the other players. She is entirely at home in the dance and in everything that relates to the dance, and of course her fellow dancers, and it is of immense help that, even when stood still, Shearer has the capacity to dominate a scenewith her flaming red hair, her slim physique, her long, pale legs. Though perhaps a little too round in the face for classical beauty, this adds an individuality to her appearance that completes a stunning picture.

In the end, I return to that theme of obsession, of ability, and how or even if this can be reconciled with the massive distraction that is love for someone else. The Archers step back, offer no definitive solution. In their differing ways, Boris Lermotov, Julian Craster and Victoria Page are all destroyed by their inability to find that solution. Modern opinion will find it misogynistic that it is the woman who is singled out for physical destruction, but would you want to be either of Lermontov or Julian afterwards?