Film 2020: The Wicker Man (Final Cut)


Yes, we have been here before, as far back as the second week of Film 2018, two Januaries ago and in another lifetime. That, then, was the Director’s Cut, the most extended version of The Wicker Man that could be floated, a mix-and-match of textures and film quality. The Final Cut is the 2013 print, approved by Robin Hardy, at a length between the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut, but made from a discovered print of reliable quality, and cut to Hardy’s intended sequence. In his eyes at least, if not those of Anthony Shaeffer, this is the definitive version.

It’s also my most recent DVD, delivered yesterday and selected for viewing this lockdown sunny Sunday morning because it’s a Working Sunday and I’ve not been able to get completely out of it, so a familiar film comes as a bonus.

Except that it wasn’t familiar, not familiar at all, which came as a lot of a shock. It wasn’t so much the extended introduction, of Howie in his Church on Sunday, singing lustily, reading a strident lesson, followed by an extended and very beautiful flight across the Western Isles to Summerisle, as the film itself. There was a brightness to the print, and all the colours more vivid and sharp without ever seeming unnatural or artificial. It was as if every cel had been washed and wiped and was freshly printed.

The result was a film that looked like something I’d never seen before. I was no longer familiar with it, no longer blase. And I’ll swear there were different shots, that scenes looked different, that little bits of extra footage were replacing those with which I have looked since become accustomed to seeing. I was alert and focussed, no longer taking anything of the film for granted, no, not even the most famous and established sequences.

And I’ll swear the soundtrack has been refreshed too. Offscreen dialogue, background chatter, kept coming through clearly.

It was like watching a new film entirely, and after the two previous cuts I have, both of which are on the other DVD set, this version had something they don’t, not in the same quality. The Final Cut feels like an integrated version, something entire and exact. Robin Hardy has described this as the closest there is, or will be, to his original vision, and assembled in accordance with his intentions.

Is there still a complete, original cut to be found? It’s long been claimed that the master was buried in an M4 pylon. Robin Hardy believed it was gone for good. Christopher Lee remained confident that the print still existed, in an unmarked can somewhere. Maybe one day I’ll watch the full film on a Sunday morning and marvel at how things work out.

If that ever happens, it had better be soon. Of the film’s five stars, it’s writer and director, only Britt Ekland is still here to see a thing like that happen, and she hated her time making the film, though it doesn’t show in her performance.

And once again, I must mention just how brilliant Edward Woodward was as Sergeant Neil Howie. It’s an immense performance, and must have come as a revelation to the 1973 audience who knew him best from the title role in the dirty, gritty, espionage series Callan (I, being only eighteen when the film appeared, had never have seen any episodes of Callan, though its reputation has always been high). And Woodward himself thought this to be his best performance, and it is.

It’s nice to see something you know so well through new eyes. One day I’m going to have to watch the Directors Cut and the Final Cut and compare the two (I have both a DVD player and a laptop that I can set up side by side: that’d be fun in itself). If I do, I’ll write about the experience.

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King


Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers


I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.

 

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring


Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

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 2018: The Wicker Man


 

I’m already excited about this new series. I’m loving the chance of a Sunday morning to slip into an oasis of time and go somewhere for the duration. I have so rarely watched entertainments of this duration in recent years.

Indeed, in this dreary and ill week, I several times found myself wanting to dip into the pile, sneak in another film, nestle comfortably into it.

That said, the idea of random selection has already had to be tweaked, since my first two attempts both lit upon French films again, one of them a most frustrating choice. So it had to be a case of Third Time Lucky, and this time I drew Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic, The Wicker Man.

I first saw it on its original theatrical release, in the glorious old days of double bills, as the B-movie to Nic Roeg’s terrifying Don’t Look Now (which we’ll also be seeing this year), which makes it not only one of the very best double bills I ever saw but places it very firmly as one of the earliest trips to our local Odeon in Burnage once I managed to graduate to ‘adult’ films.

The Wicker Man is both famous and infamous, the latter for its back-story. It began with a conversation between writer Anthony Shaffer and star Christopher Lee over the latter wanting to escape his image as a Hammer horror star. Shaffer was interested in alternate themes for horror, without the overt blood and violence. With Robin Hardy aboard as Director, the film was made as a loose adaptation of a 1967 novel by David Pinner, Ritual.

Originally, the film was shot in a 99 minute print but was not well-received by the new studio boss, who told Christopher Lee that it was the worst film he’d even seen. Lee, who believed passionately in the film, to the extent of having worked on the same for free, remained determinedly behind it. In the end, an 87 minute version, with some story re-ordering that all felt damaged the continuity, was released to cinema. The original 99 minute version has been lost for decades (according to Alex Cox, the negative was buried in a support pylon on the M4, to get rid of it).

It was also rumoured that Rod Stewart was trying to buy up all prints of the film, to prevent anyone ever seeing again the famous nude dance scene by his then girlfriend, Britt Ekland.

However, down the decades, various attempts have been made to restore the original film as closely as possible. My own DVD is ‘The Director’s Cut’, a double DVD with the Theatrical Release on one Disc and a 95 minute Directors cut, taken from one-inch telecine videotape. The picture quality is ropey, and as many scenes are possible are cut in from the Theatrical version. Subsequently, there’s been a four disc Final Cut, a four-disc (three DVD, one soundtrack CD) set with a higher quality restored version 91 minutes in length, which I’ve yet to acquire.

Naturally enough, today’s viewing was of the Director’s Cut, as the longest length version ever released.

Given the film’s age and notoriety, I’m not going to go into any great detail about its story. Edward Woodward, in his first major film role, plays Sergeant Neil Howie, a committed Christian, who is called to the privately owner West Highland isle of Summerisle, famed for its exceptional apple crops, to investigate the apparent disappearance, months earlier, of 12 year old Rowan Morrison. Howie is shocked to find the island a haven of paganism, its Christan Church de-consecrated and, to his mind, defiled. Sexuality is robust and open.

At first, the islanders deny Rowan’s existence. Even after Howie proves her to be an island girl, they consistently act as if he is poking into matters that he cannot understand and which are none of his business.

The island is ruled, with a gentle feudal control, by Lord Summerisle (Lee) who frankly confesses to Howie that the island’s fruitfulness has scientific origins going back a century to his grandfather, who recognised Summerisle’s unique properties for growing new strains of fruit, and who grafted paganism, with its nature roots and its worship of old gods more life-enhancing than the dour Scottish Christian God of Howie’s reverence, onto the populace to inspire them as workers. The current Summerisle’s father, raised a pagan, continued the work with belief. We are (a superb touch) never entirely certain how wholehearted a pagan the current Lord may be.

What Howie finds is that the previous year’s crops failed, disastrously. He comes to the conclusion that on Mayday, Summerile and the islanders plan a human sacrifice to propitiate their pagan gods, and that this is to be Rowan. He is half right.

The film skillfully plays along with Howie. He is in virtually every scene, even if only as observer, and the story unfolds for us exactly as it does for him. Woodward is absolutely brilliant. His stiff, buttoned-up anger, his rejection of everything he sees around him as an offence against his God, and his inability to see beyond his own self-selected perceptions is conveyed with beautiful minimalism. His performance holds the film together.

On the other hand, and I’m assuming this to be deliberate, although his final desperate scene brings tears to the eyes, Howie’s unwavering belief in his almost masochistically restrictive religion does Christianity no favours at all. At the end of the film, when it is revealed that human sacrifice is the intention, it is also revealed that Howie is the intended victim, that he is uniquely place to satisfy the requirements of the victim: he is the Willing King Fool Virgin, and he has been selected by Summerisle for all these things, and every single moment he has been on the island, pursuing his task with the righteousness of bth the Law and a pure-hearted Christian, he has been expertly manipulated to come, of his own accord, to the place of sacrifice.

This is the Wicker Man. It’s first spoken of literally seconds before it is seen, and we see Howie see it before we see it ourselves. It is a giant wicker man-like shape, on a sea cliff, featureless and towering and horrifying to look at. It is a cage, multiple cages, animals in its head, its legs, its arms and a cavity in its torso for its central sacrifice: Sergeant Neil Howie.

This is an intense film, full of detail, full of music, composed and directed by Paul Giovanni, out of folk music, some traditional, some hybrids, some original, but all so utterly intrinsic to the place, the time, the feel. The islanders are deliberate eccentrics throughout, but realistic ones. This is a closed community and Howie is the outsider. It has its fair share of beauties: Ekland is Willow McGregor, the landlord’s daughter (about whom there’s a memorably ribald song that embarrassed me at the age of seventeen), Diane Cilento (Sean Connery’s ex-wife, who went on to marry Shaffer) is Miss Rose, the painfully enthusiastic schoolteacher, and Ingrid Pitt (another Hammer Horror star and, less well-known, concentration camp survivor) as the unnamed Librarian.

Ekland’s famous nude scene, in which she sings to tempt Howie into her room (and bed) has several background elements to it. As Ekland was three months pregnant at the time, the camera had to be kept away from her stomach (with much screaming by Hardy every time it neared a critical line, as I once read). What’s more, Ekland’s contract permitted only topless nudity, and Hardy had promised not to slip in any bum-shots. Which meant that as soon as she left the set for the day, a body-double was sneaked in to film the writhing scenes that required Willow’s backside to gyrate so uninhibitedly. (According to Wikipedia, two body doubles were used, one being Lorraine Peters, who has a tiny role in the film as a naked woman straddling a grave, and the other an extra named Jane Jackson).

(Incidentally, Ekland’s singing in this scene is dubbed by Rachel Verney, as her speaking voice in the film is dubbed by Annie Ross, to provide a Scottish accent. The excellent bosom is definitely Ekland, however.)

What’s more, though Shaffer and Hardy planned this scene to occur on the eve of Mayday, as a final temptation for Howie on the night before the sacrifice, in the theatrical release it is shifted forward to his first night on the island (replacing a scene where Willow ‘initiates’ a teenage boy at the instance of Lord Summerisle, and thus postponing Lee’s first appearance onscreen until the middle of the film). In this place, it becomes just sex for sex’s sake instead of being an ultimate test of Howie’s faith. And in the Theatrical release, we don’t have the cut early scene that establishes that Howie, despite two year’s engagement, has yet to take his pleasure of the fair Mary Bannoch.

It is, I say again, a great film. Watching The Director’s Cut is an uneasy experience, due to the frequent and jarring changes in filmstock quality, each of which recalls you to the fact you’re watching a film, which is the one thing all good films should avoid doing. The best effect is to be absorbed into the film, not constantly kept out of it. If The Final Cut is of a consistent quality, and the running order Shaffer and Hardy always intended, it could well be the best version of them all.

To be honest, I did wonder at times, this morning, whether the Theatrical Release isn’t better anyway. Long before I ever saw the extended version, I enjoyed the film immensely, and never thought for a moment that I was missing anything, or failed to understand the film. What’s re-added in The Director’s Cut is detail: convincing, consistent and well-planned detail, but little if anything that transforms the film or provides unexpected revelations. It’s some time since I’ve watched the Theatrical Release: I shall have to do so.

Once again, thank you for watching.

Robin Hardy: One film’s enough if it’s good enough


Suddenly the obituary count is once again ratchetting up with the same rapidity as it was doing at the beginning of this benighted year. In the past weekend, we have lost Caroline Aherne, Michael Cimino and Elie Weisel, and now it’s the turn of Robin Hardy.

Robin Hardy was a British Film Director. He made only one film of distinction, but given the film it was, he did not need others, except for his own satisfaction. Hardy’s film was The Wicker Man, the 1973 film starring Edward Woodward as a puritanical Christian policeman investigating the apparent disappearance of a twelve year old girl on the island of Summerisle, and Christopher Lee, as Lord Summerisle.

The film is a classic, though it was not always seen as such. It was the result of a collaboration of ideas between Hardy, Lee and writer Anthony Shaffer (who also produced a novel of the filmscript). Lee was, of course, a veteran of the Hammer Horror films, which were at the time only just beginning to glide into their decline, and the trio wanted to go against the grain of satanism and Christian symbology and go further back to draw its fantastic and horrific elements from older religious impulses, in paganism and nature worship.

Though Lee, from the outset, was convinced the film was a masterpiece, the production company took the diametrically opposite attitude, with one executive describing it as the worst film he’d ever seen. Originally 99 minutes in length, it was pruned to 87 minutes, and was put out as the lower half of a double bill with Nichols Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was where I first saw it, early in 1974.

I was fascinated by it from the outset and paid to see it again at least twice during the Seventies, a distinction it shares with the immortal Gregory’s Girl. I was quick to tape it once VHS entered our life.

The film’s been reissued on video and DVD. An extended version, including footage of dubious quality, appeared in the 2000s, on a double DVD with the official theatrical release, restored to 93 minutes. That’s the edition I have. Unless a copy of the original cut exists, in unmarked reels, this is as close as we’re ever going to get the the never-seen original. The film’s physical history, given in detail on Wikipedia, is astonishing.

The Wicker Man is astonishingly good from start to end. Edward Woodward is superb as Sergeant Howie: self-righteous, arrogant in his religious beliefs, appalled at what he sees around him on Summerisle, yet doggedly determined to find out what has been done to this young girl. Lee, aided and abetted by magnificently attractive women such as Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, displays a sweeping openness unusual against his traditional Hammer roles, which helps to build an atmosphere of tension and trepidation.

When we find out what is wrong, and how the islanders propose to set right their ills, it is one of cinema’s most disturbing moments, and it is to the film’s credit that, in its horrific ending, it provides no resolution. The Wicker Man does not allow us to know if its sacrifice has any effect: we have the queasy sensation that it won’t,and Howie’s prophecy will come true.

There have been stories and rumours about the film. It has been claimed that the original print was buried in a motorway foundation. It features a memorable sequence where Britt Ekland dances nude: being three months pregnant at the time, the camera avoids her stomach, whilst her refusal to do full nudity meant that, every time she left the set, a body-double was sneaked on to shoot the shots featuring a creditable bare bum.

Later, Rod Stewart was said to have tried to buy up all prints to destroy them, because of Britt’s nude scene.

Slowly, the film gained the reputation it now enjoys, that it should have had all along. It’s reputation is secure now, and so is that of Hardy as its Director. That he never again directed anything of comparable distinction does not mean that he should be overlooked, nor his passing be any less of a loss to us, like so many already this year.

One film’s enough if it’s good enough

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Uncollected Thoughts


Now (read) on…

By an interesting but not unlikely coincidence, I saw last year’s second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy the day before my team’s Office Xmas Party, at which, in order not to spoil anything for those who planned to see it, I made only one comment. Which was: “Oh, wow!”

Twelve months on and I’ve returned from the final instalment, and yes, I’m off to the Party tomorrow night where, in order not to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I will make only one comment. This time it’s going to be: “Oh, fucking wow!”

After watching the middle instalment, I mused about what Peter Jackson might find to fill out The Battle of the Five Armies, given that The Desolation of Smaug had finished – on a cliffhanger – a bit close to the end of the original novel. There were only three things left: the destruction of Lake-town and the death of Smaug at the arrow of Bard the Bowman: the build up to and the fighting of the Battle of Five Armies (no definitive article): and Bilbo’s return to Bag End in the middle of the Sackville-Baggins’ auctioning off its contents.

Jackson had created a hostage to fortune from himself in leaving Gandalf captured in Dol Guldur, which meant having to resolve his escape, and the attack by the White Council that drove the nascent Sauron from his older, less terrible fortress, which was not merely confined to offstage in the novel, but also very much to offhand. Still, that only made four elements.

And Jackson made his film out of those four elements only, and nothing else but sub-plots interweaved into one section or another.

The film starts where last year’s left off, right into the action, as if twelve months hadn’t gone by. Smaug circles the town then comes in for fire-breathing attacks, burning the wooden city in great sweeping lines, treading it under claw. Tauriel tries to get the dwarves and Bard’s kids away, the Master tries to get the gold away, and Bard saves the day by shooting the last Black Arrow unerringly into that single patch where the dragon is unscaled, killing him (Smaug promptly drops out of the sky and does even more damage to Lake-town, though he does rather propitiously land directly on the Master: I have made no secret of my lack of regard for Stephen Fry, and this is possibly a churlish thing to say, but if anyone should set-up a Kickstarter to fund a real-life enactment, they will not find me wanting.)

The problem with this section is exemplified by the fact that it is only now, getting on for however long into the film it is, that the title card for The Battle of the Five Armies comes up on-screen. A decade ago, Peter Jackson caused a rift with Christopher Lee by dropping the death of Saruman from the theatrical release of The Return of the King, on the basis that it was a leftover from The Two Towers (and when you see the extended DVD version, it is obvious that Jackson is right).

The same applies here: Smaug’s death is a holdover from the previous film. No matter how much of a catalyst it is for what follows, it belongs at the end of The Desolation of Smaug: it’s sweeping up a loose end that would have been better concluded where it naturally belonged.

There’s no such reservation about the next section, which is made out of best Jacksonian whole cloth. I’m pretty sure that Jackson’s portrayal of the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur bears no resemblance to whatever Tolkien saw happening so far away from his jolly little adventure, but it’s the most eyepoppingest and jaw-droppingest part of the whole film, as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee get to do some strutting of their stuff against the newly-resurrected Nazgul, before Galadriel blows Sauron far far away.

And I know how antithetical this is to Tolkien’s concepts, to the Three Rings that were never touched by Sauron but which were not instruments of war, but rather of defence and preservation, but damn! this is the three ringbearers in one place and it’s unbelievably powerful, and I’m prepared to overlook what is one of the largest overturnings of Tolkienian lore for how this is handled. Not to mention that, in having it be Galadriel – who alone of all those Elves is of the Noldor and has lived in the light of the Blessed Land – who finally drives Sauron out, tumbling through the sky, Jackson lays the most subtle link to his earlier trilogy, to her Tempting at her Well, so long ago in The Fellowship of the Ring.

As for Bilbo’s return to Hobbiton, it’s handled with simplicity and, above all, brevity, which other commenters have already welcomed as a contrast to The Return of the King‘s multiple farewells.

The rest of it, about two-thirds of the film as far as I could judge, was the Battle of the Five Armies, the actually fighting of which, in all its stages, took between and hour and ninety minutes of the movie. Proof, therefore, for those who have never accepted the application of the tone of Lord of the Rings to a cheap and cheerful children’s book, of the elephantiasis of Jackson’s handling of his subject.

Well, we disagree on that, and we’re going to have to continue to disagree, because I found it spectacular in every sense of that word, utterly riveting in every moment, and stunning in its execution. If you think that the Battle for Minas Tirith was colossal, when set against this it was no more than a local skirmish. If you’d asked me what subjective time the battle lasted, I’d have struggled to put it at above a half hour.

There was the most brilliant of cameos by Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Thorin’s cousin, and leader of the Dwarf army from the Iron Hills, approaching the forthcoming battle as if it were no more than a Saturday night punch-up outside a Glasgow pub. And there was death.

In The Hobbit, three of the dwarf-band die: Fili and Kili, the two youngest, Thorin’s nephews, and Thorin himself. It’s yet another thing that Tolkien placed offstage. Not so Jackson, as we knew would come. Fili, killed as provocation for Thorin to place himself in a trap, Kili in trying to save his elf-maiden love, Tauriel, and Thorin, redeemed of his dragon-sickness, in final single-combat with the Orc, Azog the Defiler, who killed his grandfather Thrain. There was only one way to do it: to get close enough to Azog to run his sword through the Orc’s black heart, Thorin had to allow Azog to deliver a fatal blow.

I very rarely cry at films, and if I do it’s nearly almost always in the privacy of my own home, but between this, and Tauriel’s grieving over Kili, and her desperate pleading not to love because she didn’t understand it could be like that, I was wiping away tears and glad I was sat alone in the dark and invisible.

So, from me, a yes. To be perfectly honest, whilst I’m not going to get carried away and say that this is the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen, because it’s not, I think it’s the first time that I would have been ready to go out, buy another ticket and walk back to watch the film all over again, as long as it began immediately.

There’s nothing to look forward to now for December 2015, except perhaps that by then the 12-disc DVD box-set of all the Extended Versions may be available and I can set aside a day to watch the whole thing, every extra minute, one after another.

Maybe in the future, Jackson and those of his closest collaborators who I’ve lumped into his name, will do it again. There is The Silmarillion, after all, and if there’s a problem about turning that into a Trilogy, it’s going to be in the sheer volume you’d have to leave out just to do as few as three films. Go on, Peter, just don’t leave it too long. I might not have another decade left in me, and I would dearly love to have another December Friday afternoon at the Cinema, cursing that there were another two Xmas’s before me to see the end of the film.

And I’m just trying to imagine the Dungeons of Angband, and the ever-smoking, triple tops of Thangorodrim, and the face of he who will become Sauron but who is merely a Lieutenant of Melkor, whose name is not spoken and who is named Morgoth…