Film 2020: Chariots of Fire


Until the last moment, I intended something different for this weekend’s viewing, but my head wasn’t there for that DVD. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Chariots of Fire, too long in fact when it still shares the record for the film I saw most often in cinemas, and the choice was inspired.

Chariots of Fire – produced by David Puttnam, written by Colin Welland, directed by Hugh Hudson – appeared in 1981 and was voted Best Picture at the Oscars, a deserved award. It’s an historical drama, depicting the efforts of two British Olympic runners who won Gold Medals at the 1924 Paris Olympiad. The film is historically true where it can be but no historical picture ever reflects history with fidelity, and many things were changed, for dramatic effect, for simplification, because figures of the time refused to participate or allow their name to be used (in one instance out of modesty), and due to a complete error.

The film starred a cast of more-or-less unknowns, though Nigel Havers as the fictional Lord Andrew Lindsay, was already familiar from television. But the film’s two principal roles, Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, had no great footprint with the public. This was Puttnam’s intention: the senior players are veterans of great skill, such as Ian Holm as the trainer, Sam Mussabini, and Sir John Gielgud and Lyndsay Anderson as two Cambridge Masters, and there are well-established actors like Nigel Davenport (Lord Birkenhead), David Yelland (the Prince of Wales), Peter Egan (the Duke of Sutherland) and Cheryl Campbell (Jennie Liddell, Eric’s sister), but the runners at the centre of things, which include Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell), have no face recognition, no prior associations, making them better able to be these bright, gifted, sometimes privileged young men of that first generation after The Great War, who helped to forge a society severed from its own past by the destruction and death.

The film begins with an awkward device: not just a flashback but a double flashback, which constitutes the majority of the film. Harold Abrahams, who became the elder statesmen of British Athletics, died in early 1978. The film begins at his memorial service, with a laudatory address from the aged Lindsay, referring to himself and Montague, as the only survivors of that running squad, before dissolving back to that iconic scene, accompanied by our first introduction to that extraordinary theme music created by Vangelis Papathanassiou. Twenty or so fresh young men, running in slow-motion along the water’s edge on a curved beach, dressed in the athletic gear of the early Twenties. They are Atheticism in motion (all the runners received three months intense training to make them look authentic and brother, they certainly do), and their heels splash water and wet sands into the faces of those in the rear, as the camera slides back through them, resting on faces we will grow to know.

The spine of the film is real. Aubrey Montague (in real-life he used hids first name, Evelyn) wrote to his mother daily. When Welland was researching the film, his son provided all these letter, and they are read through the film to link the various stages the Cambridge runners go through.

And through Montague’s letters, we pass through our second flashback, to 1919, to the simultaneous arrival at rooms in Cambridge of Montague and Abrahams.

The tone of one part of the film is set instantly. Abrahams, no matter how English he is, even to being an Army Lieutenant, is the son of a Lithuanian Jew. Moreover, he is a Jew. He sees prejudice and anti-Semitism all around him, and is engaged in a constant fight to prove himself, to force them to accept him. Which ‘them’ is that? The film constantly shows, in carefully drawn, bordering upon but not quite overt manners, that Abrahams is looked down, his achievements carefully diminished. In a fictional version of the Collee Dash, Abrahams succeeds in racing round the Quad in the time it takes midday to strike, raced by the last-minute Lindsay: Abrahams succeeds by a whisker, Lindsay fails by the same margin (in real life, Abrahams never did this and Lindsay’s original did, several years later, one of only two people to do the challenge). The Masters, looking one, openly express regret that the ‘wrong’ person has succeeded.

This is Abrahams’ life, the force behind his drive to win, to run them off their feet. He can be their equal, but only by being their better. Cross expresses this intensity, this obsession, even the petulance in the face of failure, the prospect of defeat, to perfection. He is what you imagine Abrahams to be, and you are on his side from his first appearance.

But this is only one half of the film. Abrahams and Liddell were both gold-medal winners but they were both, in their differing ways, unusual characters, driven by a force both within and without themselves. Eric Liddell is a gifted sportsman, anationally known Rugby player, a Scottish international. He’s gifted elsewhere, a China-born, Scotland-educated son of a Christian missionary, who has inherited, perhaps in even greater magnitude, his father’s faith, his father’s vocation. He will go back to China, he will be a missionary, he will preach the love and honour of the God in whom he believes so devoutly. He has a purpose.

And his younger sister, Jennie, fears that he will gorget that purpose, that he will ruin himself, by divertig his attention to this meaningless running, this unChristian pursuit of personal glory. (This was a generous consent by Jennie Liddell Somerville who, in real-life, believed in Eric’s running and supported him, allowing herself to be portrayed as a fanatic, the epitome of Scottish Calvinism).

Liddell is faster than Abrahams. Charleson is equally commanding in his part, calm, collected, built around a solid core of unwavering belief. He also did wonders in depicting the real Liddell’s ungainly, ugly running style. His ever word rings of conviction, not an arrogant conviction that because he is a Christian he is right but that honour to his God and a willingness to submit to his lead is right, because God is right.

It’s through Liddell that Abrahams is able to contact Sam Mussabini, a professional trainer, an abhorrance in the face of amateur athletics. Abrahams wants Sam to coach him, to get him two extra yards for the 100m. The rough-cut, Italo-Arabic Sam, sees the potential in Harold, and the two form a partnership despite the warnings of the Masters that it’s not ‘the done thing’. What do they mean? Do they dream of the pure and irreproachable gentleman amateur who contrasts to Abrahams acting like the tradesman, or is their distinction between Christian and Jew? it’s one of the very few times in the film where you could make a case for the former, but the shades are too grey to say that the latter is far from their minds.

Abrahams’ obsession leads to rocky paths in his relationship with Sylvia Gordon, leading soprano with the D’Oyly Carte. Here’s the slip: in real-life, Abrahams didn’t meet Syliva, who he married, until ten yearslater but the film confuses Sybil Gordon with another D’Oyly Carte soprano, Sybil Evers, who Abrahams marries.

In contrast, despite Jennie’s constant onjections, Liddell has the easier path, convincing her with the heartfelt words that ‘God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.’

But this cannot be all. On the gangplank onto the boat to France, Liddell is shocked to hear that the heat for his race will be run on a Sunday: he cannot and will not run on the Sabbath, God’s day. It’s a stance, or rather a conviction he holds to firmly, unflinchingly, even in the face of a committee consisting of Lord Birkenhead (the squad’s mentor), the Duke of Sutherland (President of the British Olympic Committee), Lord Cadogan (Committe Chairman) and Liddell’s future King – though not for as long as everyone would have expected then, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.

In real life, Liddell knew months in advance and the solution, running in the 400m instead, was agreed in advance rather than coming as a generous, self-sacrificing suggestion from Lindsay that he take the young Lord’s place.

The events of the Games flash by almost impressionistically. Runners run. Lindsay gets a Silver medal, Abrahams is beaten in the 200m, Montague falls and fails. The American pair, Charlie Paddock and Jackson Scholz, collect medals like gundrops.

But Liddell wins the 400m, and his vindication is the sight of his sister Jennie, whose presence is the blessing he so wants. And Abrahams, coming up to the point that everything his life within this film has pointed to, almost as scared to win as to lose, because he hasn’t looked further than this moment, wins the 100m.

But there’s a third person in this film, one who’s studiously placed himself in a background role throughout, but who’s every bit as much a part in Abrahams’ race as the runner himself and that’s Sam. Mussabini’s a professional, unwelcome in the home of the Games. He has to listen to the crowd roar. We inside the film know Abrahams has won, have already seen his friends crowd him to hug, and cheer and back thump, have seen Liddell come to give his hand too, whilst Charlie Paddock gives him a long stare. But for Sam it’s the long wait, until he hears the Anthem being played shakily, sees the Union jack rising, before he knows that Abrahams has done it, that he’s done it, the thing he’s longed for and for longer that Abrahams has been alive, the thing that can nver be taken away.

And after he’s called his charge Mr Abrahams throughout, decent, respectable, man to master, he sits on his bed and half-whispers, ‘Harold’. He punches out the crown of his ubiquitous straw boater. And says, ‘My son. My son.’

I’m going to mention one last piece of historical distortion. Just before he races in the 400m final, Liddell receives a folded note, given to him by his rival, Jackson Scholz. It contains a quote from the bible: “In the old book it says: ‘He that honours me I will honour.’ Wishing you the best of success always.” In real life that came from his team-mates and was delivered by a masseur.

And we slide out of our long flashback, that has long since swallowed the earlier one, back to Harold Abrahams’ funeral, as a choir sings Jersualem, and in which we hear the words, ‘Bring me my Chariots of Fire’. The aged Lindsay and Montague leave the Church, Montague who, in real-life, died in 1948 and who went to Oxford, not Cambridge. And Lindsay delivers the final line: “He did it. he ran them off their feet”, as captions record the futures of our runners: for Harold, marriage, success, a commitment to his sport: for Eric, his mission in China, to death in a Japanese Internment Camp in 1945, and Scotland’s mourning.

Then we flashback once again, to the beach and the runners, the young men in the height of their power and glory, captions provided as we pass the faces we now know, withheld to the end so that the athletes could only be the athletes, and Vangelis’ theme, that extraordinary yet strangely perfect intrusion of 1980s electronic music into the lovingly created world of sixty years before, swells again before fading into silence and the dark.

Looking at the film overall, and withut detracting from the fact that I still enjoy it immensely, I couldn’t avoid noticing how musch the early part of the film relied upon exposition. There was a tremendous amount of telling, to establish who these unfamiliar people are, where they are and what background to come from. It was scene after scene of Tell, not Show, with characters explaining themselves for the audience. In Abrahams’ case, it had the effect of sealing Montague’s role in the picture: first he listens to Harold, then he listens to everyone else, and rarely does he get to do more than nod, smile or look grave. Farrell has to go through every expression in his locker, and return for a repeat cycle. I felt sorry for him.

And it can’t help but be mentioned that the Cambridge elite is an elite, and that whilst Liddell is a humble highland Scot, the closest the film comes to including a ‘working class’ viewpoint, his sporting prowess has already drawn him into the elite.

Throughout this review, I’ve gone on about the points at which the film retreats from absolute fidelity to the history. There is a purpose to mentioning these, I’ve not just parroted the details from Wikipedia, you know. There are a considerable number of them, some of them quite fundamental to events. Some are enforced by restrictions: Lord Burghley, Lindsay’s original, refused use of his name, as did another survivor of that Running Squad, whilst the New Zealander, ‘Tom Watson’, was portrayed accurately, but the real Olympian begged the film not to use his real name as he did not wish to be picked out among his countrymen, as being above them. An honourable wish, honoured gracefully.

But go back through those times the film distorts the history. Every single one is dramatically superior, makes the film tighter, heightens the emotion of the scene. The most egregious one is Liddell’s supposed ‘last minute’ discovery of the Sunday heat. Portrayed as such, it deepens Liddell, makes his belief al the more deep and admirable, and effecting, maintaining it in the face of pressure from Peers and Princes, who cannot make him compromise.

That never happened, but it is a better film for it to happen. All the changes do that. The note coming from Scholz, on the track itself, held as he races, makes the emotion of the scene stronger: it is an enemy, an opponent, who steps out of that opposition to signal his understanding and appreciation of Liddell’s belief, not his own team-mates. The dramatic core and the film’s truth are thus enhanced, and the film we watch is so much more noving for these things. Dramatic Licence is not such a bad thing when deployed sympathetically.

On a Sunday morning of August sun, I would read the true story with admiration and enjoyment. But to translate that into a film on the same day, I want the proper emphasis, no matter how ‘fake’ it might be.

Sir Ian Holm R.I.P.


13.07

I don’t believe this. I’m still at work, I turn to the Guardian to check what’s up to date and Ian Holm has died as well.

Ian Holm. Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings films. Frodo Baggins in the BBC’s The Lord of the Rings radio adaptation. Ian Holm of Alien and Chariots of Fire, and Terry Giliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil.

The circumstances are different: Holm was 88, not 55, but that’s two terrible, wrenching blows in the same day. Please let there not be a third today.

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: Brazil


I never went to the cinema when I was on holiday in the Lake District. This had nothing to do with the puritanical belief that days on the fells and nights at the flicks didn’t mingle and everything to do with the way that the schedule of films at Zeferrellis in Ambleside showed that the film I wanted to see had been on last week, or was due next week (or, sometimes, both), but the one playing now wasa pile of poop.

Brazil was the exception, yet even that didn’t break the sequence. The film that week was indeed a pile of poop, but there was a one-off, late night showing, starting at 10.30pm and ending close to 1.00am. It was strangely fitting: a wide-open space, a small audience, a big screen on which to watch Terry Gilliam’s astonishing, coherent, fully-integrated vision unroll to its stunning ending, and coming out into the silent night, slipping quickly through empty streets I’d never seen at that hour before or since, into bed to get the hours needed before another day in the open air.

No matter how often I’ve re-watched it, knowing now where that unbelievable final section leads, Brazil never disappoints. Indeed, thirty-odd years onwards, in an era that makes its effects look primitive for all they are utterly convincing, it remains an immersive experience, one that takes several minutes to shake off after the credits finish running.

As a story, the film is surprisingly simple once dissected. Due to an unforeseeable error, the wrong man is arrested. Jill Layton, a neighbour, attracts suspicion by protesting this. Sam Lowry, a wilfully bored minor bureaucrat tries to save her from this attention. The outcome is disaster. Put like that, it’s an awfully skeletal story, but so is ‘A group of seven mercenaries, for their differing reasons, agree to defend a village from Bandits’, and we know what classic film was built on that foundation.

What Gilliam does is to bring an especially powerful visual imagination, allied to a hatred of bureaucracy, and bound into a hybrid of dystopian SF and slapstick comedy, to life on the shoestring of this plot. There are psychological levels driving the story, and changing its course, homages to other classic films, a strong cast (when Robert de Niro plays a bit part, you have a strong cast), and a complex mosaic of of incident, display and example that places the insane society of the film onto a well-grounded and completely believable footing.

The film’s most obvious inspiration is 1984. The year is never given but the film was made in 1984 and released the following year, and Gilliam very intelligently places the look of the future in the style of the past, specifically that of 1948, when Orwell wrote his legendary book. Over this, he lays an Orwellian dictatorial bureaucracy, based upon suspicion and paranoia, Nazi-imagery in security uniforms and building construction, with an information technology equivalent to the then-modern age but expressed in Heath Robinson-esque equipment: small screen television style monitors fitted with magnifying glass screens, keyboards like pre-War typewriters and largescale cabling like gigantic spaghetti in its profusion, contained in ducts, ducts, ducts, everywhere.

Yes, and a fully-maintained pneumatic tube communication system, which is glorious.

What starts the insanity is the tiniest thing possible. This is a fly, that annoys an anonymous bureaucrat into swatting it. It falls into his machine, changing the name on an arrest warrant, from freelance Heating Engineer Archibald Tuttle to cobbler Archibald Buttle. Buttle is arrested, in an horrific scene of home invasion by gun-bearing, black-clad, jackbooted, black-helmeted officers, bursting through ceiling, door, window, wrecking a small, cheap apartment, fitting Buttle into a straitjacket, making his wife sign a receipt for him (in duplicate), and bearing him off, leaving his wife and two small children. The replacement hole-plug for the bored-through ceiling – which is the floor for upstairs neighbour, truck-driver Jill Leyton (Kim Greist) – is the wrong size.

This becomes a mini-theme for this world of bureaucrat, form-filling comprehensiveness. Quite apart from the obvious drawbacks of a fascist system, it keeps making minor mistakes. The nature of the system makes correcting them almost impossible, and indeed their effects multiply rapidly, and as we’ll see, fatally: there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s clearly enemy action, this Government has been fighting against terrorists for thirteen years. Bombs keep going off, but the terrorists are never seen, or identified. Their invisible presence means that anyone drawing attention to themselves in this horrific world is automatically suspected of being a terrorist. And, in a sadly accurate prefiguration of today, suspicion is proof of guilt, especially when interrogation is torture. The torturer, all white coats, surgical precision, happy, secure, family man, Jack Link, is played by Michael Palin, whose smiling niceness does nothing to hide his total amorality.

One of Jack’s friends is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a role he says was the highlight of his career). Sam is a minor bureaucrat, a very clever one, with total command of all his systems, whose boss, Mr Kurtzman (Ian Holm) utterly depends on him. Sam is in an anonymous backwater and loves it: his mother (Katherine Helmond), who is otherwise obsessed with cosmetic surgery to reduce her age by decades, is ambitious for him and wants to get him promotions. Sam just wants to be left alone. He lives alone, isn’t interested in mother’s attempts to fix him up with the awkward Shirley, daughter of her best friend, wants to maintain the emptiness of his existence.

But Sam dreams and daydreams, and in his dreams he’s a flying warrior, in silver armour, soaring the clouds and coming to the rescue of a lovely long-blonde-haired damsel in distress, floating in the air, dressed only in a long diaphonous white dress. She’s constantly under threat, from escalating dangers that symbolise Sam’s real-life experiences. She is being played by the short, spiky-haired Greist in a floaty wig, which gives us a clue towhat’s going to happen.

The Buttle mistake results in an unprecedented thing – a refund cheque. It’s finagled into Kurtzman’s department where Sam, kind-hearted, agrees to get rid of it by the unorthodox step of actually taking it to Buttle’s widow and getting her to sign a receipt. Whilst there, he sees Jill, his dream girl.

In a subtle foreshadowing of the film’s ending, Sam cracks up. From here until the end of the film, he is driven entirely by obsession over Jill. She’s a perfect stranger, from an entirely different social strata, an American in Britain, and she has a phobia about having her personal space invaded on top of her loathing of the bureaucracy that has crushed the Buttle’s and which Sam represents, but she’s literally the girl of his dreams. Even if the girl of his dreams is a helpless, Rapunzel-like damsel, existing only to be saved.

But not only is Sam driven by his obsession with finding Jill, and protecting her from the state that sees her as a terrorist (and he can’t be sure she isn’t), but his every act is that of the noble warrior. He’s already living in a fantasy, of getaways and shoot-outs and the hero winning the day without any thought of the chaos he causes that has to be mopped up immediately behind him. Sam will save the girl, the day, the world.

Watching this morning, I began to wonder exactly when the fantasy takes over. Sam is knocked out and arrested for being too close to another bomb. He’s released (?) back to his new role in Information Retrieval, where he blows the pneumatic tubes, Jill turns up at his apartment all lovey-dovey, he takes her to his mother’s whilst he erases her from the system for her protection, comes back to find her in a long, flowing, blonde wig. They shag each other senseless.

Then, in the morning, the same home invasion scene is re-enacted. Sam is taken prisoner, processed through the system. His only thought is Jill. It’s all a mistake, he’s not a terrorist. The disabled Deputy Minister who’s been his (sinister) sponsor, Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), tells him Jill was killed resisting arrest. Sam laughs it off: no, that was him. Oddly, she seems to have died twice… Then it’s torture at the hands of Jack, furious at Sam’s selfishness in putting him through this.

Until Jack is shot through the head. Tuttle and the resistance rapelle into the chamber from above, free Sam. There’s a running gun battle as the break out of the Ministry, a bomb to destroy it, triggered by a glorious old-fashioned plunger. Sam and Tuttle go on the run through a shopping centre, but the floating papers attach themselves to Tuttle, swathe him entirely, and when Sam tears them off, there is no body.

The black-clad troopers chase him to the funeral for his mother’s friend. His mother is surrounded by young men, eager for her rejuvenated body: she now has Jill’s face. Sam is surrounded and fall through the coffin into the streets of his daydreams, surrounded by nightmares. He steps through a door in a wall, finds himself back on Jill’s truck. She’s driving it. She’s alive. They drive off into the sunset, set up home in the country.

Until Helpmann and Jack’s heads appear across the sky.He’s got away from us, they sadly agree. And Sam has, in the only realistic way he could: into catatonia. It’s the ending of The Prisoner again, only this time explicit. The mind – insanity in an insane situation – is the only escape.

As I said above, the film takes a turn into a less certain reality even earlier. Clearly, Sam’s mind snaps at the moment Jack Link is ‘shot’. But Sam’s balance is lost, irretrievably, as soon as he sees Jill, and I now have trouble accepting that anything from his first knocking out until the moment he’s pleading with Jack to spare him is real, on the same level of reality as before.

If I’m right, then Gilliam has been even more subtle than I’d previously realised. The return to Information Retrieval, his destruction of the system, the lovely horribleness of Tuttle’s comeuppance for the two official Heating Engineers (Bob Hoskins in a very effective cameo), and the whole thing with Jill suddenly wanting nothing more than to be all over him like a cheap suit, that too is not real. It’s just a daydream. As Sam tried to take his daydreams into his real life, with disastrous results, now he’s incorporating his real life into his daydreams. But his success has a trap door in it: sooner or later, we always wake up.

No matter how little we want to.

Waking up from Brazil is a difficult process. Though it creates its effects by being an alternate past in an alternate future, like The Prisoner it is incredibly prescient about our real future and present. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like the homages to The Third Man, and even Fantasia, which come in the reality-daydream sequence, and Battleship Potemkin, after that. And apparently Gilliam was unhappy with Greist, who was something like eighth choice for the part, and cut or edited some of her scenes, but I enjoyed her performance.

I enjoyed it all. From the Ambleside streets long after midnight to South Reddish on a cloudy Sunday, and everywhere between and to be. And why is it called Brazil? For that, you have to wait until the film’s very last word…

Film 2018: Time Bandits


I’d originally planned to start Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ next week, what with today supposed to be a working Sunday. But what with other, larger changes elsewhere, that obligation’s been lifted, and here we are.

Like several films in this series, my first introduction to Time Bandits came through Barry Norman and Film 81. It was also highly rated in NME, which I was still taking weekly, and I approached it expecting good things, and Gilliam provided these in bulk.

The film’s credits list its copious stars, famous folk throughout, though Katherine Helmond might need a bit of explaining to contemporary audiences (she had starred in the massively popular US spoof-soap, Soap). But almost without exception, these are cameo roles, stars of their own scenes through which the title characters plummet headlong. These are Kevin, an 11 year old boy, played by Craig Warnock, and six dwarves, Randall, Wally, Vermin, Strutter, Fidget and Og.

Time Bandits, written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, is a brilliant romp through time and space. It’s an expansively ambitious film made on a shoestring budget that makes maximum use of imagination to cover the gaps in he budget for the kind of heavy-duty SFX/CGI you’d get today. Without ever looking cheap, the direction spurs the audience into using its own imagination to help complete the illusions the film has to suggest rather than rub in your face.

Kevin’s an 11 year old boy at that stage of eager enthusiasm for knowledge. He’s an information sponge, anxious for more, fired by everything he reads, whereas his parents are pure materialists, interested only in newer ‘labour-saving’ gadgets. It’s all very mundane, until a horse ridden by a knight in armour gallops through his wardrobe door, jumps his bed and races off down a tree-lined country lane that turns out to be a photo on his bedroom wall. After that, mundanity doesn’t get a shout.

The next things to emerge from Kevin’s wardrobe are six dwarves, dressed in various sets of ragged clothing, bearing a map of creation. Sorry, Creation. They’re supposed to be filling in the holes but have decided to exploit them by robbing all of history. When the Supreme Being (‘you mean God?’ ‘well, we don’t know him that well…’) as a disembodied head and voice comes in pursuit, they push Kevin’s bedroom wall about a hundred yards down a hitherto unsuspected hallway until it falls off and, with a terrified Kevin tearing after them, fall into a timehole.

Here is where the fun starts, Gilliam wisely goes for fun and crisp cameos over the first half of the film, with the Bandits flipping back and forth in time, robbing as they go. Ian Holm plays a Napoleon self-conscious of his height who loves Punch & Judy shows for the ‘leetle creatures hitting each other’, John Cleese is a decidedly upper-class Robin Hood, in Prince-Charles-visiting-a-factory mode, amongst dirty, slovenly, brutish Men whose Merriness is decidedly dubious, and Sean Connery plays a gorgeously straight role as King Agamemnon, whose adopts the abandoned Kevin as his son before Randall & Co steal him back.

(I recall an interview many years ago about Connery’s participation in the film, in which the Producers sent him a copy of the script to read, confessing to not having the budget to pay him: Connery loved it so much, he said he’d do it for whatever they could afford. And he was right.)

There’s also recurring cameos for co-writer Palin and Shelley Duval as unfortunate lovers, Vincent and Pansy, which are mini-delights.

Now the film could keep doing this as long as it wanted, and the budget lasted, as far as I was concerned, butthere’s no ending with that, so Gilliam introduces Evil, played with characteristic cartoon nastiness by David Warner. Evil wants to get hold of the map so he can overwrite Creation: after all, he’s got a better idea ofwwhat to do with it that the Supreme Being, none of this 43 different kinds of parrot, it’s going to be lasers, 8.00am Monday morning.

So Evil starts bending things towards leading the Bandits into the Time of Legends, via the Titanic, of course. Which is where things start to get seriously goofy. Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond cameo as ogres on a sailing ship that turns out to be the hat of a bulky giant walking underwater, who leads them into a desert with an invisible wall that, in my favourite effect of the film, shatters when a skull is thrown against it, as if the filmscreen itself is shattering. Behind it is the mega-gigantic Fortress of Ultimate Darkness which, sorry Peter Jackson, from the first instant I saw it was my personal vision of the Barad-Dur.

And Gilliam piles on visual excitement after visual excitement as Evil confronts the Dwarves in a ghastly gameshow parody above a humungous walltop maze, the dwarves escape from a locked cage swinging above a massive emptiness and return with historical reinforcements – knights, cowboys, spaceships, archers, a tank, all of which prove spectacularly ineffective against Evil.

It’s a glorious compendium of toys turned real: a sharp eye can detect every single thing that appears in the film among the toys in Kevin’s bedroom. The pure, unfettered imagination of a kid, something Gilliam’s always been superb at conjuring up, is what drives this film.

And then, somewhat bathetically, Evil turns into a carbon statue, is knocked over and destroyed, by the Supreme Being, only this time it’s Ralph Richardson in a suit, giving a acerbically disdainful, Superior-than-thou performance. He’s pleased at the test he’s given his Creation, especially Evil. But now, back to work.

The incredulous Kevin does challenge God on why so many people have had to be killed to test his creation, but that’s a deeply-loaded theological question and 11 year old Kevin is just the latest to get a determinedly deaf ear turned to it by the Supreme Being. Then he’s left behind, with an overlooked bit of Evil starting to smoke, sulphurously.

Which turns into his house on fire and his bedroom door being smashed down in a deliberate echo of the beginning of the film, and rescued by a fireman who turns out to be Agamemnon. And Kevin finds all his polaroids of his trip in his satchel, proving it to have been real. The fire’s been started by something left in the microwave all night, something black and carbonised: the last piece of Evil. And despite, or more likely because of his horrified shout not to touch it, his Mum and Dad touch it. And they explode.

The fireman drive off. Kevin is left outside his burned out house, his parents now two wisps of smoke curling upwards from their scorched slippers. It’s a weirdly downbeat, even frightening ending, showing Kevin losing everything real, yet excluded from Time and Creation.holy Grail

I now understand that at one point, Gilliam planned a sequel. He certainly left himself a solid base on which to build one but his plans were abandoned after the loss of David Rappaport (Randall), who committed suicide, and Jack Purvis (Wally), who was paralysed after being crushed against a wall by his own car.

Time Bandits was Gilliam’s third film as a Director, after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. It was, as I said, the first in a ‘Trilogy of Imagination’. This was the vhild’s imagination, and it was great and flowing. Next week, we’ll have the second film, which is even better.