3 Cuban Documentary Shorts

Four crew members of the freight team in ‘The Load’

The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.

The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.

Goats travel on the Hershey train as well

Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.

The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?

Teresa and Diana on their raft

Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.

Teresa excited and waiting for the ferry to bring María to her

Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.

Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.

Beyond This Place (Web of Evidence, UK 1959)

Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.

There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.

Van Johnson as Paul and Vera Miles as Lena

But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.

The confrontation before the murder with Bernard Lee as Patrick Mathry and Jean Kent as Louise Burt. Eira Heath as the murder victim, Mona Spurling, is in the background.

The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.

Vera Miles in a subdued ‘good girl’ role – her familiar star persona?

This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.

There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).

Paul meets Louise in the club she owns – this image could easily come from a ‘Brit film noir’ in the late 1940s.

I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.

Runway (Bangladesh 2010)

Ruhul returns home and, like the cows, he seems unperturbed by the jet landing behind him

This was the second of my forays into the ‘Classic Features’ now available online from the London Indian Film Festival and it proved a very rewarding experience. The film’s title Runway refers directly to the home of the film’s central family who live beneath the flight path of aircraft landing at Dhaka’s international airport. The airport is so close that some of the lights indicating the landing path are situated close to the family’s shack. There are also vaguely metaphorical/symbolic readings associated with the title. At one point a small boy aims his catapult at an aircraft that roars over him as it lands. The father of the family is away trying to earn money in Kuwait and for his son Ruhul, who is effectively the ‘man of the family’, life is refusing to ‘take off’. He can’t find a job and he and his sick grandfather are the men at home supported by the earnings of Ruhul’s sister Fatema who works in a clothing sweatshop and his mother Rahima who keeps a cow, bought with a loan from an NGO. The shack’s location is also close to the local river system and Ruhul watches the fishermen with the static Chinese nets.

Fatema and Sheuli set off for work at 6.30 am

The family watch the TV news about Bangladeshis returning from Kuwait on their little portable black and white TV

Runway was made by the husband and wife team of Tareque (director) and Catherine (producer) Masud, whose previous international success was The Clay Bird (2002). Tareque was killed in a car accident in 2011. Catherine is now the curator of the couple’s back catalogue of features, documentaries and shorts. The Masuds’ work seems largely self-financed or ‘independently’ produced and low budget and in a way this film is a reminder of aspects of the similar Indian independent films of the 1970s/80s, except that it doesn’t use the kinds of avant-garde techniques of New Cinema or feature the professional acting and literary/theatrical riches of much of Parallel Cinema in India. The main cast of this feature appear to have been non-professionals at the time apart from the actor who plays the grandfather. Some smaller roles are taken by professionals. Fatema’s friend Sheuli who lives close by is played by Rikita Nandini Shimu who went on to become the lead in Made in Bangladesh (2019), which was very impressive at the London Film Festival last year. The whole cast are very good and the technical standards of the film are high despite what seem to be budget difficulties.

Rahima talks to a man who has returned from the Gulf, hoping to learn about her husband

Along with the performances, I was most impressed by the script which manages to to interweave the stories of all of the characters to demonstrate the complexities of life in a country like Bangladesh. Everyone faces financial and moral dilemmas and their actions have an impact on each other. The film never ‘preaches’ but it shows us these lives in such a way that we recognise the problems but also see that there is respite in the love for one another and the beauties of the natural world. It’s a life-affirming film even when it presents us with jihadism and its consequences. Although the events are linked to actual events in Bangladesh earlier in the 2000s, all the characters are fictitious.

Ruhul and Arif, the jihadist

Ruhul’s uncle runs a small internet/telephone parlour which Ruhul visits to search for job opportunities. Over a few days he becomes friendly with Arif, a university dropout who appears confident and well-groomed. Ruhul is being recruited into a jihadist group. He is aware of what is happening and of course the group leader promises him that he can get a job at the airport. Will Ruhul become a martyr? His dilemmas are several. He feels that he is living off his mother’s and sister’s earnings. He must get a job, but becoming a jihadist will alienate them and ‘fail’ them. He knows they love him. Sheuli is the girl he loves but he feels he can’t marry her and be supported by her work. Will his father return from Kuwait where industrial disputes threaten the job market for migrant workers? Rahima misses her husband so much that she begins to fantasise that he has returned. It all sounds desperate but Ruhul has the capacity to stay calm. Can he pull through?

Is the runway a metaphor?

Runway is available to watch free online (via registration) until 19th August and is well worth a look.

Monsoon (Canada-France-India 2014)

Monsoon rains can be very dangerous but this street kid in Mumbai is having fun

When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.

Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.

Akhila Prasad, the articulate 12 year-old whose family in Kerala is a central focus in the film

Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.

The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.

The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.

The retired meteorologist comes to Meghalaya to see what the rains mean for himself

If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.

This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.

Book Review: Phoenix by Brad Prager

Phoenix, Brad Prager, German Film Classics: Camden House 2019, ISBN 9781640140387, £12.99, 88pp, 40 colour illus

This is the third ‘German Film Classic Guide’ we have received from Camden House. Earlier guides reviewed on this blog have been Wings of Desire and Fitzcarraldo.

My first reaction on reading this title was to wonder if a film can become a ‘film classic’ after only five years. Not that this observation worried me much since there are at least three blog entries on the film on this blog. I reviewed the film when it appeared at the London Film Festival, and both Keith Withall and Rona Murray discussed the film on its release. There is little doubt that Christian Petzold is the most successful of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers. It is his films that are selected for international festivals and which tend to receive releases in film markets around the world – something increasingly difficult for many European auteurs these days. Most of Petzold’s successful films have seen him working with Nina Hoss as his leading player and Phoenix is the film on which they last worked together.

It might be worth offering a brief note about Phoenix first as this guide sticks very close to the text and assumes familiarity with the film. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who we first see with her head swathed in bandages being driven by her friend Lene through an American checkpoint on her way back to Berlin in September 1945. Later we will learn that Nelly was a well-known singer before the war, but her Jewish heritage meant she was taken to Auschwitz. Somehow she escaped, but was shot in the face. Lene is driving her to meet a plastic surgeon who will re-construct her face. Lene then hopes that Nelly will accompany her to Palestine. However, Nelly hopes to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and when she is recovered she begins a search. ‘Phoenix’ is the name of a nightclub attracting Americans in Berlin. The film is loosely adapted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, Return to the Ashes (1961), which sets the narrative in France. J. Lee Thompson made an English language film adaptation in 1965 featuring Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell.

Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri and he opens his guide by reminding us that Petzold co-wrote Phoenix with his old friend and mentor Harun Farocki. It was Farocki who suggested that the opening shots of the film should recall Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers [from the Hemingway short story] in which two contract killers are in a car at night searching for a man. Prager refers to Petzold’s comment about Siodmak as a Jewish German migrant in Hollywood, having fled the Nazis in the early 1930s. Siodmak carried with him that sense of being a persecuted exile when he returned to Germany after the war and Petzold sees Nelly as experiencing the same kind of feeling. Siodmak was one of the German directors identified as developing Hollywood films noirs and Petzold has said that film noir was the genre he thought about most in his preparation. He suggests that just as Fassbinder went back to the films of Douglas Sirk when he made his melodramas such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974), he, Petzold needed to go back to the films noirs of the 1940s and to directors such as Siodmak.

Prager offers us a very close reading of the film which I certainly found illuminating, especially in terms of the connections he finds to wider examples of German culture and particularly German Jewish culture. This means he explores similar films made both about 1945 and made in the immediate few months after the war and tracks the links to Jewish figures such as Kurt Weil, whose song ‘Speak Low’ plays a significant role in the film. As well as Robert Siodmak, he also refers to his screenwriter brother Curt/Kurt and to the Central European Jewish actor Peter Lorre. Prager’s first task is to demonstrate to us that Nelly experiences a a strong sense of dislocation in these first few months of what is a period of ‘limbo’ for German identity. Germany at this point simply doesn’t exist – it is an occupied territory. Nelly wants to re-discover her own German identity and her husband will fail to recognise her even though her new face will not be that different – it is more that he is incapable of seeing her. I know something about this period in Berlin but I learned a great deal more from Prager’s analysis. The real question, however, is who is the target readership for this guide?

I suspect that the intended readership is German studies students taking a film option. There are several other study guide series which deal with a specific ‘National Cinema’ through individual texts on key films. Readers need a certain investment in that National Cinema to get the most from the guides. The downside is that such guides don’t always suit the more general Film Studies student. One missing element for me was a sense of the German cinema audience. Checking the Lumière Database for European films I discovered that Phoenix had a smaller audience overall than Barbara (2012), the previous film by Petzold featuring both Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Not only did Phoenix have little more than half the audience of the previous film (530,000 across Europe) but the biggest audience was in France. Barbara, set in East Germany in the 1980s, attracted 1.05 million admissions across Europe and did, just, attract a larger audience in Germany. Prager does perhaps suggest reasons why this might be the case, but I don’t think he addresses what it means for German Cinema. But that’s the only disappointment for me in the analysis. What is the book like as a study guide?

As our other reviewers have pointed out, these are quite attractive guides in terms of presentation, especially since they use digital screengrabs nicely presented in colour. The A5 size is fairly standard for these little guides. In this case the text is presented in an attractive font, but the pages have small margins and the text is fully justified. There are no line spaces between paragraphs and the entire guide is divided into just four sections, corresponding to the linear progress of the narrative of the film. Each section is separated by just a couple of line spaces (rather than a new page). The overall effect is of a solid block of 80 pages of text enlivened only by the illustrations (which thankfully are used relatively frequently). All of this does make the text feel less accessible than it should be. Worse, however, is that there is no index as such, but instead seven pages of endnotes in lieu and a page of credits. The guide is printed on good quality paper, but these seeming cost-saving features rather undercut the overall quality appeal.

Brad Prager is an expert guide having written widely on German cinema and on that basis I would recommend this guide, but I hope Camden House re-consider their design for the series.

The Glory Guys (US 1965)

Harve Presnell and Tom Tryon lead the troop across the river

There are two reasons why this film interests me, or rather two namesSam Peckinpah and James Wong Howe. This was a film Peckinpah might have hoped to direct. He’d written an adaptation of the novel by Hoffman Birney, The Dice of God, in 1956 when he started working for the production company founded by Arnold Laven, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy which owned the rights to Birney’s story. Laven and Peckinpah worked together on the successful Western TV series The Rifleman before Peckinpah got the chance to direct his first two film  Westerns, The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). In 1963 Peckinpah directed Major Dundee which would turn out to be his first truly disastrous confrontation with a studio after completing a film that ran significantly over budget and was far too long for a standard release. Columbia butchered the film which was eventually released in 1965. In the meantime he was fired from his fourth picture as director, The Cincinatti Kid which was taken over by Norman Jewison. Arnold Laven had decided to direct The Glory Guys himself and the film was released in July 1965 with Peckinpah still credited with the script. The next couple of years were arguably the lowest in Peckinpah’s career with his previously high reputation as the innovator on TV Westerns now trashed by producers associated with Columbia and MGM. In the latter case he also suffered from a fabricated scandal about the shooting of a nude scene.

The Glory Guys is a mainstream cavalry Western. Laven was mainly known as a producer and a prolific director of TV drama. He made only a handful of cinema features mostly for the Laven-Gardner-Levy company. One of Laven’s strategies in the 1950s was to register a title with the Writers’ Guild and then look for a property that might produce a script for the title. The Dice of God was intended to become a film titled ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, but a film with a similar title was underway at around the same time and thus the title change. How much of Peckinpah’s vision remains in the script used for The Glory Guys? There are certainly some familiar elements that turned up in Major Dundee, released earlier but written later. Peckinpah ‘contributed’ to the script for Dundee, seemingly unhappy with the work of Harry Julian Fink. How much he might have changed it is open to question, but Amos Dundee feels very much like a Peckinpah character. When he first tackled The Dice of God, Peckinpah arguably saw himself updating the familiar John Ford cavalry picture and there are recognisable elements in The Glory Guys. But the crucial device is to offer double male leads who might be in conflict because of different beliefs or histories, even if they have other things in common. (This is the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda as the mismatched pair.) In a Peckinpah film the two might have different views about the future of ‘the West’ and its codes of honour being replaced by capitalist exploitation. This was evident in Ride the High Country and would be repeated in many later Peckinpah films. In The Glory Guys, Tom Tryon plays Captain Demas Harrod, an officer with a past who is paired again with General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), a commanding officer he distrusts. At one point I thought McCabe could be the second leading male, but the second lead turns out to be the General’s scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell) and the ‘conflict’ is over a woman played by Senta Berger who has inherited the gunsmith’s business in Moose City close to the cavalry fort. General McCabe is the Custer figure who will disobey orders and send men to their deaths in an heroic but senseless attack on a larger force of ‘Plains Indians’ (who are never individualised in the film). As well as these four characters, only three others emerge in any detail from the large cast of smaller parts.

A lobby card featuring Tom Tryon and Senta Berger

Slim Pickens plays the recruiting sergeant who first gathers the raw recruits at a railhead and his charges include Michael Anderson Jr. as a young man who has enlisted to escape his overbearing family and James Caan as a wise-cracking young Irishman seemingly always in trouble and up for a fight. Pickens was already a bona fide ‘character star’ of Westerns and Anderson was a young Englishman making his mark in three major Westerns in 1965. One of those three was Major Dundee in which he was again joined by Senta Berger and Slim Pickens. James Caan plays ‘large’ in only his second appearance in films after a successful stint in TV. He is entertaining but sometimes appears to be in another film altogether. However, if we play the game of mapping characters against those found in Ford’s Westerns and especially his cavalry pictures, these three all correspond – the regular Sergeant and the young naive trooper/young officer and Caan combining the Victor McLaglen fighting Irishman and any number of young bucks such as the Jeff Chandler or Ken Curtis characters in The Searchers. Peckinpah clearly didn’t buy the Caan combination but he did take Berger. He is reported to have said that he wouldn’t have cast Tryon or Presnell – and whatever their merits they don’t seem like Peckinpah players.

The structure of The Glory Guys fits the typical three-act sequence. The first act culminates in the recruits arriving at the fort and their reception and settling in while Captain Harrod re-acquaints himself with the other officers. Act two focuses on the preparations for the campaign and develops the Harrod-Rogers feud over Lou Woddard (Senta Berger). Act three comprises the action against the enemy. I think the general consensus is that acts one and two are a little ‘ho-hum’ but that act three is in many ways magnificent. The first two acts are notable for a cavalry dance referencing John Ford and a rolling saloon fist fight led by the James Caan character. Both of these feel like Peckinpah has written in some Fordian tropes. Alongside Caan, Michael Anderson Jr features in a sub-plot about him not being cut out for army life and possibly being ‘bought out’ by his father (and therefore missing out on his first romance). This too has its Fordian reference and indeed, because Ford made so many Westerns, much of the rest of the ‘action’ could be similarly seen as ‘referencing’. The real problem for me is Harve Presnell who just doesn’t belong in the film (he came out of musicals and was an accomplished singer but perhaps the most unlikely ‘Westerner’ ever to appear as a character in a Peckinpah script). But if I imagine James Coburn (who plays the scout in Major Dundee), everything might look different. Arthur Laven was an efficient director and on this film had a reasonable budget (including time spent in Durango) and a great cinematographer. I’m not criticising his direction apart from suggesting that it needed different leading personnel and a bit more ‘umph’ (partly to balance out the James Caan character’s antics).

Movin’ out!

James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was one of the most important cinematographers in ‘studio Hollywood’, shooting pictures from the late ‘teens to the mid 70s, just before he died. Wong Howe was already well-established before the studio era and soon found himself on major pictures in the 1930s. He filmed virtually every kind of feature, including Westerns. Previous to this film he’d worked on Hud (1963) and Outrage (1964), the first a ‘contemporary Western’ and the second a version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films starred Paul Newman. Wong Howe was known for his innovative lighting tricks and his attempts to always create lighting that had a logical source in the scene. As far as this film is concerned he mentioned some of the careful lighting of indoor/studio scenes. But I think he comes into his own for the action scenes. There are some beautiful sequences of men on horseback in different forms of natural light against the landscape. Laven also choreographs the action well. I should add that several Western fansites that I’ve checked out also praise the production design of the fort (see above) as close to the real forts used in the ‘Indian Wars’. I couldn’t find any good quality images to illustrate the comments about the troop movements (which might be directly compared to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949). The Japanese poster below does make a stab at creating a collage of scenes. Westerns like this had a world market, but it’s interesting that Senta Berger doesn’t appear on the poster.

Japanese film poster

I’m glad that, as a Peckinpah completist, I was able to see this and it adds to my sense of a ‘Peckinpah film’. This film is out of date now, but the title is nicely ironic. There was little ‘glory’ in the Indian Wars but at least this time the Native Americans won – even if it was because of an American General’s vanity.