Category: Hollywood

Why Dunkirk? Thoughts on Nolan’s version of the myth

Kenneth Branagh’s character of the naval Commander on the Mole in Nolan’s Dunkirk is based on a historical figure

Keith has already written about his response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and I don’t really want to repeat or contest any of the points he raised. Keith is very concerned about formats for viewing and since Dunkirk exists in several different formats, I should note that I saw it at the Dukes Cinema in Lancaster in what I believe is the most commonly seen format, a standard DCP. I reviewed the 1958 version a few weeks back and immediately after the Lancaster screening I watched the BBC documentary The Other Side of Dunkirk from 2004 (see below for a YouTube link) and tried to explore the evidence about what actually happened in late May/early June 1940.

I’m not as much of a fan of Christopher Nolan as it seems most film critics and many ‘frequent cinemagoers’ clearly are. I’ve previously seen three of his films and none of them won me over completely, though I recognised the talent and the vision of the filmmaker. I don’t think his version of the  Dunkirk story has changed my view very much, though it is clearly a technically well-produced and well-researched film and some of the action sequences show real visual flair. Nolan was interviewed by Nick James in Sight & Sound last month (August 2017 issue) and his answer to the question “Why ‘Dunkirk’?” seems to be because it is a British story that hasn’t been told on the big screen “in the vernacular of modern cinema”. James seems then to have inserted in parentheses “since the Leslie Norman version in 1958”. Later he does it again. Does Nolan not know about the 1958 Ealing Studios version? Perhaps it isn’t ‘modern’ enough to count? More pertinent perhaps is that Nolan doesn’t mention Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement released in 2007. Though that film isn’t about the ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the British codename for the evacuation) as such, there is a lengthy sequence set during the wait for evacuation from the town which Wright re-created on the beach at Redcar, including a sequence shot in the Regent cinema which juts out onto the beach. The sequence included one of the most audacious tracking shots I’ve ever seen, across the whole beach and lasting more than 5 minutes. It helped Seamus McGarvey win an Oscar Nomination for Best cinematography and Atonement went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Nolan must remember it? In a recent post I discussed Their Finest (UK 2016) in which the ‘film within a film’ was about two women who took their father’s boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. This fictitious film production to a certain extent refers back to an Ealing film of 1942 called The Foreman Went to France, which again, thought not directly about Dunkirk was about rescuing equipment during the retreat by the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1940.

Christopher Nolan seems very much a part of Hollywood and has never really been identified with British cinema – but it would be good if he knew more about it. Instead, his reference point seems to be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a film which certainly changed expectations about how the Second World War could appear on screen. Many veterans have attested to the ‘emotional realism’ of the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. This, they said, is how it felt to be there. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have achieved quite as much, but since I’ve not watched it all the way through I’ll resist making any other comments. The important point is that Nolan has done his own research on the evacuation at Dunkirk and has written his own script. He has also enlisted a military historian as an adviser. His intention appears to be to offer audiences an ‘immersive experience’ using IMAX and 65mm film (and keeping CGI to a minimum). Audiences are invited to experience the action from different viewpoints: the soldiers on the beach, the pilot in his Spitfire, the naval commander on the bridge and the ‘citizen sailors’ in the small boats. Nolan has also said that he isn’t aiming for Spielberg’s terrible violence but instead for the suspense of survival. Will the men get away? What does it feel like on the exposed beach looking out for your rescuer? Nolan isn’t making a war movie as such and he isn’t interested in the generals back in their operations rooms. Ironically, it seems like his approach is in certain ways not unlike that in the Ealing film 60 years earlier (which was based on two novels). In other ways it is very different.

An archive photo (Hulton Picture Archive) of evacuated soldiers arriving in London by train. Nolan’s images frequently use compositions drawing on such images

The Dunkirk myth

The central question for me concerns the myth of Dunkirk – the initial ‘spinning’ of defeat into a propaganda victory and the persistence of aspects of that initial spin that have remained in British culture for seventy years and have been utilised by the Brexiteers. ‘Myth’ plays an important role in film and media studies as a concept referring to those stories that become embedded in the culture of specific communities. The concept originally referred to the stories of gods and heroes in classical civilisation but modern myths have a similar function in keeping certain values and ideals in circulation but now more often through mass media circulation (and now social media circulation) instead of an oral tradition. Because myths develop through repetition, the original stories/histories may still be retained in terms of core meanings, but much of the contextual meaning is lost. The myth of Dunkirk becomes reduced to a ‘united British people, prepared to fight on alone, having escaped from Europe despite betrayal by allies’ in the cause of Brexit rather than the triumph of co-operation between allies’.

Nolan’s claims for a suspense film rather than a war movie has some justification, though at times I felt that the best generic description might be the ‘disaster movie’, especially during the sequences in which men jumped from sinking ships. There are indeed no generals and politicians, but I was surprised by the film’s resolution which achieved some emotional moments which lead into the myth. The opening half of the film has relatively little dialogue but the closing stages seem quite wordy, especially around the evacuated soldiers’ sense of  wonder that instead of being seen as ‘failures’ their survival makes them ‘heroes’. I’m not suggesting that this suggestion about how the survivors felt isn’t ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ and the 1958 film includes some of the same sentiments, but in the Nolan film’s case it sits alongside the lack of any political or historical context. It is these omissions which help to shore up the myth. The film is a co-production, shot on the main beach at Dunkirk and also including studio and location work in the UK, US and the Netherlands, but apart from a single ship’s captain, the Dutch don’t appear and the French, though present in some scenes, are acknowledged only by Kenneth Branagh’s Naval officer as needing to be evacuated. In reality, out of the 330,000 men evacuated, more than a third were French and other nationalities (Belgians in particular). It was a French force of 40,000 that protected  the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and had to be left behind leading to surrender to German forces.

Tom Hardy plays one of just two RAF pilots shown in the film. (A third is quickly shot down)

One of Nolan’s problems is that, having decided on the ‘authenticity’ of using the modern Dunkerque and its main beaches as his principal location, and eschewed too much CGI, it became very difficult to convey the complete devastation of the town during the ten days of evacuation. As a result (and this also applies to the UK locations) the film seems to exist in a kind of limbo land between ‘realism’ and the fantasy more familiar in Nolan’s other blockbusters. The lack of World War Two aircraft available to filmmakers is another problem, so the aerial warfare is presented as almost a personal battle (which it no doubt was for individual pilots) involving two or three aircraft rather than representing the frequent bombing raids on the beaches by groups of aircraft. The RAF lost around 150 aircraft during Operation Dynamo and a similar number of German aircraft were downed.

The 1958 film faced similar problems but its greater length (134 minutes against Nolan’s 106 minutes, but watch out for severely cut versions) allowed director Leslie Norman to stage scenes in the UK and in Northern France before the retreat to Dunkirk. These sketched in British attitudes to the ‘phoney war’ up to May 1940 and at the end of the film he managed to undercut the myth-making to some extent by emphasising the military defeat as well as the spirit of resistance. Nolan includes several scenes within the chaotic events on the beach which suggest how British soldiers felt (e.g. the soldiers who try to board a hospital ship and are thrown off), but the focus on the individual stories and the ‘immersion’ of the audience in the action scenes through music and cinematography works against a distanced take on the context.

My main fear is that American audiences and younger audiences in the UK will not learn the history of what happened from Nolan’s film and that the myth of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ will be understood in its narrowest sense of ‘Britain alone’ in defiance of Hitler – which will sustain the Brexiteers.  The real context, in which Britain became a base for troops (and crucially for airmen and women) from other European nations and from the British overseas empire, will not be understood. The ‘little ships’ and the civilian sailors were at the centre of the myth-building because their stories appealed directly to the British public. But though they certainly played a vital role, especially in the shallow waters of the beach evacuations, the majority of men were evacuated by British and French naval ships or requisitioned ships sailed by crews commanded by Royal Navy officers. The myth was important for British propaganda in maintaining morale in a crucial period of the war, but its persistence is not helpful in the modern context.

For the record, in the format I watched, I enjoyed some of the cinematography (though I don’t understand the seemingly blue-green emphasis in the colour palette) but the music irritated instead of drawing me in. Nolan’s well-known penchant for playing with narrative time I found confusing and ultimately self-defeating. None of the soldiers on the beach are introduced and though the young actors were very good in their roles, I couldn’t easily tell one from another (and I have seen some of them before). In yesterday’s Guardian, the Northern Editor Helen Pidd says the film was a ‘snooze’ in the tiny cinema where she saw it. Perhaps Nolan’s film is really an IMAX entertainment? I wonder how it will work on TV? Since it looks like breaking a few box office records, it will have to be taken seriously, but I think the 1958 film is better at representing the story of the evacuation.

YouTube and other internet sources offer several interpretations of Nolan’s Dunkirk, several setting out the problems with the film and addressing them from sometimes widely different political positions. I was also interested to see the Indian claims that Indian Army involvement in the evacuation is not mentioned – I haven’t been able to find the evidence for this apart from one archive photo. The BBC documentary is useful in discussing the way the British myth has been seen by a range of French and German historians as well as the British. In my research I’ve also come across the story of a young Royal Canadian Navy officer, Sub-Lieutenant Robert W. Timbrell, who made several trips across to Dunkirk as the master of a requisitioned yacht. He was responsible for saving 900 men and his exploits sound even more fantastical than Nolan’s script. There is a lot more to say about the myth of Dunkirk and at least Christopher Nolan’s film has started a conversation.

Victor/Victoria (US 1982)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.

The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.

In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook.  This original version is

a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).

But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).

There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.

Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).

The Good Lie (US-Canada-Kenya-India 2014)

The children when they first leave the village

The Good Lie is an intriguing film – a Hollywood-funded production distributed by Warner Bros featuring Reese Witherspoon, executive-produced by Ron Howard and directed by the Québecois auteur Philippe Falardeau, an Oscar nominee for Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011). It defies easy assumptions in its negotiation of the idea of a ‘feelgood film’. On IMDb it rates a 7.4 user score with many highly enthusiastic user reviews. Yet Warner Bros. released it in North America on less than 500 screens. In the UK, Canadian mini-major eOne opened the film in just 23 cinemas – this tiny release passed me by and I should certainly have sought out the film in cinemas in 2015. In retrospect this reluctance by the major distributors should have warned us what to expect for the release of Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016).

Several years older, Jeremiah, Amere and Abital celebrate their selection for travel to the US from their Kenyan refugee camp

The link between Queen of Katwe and The Good Lie is American overseas aid/charities in Kenya. The Good Lie tells the story of a small group of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ – the children of villages in southern Sudan who fled when their homes were attacked and their parents killed by soldiers from the north during the civil war in the 1980s.  These children and young teenagers walked several hundred miles before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya and then had to wait a further dozen years or so before being offered refugee status in the US in 2000. Two important family issues arise for the small group and the narrative drive of the film develops two separate strands – how the refugees struggle to come to terms with life in the US and how these two family issues are resolved. The film’s resolution is certainly upbeat, but it isn’t a typical Hollywood ending.

With a major star like Reese Witherspoon attached to the project The Good Lie certainly had the profile to attract audiences, but the obvious worry would be how the Sudanese actors (most of whom are themselves refugees from the conflict) would perform alongside Ms Witherspoon. I think that they all do a good job in individual scenes. The main problem is that there isn’t really enough screen time to allow Witherspoon’s character (initially professionally distanced as an employment consultant) to develop a real emotional attachment to the success of the refugees’ settlement in the Mid-West. She seems to switch almost instantaneously and to become involved in the solving of a refugee family problem. However, the narrative’s main concern is the progress of the refugee narrative and that is how it should be.

Mamere (Arnold Oceng) alongside Carrie (Reese Witherspoon)

I was a little taken aback by some of the events following the arrival of the refugees in Kansas and the actions of the immigration officials seemed outrageous in one respect. At one point I found the jokes about the unfamiliarity of aspects of American culture just seemed to go too far but overall I guess Falardeau and scriptwriter Margaret Nagle keep the ‘strangeness’ theme in check. I have to admit that watching films about refugees from Africa and parts of Asia in the US from a European perspective is quite odd. Both refugees and their Mid-West hosts seem almost entirely clueless about each other’s culture. In the UK, it often seems as if refugees who make it this far (i.e. often travelling through Europe) are much more aware of what to expect when they arrive and most host cities know what to expect when welcoming them. However, this particular narrative which flies young adults straight from a Kenya camp to an American city with presumably much less experience of refugees is significantly different. I don’t want to spoil the narrative resolution but the writer Margaret Nagle (best known for acting in and writing TV dramas) and Falardeau manage a satisfactory bittersweet ending which undermines any sugary sense of feelgood. One of the family stories works out but the other is negotiated. The title gives a clue to one aspect of the story and derives from a passage in Huckleberry Finn. It’s also worth pointing out that the early scenes in the film are violent and upsetting.

Reading some of the US reviews and background, it seems that Margaret Nagle did a considerable amount of research, interviewing refugees and those responsible for their placement in the US. In addition two of the producers had direct experience of taking in refugees or visiting some of the Kenyan locations. I get the impression that some of the push behind the film may have come from Christian groups in the US. I’ve seen some questionable activities by missionary charities in documentaries in Sudan, but in this film it seems to be humanitarian charity that brings the refugees to the US.

The Good Lie is certainly a global production with infrastructure in Africa being supplied/accessed via South Africa. Director Falardeau (experienced in shooting around the world) also took with him his cinematographer Roland Plante and editor Richard Comeau from Québéc. The Indian connection comes via Reliance, the Indian media major which has invested heavily in Hollywood productions for several years now.

The Good Lie is certainly worth seeking out as a particular kind of film about migration. It might be interesting to compare it with the rather different migration of Palestinians to the US in Amreeka (US-Canada-Kuwait 2009).

The Graduate (US 1967)

The 50th Anniversary (actually Christmas 2017 in North America) release of The Graduate is an odd anniversary for me. I now discover that the film is deemed a classic and it has received the same 5 star reviews that all ‘classics’ seem to receive automatically. I’ll have to wait until I watch it again in a cinema to see what this means in practice. For now I want to try to remember the first time I watched it during 1968. The circumstances are memorable since it was a preview screening several weeks before the UK release (which was several months after the US release date). My university Student Union received a large number of tickets for a late night screening (i.e. after the last house) at the London Pavilion, the large cinema still standing but no longer showing films, on Piccadilly Circus. I don’t remember how we got back to our digs in Streatham at 2 a.m. in the morning but I assume we got the night bus. I think I must have enjoyed the film and I think we followed the distributor’s plan by talking about it to friends several weeks before its London release in August 1968.

My main recollection of the film is that I was taken by Paul Simon’s songs more than the film itself. I think I already knew ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘April Come She Will’, but ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’ were possibly new to me. I enjoyed the film which I found very funny but I’m not sure what kind of lasting impression it made on me apart from the music. The soundtrack was certainly innovative and predated Easy Rider (1969), Mean Streets (1973) and American Graffiti (1973) – the most frequently quoted music soundtrack ‘breakthrough’ films. Pop music had often been used in Hollywood films in the 1950s and 1960s before The Graduate but never so carefully integrated in the narrative and certainly not in a film that wasn’t ostensibly about musicians or the music industry. The one odd aspect that occurs to me now is that Paul Simon’s songs and Simon & Garfunkel as a duo were very strongly connected with New York and I’d forgotten that The Graduate is an LA movie.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

Listening to an item on the re-release on Radio 4’s The Film Programme and reading some of the print reviews, I was surprised at several of the comments. Reviewers now seem to focus on the older woman, younger man aspect of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, though they know that in fact Bancroft was playing much older than her ‘real’ 36 and was only in fact six years older than Hoffman. I don’t remember being ‘bothered’ by the relationship. It makes me think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) with his mother played by Jessie Royce who was only eight years his senior. I think that this shows that The Graduate was a film still tied to ‘old Hollywood’ in 1967. It surely isn’t a ‘New Hollywood’ film. I suspect that Mike Nichols is now seen as more of an innovator than he was considered at the time. Yes, he did win the Best Director Oscar for the film, but wasn’t that an indication of how skilfully he made a film in the tradition? Nichols was well-known first as a comedian in partnership with Elaine May and then as a highly-successful director on Broadway. His first three films were all adaptations – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) from Edward Albee’s play, The Graduate from Charles Webb’s novel and Catch-22 (1970), my favourite of the three, from Joseph Heller’s novel. Aged 19 in 1968, I wasn’t a cinephile, so I didn’t make critical judgements about The Graduate. I remember the unusual ending better than anything else. For me, at that time, Dustin Hoffman didn’t represent a young graduate. He wasn’t much like the American grad students I came across in London. It was probably not until Midnight Cowboy in 1969 that I began to think about Hoffman. Similarly, Katherine Ross made more impression on me in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both also in 1969. Having said that, the notes in my film diary suggest that it was Ms Ross, alongside the music, that caught my attention.

It’s important, I think, that in the late 1960s, it often took Hollywood films a good six months to arrive in the UK. The Graduate took eight. Its American success set up its UK opening – it was the biggest US box office film of 1968. The truth was that it was one of the very few witty adult Hollywood films of the 1960s to attract a mass audience (it had an ‘X’ certificate in the UK, making it out of the reach of those under 16). (The script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry must take plenty of credit.) In the UK, the 1960s, for my circle of friends, was remembered mainly in terms of British films. The American box office film of 1968 that made the biggest impression on me was probably Polanski’s first Hollywood film (after he left the UK), Rosemary’s Baby, which I actually saw a couple of years later in a Paramount double bill with Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (a 1969 UK release).

Here’s part of the ‘Scarborough Fair’ sequence from The Graduate – at least, I think it is, there are so many YouTube clips! I think this represents what I thought was new at the time. Watching it again, it’s the combination of the music with the camerawork by the veteran Robert Surtees that seems important. It’s interesting to read some of the contemporary reviews from 1967. Bosley Crowther in the NY Times was coming to the end of a glittering career as a critic in 1967 when he panned Bonnie and Clyde but praised The Graduate as a throwback to Preston Sturges. Roger Ebert liked the film but loathed the music and the ‘arty camerawork’ shown below. Interestingly, he saw the same vitality in the film that he saw in the British films that had done so well in the US in the 1960s (he was thinking of Tom Jones and The Knack among others). Thirty years later he downgraded his rating and decided that the film had dated and that Mrs Robinson was actually the most interesting character.

My Cousin Rachel (UK-US 2017)

The mirror image of the gothic melodrama?

It’s an odd coincidence that this ‘re-adaptation’ of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel should arrive in UK cinemas so soon after Lady Macbeth. I went to see My Cousin Rachel with Nick and when we discussed the film in the pub afterwards we had almost the complete opposite reactions. I was slightly disappointed and certainly not as excited as I was by Lady Macbeth. Nick didn’t share my appreciation of Lady Macbeth but thought My Cousin Rachel worked. Perhaps he’ll add some comments here.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was a very popular writer of novels and short stories. She was often termed a ‘romantic novelist’, but that is a misleading term when thinking about the film adaptations of her work including the three Hitchcock films, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds as well as Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I was intrigued to see that her Wikipedia entry suggests that she had more in common with a writer like Wilkie Collins with his ‘sensation novels’. Certainly, My Cousin Rachel made me think of Collins, partly because of its convoluted family relationships and the importance of letters and wills. The story was adapted first in 1952, the year after the book was published with the intriguing pairing of Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland in the two main parts. I haven’t seen that version but it appears to have been poorly received.

The story is set in the mid-19th century, perhaps the late 1830s (the year is not given in the film, that’s the time the book suggests). Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has grown up as an orphan and a ward of his cousin Ambrose. When Philip arrives back at the estate in Cornwall/Devon he learns that Ambrose has died in Tuscany where he had been spending time for his health and where he married another, distant, cousin. Philip will inherit the estate on his coming 25th birthday but before that event he is expecting Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his cousin’s widow to arrive from Italy. The estate is currently held in trust by the family lawyer (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Ambrose’s friend and godfather, Nick Kendall (Iain Glen). Nick’s daughter Lucy (Holliday Grainger) was Philip’s childhood friend and she clearly has an interest in him. What will happen when Philip meets Rachel? Will he confirm his suspicions that she is a dangerous woman who perhaps caused Ambrose’s demise – or will the naïve young man quickly lose himself in infatuation?

The romance of landscape . . .

This is a good set-up for an engaging narrative. The wild scenery (beaches, cliffs, crop fields close to the sea, woodlands etc.) suggests passion and romance and the large country house with dark stairways, servants hiding in the shadows etc. offers the possibility of the gothic and the narrative elements of film noir and melodrama. All of these were in Rebecca, albeit in the later period of the 1930s. But actually it is the mystery elements which tend to drive the narrative here and this is where the Wilkie Collins references come in. There is a mysterious will that Rachel possesses but which hasn’t been signed. Philip struggles with the legal documents that constrain his behaviour before his birthday. Letters written by Ambrose crop up at various points, discovered in clothes or books. (The relevant titles for Collins’ fans are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).)

The film offers us a vaguely Hitchcockian score by Rael Jones. The cinematography, production design and costumes are all very well presented and the performances are generally very good. I think my problem was that the presentation doesn’t go far enough in suggesting the possible dark side. Director Roger Michell wrote the script himself. He is an experienced director but seemingly a first-time scriptwriter. Perhaps he focused too much on writing a ‘faithful’ adaptation and not enough on exploring the genre possibilities? I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing. Sam Claflin gives another solid performance, but I’m still not completely convinced that he is leading man material. I’m a big Rachel Weisz fan, but here her usual strong performance seems to lack something. Overall, I was most impressed with Holliday Grainger who stole most of the scenes she was in. I also enjoyed Tim Barlow’s performance as the ancient retainer Seecombe whose demeanour seems to poke fun at Philip. I think perhaps Michell and Claflin are not quite sure how to present Philip. Is he both the hunting shooting man on the moors and the shy naïve boy? We do see him topless with a toned gym-fit body (nullifying the authenticity of the costumes) in the house but when he leaps down to show his estate workers how to scythe hay there is no Poldark moment with the bare-chested leading man vigorously wielding the blade.

Philip and Rachel when he gives her his mother’s pearls. Is this the dangerous vulnerable Rachel?

Rachel is often seen with her travelling case of herbs which she uses to produce the tisanes which might be poisoning Philip. Sometimes she appears vulnerable, but is she really seeking Philip’s protection? At other times she seems completely in control of her affairs and easily able to outmanoeuvre Philip. In a Guardian piece this weekend Julie Myerson recalls reading the novel as a teenager and seems to praise the film adaptation (“Michell’s wonderfully crunchy new film”). She claims that Rachel’s vulnerability is what “makes her so terrifying to men”. I’m not sure I understand this. In Sight and Sound (July 2017) Lisa Mullen thinks the film works but that it “never quite yields to the deliciously gothic potential of this closed world of secrets and suspicions”. I’d agree with that. She also thinks it’s unfair to make comparisons with Hitchcock. Why shouldn’t we? She ends: “Underlying it all is a strongly feminist message about power, money and male fear of what might happen if a woman should gain possession of both – agreeably subversive stuff to find in a crowd-pleasing period drama”. That seems fair enough. I’m left wondering why those two Wilkie Collins novels have never been adapted.

My Cousin Rachel seems to be working at the box office. Fox put it out on 467 screens for No 6 in the UK chart in its first weekend. By the following Tuesday, with older audience interest it moved into the Top 5. In the trailers below you can compare the leading performances. Richard Burton was just about the right age for Philip and this was his first leading role in a film.

Now, Voyager (US 1942)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this Warner Bros. classic this coming Saturday (June 3rd) in their ‘reel’ film slot. One reason alone should be enough to excite potential viewers, it contains, if not the finest, then certainly the most memorable performance by Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale. The films follows a transformation of this women worthy of Hans Christian Anderson’s famed story, ‘the ugly duckling’. And Charlotte at the beginning of the film is rather like a duck with a waddle, but by the climax of the film she is as regal as any swan.
Along with this we have an excellent performance by Paul Heinreid as romantic object Jerry Durrance; debonair but capable of real passion. Claude Rains is his usual well-informed and analytical professional, Dr Jacquith. Gladys Cooper plays the repressive and dominant matriarch, Mrs Henry Vale, with real venom. Her title reveals the value system she follows. And Janis Wilson as the young and vulnerable object of Charlotte’s affection is good enough to warrant the credit she does not actually get.

The film enjoys all the technical skills of the Warner Bros.’s production departments. Robert Haas does fine with the art design. Sol Polito, a talented cinematographer, varies the lighting and camera from dark interiors to sun drenched locales. And working alongside them is one of Hollywood’s outstanding composers, Max Steiner, providing a score at times dramatic and times lush. The film’s screenplay by Casey Robinson has one of those memorable lines that are quoted more often that the film enjoys screenings. The screenplay was adapted from a successful novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, who actually published three novels about the Vale family.

All its qualities come together when seen on the large screen. And the visual quality is properly served by the film grain of 35mm: though unfortunately not these days nitrate stock. Follow the line used by Prouty from the poet Walt Whitman:

“Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

Selma on UK Television

This film was among my top titles for the year and I would thoroughly recommend it. It is a widescreen film so it will lose significantly on television but if that is the only way to see it then it is worth watching. Unfortunately whilst it is screening tonight [April 14th] on BBC 2 [including HD] it is not being presented properly. The BBC WebPage lists the running time as ‘2 hours 1 minute’: this despite it also showing a link to IMDB where the running time is given as 128 minutes, [exactly 128m 29s S&S]. Presumably this is because the BBC is squeezing it into a two-hour slot from 9 p.m.

I sent in an enquiry to the BBC about this and the first reply I received advised that the film would be ‘cut’: in which case I reckoned this would involve about three minutes missing. So I followed up by asking what was being cut. The I received the following:

” Having looked in to this further we can clarify that there were in fact no scenes cut from the film ‘Selma’ and therefore no content was missing.

The running time for this film (including credits) is 122 minutes and we broadcast a version nearing 119 mins. We simply speed up the end credits to fit the slot allocated and this accounts for the difference in running time.”

I am not sure where the running time of ‘122 minutes’ comes from. Even if they are confusing video with film the number still seems incorrect. Film runs at 24 fps whilst video in the UK runs at 25 fps: so in this case it would be five, not six, minutes shorter.

As for ‘speeding up the end credits’! The credits of Selma commence over the final rally in Montgomery with King’s speech; there follows reprisals of the key characters in the film accompanied by the Aacademy Award winning  song Glory performed by Lonnie Lynn and John Stephens.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences treated this film poorly. Only one award and trailing behind the inferior Birdman (2014). This is the sort of disdain that the actual Martin Luther King and the many protesters at that time suffered: [and of course, a lot worse].

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The actual transmission ran 118 minutes. As threatened the BBC channel ‘speeded up the credits, but not all of them. So we had the frames with the cast and the initial rendering of ‘Glory’ at normal video speed: but then the rest of the credits, and the accompanying song, went by too fast for either the text or the music.

And then, despite the claim in their email, part of the content was cut: about three minutes of credits and the rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine’ sung by ‘workers in Selma’. All this to ‘fit in’ the schedule which followed the video film with ‘Later… with Jools Holland’. The latter was allowed to continue till 1205 a.m.

The logic of this escapes me. What seems clear is that the film was programmed because the 14th was what is commonly called ‘Good Friday’ and the subject and characters seemed appropriate to that religious day.  Presumably when we get The Passion of the Christ on BBC its protagonist will have to expire right on the hour!

Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African-American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African-American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African-American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African-American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director either being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.