Archive for Brian Desmond Hurst

A Bridge Too Soon?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by dcairns

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1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.

By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.

During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.

Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”

Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”

Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”

Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”

Fiona: “That’s terrible!”

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The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.

Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.

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What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.

Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.

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Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.

The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.

The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

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What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.

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Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.

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Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER! again) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but his paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

Things I Read Off the Screen in “On the Night of the Fire”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 17, 2011 by dcairns

This week’s Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook, examines Brian Desmond Hurst’s melancholy slice of British proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE. Edinburgh Filmhouse screened an excellent print of this last month as part of their From the Archive series, and Fiona and I were much impressed, and delighted to see the rare movie on a big screen in 35mm.

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The film is also full of advertising and signage, something I have a weird kink for — it’s frequently evocative and suggestive and strange, I find, whether on a dressed set, where every little thing has been placed just so, or out in the messy world where hoardings and signs assail the eye from all angles.

Taken out of context, such written material seems like a fragmented synopsis or a cut-up poem calling the movie into existence. Some silent films exist only through the censor’s record of the intertitles, floating sentences clutching at a vanished narrative.

15. HABERDASHER. PILLEGER.

Mr. Pilleger, the blackmailing haberdasher, has a suggestive name, and seeing it written is useful so it doesn’t come across as TOO descriptive of his rapacious personality. And signage completes the illusion of a real street, when what we’re looking at is a studio mock-up.

What would be the best film to examine in the light of its printed matter? FAHRENHEIT 451, perhaps?

Text establishes class, the great God of British society and cinema, either through evoking the industrial landscape, or the uneducated background of the authors ~

Later American noirs were less verbose — in fact, US films seemed to have less lettering in them altogether. A striking neon sign or a tattered poster, a dead end sign or a street name, were usually all you’d get. ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE burbles with the long-forgotten brand names of products lost to antiquity. What was JULYSIA? A hair cream, apparently. Who was TOM LONG and what was his product? And here  —

At lower centre, a poster for BORACIC LINT, a medical dressing which was also cockney rhyming slang for “skint”, meaning flat broke. Which seems fitting, in a film all about the destructive power of money…

This has been an entry in For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Read more about it here and here. Donate to save a classic film noir by clicking here ~