Archive for Charlton Heston

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.

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The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.

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The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

Brains Vs Bronco

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by dcairns

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“I’ve got a strong back and a weak mind,” says Robert Mitchum near the start of Nick Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN. Later, asked “You a thinking man?” he replies “I can get out of the rain, that’s about it,” thereby establishing his smarts — listeners who focus on what he says rather than how he says it will derive a different impression, but we know.

Rumours of the film’s scriptlessness appear to be exaggerated (see Bernard Eisenschitz’s excellent Ray bio for backstory) but they did start with an unfinished scenario and Mitchum did contribute dialogue of his own. I’d love to think these lines are his.

Elsewhere, Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part gets all the funny lines. Despite her dislike of westerns and her deep suspicion of this “rodeo film,” our friend Nicola really enjoyed him.

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The objection she raised to the greater part of the film had to do with the romantic triangle between Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, which seems at first unfairly weighted — overwhelmingly so — in favour of Mitchum. But Kennedy is married to Wayward Hayward, so the Hays Code determines that Mitch must be relegate to the role of Romantic Rival Who Tests and Ultimately Strengthens the Bonds of Marriage. Which is fine in narrative terms, but not something we actually root for because Mitch is lovable, melancholic and mucho manly, and Kennedy is basically a weasel — good actor, and he applies all of his weaselly equipment to the role, having a particularly good time with the stuff where his character, drunk on his success as rodeo star (and also drunk on drink) behaves like an asshole.

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He also has an appalling jacket, the broadest checks I’ve ever seen on a living human being. It’s like he was standing by the window when they dropped the atom bomb.

So the film’s happy ending isn’t really happy, and indeed it’s played for all the lack of conviction you could ever wish for, in the time-honoured fashion of Hollywood endings disliked by the director. But the scene before that works as tragedy — all that matters is the story of Mitchum the broken-down bronco buster, in love with a woman he can’t have, destroying himself over it, perhaps without even properly realizing why. His last scene is like the Beast’s farewell in Cocteau.

When Charlton Heston was contemplating doing 55 DAYS AT PEKING for Ray, he asked a buddy who had previous experience of the director.

“Good director. Good with actors. Good with the camera. But Chuck, I’ve played poker with him. And Chuck, he’s a loser.”

I always disliked the American concept of “loser” — which doesn’t really exist so much elsewhere in the world — which presupposes a character type, the person who will lose, as if it were a choice or an attribute rather than a combination of such things with the workings of chance (was Rockefeller a winner? He’s dead, isn’t he, and I’m alive, typing this in my Homer Simpson shorts). But in the case of Ray and various of his characters, losing is a choice, taken more or less consciously, by someone who rejects the terms of the contest or who wishes to be punished and thus redeemed.

Ants in Your Plants of 1954

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by dcairns

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Having enjoyed a re-viewing of George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE and found some things to enjoy in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, we wanted to check out more Pal productions. TOM THUMB wasn’t handy so we tried THE NAKED JUNGLE but couldn’t get through the damn thing.

This is the kind of film that used to be always on. Saturday night, alone and bored, I turn on the TV and there’s Chuckles Heston battling army ants with his fists and chin. The ant invasion is described as “forty square miles of agonizing death” but that’s a description better suited to the film itself.

Pal’s production, directed by former photographer and effects expert Byron Haskin, is matte paintings from the waist up. Various “natives” in shoe polish display various colonial stereotypes. The big threat, other than Heston’s obnoxious he-man characterisation, is the ant attack, only introduced halfway through but swiftly dominating everything and leaving the Eleanor Parker romance angle to bosom-heaving sighs on the sideline.

The screenwriters’ conceit is that marauding ants lay waste to everything in their path and can even skeletonize a man, in exactly the same way that piranhas can’t. As advance lookout, Chuckles selects a particularly fat native on the grounds that it will take the insects longer to devour him, but alas, being fat, dozy, and covered in shoe polish, he falls asleep on watch and gets eaten. Here I was looking forward to something equivalent to the faux time-lapse decaying Morlock in THE TIME MACHINE, but the movie gets all coy, not to mention cheap, on us, so all we get is the actor screaming “My eyes!” and then a shot of an empty suit on the floor. I was also hoping for puppetoon ants courtesy of Pal’s animator associates, even though that would be an INSANE amount of work.

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Fellow Shadowplayers, I was not disappointed — and yet I was. The puppetoon insects duly appear, stripping the leaves from a tree, but only for two shots. That’s not enough puppetoonery for a feature film. I would even have accepted those annoying elves from BROS. GRIMM, as long as Chuck could have punched their stupid lopsided faces in.

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