Archive for Gladiator

“I’m afraid you would not find me suitable.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2010 by dcairns

It was a pleasure to finally get a copy, however imperfect, of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in the correct screen ratio. My earlier viewing of a 16:9 off-air recording had intrigued but failed to satisfy — you really don’t get a sense of the film’s insane size unless you can see the whole frame.

STILL haven’t got an adequate copy of EL CID, and may just have to buy the BluRay when I get a BluRay player… which I may have to do since I’ve just written an essay for a forthcoming BluRay only release, and I kind of want to see it…

EL CID’s success made THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE possible, but what made the whole Spanish-shot epic boom-and-bust blip in film history possible was General Franco’s ruling that profits from ticket sales in Spanish cinemas could not be taken out of the country. Producer Samuel Bronston decided to get the studios to spend their profits in Spain, on big movies which could then be exported and make more money around the world. EL CID, an epic from Spanish history, was a logical choice, but the following movies rather stretched the possibilities of what could be successfully faked in Spain — 55 DAYS IN PEKING really distends plausibility to snapping point.

(When Richard Lester was prepping A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in Spain a few years later, he considered recycling the standing sets from TFOTRE, but he and his designer, Tony Dalton, worked out that it would be cheaper to build their own sets than remove the scaffolding from Bronston’s.)

But TFOTRE manages to mock up Germania, Armenia and Rome quite convincingly, with the aid of the biggest sets ever assembled (I think — I hope!). It’s all too obviously an attempt to repeat the success of the Roman-set BEN HUR, down to a chariot race arranged by Yakima Canutt. Charlton Heston, star or both HUR and CID, was offered the lead, but apparently refused due to his antipathy to co-star Sophia Loren, whom he’d had quite enough of on the previous Mann epic. So his BEN HUR opponent, Stephen Boyd, viewed as very much a coming man, was promoted to lead, a choice Mann later came to view as a mistake, especially after the film grossed less than a quarter of its cost (a then-staggering 26 million).

The “old friends” get reacquainted.

Boyd is indeed a problem, and so is Loren, surprisingly. Boyd, so effective in heavy roles (his psychotic gangster in THE SQUEEZE is exhilaratingly horrible, and BEN HUR gives him an excrutiating, powerful death scene), is just a wounded puppy as Livius, his Irish accent disguised beneath a generic American delivery — that slow, dumb speech pattern heroes always seem to use in “Epics”. And he can’t even be effective on that level because Livius is a rather passive, conflicted hero who doesn’t get much done — the whole story is a chronicle of his failure to save Rome, after all. Mann spoke of anti-heroes in his westerns who were nevertheless men who set out to do something, and did it. Livius isn’t that, which is potentially interesting, but demands a more complex and engaging performance.

Loren’s passion and sex appeal are entirely smothered in a sexless character. Her costumes may be nice (and one can imagine her wearing them to the Oscars, they’re theoretically period but snazzy and contemporary and very vivid) but her love story with Livius takes forever to go almost nowhere. We KNOW Loren’s a good actress, but she has quite a few long close-ups here where I felt like waving a hand in front of her face to check she was actually conscious.

The ponderous leads are compounded by a script which tends to paint in every corner and could really benefit from some bolder ellisions. The emperor is poisoned. He dies. There’s a funeral. A successor is named. There’s a plod to the narrative approach which compounds the seemingly unavoidable turgidity of the epic spectacular form. Thank God David Lean discovered the nouvelle vague while making LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and gave the film a certain zip. The lumber-lumber-zip rhythm of that film is a saving grace.

BUT — Mann’s film, apart from some genuinely mind-bending sets, has compensations. Alec Guinness is pleasurable, and gets the best line, early on, when Boyd offers to bring him the barbarian leader’s head. “No, don’t bring me his head, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” I was quite happy to watch the remaining two and a half hours of the movie (I don’t think this was the longest cut) just in case anybody said anything as brilliant as that again. They didn’t, but other cool stuff happened.

James Mason creates a warm relationship with Guinness at the start, soon cut short by plot exigencies, but helpful in a movie where often the dialogue and relationships lack the human spark. And Mason’s scene of torture by barbarians is the film’s most Mannly Moment, and maybe its best, vividly capturing the awful powerlessness of intellectual superiority in the face of brute strength and cruelty. Which may be one of Mann’s big themes.

If the hero is weak, the villain can be strong, and Christopher Plummer is very enjoyably psycho. He seems to be having the time of his life, although I have my doubts as to whether anybody enjoys making a big movie like this. Emperor Commodus is characterised by nice lines about the Gods’ laughter, a loony grin that turns his face into an idiotic death-mask, and a little twinkle-toed dance he does over a mosaic map of the Empire. He’s like a campy George W Bush, playing absurd, childish games with an entire world…

And then there’s a really terrific ending. The whole third act is a relentless slide into total destruction, almost as nihilistically savage as THE DEVILS or KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. Not AS savage, but savage enough. Mann knew EL CID would work because of the terrific finish, and he has a similarly powerful climax here, but it’s not the kind of climax that’s a sure-fire hit-maker. It’s such a downer! And yet, strangely exhilarating, perhaps due to some thanatos deathwish in the human race that makes us enjoy the spectacle of tragedy and destruction.

The script, by EL CID’s Ben Barzman (blacklistee), Basilio Franchina (associated with Barzman and Loren) and Philip Yordan (whose best Mann script by a mile is MEN IN WAR), and if it takes its time getting anywhere (half the film is gone before we reach Rome), it compensates with some interesting narrational devices. The opening VO, which sets up a connection to Gibbons’ book and to the complexities of history which the film does its best to avoid from then on, is read by “king of the Dubbers” Robert Rietty, a master of vocal disguise who this time seems to be impersonating Mann himself. A little later, another voiceover appears, as Alex Guinness tries to bargain with Death — perhaps influenced by Olivier’s soliloquies in HAMLET, he switches neatly from internal to external monologue. In fact, there’s a slight precedent for this in Mann’s use of VO in RAW DEAL. Apparently the Emperor’s musings here are drawn directly from Marcus Aurelius’s real meditations. You don’t get that in GLADIATOR. And at the end of the film, Loren unexpectedly starts doing the same thing. It’s a little jarring, since there’s no other narration in the whole movie, but there’s some sense that the VO is meant to call to mind Guinness’s death, since what we’re now facing is the Death of Rome.

Another amazing set. Somebody will wind up dead in that pool, perhaps as a reference to Commodus’s real life demise: murdered by his own wrestlers in the bath. The most homoerotic political assassination ever?

Given the time the film was made at, and given JFK’s invocation of ancient Rome in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and especially given that this is a movie by expat Americans, it’s tempting to read THE FALL in metaphorical terms as dealing with contemporary, postwar American politics. If so, that might be another reason the public stayed away (plenty of people did show up, just not nearly enough to pay for a super-epic) — it’s a pretty scathing look at a society in freefall, financially, morally and militarily. But that despairing ending is put over with such enthusiasm, it’s genuinely thrilling, like a lot of the best tragedy.

The Fall Of The Roman Empire (Three-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition) (The Miriam Collection)

Advertisements

“This is Sparta — we’ll just set aboot ye.”

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Watched “300” at last. I’d been wary of it and reluctant to spend money on something I expected to disapprove of. But a friend loaned us a copy with the suggestion that it was more politically nuanced and ambiguous than we thought, and since it was free, we thought, “What the hell.”

Leave your head at the box office

The ambiguity was supposed to stem from the portrayal of Sparta as a nation funded on institutionalized child abuse — but I’m not certain how much weight to give this. On the one hand, the film is literally about a historical conflict, and that aspect of Spartan society is pretty well-known. In a populist film, you don’t ignore the one thing your audience might remember about the subject from school. Then again, the film’s attitude to infanticide and child abuse, via its narrator, is broadly approving — so I think we have to see a level of irony at work (or else get really angry that Frank Miller and Zak Snyder are pro-child abuse). If we DO see the film as a right-wing tract (and a glance at Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns should be enough to clear up any questions about his stance, though it also shows that he likes to mix things up and add some questioning liberalism here and there) then the ritualised brutalising of Spartan children can be read as metaphor: “a nation must be tough (not quite like this but you get the idea) to protect itself.”

Snyder's Oracle in 300

Bava's Oracle in Hercules and the Haunted World

Snyder’s Oracle in “300”. Bava’s Oracle in HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD.

The plot: Xerxes of Persia (eight-foot tall mutant) leads an army of millions to attack Greece, and demands that King Leonidas of Sparta kneel before him. But Leonidas — a Scotsman — refuses to bend the knee. Hampered by a corrupt senate and other political/religious forces, Leonidas leads an illegal mission of three hundred crack troops to defend his borders.

I think this reads as a fanciful replay of Iraq: instead of invading, Sparta is defending itself. Instead of being a bullying giant, Sparta is cast as the underdog. Persia stands in as a good geographic substitute for modern Iraq, and the Persians are portrayed as inbred mutant subhuman orcs, or else as very very ethnic. (And anybody who’s “ugly” or “weird-looking” in this film is automatically a bad guy.) The VO, most of which is badly written, badly delivered and unnecessary, constantly stresses their “darkness,” even referring to Xerxes’ “dark will”. Even as a portrait of ancient Persia this is offensive, leaving aside any modern connections.

(It doesn’t matter if the comic book source predates the present conflict. Tolkein likewise predates the Iraq mess, and Peter Jackson’s Frodo franchise looks irresistably like the heartwarming fantasy of good versus evil that GW Bush tried to sell the world.)

And the language of the film implicitly implies that the Greeks are modern and reasoning, their religion akin to Christianity (“Tonight we dine in Hell,” not Hades) and the Persians are mystical, superstitious, pagan, with all the western value judgements that implies.

Caged Wheat

There is quite a bit to be said in favour of the film-making, when you ignore politics (or better, when you keep politics in mind but look at the other aspects). From the trailer I expected to find the constant CGI and digital retouching claustrophobic and airless. In the movie I didn’t. It is what it is, but the constant magic-hour lighting (it’s always either dusk or dawn in Greece, apparently) smears everything into a misty Impressionist glow, which is much more effective and attractive than the pin-sharp greeting card look of BEOWULF. We accept that nothing is real and nothing exists outside the frame, or even in it, but that goes with the territory. The fight scenes are impressively coherent — Snyder entertains himself nicely with visual tricks and impossible stunts, but we don’t lose out on spatial awareness, we can see who’s hitting whom (unlike in GLADIATOR, BATMAN BEGINS etc) and even when figures are knocked flying through the air like skittles, they maintain a believable sense of heft and meat— there’s none of the obviously-rendered, weightless digital maquettes we’re used to. And the filmic choreography of it all, with time slowing down and speeding up in spurts of violence, is beautiful in itself.

There’s even humour. Although Leonidas is annoying from his odd beard to his drawn-on six-pack to his constant ROARING, he has a certain dry wit, delivered by Gerald Butler with a touch of Sean Connery’s wryness (and a Greek King with a Scots accent echos Connery’s turn as Theseus in TIME BANDITS. Listening to Butler is like being tickled all the time from an unknown direction.) It’s much more effective than the stabs at comedy in Zemeckis’ BEOWULF, or the LORD OF THE RINGS films. There Peter Jackson, by nature a humorist, struggled to find any light-hearted expression that wouldn’t render his whole myth-cycle absurd. Lame jokes about cow-pats and dwarf-tossing violated the pompous tone and derailed the movies from their inescapably simplistic route.

Seven inches of plastic pleasure

Where “300” does create ambiguity, or at least confusion, is in its sexual politics. While the only prominent female characters are shown nude, both are politically powerful. While Queen Gorgo (Gorgo? Really?) is sexually humiliated by a corrupt senator, she gets to avenge herself in a punch-the-air “feminist” moment.

And while the Spartan males are all bred to be dead butch, and speak scornfully of the “boy-lovers” in Crete, they are portrayed in a blatantly homo-erotic fashion. The innate contradiction has the same amusing quality as the queer sexuality of Italian peplum films. Something that seemsintended to be read as super-straight comes across as inescapably super-camp. The climactic massacre looks like the death of Saint Sebastian re-staged as a Busby Berkeley number. Even the fact that Leonidas screws Gorgo (his other beard?) from behind, seems suggestive of sexual ambivalence. This aspect of the film is what caused many critics to sneer, but it’s actually the most interesting and nuanced thing on offer.

An 'arrowing experience

It’s quite possible that Snyder doesn’t consider his film right-wing or allegorical or possessed of any particular meaning at all. Defenders on the IMDb talk of how it’s “a shame” that people have to “spoil things” by looking for racism or politics or, like, meaning. Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which also had very good bits, was remarkable for the way it stripped the Romero mythos of any subtext or resonance whatsoever (while Romero’s own films have been getting more and more strident and direct). And his next film is an adaptation of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which was written by Alan Moore, an anarchist of the left. But politics tends to creep in, whether a director intends it or not. I won’t be altogether surprised if Ozymandias, the super-rich industrialist who manufactures a fake war on terror, emerges as hero of Snyder’s WATCHMEN.