Archive for Richard Attenborough

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.

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

The 4th of July Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by dcairns

Happy Americaday!

I thought I’d look at DW Griffith’s AMERICA, as it seemed like both a good source of intertitles and a good patriotic American movie. After watching five minutes of it, however, I revised my plans and thought I’d look at it while drunk. One large vodka and tonic later (I’m a total lightweight), I thought I’d stop looking at it and write this.

I’ve long had a theory that Americans don’t like movies about the American Revolution. Actually, that’s not a theory, it’s a fact — from AMERICA to High Hudson’s wretched REVOLUTION to Mel “Mr Sensitive” Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, films dealing with this conflict have proved, slightly weirdly, even less popular than those detailing the current middle eastern embroilments. OK, so my actual theory is that Americans don’t respond to those films because they’re bored of hearing about the subject in school. At least the Civil War has a tang of controversy about it, especially if Griffith is the one revising the history. And if the filmmaker isn’t a bona fide racist nut, then you have the entertainment value of watching them tiptoe on eggshells for fear of offending the red states.

But my theory collapses slightly in the face of the fact that AMERICA, like Hudson’s snore-o-rama epic and Gibson’s British-as-Nazis exercise in bellowing understatement, is quite a weak film. Of course, my copy comes from the Killiam collection and hence has a weird voice-over declaiming woodenly all over it, which enhances the flavour of the history class which imbues the  proceedings. So that doesn’t help. But the movie is dramatically leaden and devoid of the passion which animates BIRTH OF A NATION, which at least had on it’s side the fact that Griffith was anxious to convince his audience of something. Here, universal agreement is guaranteed from the outset. Though ironically, this version is a restoration of a film available for years only in a “British” version, produced by Griffith for UK distribution, which omitted the more severe attacks on George IV III and the Brits. Typical of Griffith, a man who made anti-war films in peacetime and propaganda films in wartime. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others.”

So no theory of scholastic overkill is needed to explain AMERICA’s failure at the box office. Still, on a kitsch level I enjoyed the way George Washington was introduced as a periwig rising majestically over the back of an armchair. Such reticence reminds me of the treatment of Christ in BEN HUR, or the way some Indian audiences were reluctant to see Gandhi played by a flesh-and-blood actor. One concerned citizen wrote to Sir Richard Attenborough suggesting that the great-souled one might be portrayed by a moving light. Sir Dickie did not follow this thoughtful advice: “I’m afraid I wrote back saying I’m making GANDHI, not bloody Tinkerbell.”

Later in the movie, David Wark Griffith overcomes the scattershot schoolroom approach of the opening mass of expoz, and gets a bit of drama going by falling back on old tricks. Not content with an entire nation of dandified fops to traduce, Dave forges a satanic bond between the Brits and the American Indians. You can sense his confidence growing once he has a proper crew of dusky-hued rapists as bad guys. The climax shamelessly reruns the eleventh-hour rescue from BIRTH, with redskins insread of blackskins. Wicked Captain Walter Butler (a nubile Lionel Barrymore) is shown cavorting with half-dressed Indian gals who kiss his boots in fawning ecstasy. It’s fascinating how reactionary rage can be stoked by scenes of taboo sexuality, forming a seething cocktail of anger and erotic response…

All of which seems an entirely appropriate way to celebrate today. Doesn’t it?

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