Archive for The Big Red One

Steal from the Best

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2018 by dcairns

Really enjoyed James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z — I’m not sure how much it amounts to, but as an impressively classical, slow-moving adventure and as a bold departure from his usual genre, it deserves praise.

Three swipes.

An abandoned boat calls to mind AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, though Gray doesn’t go so far to have it wedged in the branches of a tree, hovering above the waterline. That would be too much.A WWI battlefield sports a damaged statue of Christ on the cross — clearly a nod to the opening scenes of Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, though this figure isn’t minus an arm. Again, that would be going too far. And, when Charlie Hunnam leaves on his final mission to the jungles of Bolivia, he leans from the train window and Gray cuts to shots filmed as if from his POV, tracking rapidly through the bedrooms of his wife and children. A blatant borrowing from the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, a favourite scene of mine. I’m sufficiently impressed by the cheek shown, the obscurity of the reference, and its aptness, that I’ll allow this. Though I think Fellini’s decision to use train noise throughout his sequence is superior to Gray’s choice to score the scene orchestrally.


The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns


An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.


So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.


The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.


The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)


Quote of the Day: Ban This Sick Filth!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on February 26, 2008 by dcairns

From Tom Dewe Mathews’ Censored, The Story of Film Censorship in Britain ~

Ai No Corridor

‘The various reasons cited by the board for its refusal to grant a certificate to SHOCK CORRIDOR in 1963 are confusing as well as contradictory. First of all the Board said that its depiction of conditions in an American mental asylum bore no comparison with those in hospitals within Britain. But this could equally apply to gangster films, Westerns or, for that matter, musicals. Secondly, the film could also frighten cinema-goers who had relatives in mental institutions. This had been the rationale behind the BBFC’s [British Board of Film Censors’] rather extensive cutting of the German Expressionist film THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI back in 1928, and even then it appeared to be a catch-all excuse.

‘The last three reasons given by the Board did at least concern themselves with the film’s plot: it was irresponsible to suggest that a sane person could gain admission to a mental hospital by pretending to be insane (maybe the Board thought that this would be imitated); or to suggest that residence in a mental hospital could cause insanity; finally, it was considered that the film might have ‘bad, possibly dangerous, effects’ on film-goers who were susceptible to mental disturbance. But the charge of an irresponsible story device is merely an attack on Fuller’s ingeniousness and the last two clauses cancel each other out because, presumably, if a film can cause insanity then a mental hospital must have the same capacity.’

I remember a discussion with a fellow student when I was at art college: they had seen SHOCK CORRIDOR on T.V. and been outraged: “Whoever made this obviously knew nothing about mental illness.” My defense was that the film wasn’t truly about mental illness. The three main patients in the film are all suffering from political illnesses. If we except the hospital as a nightmare vision of America, then Fuller’s decision not to reflect the realities of psychiatric conditions as we currently understand them becomes more explicable.

(SHOCK CORRIDOR isn’t realistic, but an earlier U.S. film, THE SNAKE PIT, despite its melodramatic title, is pretty credible. I would say it gives a more accurate impression of life in a psychiatric hospital than ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, though that film captures a very authentic atmosphere, leaving aside the plot.)

In THE BIG RED ONE there’s a scene in a Walloon insane asylum which has been taken over by Nazi forces. The Americans attack, and there’s a shoot-out during which inmates, some of whom have learning difficulties and some of whom presumably have psychiatric conditions (I have no idea whether people with such disparate conditions would really have shared a Walloony-bin in the 1940s, but it does seem possible) continue to eat their lunch, unperturbed by the fire-fight raging around them. Of course, this isn’t realistic. A person with Down’s Syndrome, depression, schizophrenia or pretty much any other mental condition would be likely to react with even more alarm to such an occurrence than you or I would. Fuller’s intent is clarified when an inmate snatches up a fallen soldier’s rifle and blows away a few of his fellow diners. “I am like you — I am sane!” he asserts. The scenario is satirical, Swiftian, rather than realistic, and the idea that warfare and murder are proofs of sanity has been floated — and rendered absurd.

Censorship is always political. It’s interesting that one of the things the BBFC seems to have been afraid of is that relatives of those committed to institutes would become concerned about the well-being of their kin. The likely outcome of such a thing would be, what? They might visit their relatives to check that they’re being well looked-after, and inspect conditions in the asylum. Is that so alarming?

As to the censors’ other reasons, it has since been proved that pretty much anybody can get themselves admitted to a psych ward by reporting false symptoms (assuming there’s a spare bed). Psychiatrists have been shown to be no better than anybody else at detecting lies — judges and lawyers are equally gullible, with only professional SPIES being any better than you or I (they’re specifically TRAINED to know when they’re being bullshitted).

And could a mental hospital drive you mad? I think this idea is based on a false assumption that any one of us can be “driven mad” by stressful circumstances. But certainly psychiatric hospitals can often be depressing, and sometimes alarming places, often ill-suited settings for any kind of recovery process. Filling a large, institutional building with mentally ill people, and maintaining some kind of calm, pleasant atmosphere, is a tall order, but a civilized country ought to try a lot harder to do it than we do.