Archive for The Princess Bride

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.

Cliff Hanger

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

I recall seeing bits of MASQUERADE (1965) — always the same bits, too — on TV over the years. Being a moderate admirer of Basil Dearden, I finally decided to see the whole thing. It’s — moderately good. Cliff Robertson is an American ex-serviceman at a loose end, recruited by former comrade Jack Hawkins to protect an Arabian prince from his evil uncle (regular pseudo-arab Roger Delgado, the Master in Dr. Who). Pitched at Hitchcock romp level, and from a novel by FAMILY PLOT’s Victor Canning, it suffers from a major plot twist heavily telegraphed by modern standards, and easily predictable to anyone who’s previously seen Hawkins as a disillusioned soldier turning to crime in Dearden’s THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Bizarre nod to Bunuel?

Still, the cliffhanging is suspenseful, and co-scenarist William Goldman serves up his first reversal in a long career of rug-pulling, when Robertson, imprisoned in a  circus cage, tries to reach a set of keys dangling just out of reach. He espies some bamboo in a neighbouring cage, and hatches the plan of assembling a rod to fish for the keys — trouble is, the cage is occupied by a very nasty vulture. Much agonized pecking later, Cliff does manage to rig up a key-catching stick — only to discover than none of the keys fits his lock. Of course: why would the bad guys leave the keys to HIS cage in plain view?

The reversals come ever thicker and faster, until, like Goldman’s later screenplay for MAVERICK, it becomes rather hard to be surprised anymore. But more damaging is the misogyny, a tonal pain in any ostensibly lighthearted flick. Marisa Mell is a free-spirited circus girl, sporting bruises from hairy ape boyfriend Michel Piccoli. “I don’t mind,” she tells Robertson. “Say, you’re pretty kinky, baby!” he exclaims, thus putting the film’s portrayal of abusive relationships on a psychological par with the apache dance.

His later line, “I’d give you a smack in the face only I’m afraid you might like it,” doesn’t help matters. I still didn’t like the line when it was plagiarised for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA years later. By all means, abuse masochists, that’s what they like, but don’t make fun of ’em! One also wants to say to the writers: “She’s your sexual fantasy, mate. Why are you having a go at her?”

Nobody seems too bothered by Goldman’s sexism, which strikes me as a constant in his work. It doesn’t quite spoil THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a truly charming film, but it forms a bit of a stain. Probably less harmful to my enjoyment than the tacky production values, but when you have Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook etc, and some very very funny jokes and characters and plotting, you can get away with murder. I get the impression that Goldman’s status as some kind of screenplay guru puts him either above criticism or beneath contempt, so nobody looks too closely at the actual strengths and weaknesses. (His analysis of some of his own flaws in Adventures in the Screen Trade is often very telling, though.)

Dearden’s nicest bit of direction comes when a dopey Robertson wanders dazed through a castle at night — sudden Carol Reed infusion of canted angles, vaseline-smeared filter making fairy-tale dream-effect — but it’s all so out of keeping with the rest of the movie, which has totally neglected Hitchcockian POV and expressionist tricks, that it sticks out like a sore, soft-focus thumb.

Still, the sight of Charles Gray dangling from a helicopter is worth anybody’s 102 minutes. Deus Ex machina!

Buy Goldman’s book —

UK: Adventures in the Screen Trade

US: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, All Night Long) (Criterion Collection)

Overcompensating?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2010 by dcairns

Another funny movie logo is Edward Small Productions — the contrast of the monolithic proportions with the name “Small” always makes me chuckle, and wonder what sort of fellow E.S. was. Did he have a sense of irony? I’m thinking maybe not.

The logo was attached to many films, but the one I just watched was THE CORSICAN BROTHERS. I wish I’d seen it as a kid, it’s the kind of simple, unpretentious swashbuckler I’d have enjoyed more then. As an adult, I was noting the influence on THE PRINCESS BRIDE, enjoying Akim Tamiroff as the baddie, and one more thing ~

The late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre once told me in an email that he couldn’t work out how the filmmakers had achieved the scene where Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. fights himself. I was keeping an eye on the twin special effects throughout the film, and in my view, the fight is not the most mysterious part.

Here’s the two Dougs, meeting for the first time. Throughout, the filmmakers use different techniques to double Doug, so that we don’t settle into thinking we know how it’s being done. In this kind of locked-off shot, we might expect split-screen to be the answer, but the actor smack in the centre of the frame disproves that idea. And then one Doug extends a hand and has it clasped by the other.

A slight awkwardness about the way the hand extends suggests the answer. It’s coming from somebody else. If my copy were higher definition I suspect the join might be rather distinct. I think the Doug on the right is standing in front of a rear-projection screen, on which the other characters and the background are projected. If we could see that original shot, it might be rather amusing — everyone reacting to a brother who isn’t there, while a crouching stand-in thrusts forth a costumed arm at the appropriate moment.

Here’s the mind-blower ~

A cinch to do if you’re David Cronenberg with a motion control camera and Jeremy Irons, and even easier today with computers and all that. But this tracking shot, where two Dougs amble along together, was technically NOT POSSIBLE in 1941. So my assumption is that a different technique altogether has been used: not split screen, not matting, not rear-projection. Just a really good stand-in.

This fits in with Michael Powell’s advice that the correct way to use a double is not to have him skulk around, partially obscured, like Ed Wood’s dentist in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, but to have him boldly stomp through shot in plain view. It will never occur to the viewer that the fellow on-screen is not the fellow who was playing the part a second ago. I must say, if I’m right, they’ve found an excellent looky-likey for Doug.

This explains the fight scene later, where the Dougs circle one another, something that would be impossible if any trick effects were involved. But the shot above is actually much more striking because it’s closer, and slower-moving. Kudos to Gregory Ratoff for having the nerve to attempt it.

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