Archive for Ulzana’s Raid

Floppy Dummies

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 18, 2015 by dcairns


Why is it that, in old movies, when people fall to their deaths, they transform into floppy dummies? I know they couldn’t have actual people fall to their deaths, no matter what childish theories Lewis Gilbert may have entertained, but were realistically jointed dummies really beyond the limits of technology back in the sixties?

I love the floppy dummies in Monty Python — but it’s amazing to me that a TV show was presenting as intrinsically ridiculous something that big budget movies expected us to take seriously.

What’s the movie — it’s a guys-on-a-mission film,I think a western — where some team leader makes the point while training his men that if you’re going to fall to your death, please do it silently, as otherwise you could be giving away the presence of your compadres. Subsequently in the film, two men fall silently to their deaths, their floppy dummies tumbling loose-limbed to their dooms in eerie scream-less silence. Without screaming to at least attempt to sell the illusion, the floppy dummies seem even more bathetic and amateurish. I used to be convinced this happened in ULZANA’S RAID but I seem to be wrong.

Perhaps filmmakers knew these shots were unconvincing but didn’t want to alarm the public with anything more real. But that can’t explain this one ~

Hahaha — his arm blatantly comes off, then reattaches in the next shot so he can be played by a human.

Peter Jackson, in his gory juvenilia phase, actually engineered the best falling dummy stuff I ever saw, for a scene where his own character is topped from a precipice. First, he used a rigid dummy, its joints bent as if midway to a foetal curl-up, with flexibility in the torso rather than the limbs.

(The fall is right at the end of this long, gory clip.)

But he still wasn’t satisfied. So he played in the edit and found that adding six frames of his face dropping backwards from extreme closeup to small-and-vanishing-from-frame (wide-angle lens), to the very start of the sequence, was enough to convince us that it was him falling all the way down.

The Oater Limits

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, so now I know I mustn’t call ULZANA’S RAID an oater. It’s an Indian wars western that’s seen as a Viet Nam allegory, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster and a nubile Bruce Davison.

I always felt Sharp’s writing was a good deal more pleasing and to-the-point than Aldrich’s filmmaking on this one — I first saw it on 35mm at Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a Sharp retrospective, many moons ago. I think what was screened was the European cut, supervised by Burt, whereas the version I just saw was the US release, the director’s cut — there’s about ten minutes of differing material, it seems. I recall a bit where two men, trained not to make a sound even at the point of death, fall from a cliff in stoic silence. Unfortunately, this is represented by the usual rubber-limbed dummies tossed into the void, and without screams dubbed on, a farcical special effect becomes even more laughable. I support Aldrich’s decision to delete this material, if his decision it was. I can see Lancaster including it because it’s conceptually quite strong, and only let down by the filmmaking.

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But Aldrich does let the side down fairly often. His composer, Frank DeVol, assembles a tuneless concatenation of cliches — cut to watchful Indians, cue sinister flute. The film seems to have none of the grace notes of seventies filmmaking — it isn’t visually lyrical or particularly dynamic, though its choppy abruption gives it a vaguely robust quality. There IS a good night scene, notable mainly for avoiding all the half-hearted approaches to desert night — no blue moonlight, no impenetrable darkness, just a good dim greyness. But otherwise it lacks the elegance of golden age cinema without gaining anything from modernity except flashes of violence (I do quite like the way Aldrich makes little of the bloodshed — a good thing too, since the makeup “by Cinematique” consists of crimson paint liberally daubed over cavalry jackets). The direct cutting is often a bit confusing, cutting to one of those watchful Indians and then to his POV, bringing us up short as we realize it’s a new scene and he’s not looking at the preceding action after all. The dissolve-as-scene-change can be useful after all.

But the script is very strong — Sharp was unapologetic about showing Apache atrocities — but he also shows the unenviable plight of those Indians who try to get along with the white settlers and are robbed and mistreated for their troubles. Asked if it would be more powerful to leave the horrors offscreen as in THE SEARCHERS, he said that such an approach could be powerful, but he had rather wanted to show a dead man with his dog’s tail in his mouth. He had a strange wistful expression as he said it. As Lancaster says in the film, “Indian’s got a sense of humour. Just not one you’d recognize.”

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Fiona’s reaction to this horror: “WHAT am I looking at?”

It’s not just the pithy dialogue — Sharp also writes strong situations, crucibles for striking behaviour. The key one is the early scene where a cavalryman rides back for a woman about to be captured by Apaches — and shoots her in the head. Unsaddled by his enemies, he then blows his own brains out. The Apaches are about to chop the dead woman’s fingers off to get her wedding ring, when her young son, whom they disregard (since killing a boy will not impart “power”) rushes up, sucks her finger to lubricate it, and slips the ring off and hands it to the brave, thus sparing her post-mortem mutilation. It’s powerful, upsetting stuff — and imaginative, in a horrible way.

War makes barbarians of everybody, which can certainly be a comment on Viet Nam if you like, but I’m not sure how far the analogy stretches. The mass colonisation of America probably made the Indian Wars inevitable, whereas the “police action” in Viet Nam was a misguided exercise in realpolitik which was wholly avoidable. The indigenous people got it in the neck both times, but Aldrich and Sharp presumably didn’t know that the outcome for the USA was going to be different this time round.

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Riding to the Rescue

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Before you ask, yes, I have been as amused and entertained by Quentin Tarantino’s interview meltdown, and his branding of John Ford as a racist, as you have. Maybe even more so.

I don’t necessarily expect logic or coherence from Tarantino, though it strikes me that he has done a better job of explaining his work in the past — it’s kind of disappointing to see him sink to this level of petulance rather than actually engage in a discussion of interesting issues. The question of screen violence, I guess, maybe does get old if you’ve been asked about it over and over again for a couple of decades, and you can see how someone like Kathryn Bigelow will impatiently jump forward three questions when it’s raised, doing that politician’s trick of answering the question you wish had been asked, and politely shutting down the debate,  but the topic still seems to me kind of evergreen and inexhaustible.

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When I wrote my essay for Criterion’s edition of STAGECOACH, I seized on the idea of the film’s climax borrowing from BIRTH OF A NATION, mainly because not many commentators had remarked on the resemblance: specifically we have tension created by John Carradine being about to kill Louise Platt to save her from falling into the rapacious hands of the marauding Indians, which directly echoes a similar moment at the climax of BOAN. My ace editor, Liz Helfgott, reminded me to mention the fact that Ford’s use of this gimmick is somewhat different from, and more nuanced, than Griffith’s.

Which is true: specifically because Carradine’s character is not an out-and-out sympathetic guy like Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) in BOAN, whose proposed murder of his own daughter is thus depicted in salutary terms. Carradine is ambiguous and flawed, and also a Southerner in a film containing more viewpoints than his own, so we aren’t invited to approve wholeheartedly of his action. And in fact Platt is saved by two things (spoiler alert), an Indian arrow which takes Carradine off before he can save her from a Fate Worse than Death, and then the cavalry, who drive off the Indians. Had it just been the cavalry who saved her, as the klan do in BOAN, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would have probably been guilty of endorsing Carradine’s thinking.

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(By the time of the 70s, writer Alan Sharp could have a cavalry soldier actually shooting a white woman in the punchy Robert Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID, to save her from abduction and rape and maybe worse, and the meaning is different again, because it IS the 1970s and there’s a shared understanding that a shocking act can be show because it’s arguably truthful, without implying a judgement from the filmmakers about whether the act is justifiable or unjustifiable.)

The fact that Ford clearly saw nothing wrong in borrowing from BOAN, that he saw it as a cinematic mainspring that wasn’t so irrevocably tainted that you mustn’t go anywhere near it, speaks to the same impulse that made him if not proud at least quite happy to talk about having appeared in it as a klansman. In other words, he didn’t share our modern sensibility and didn’t judge the film as rigorously as we do, as a virulently racist piece of hate speech. I would find it hard to call Ford “a racist son-of-a-bitch” on that basis. I would call him racist only in the sense that everybody’s racist because nobody’e perfect, and everybody is  influenced by the discourse about race which surrounds us, despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, race is an illusion. But, as Einstein observed of time, it may be an illusion but it’s an extremely persistent one.

The subconscious effects of this illusion can perhaps be seen in the way QT segues from “I’m not your slave” to “I’m not your monkey” in that notorious interview.

Griffith, of course, is something else. I’m prepared to accept Lillian Gish at her word that he didn’t hate black people per se — I guess he quite liked them, in their place. As we all know from everyday life, our response to anything can be very different depending on where we find it: to take an example we’ve all probably encountered recently, a delicious juicy steak will provoke a different reaction on a dinner plate than it will draped over the pillow we lay our head on in bed. Griffith’s reaction to see black people anywhere outside of the zones to which he had been raised to think of them belonging, was one of violent instinctive revulsion, and he wasn’t in the least bit inclined to question this knee-jerk response. He was, as a result, a particularly violent and dangerous racist, and he allowed himself to put his feelings on film in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result is hateful, neurotic, and fortunately unique in all of cinema in its virulence, wrongheadedness and savagery. I do regard it as a valuable insight into the psychological processes of race hatred and of pathological hatred generally, whereby criminal acts everybody knows to have been perpetrated by white against blacks — rape, lynching, intimidation — are attributed to blacks in order to justify repression.

It certainly seems absurd to compare it to anything in Ford in terms of its attitude. Is there a bit of that going on with Ford’s depiction of the American Indian? Maybe, a bit, but not consistently, wholeheartedly, or viciously — and Ford is part of a whole problematic tradition here which predates cinema itself. It need hardly be argued that Ford’s portrayal of Indians is more nuanced and sympathetic than Griffith’s portrayal of black people — if one finds oneself arguing that, one might as well stop and say instead, “Just look at the films.”

Inspired somewhat by Glenn Kenny’s post on this subject, and David Ehrenstein’s.

The Birth of a Nation – Special Edition [Blu-ray]

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]