Category: Classic Action & Adventure


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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

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As someone who’s written one full-length screenplay (though I haven’t sold it yet) and that has also written about 30 pages or so of several other screenplays that I haven’t actually finished, I understand quite acutely the challenge of balancing attention-grabbing pacing with solid character development. It’s not an easy task and focusing too much on action or “plot spectacle” makes characters seem paper-thin and boring whereas a deficiency in action means the audience is going to fall asleep. You can’t ignore one for the other. And with 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the first hour of this satire of the snobbery and incompetence of the British aristocracy had me bored nearly to tears and it wasn’t until the doomed heroes went off to fight the Crimean war that the movie began to find its bearings and the right mix of character and spectacle.

The titular charge of Britain’s light cavalry brigade during the Crimean war remains one of history’s most famous tactical military errors that resulted in the annihilation of virtually the entire brigade as they charged head-long into oncoming artillery fire (and anyone who’s ever played Empire: Total War knows that’s a dumb idea). And The Charge of the Light Brigade focuses on the forming of the soon to be doomed cavalry, their training, and their eventual excursion to Turkey to face off against the Russians simply because England felt the need to go to war for appearance’s sake. And from the opening moments of the film, the arrogance of men such as Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard) and Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews) let you know that even the noble intelligence of the few decent men such as Captain Nolan (David Hemmings) will be subsumed by impractical and ultimately fatal notions of honor and class standing.

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I must admit that perhaps part of my struggles with the early portions of the film is that I found a healthy portion of the dialogue to be completely incomprehensible. The accents are thick enough that any non-native Brits would have trouble understanding certain characters (particularly Lord Cardigan) but when the period slang is thrown in for good measure, the film becomes far more dense than you would expect. And while I could applaud the film’s decision to spend such a large chunk of the movie focusing on the lives of the members of the Light Brigade before they are called off to war, most of the time spent in Britain feels repetitive and over-blown. While I recognize that the film is meant to be a darkly comic satire of class snobbery, those themes have been handled better by others (Gosford Park) and The Charge of the Light Brigade never generated any real emotional connection early on (except for perhaps moments with Captain Nolan). There was simply a cavalcade of characters and little reason to care for any of them.

And to add to the film’s overly theatrical nature from the first half of the movie, virtually all of the performances were totally ham-fisted. Trevor Morgan turned the incompetent and tyrannical Lord Cardigan into a cartoonish figure. There was no nuance or subtlety there. Although Captain Nolan is likely meant to be the film’s sole sympathetic figure (except for perhaps Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa), David Hemmings too turned his part into more of a caricature than a real human being. With his thousand mile stare, Nolan seemed like a warrior poet spouting off Shakespearean nonsense rather than a sensible man forced to follow insensible orders. The only performance with any real heart was Vanessa Redgrave’s Clarissa which is a shame because her character was so shallow and peripheral to the main parts of the film.

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The film isn’t without its moments though. The animated interludes that begin the film and then occur periodically throughout are brilliant and really hit home on the idea that though the film serves as a satire of British class machinations, The Charge of the Light Brigade also shows historic parallels between the catastrophic decision to go to war against the Russians in the Crimean war and the calls during the 1960s for military action against the Soviet Union. In certain ways, this film is almost the anti-Alexander Nevvsky in that it uses a historical disaster to deflate current nationalism (rather than the other way around). And once they do finally get to Russia, the film brutalizes any notion of military honor or the glory of war by a graphic (for its time) depiction of the actual horrors of war and the price the British paid for such a foolish venture.

It is truly a shame that the film becomes a cross-section of an almost excruciatingly slow first half (though still with the great animated sequences) and then a truly brilliant and scathing denouement. One could make the argument that the last half wouldn’t carry the same weight without the first half, but there’s just no excuse for how dull and meandering the beginning of the film seemed. It took nearly twenty minutes before any character felt truly distinguished from the rest so even as it focused on character, the film showed no knack for crafting unique and engaging characters to attach yourself to. If you’re a fan of military epics, stick around for the final half but everybody else can probably find a better way to pass their evening.

Final Score: B-

 

I’ve opined in the past on here about films that have been deemed “classics” over the years that I feel are undeserving of that title. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey are arguably the two most high-profile films I’ve dubbed as being over-rated throughout this last year, but there are plenty of other films from the pre-1980’s era whose legend I have never been able to fully appreciate. As a matter of fact, when it comes to pre-1970’s dramas, only foreign films from masters like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman have really been able to impress me as our American body of work seems too “safe” and conventional by modern standards. Isn’t it exciting then when you finally watch movies that are deserving of the legend that surrounds them? 1952’s High Noon is always brought up in conversations for “the greatest Western of all time” and while I may still feel as if that award should go to Unforgiven (and if books/TV are permitted in the discussion, then Lonesome Dove), High Noon remains a refreshing and (remarkably still) radical take on the most American of film genres.

On the day that he has married his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly in her film debut) and is set to retire and move away, Marshall Will Kane (Oscar winning Gary Cooper) faces the unexpected return of notorious criminal Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) on the noon train. As Frank’s friends and fellow outlaws (including a young Lee Van Cleef) wait at the train depot for Frank’s arrival, Kane tries to find a group of deputies to help him keep his town safe one last time. Taking place almost entirely in real time (with constant shots of clocks to remind how close it is til noon), we spend Kane’s last hour or so in town as slowly but surely, the cowardly residents he had spent his life protecting begin to turn their back on him. Whether it’s his top deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a smooth-tongued politician, a gung-ho glory hound who chickens when he realizes it would be just him and Kane, or any of the other men in town who are too afraid to put up a fight, it quickly becomes apparent that it will just be Kane versus Frank Miller and his men. As the clock rushes down to high noon, will Kane turn tell and run like everyone in town (including his wife) begs him or will he stay and fight (and most likely die) to be the hero this town doesn’t even deserve.

It’s really hard to even begin discussing the technical brilliance of this movie. At a time when black and white was just starting to lose its hold over mainstream cinema, High Noon remains one of the most gorgeously shot films in history. Every shadow and play of light was intentionally staged for ultimate dramatic effect. Whether we’re speaking about gritty close-ups of the bad guys at the train station or the long aerial shots of Gary Cooper striding alone through town, each shot was set up to perfection. The film’s editing was a marvel and at a mere hour and a half running time, High Noon remains one of the best Hollywood examples of delivering an intellectually and emotionally satisfying story in an efficient length. With plenty of great dramatic cuts back and forth between people and locations in this small town, the camera never stayed stationary for too long, and while this is certainly not the most fast-paced Western ever made (it’s arguably one of the slowest), people who appreciate the ins and outs of movie making can get lost in the craftsmanship on display here while still appreciating one of the most impressively psychological and suspenseful Westerns ever made.

Gary Cooper won the second Oscar of his illustrious career for this movie (the other was Sergeant York), and it’s very easy to see why. Will Kane may not necessarily be the most complex part for an actor. He’s an almost archetypical heroic Western lawman. As far as one can surmise from the movie (having not read the short story the film is based on), he was virtually without flaws. So, it says something about Cooper’s performance that such a flat character as Will Kane can be so emotionally engaging. Like a hero out of an ancient Greek morality play, Will is this force for good in a town where no one else is willing to do what’s right. Gary Cooper seems to embody the classic leading man virtues and heroic strengths while at the same time letting us see into those moments when Will is starting to doubt if this road is the right one. And as it begins to dawn on Will that no one else in this town is going to support him, Kane’s heartbreak and frustration is etched on every single line of Gary Cooper’s face. Gary Cooper’s performance in this film is perhaps the prime example of great acting transforming an otherwise average character.

Unlike most Westerns out there, High Noon avoids the normal conventions of cowboys versus indians, man against nature, or even the genre staple of regular action sequences. The film does end with one of the most satisfying shoot-outs in the genre, but the ending works because you spent the rest of the movie waiting for all hell to break loose. When the criminals finally come striding into town, you care more about what happens to Will Kane (and the inevitable fates of his foes) because you saw every desperate second of the build-up to this fight. There is only one action sequence in the movie (unless you count a fist fight between Will and Harvey), and that is okay because the film has made it such a sweet payoff. After watching this whole town turn its back on Will and yet he manages to bear this burden even when he could have easily skipped town and no one would have blamed him, there is a catharsis that one bland gunfight after another would never have been able to provide. The film has a very deliberate ethical and moral message that it wants to make, and while I usually find such moralizing in “classic” films stale and boring, the film wisely lets you understand why the men of the town wouldn’t want to go on the same suicide mission that Will has chosen to undertake and therefore it manages to not come off as too preachy.

For fans of Westerns, this is one of the seminal entries in the genre (along with others such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, andThe Searchers), and if you’ve managed not to see this classic deserving of the name, you need to make it a top priority. Even for non-fans of the Western genre, this film does away with so much of the bloated action, excess that bogs so many of those films down (and that results in them being guilty pleasures of mine rather than films I can celebrate enjoying) that you, too may find something to appreciate in this brilliant work of popular fiction. The fact that this film lost to The Greatest Show on Earth (the worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars) for Best Picture remains one of the greatest crimes of the Academy Awards. As a Western fan, this is one of the movies that reminds me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place and there aren’t many movies in this realm of cinema that can come close to topping its delights.

Final Score: A

Trying to make a war film that is neither jingoistic propaganda or patent exploitation of historical tragedy is a very fine balancing act. During Hollywood’s history, there have been far, far too many movies about military conflict that are just clear-cut propaganda supporting the conflict that don’t even begin to look at the actual details of what brought us to this war in the first place or to place you inside the mindsets of the men fighting the war. They are just made to glorify battle and to satisfy the public that our men aren’t dying for no reason. This hasn’t been as common post-Vietnam (when war films became increasingly anti-war), but before that, it’s hard to find a single war movie that wasn’t meant to glorify battle. The second problem (exploiting historical maladies to make a film for entertainment) is the more common modern issue. Unless you are opening your audience’s eyes to something many people didn’t even know existed or you’re creating a genuinely original artifact or thematic statement, why rehash ideas that have grown completely old and stale. You’re simply making money off of other’s people past suffering, and where is the art in that?

1962’s The Longest Day doesn’t actually suffer from either of those problems (though it encounters others). This three hour long epic look at the D-Day invasion (whether this is the sea landing at Normandy or the parachutists landing behind enemy lines) tries to paint the complete picture of that day through stories told through the eyes of the Americans, the French, the British, and every surprisingly sympathetic Germans. So, there’s certainly a certain air of patriotism to the film and a focus on some of the heroism of not just our soldiers but of every nation fighting in the battle, but the film never tries to beat you over the head with a jingoistic pro-America message. Similarly, although the film came out 20 years after World War II, it’s safe to say that it’s detailed and specific approach to capturing the historical reality of what was happening in a scale that no one had tried to capture before means it wasn’t exploiting that horrific day. American audiences deserved to know what happened and film is our most universal storytelling format. It hadn’t been done to death yet. However, as I said, despite avoiding those two pitfalls of military storytelling, The Longest Day fails to live up to the standards set by modern military films like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers which covered similar ground in a much more effective manner.

To the film’s credit, it has one of the most impressive and star-studded casts in the history of cinema. To wit, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and I’m sure there were other big names that I missed when I watched the ending credits. This would be like if a movie had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood all in one place today. It would never happen. No movie could afford that kind of budget for actors, but back then, epics in the vein of Cecil B. Demille were a little more common and thus this fantastic pairing was allowed to occur. It’s a shame that none of their characters have any memorable traits and that I literally don’t know the name of a single person in this film besides historical figures like Omar Bradley and Eisenhower. Everyone else is so one-dimensional and forgettable that I never took the time to remember who was who, why they were killing the specific Nazis they were fighting, or one single characteristic of their role other than things I associate with all of their parts (John Wayne is a bad-ass, Henry Fonda is dashing, etc).

As a history lesson, the movie is a success. As a movie with real artistic value, it’s pretty distinct failure. History buffs will assuredly delight in all of the locations that are named, all of the historical and (I’m assuming) accurately re-enacted battles. Real generals and lieutenants and other soldiers from the battle are named and ranked and we see how they lived or died (or both). There are lots of interesting tidbits about what was happening on the German side of the equation that led to us being able to pull this massive gambit off (mainly we caught them with their pants down and they made several strategic mistakes). Unless you’ve already went out and learned as much as you can about Project Overlord (I think that was the code name for the Normandy Invasion and what came after), you are guaranteed to learn something new about World War II from The Longest Day. However, if I want to watch a documentary about WW II, I’ll find something that Ken Burns made (I think his WWII documentary was called The War). I want to watch a film and create emotional connections with the action unfolding on screen, and in that regard, The Longest Day was colder than my NYC apartment without the heat on (which is to say what’s happening right now. I’m freezing my ass off).

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the gritty and graphic realism of Saving Private Ryan, but The Longest Day was just a little too soft. I understand that by the film code of the day, they couldn’t make it as violent and real as Saving Private Ryan, but if I judge the film by modern standards, you can’t make a serious war film that is rated G (which this movie is). I felt as if I was watching some History channel re-enactment and I never once connected with the action on screen other than bemoaning the sad sacrifices that this world had to go through to take down fascism. Maybe I should judge the film as a product of it’s times (where it would probably have seemed much more groundbreaking), but it is almost laughably simple by today’s standards. There were exactly two moments in the film of real emotional impact (one was a man hanging helplessly from his parachute caught on a building as he watched all of his friends be massacred and the other was the second to last scene of the movie where two men simply talk about the apocalyptic violence of the day) and that was it. So, for all history and military buffs, you may enjoy this more than I did, but for everyone who wants a little life in their films, you can steer clear.

Final Score: C+

One of the first things I was forced to learn as a film critic was that I had to distance the quality of any single performance in a movie from the over all quality of the film. A show-stopping Daniel Day Lewis caliber role has to be seen as only one of many parts in the total value of a picture. David Lynch’s direction in Inland Empire was inspiring and Laura Dern inhabited her character in terrifying ways, but there’s almost no denying that the script itself was fairly outrageous and practically impossible to follow (though that was also Lynch’s intention). Take away Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness and you are left with a terribly conventional Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson’s incendiary comic (and eventually for MacLaine, heart-wrenchingly dramatic) performances saved Terms of Endearment from being complete and utter melodramatic drivel. I recently finished the 1956 film, The Court Jester, and while Danny Kaye’s comedic and musical chops are unquestionable, the actual  film faltered on a basic inability to decide what kind of film it wished to be and delivered the promised laughs far too rarely.

A spoof of Errol Flynn swashbuckling hero films (most specifically Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), the movie spins the tale of a fictional king in medieval England and the band of outlaws trying to restore justice. King Roderick (Cecil Parker) usurped the throne from the true heir, an infant with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his behind. Ferried away from the castle by loyalists to the true royal family, the heir is now in the protection of an outlaw band led by the Robin Hood stand-in, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley). Employed by the outlaws as both the heir’s nanny as well as entertainment for the band, Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a bumbling carnival performer who quickly finds himself swept up in the final plot to dethrone the pretender King Roderick. Along with the help of the beautiful but deadly Maid Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s chief lieutenant, Hawkins infiltrates the castle posing as the new Court Jester, Giacomo the Incomparable, and gets caught up in assassination conspiracies, the hypnotic schemings of a witch, and more medieval action scenarios than you can shake a stick at.

Danny Kaye is possibly the very definition of comic energy. Able to quickly morph from a riveting musical number with a troupe of dwarves to Gilbert & Sullivan style tongue twisters to a variety of distinct characters all with their own unique humor and identity to a pitch perfect parody of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks heroes of old, he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a beautiful voice and a natural charisma and humor, Danny Kaye was the film’s distinct (though not necessarily sole) saving grace. Basil Rathbone was deliciously villainous as the duplicitous Sir Ravenhurst, and his fencing scenes with Danny Kaye towards the film’s climax were among the only highlights of the action oriented moments of the film. Glynis Johns (who I instantly recognized as the mother from Mary Poppins) was a surprisingly tough and action oriented heroine for a movie from the 1950’s, and it was a refreshing sight from an age where most female characters were more akin to Angela Lansbury’s (Beauty and the Beast) Princess Gwendolyn.

The film’s Achilles heel however is its basic inability to determine what tone and style it wants to project. At one moment, it’s a children’s musical with Danny Kaye periodically breaking out into song even when it isn’t necessarily appropriate to the story. The next scene it could be a nearly perfect satire of the swashbuckler subgenre. Later, it will want to be a more wordplay and rapid-fire pun style of comedy. Then to top it all off, there are moments where it just wants to be the kind of movies it’s nominally parodying without actually attempting any humor. The writing for the film wasn’t nearly sharp enough to afford them this lack of focus, and I found myself going vast periods of time without laughing at a single gag (when the film took the effort to even make any). Similarly, the ending seems to drag towards eternity, at least until its riotous final moments. While not every comedy needs to be chock full of laugh out loud moments (Sideways or The Savages show that a comedy can be extremely dramatic), when the drama is as uninteresting and stale as what’s presented in The Court Jester, the lack of laughs is potentially unforgivable.

For movie fans who yearn for a more innocent day and simpler storytelling, you may find more mileage from this cult classic than myself, but for everyone else, it may seem to quaint and antiquated to remain truly entertaining 55 years later. It certainly had its moments; the “vessel with the pestle” scene as well as the first musical number involving the dwarves were quite original and energetic, but mostly the film teased you with a potential for hysterical parody of the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear but chose intsead to simply make a less entertaining version of those very films. Danny Kaye deserves every bit of praise that has been lavished on him over the years, but even he is unable to save this film from its weakest elements.

Final Score: B-

During one of my earlier posts, I pondered on the reasons for why I was able to enjoy comedies from all eras but I couldn’t find myself appreciating dramas from before 1960 (with some exceptions here and there obviously). I decided that the basic reason was comedy is essentially timeless. Barring heavily era-centric referential humor, funny is funny no matter what time period you’re from. With dramas however, things that may seem poignant and fresh for their time really don’t age well and they seem hopelessly naive and idealistic sometimes as short as ten to twenty years down the road. Hence, there’s a reason why, on the whole, comedies have a much better median score on this site than dramas. Less of them get the elusive score of “A” or “A+” (only one comedy thus far has received an A+, The Big Lebowski), but with the exception of the train-wreck that was Gentlemen Broncos, they are also less likely to get terribly low scores. I bring all of this up because I just finished a so-called “classic” comedy, 1947’s Road to Rio, and I feel that it aged terribly. What may have worked for audiences back in the 1940’s instead delivers a film for modern audiences that seemed terribly slow and unclever and survived on the angelic voice of Bing Crosby alone.

In Road to Rio, the fifth of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road to… films, Crosby plays Scat Sweeney to Hope’s Hot Lips Barton (I was forgiven for picturing Loretta Swit every time someone said his name), a pair of vaudeville performers and musicians who flee onto a steam liner headed for Rio de Janeiro after they accidentally burn down the circus at which they were performing. Perpetually penniless (because of Scat’s inability to turn down a beautiful woman), the two board the ship as stow-aways. They quickly meet the beautiful Lucia (Dorothy Lamour) who is about to commit suicide because he evil aunt is forcing her to marry against her will. Scat is quickly smitten with Lucia, and the two hit it off soon after Scat saves her life. However, we soon learn that Lucia’s aunt is capable of using hypnotism to control Lucia’s actions. This leads to a series of screwball adventures in which Scat and Hot Lips have to hide from the ship’s crew and even get the hypnotism turned on themselves.

I could probably count on one hand the number of times this film made me laugh out loud (and it wouldn’t require the rest of my other digits to count the light chuckles). Despite the fact that he was probably the least valuable member of the team, almost all of the big laughs came from Bob Hope whose delivery was so deadpan it often took me a second or two to realize he had even made a joke in the first place, and his slapstick chemistry with Crosby was fantastic. However, the real star of the show (just like in Going My Way) was Crosby. He has an absolutely gorgeous singing voice, and it’s put to full use in several different musical numbers here though perhaps the best were his duet with the Andrews Sisters and the first time that he sings to Lucia. I don’t actually know the names of these songs or whether they were original numbers or standards (and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the film is 54 years old). He was also able to elicit a laugh or two and that relates to the fact that his comedic style was even dryer than Hope’s.

I’m going to keep this review short because I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the film. At only a little over an hour and a half, this film seemed to drag to eternity and that’s pretty unforgivable for such a short running time. While there was certainly a fantastic comedic chemistry between Hope and Crosby, that unfortunately didn’t result in the film actually being all that funny. When it finally was funny, it just served to remind you of how boring the rest of the film was. Outside of hardcore movie buffs who understand the historic value that this film has or for those of you who are big fans of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, I simply can’t find it in me to recommend this movie.

Final Score: C+

 

Well, after one month and one day of no movie reviews, I am happy to say that movies have returned to a blog where movies were originally the only thing I even reviewed. After reviewing Lawrence of Arabia on August 17th, a combination of school and my new job have conspired to keep me from reaching the same levels of blogging productivity that I was reaching during the  summer (for obvious reasons). I actually watched a movie in my Film Studies class about a week ago but for stupid reasons, I chose not to review it (but I’m going to write that review as soon as I finish this one). Anyways, I’m tired of having paid for an entire month’s worth of Netflix without actually using the things they sent me so I’m back to watching movies. Last night, I was home in Philippi for the evening with my family and I watched a film considered to be a classic of 1960’s comedy, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming which I found to be a rather trite and forced political satire that only elicited the slightest of chuckles throughout the entire production.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a political comedy from Norman Jewison, the same creative mind behind the far superior In the Heat of the Night. In the film, a Russian submarine led by a captain (whose name I never caught) played by an extremely young Alan Arkin (Oscar winner for Little Miss Sunshine) is grounded off the coast of a small New England island. The Russians are very concerned about getting back in the ocean undetected because they know that their presence on American soil could potentially spark World War III. They attempt to contact in cognito (although their disguise is paper thin) a household in a remote part of the island led by patriach Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) in order to procure a boat to pull the submarine off the sandbar. Before long, their plans to disguise themselves fall completely apart and one blunder after another has the entire island believing that there is a full-fledged Russian invasion of the island far removed from the reality of a couple stranded sailors.

The film is basically the anti-Dr. Strangelove. Where Dr. Strangelove was Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic and satirical look at the Red Scare and mutually assured destruction where neither side came out looking good, The Russians Are Coming is what happens when you try to make a feel-good, everybody gets a happy ending satire out of material that begs for darker interpretation. While I’m sure the overall message of the film which is that Russians are just as much human and fallible as us Americans was radical and revolutionary when the film was first released during the height of the Cold War, it just falls completely flat today. This just goes to prove my opinion that films with political messages often age incredibly poorly for future audiences. That’s the inherent danger of making a “topical” film. Your outlook might end up seemingly naively antiquated in 50 years. Also, the film just wasn’t very funny. Certain moments had me chuckling (especially when Alan Arkin tried to pretend to be American) but mostly the laughs were few and far between.

I wish I had chosen a better film to restart the movie review process for this blog, but unfortunately, I got The Russians Are Coming. The film isn’t totally without value, but it’s so far removed from the age and era of its creation that it has aged beyond repair to the world of campy cheesiness. If you liked Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, it would be worth checking him out in this role in which he was nominated for an Oscar, but don’t expect it be nearly as funny as that all-time classic. I watched this with my father and neither of us enjoyed it very much so I’m not sure that I can honestly recommend it to anyone. Here’s a Best Picture nominee that I can easily tell you to steer clear from.

Final Score: C