Thursday, September 30, 2010
The lights came up, and the movie was over. I was sure I had seen something extraordinary—maybe even a masterpiece. I looked around and saw no audience members who shared my enthusiasm. Everybody seemed relieved to finally be exiting the theater. I turned to my sister and my father, who had both fallen asleep and were just now waking up. “Adam”, my father grumbled, “That was a snoozer.”
I was fourteen years old, and I was certain that Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was a great film. Surely it was going to make my top ten list of the best films of the year. But by the end of 2005, Kingdom of Heaven had only just barely made my year-end list: I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t quite the perfect achievement I had claimed it to be in those opening weeks of May. Being so young at the time, I couldn’t quite place what the film was lacking, but there was something seriously wrong with it. Something was… missing.
It is past instances like this that make me thankful to know that Ridley Scott is a filmmaker who still believes in director’s cuts. When I acquired the Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut Box Set the next year, I could hardly believe my own joy. Everything that was previously wrong with the film was made right. The plot holes had been filled in. The characters were richer. The screenplay was stronger. Here, at last, was the masterpiece I sensed was buried under all that invasive fire and brimstone: not since Blade Runner had Scott made a film this great. And not since D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1917) had a Hollywood epic so powerfully stressed a message of tolerance between the free nations of the world.
Kingdom of Heaven is anchored by a first-rate screenplay by William Monahan, who later won an Oscar for his screenplay for Scorsese’s The Departed but has yet to equal the insightful triumphs of his Kingdom of Heaven script. He was selected for the job after Scott attempted to get one of Monahan’s older scripts—a Napoleon biopic—off the ground; when that project fell through, Scott, knowing Monahan’s expansive knowledge of European history, brought him onboard to write a script about Scott’s favorite subject: the Crusades. The result was one of the most historically proficient screenplays ever written for a major Hollywood film, resulting in a movie that was just about everything else as well: well-directed, well-acted, well-looking, well-sounding. Scott and Monahan would reteam again in 2008 for the spy thriller Body of Lies—a lesser artistic success. Lightning, it seems, rarely ever strikes twice.
The film’s hero is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith and a man of discipline. Over the doorway of his tool shed reads the slogan, "What man is a man who does not make the world better?" He has just been released from an insane asylum, still recovering from the suicide of his young wife in the wake of their newborn son’s stillborn death. His half-brother (Michael Sheen), a priest, is a ruthless schemer who presides over the wife’s burial, but not before stealing her cross necklace and condemning her body: “She was a suicide,” he reminds the gravediggers. “Cut off her head.” Balian, furious, plunges a hot blade into his brother and throws him onto a burning furnace. A once-innocent blacksmith who has lost his faith, Balian has let his emotions get the better of him and has become, in the process, a murderer.
For the rest of the film, Balian will be trying to atone for this horrific crime. The first man who ushers him into the quest to redeem himself of his sins is Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a baron of the isolated property of Ibelin who may, in fact, be Balian’s long-lost father. Balian wants desperately to cleanse himself of his sins and the sins of his deceased wife, and Godfrey has a solution: journey to Jerusalem, the holy land, and serve the king. “What could a king ask of a man like me?” a frightened Balian asks. “A better world than has ever been seen,” Godfrey responds. “A kingdom of conscience. A kingdom of heaven… where there is peace between Christian and Muslim.” On the night of his death, an ailing Godfrey swears Balian to the oath he will abide by in Jerusalem: “Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless, and do no wrong. That is your oath.” He even slaps Balian hard across the face so that he will remember it.
Does Balian deserve such good fortune? No one can deny that he has a strong heart—but nagging away at our thoughts throughout the film is the fact that this man murdered his brother in cold blood. When local knights, led by Godfrey’s own nephew, come to arrest Balian for his crime, Godfrey protects his son, even with the knowledge that he is a criminal and that the knights have every right to capture or kill him. The sequence that follows is the film’s goriest battle scene, in which one man has his cranium split in two and another man is able to keep on fighting with an arrow lodged straight into his throat. Balian expresses guilt over being a fugitive, but, as Godfrey helpfully reminds him, “it was not that they had no right to take you—it was the way they asked.” Indeed, the knights who come to arrest Balian commit an injustice of their own simply by the means in which they invade Godfrey’s encampment in the woods; the first man they kill is a knight whose only crime was picking up a flower. But Godfrey’s chastising of the arresting knights for “the way they asked” could probably serve as a metaphor for the two warring sides in the battle for Jerusalem. It’s not that neither the Christians nor the Muslims have any right over the holy city; it’s the way they go about making their claims.
That’s really what Scott’s film is examining as the heart of the problem in the contemporary Christian/Islam conflict: extremism. Every prejudiced Christian and Muslim in Kingdom of Heaven tries to make excuses by insisting that "God wills it." And were it not for power whores like Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and genocidal maniacs like Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), the Christians who are ruling Jerusalem by the time of Balian’s arrival would have better relations with their Saracen enemies. The leper king Baldwin (Edward Norton) wants peace desperately, as does his chief aide Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), but both men are outspoken in their pacifist beliefs. They see in Balian a young leader with the potential to keep on leading their cause; and Balian’s atheism makes his tolerance of the two sparring religions all the more easier. In a conversation over a game of chess, King Baldwin explains to Balian his own rhetoric of tolerance: “When you stand before God, you cannot say, ‘But I was told by others to do thus,’ or that virtue was not convenient at the time… this will not suffice. Remember that.” Balian takes this to heart.
But just how pacifist can one be during the Crusades? Notice that after he kills his brother, Balian starts to hold a disdainful view of capital punishment, even when those around him continue to practice it. Upon surviving a shipwreck on the overseas journey to Jerusalem (in some kind of bizarre cosmic joke, he is the only survivor of the shipwreck), Balian encounters conflict with two vicious Saracen bandits in the desert. He kills one of them in self-defense, but spares Nesir (Alexander Siddig) because he does not fight back; they meet again a couple more times in the film, and when the Saracens win a victory, Nesir returns the favor and has Balian spared. Balian encounters another capital punishment dilemma in the Jerusalem city square, where racist Knights Templars are hanged from the gallows; although Balian does not sympathize with them, he frowns at the way they are being punished: “So, they are dying… for what the pope would command them to do?” As Balian quickly figures out, there is a big problem with refusing to endorse capital punishment: it may be a dishonorable form of justice, but it does dispense of pesky enemies much faster in a period as slow and barbaric as the Crusades.
After all, certainly Godfrey was not above capital punishment; in the aftermath of the gory battle in the woods, Godfrey’s knights strike one of their prisoners in the back of the head with a hook. Nor, for that matter, is Saladin (an incredible Ghassan Massoud), who gets his revenge on Reynald of Chatillon first by slitting his throat, and then (in the director’s cut) by cutting his head off. Even King Baldwin and Tiberias are prepared to execute their enemies if necessary. They despise Guy de Lusignan’s right-wing military so much they begin seriously considering taking right-wing action against Guy himself: they offer Balian the chance to replace Guy as commander-in-chief and marry his beautiful wife Sibylla (Eva Green), whom Balian is already having an affair with (to Guy’s knowledge, although Guy isn’t exactly offended—he gets to ravage his maidens every night and couldn’t care less about his wife). But when Tiberias reveals that, as a consequence of Balian’s military promotion, Guy will be executed—along with any knights who do not swear allegiance to Balian’s rule—Balian shakes his head. “I cannot be the cause of that,” he says. Even despite the fact that Guy himself would probably kill Balian if he had the chance, and even despite Sibylla’s own angry declaration that Balian will someday “wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good,” Balian is repulsed by the idea of having his enemies executed: not only is it dishonorable, but it would also spoil his own mission to be forgiven of his sins.
Most people who have criticisms of the film find a similar complaint with both cuts: the casting of Orlando Bloom. Myself, I still believe that this is Bloom’s best performance to date. I admit that I’ve been fond of him ever since my childhood, upon seeing his early work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and in Scott’s own Black Hawk Down (he played the soldier who falls 40 feet from a helicopter just before entering combat). But after that, Bloom entered a brief mid-career limbo and delivered awful performances in Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean flicks and, particularly, in Wolfgang Petersen’s abysmal Troy: after those films, I was ready to write Bloom off as a has-been. In my opinion, Kingdom of Heaven resurrected Bloom’s talent as an actor. I can even go so far as to compare his performance to Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago. Like Sharif, Bloom spends more time in Kingdom of Heaven observing than he does emoting: as a result, his performance, although not Academy Award material, leaves a highly visual impression. The performance relies on Bloom’s ability to look upon the events that unfold in the film and react appropriately to them. Thus, of all the faces we remember from the film (excepting King Baldwin’s silver mask), we remember his the most.
The success of Eva Green’s performance depends entirely on which cut of the film you’re watching. The Sibylla character is little more than a thankless romantic female lead in the original cut, but it’s in the director’s cut where Green’s portrayal of the character truly begins to shine: Scott reveals, in a crucially important subplot (why, oh why, was it deleted from the theatrical cut?), that Sibylla has a young son from a previous marriage. This boy is to be successor to the throne; but after Baldwin dies and the boy is crowned king, it is discovered that he shares his uncle’s leprosy disease. In the film’s saddest scene, a melancholy Sibylla lullabies her son to sleep and then poisons him, thus ridding the city of its new king and, inadvertently, having the corrupt Guy installed in his place. This was the first film I ever saw Eva Green in, before seeing her in the film she made prior to it (Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) and the film she made after it (Casino Royale); but upon seeing her in Kingdom of Heaven, I knew right away that she would be an actress to keep an eye on.
The rest of the supporting cast is just as invaluable. I remember Martin Csokas as the elf Celeborn in Lord of the Rings, and I vaguely recall him as the head villain in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, but this was the first time I had really noticed him. Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Reynald of Chatillon is a continuation of his admirable track record as a character actor: he is both menacing and humorous, as in a scene where he is locked up in jail and climbs up his cell door, obnoxiously roaring out his own name to an apathetic guard. Liam Neeson makes for the perfect father figure for Bloom’s Balian, and one hopes that Neeson will continue to collaborate with Scott on future projects. In his portrayal of the faceless King Baldwin, Edward Norton seems to be attempting a Brando-esque dialect with his voice—a technique I noted in my amateur review during the film’s initial release. Ghassan Massoud and Alexander Siddig have such immense screen presence as the Saracens that I hope to keep seeing them in more films to come.
More great supporting performances. Jeremy Irons, as he is in every other one of his films, is a scene-stealer; as Tiberias, he accurately reflects the conflicting beliefs of a democratic leader who cannot lead in a city where Christendom is both at war with Islam and at war with itself. “God be with you,” he wishes to Balian before heading off for Cyprus and leaving Balian to defend the holy city alone. “He’s no longer with me.” Jon Finch, whom you may remember as an English actor from the 1970’s who starred in Hitchcock’s Frenzy and in the title role of Polanski’s Macbeth, has a brief role as a conservative bishop who shares Guy and Reynald’s hatred of the Saracens, and cries “blasphemy!” when Balian claims that Jerusalem is a city for all races and all religions. And David Thewlis mysteriously comes and goes throughout the movie as Hospitaler, one of Godfrey's knights and one of Balian's mentors; there is a fleeting moment when, during the battle sequence in the woods, he taps Balian on the head with his sword, officially "knighting" him, so to speak. I love, too, the way he exits the picture, as he parts ways with Balian before riding out to certain death: "All death is certain. I shall tell your father what I've seen you become."
Jerusalem itself is a wonder to behold in the film: as built by production designer Arthur Max, it’s a piece of work to take your breath away; and when Balian delivers his speech from atop the city in which he orates, “Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!” Max’s sets make up a flooring background for both the speech and for the climatic battle sequence finale that follows. Coupled with Harry-Gregson Williams’ poetic, aggressive musical score, and John Mathieson’s bright cinematography—which turns icy blue in the opening winter scenes and blazingly golden in the final battle scenes—Scott’s film is a towering demonstration of great technical elements all coming together to form a beautiful battle epic with a soul of its own.
Most final battle sequences in epic films have no other purpose than to serve as an explosive finish, but is the final battle sequence of Kingdom of Heaven necessary? You bet. Though Balian dislikes endless violence, he realizes that he and the rest of those in Jerusalem have no choice but to fight back against Saladin and his invading Saracens: can they risk a possible massacre? Knowing the atrocities that have been committed against the Saracens in the past, there is no reason why Saladin shouldn’t retaliate against the remaining Christians in the city in exactly the same way—especially since Saladin has reactionary extremists on his own side who egg him on his promise to return the holy city. Therefore, Balian argues that the final battle will not be one for Christendom, but simply for those innocents who will otherwise not survive Saladin’s forces: “We defend this city not to protect these stones, but the people within these walls.”
Yet after the lengthy battle, which involves catapulted balls of fire, toppled towers, burning corpses and breached walls, just when it seems that the Saracens are not only going to win, but are going to slaughter each of the remaining Christians one by one, Balian walks out to Saladin to negotiate terms—which really did happen in the true event. We discover that Saladin is not such an evil man after all: he’ll allow Balian, his knights and the Christian people to leave the city first before the Saracens take over and Jerusalem becomes a Muslim city (and, honestly, why shouldn’t it be?). The agreement between Balian and Saladin ends on a note of mutual understanding, when Balian asks what, really, the city is worth. Saladin’s response: “Nothing. Everything.” There may be no better way of putting it. And when Balian returns home, Richard the Lionhearted (Iain Glen), is riding through town on his way to recover Jerusalem for the Christians. He asks him where he can find Balian the blacksmith, but Balian refuses to give away his identity. He doesn’t want to keep going on killing Muslims. His part in the senseless battle for Jerusalem is done.
How are cinephiles supposed to look back and judge Ridley Scott’s career output in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Scott is a great filmmaker, but the films he churned out in the last ten years were a decidedly mixed bag. Black Hawk Down is the only film, I think, that actually approached the greatness of Kingdom of Heaven, but even that film was bogged down by the limits of Jerry Bruckheimer’s whorishly controlling grip on Scott’s range. Gladiator remains an entertaining film in my eyes, but that the film won Best Picture and not Best Director at the Academy Awards makes me not so much regretful for Scott’s loss as much as it makes me embarrassed that he suffered so much needless awards show fuss over a film that, in my opinion, was not deserving of it. I feel the same way about American Gangster. A Good Year and Body of Lies were both noble but unsatisfying misfires, and I found the recent Robin Hood to be so wretched that I’m almost beginning to wonder if Scott has lost faith in cinema as art (I have yet to see Matchstick Men). In Kingdom of Heaven remains Scott’s artistic integrity. With time, it might even replace Alien and Blade Runner as the single greatest film of his uneven career.
There is a key scene towards the end of Kingdom of Heaven that was not present in the original cut. It is Balian’s last encounter with Guy de Lusignan, who has been publicly embarrassed by the Saracens riding a donkey nude, and has no future left on Jerusalem’s throne. Burning with anger over his loss of power, he threatens Balian one last time, but Balian is quicker in his sword movements and quickly knocks Guy down on his knees. Once again, Balian has the chance to eliminate his adversary dishonorably. He could have executed Guy a long time ago, and he could easily execute him now. But Ridley Scott’s film is a film about tolerance, and Balian is a tolerant man determined to atone for his sins--a man who understands that a man who does not make the world a better place is not a man. Guy de Lusignan, of course, is a pathetic man. But that does not stop Balian from giving him another chance. He will give to this man the chance he never gave to his priest brother, and will continue on giving chances such as these to his adversaries for the rest of his life. “When you rise again, if you rise,” he says to Guy, “rise a knight.”
(This piece is a contribution to Ratnakar Sandasyula's Ridley Scott Blogathon)
Sunday, September 12, 2010
When they were kids growing up in Toronto in 1954, Elliot and Beverly Mantle were already curious enough to want to know more about human sexuality and the female anatomy. “I’ve discovered why sex is,” Elliot tells his younger brother, walking down the streets in their neighborhood one afternoon. “It’s because humans don’t live underwater… fish don’t need sex because they just lay the eggs and fertilize them in the water. Humans can’t do that—because they don’t live in the water. They have to… internalize the water. Therefore, we have sex.”
Beverly is confused. “So," he asks, "you mean, humans wouldn’t have sex if they lived in the water?” Elliot clarifies that “they’d have a kind of sex, but the kind where you wouldn’t have to touch each other.” To Beverly, the shyer of the two brothers, this sounds perfectly agreeable. “I like that idea,” he says.
Elliot and Beverly are twins. Their story, as told in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland), is a romanticized account of the true story of Cyril and Stewart Marcus, two twin gynecologists who committed suicide in their apartment together in 1975. In Cronenberg’s film, Elliot and Beverly are seen as successful gynecologists who start out their medical careers, as played by real-life twins Jonathan and Nicholas Haley, performing intraovular surgery on a doll at the age of 9; at Cambridge more than a decade later, they are each played by Jeremy Irons as brothers who have achieved fame around the campus for their invention of an instrument known as the Mantle Retractor. Two decades later, back in Toronto, they have their own thriving medical practice. By the end of the film, they will be dead.
“It will be a departure in the sense that it will be perceived as a so-called realistic drama—whereas my other films have tended to be categorized as horror or science fiction,” Cronenberg told interviewers of the film in 1988. “And I think that’s valuable because it would be a mistake for people to think of this film as a horror film; it just simply isn’t.” Irons, who later went on to win an Academy Award for his performance in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune (1990)—and even thanked Cronenberg in his acceptance speech—acknowledges the film as helping make his newfound success in Hollywood possible. “It’s very hard for an actor to find that sort of opportunity in his career,” he says on the DVD commentary. “I look back at it and think, ‘Those opportunities don’t come very often.’”
Because nobody in reality knows what drove the real Marcus twins to suicide, Cronenberg’s Mantle twins are kept at a safe distance from the audience. Their tragedy is left open for discussion. What happened to them? It’s worth revisiting Dead Ringers with multiple viewings even if it isn’t very easy to pinpoint the areas at which the lives of Beverly and, later, Elliot, begin unraveling. Cronenberg offers one possibility in the introduction of one of their recent patients, the movie star Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold). Beverly has diagnosed her as a “trifurcate” after discovering that she has three doorways (cervixes) in her uterus, which—according to the Mantles—is an indication that she is never going to have children. She has already slept with Elliot, and when she returns to the clinic she is impressed by Beverly’s lectures about how “I’ve often thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies.” She is not aware that Elliot and Beverly are two different people.
For awhile, though, we may be just as confused about the differences between Elliot and Beverly as Claire is. Are they two different people? Could they be the same person? “I think there’s something wrong with you,” Claire tells Beverly. “I don’t know what it is—I can’t put a label on it—but you’re subtlety, I don’t know… schizophrenic, or something.” And unless one is already familiar with the true story that inspired Dead Ringers, one could easily suspect that Cronenberg might be up to mischief; is he making an “evil twin movie” here and pulling a fast one on us the same way Robert Mulligan did with his chilling cult classic The Other (1972)? Not at all, and when Claire finally gets to see Elliot and Beverly sitting together at lunch, she realizes that she has gone to bed with both of them. “This is the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” she sputters, tossing a glass of water in Beverly’s face. After she storms out, we get a good grasp of the discernible difference between the two brothers—when we notice that Elliot is laughing, and Beverly is in tears.
No wonder Beverly is the one with a woman’s name. Elliot, the ladies’ man, has usually been able to get girlfriends for his brother by sleeping with them first, and then giving Beverly the sloppy seconds. That’s fine with Beverly, who is not like Elliot and doesn’t have the will to call vixens like Mimsy and Coral (Jill and Jacqueline Hennessy) of the Escort Embassy over to the apartment; although when Beverly gives a drunken speech during a rewards ceremony about how “I do everything for those bimbos except take them home and stick it in them!” it is clear that there is a kind of unspoken professional jealously between the twins. Still, they’re very close. “My brother and I have always shared everything,” Beverly tries to explain to Claire. “I’m not a thing,” she responds. He tries to sugarcoat the situation, “I mean, people… experiences. It’s never bothered me before now.”
It becomes apparent that Beverly’s complicated relationship with Claire starts weighing heavily on his health, beginning with his and Claire’s addiction to vials of Butazamine (“She’s heard that it makes sex come on like Nagasaki,” says Elliot of the drug), and then by Elliot’s announcement that he’s been offered an associate professorship and, worse, Claire’s own announcement that she must leave for ten weeks to shoot another film. From then on, Beverly starts going insane. He has begun to have delusions that Claire’s diagnosis as a trifurcate classifies her as an inhuman mutant, and it is not long before he has fears about his other patients as well. Is something happening to the Mantle’s patients? Could they all be mutants? He hires an artist named Wolleck (Stephen Lack) to arm him with a set of monstrous-looking surgical instruments to prepare himself for this phenomenon. When Elliot returns, he finds a distraught Beverly who cannot stop crying: about his love for Claire, about her possible infidelity, about the drugs, about the mutants, about everything.
Guiding the film along is Cronenberg’s endlessly imaginative visual direction. Accompanied by a lovely Howard Shore score, he begins the film with menacing illustrations of Greek figures and conjoined twins set amongst a red background. Red and blues are predominant especially in the surgery sequences, in which Cronenberg and his cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, capture the eerie menace of the Mantles' Darth Vader-like suits. More fascinating is Cronenberg’s ability to get both of the Mantle twins in the same shot whenever he can, using technology that was groundbreaking for its time to get Irons on one side of the frame, and then move him to the other side; the lighting and set design had to be equal with each take in order to ensure the effectiveness of this illusion. And even when he can’t get the two twins’ faces to be seen in the same frame, Cronenberg still manages to ensure breathtaking direction, as during a scene in which Elliot and Beverly both slow-dance with the redheaded Cary (Heidi von Palleske) to “In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember)”, sung on the soundtrack by the Five Satins as if nostalgically remembering a time when Elliot and Beverly were younger—before their romances with women so unfortunately complicated their lives.
“I’m only doing it to me, Elly,” Beverly says, after his most recent panic attack nearly kills a patient and costs him and Elliot their hospital privileges. “Don’t you have a will of your own?” Elliot replies by reminding his brother of the fable of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins who couldn’t live without each other, and then adds, “Does that answer your question?” Try as they might, the Mantles just cannot break off their connection with each other; to do so would be fatal. “The truth is, nobody can tell us apart,” Elliot confesses to Cary of his connection to his brother. “We are perceived as one person. If Bev goes down the tubes, I go with him… whatever’s in his bloodstream goes directly into mine.” But Elliot has been predicting his and his brother’s downfall for a very long time now. “You contribute… a confusing element to the Mantle brothers’ saga,” he informs Claire, before she leaves Beverly to go off to shoot her film. “Possibly a destructive one.” His prediction will prove to be correct, and in more ways that one.
The film’s final sequence moves me to sadness. Their careers over and their sanities long gone, Elliot and Beverly lock themselves up in their apartment. They’re celebrating their birthday… or is it? Now Elliot is the weaker brother: he’s trashed the whole place, he’s whining for ice cream to go with his cake and orange soda, he has taken a shower with his clothes on and he asks Beverly to perform a bloody incision on him—perhaps this will sever them from each other at last. Beverly does so, but with regret. “Why are you crying?” Elliot croaks. “Separation,” Beverly stutters, “can be… a terrifying thing.” Elliot manages a smile: “Don’t worry, baby brother. We’ll always be together.” And once the incision is performed and Elliot is killed, Beverly is left alone: to wander about; to call out Elliot’s name and receive no answer; to walk outside, call Claire and hang up without speaking; to go back inside and then perish on his dead brother’s lap. Even in death, Elliot and Beverly Mantle are locked up together in a terrible, inseparable union.
Submitted to Tony Dayoub's Cronenberg Blogathon.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
“The most offensive thing about [Straw Dogs] is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel. The perfect criticism of Straw Dogs has already been made. It is The Wild Bunch.”
-from Roger Ebert’s 1971 review of Straw Dogs
Those words of film criticism have stayed with me for a very long time. I’ve spent years and years trying to figure out where I stand on Hollywood violence: I’ve never been against pure cinematic violence as a whole, but even I cannot deny that I have some squeamishes of my own. And while I don’t agree with Roger Ebert’s overall assessment of Straw Dogs, I can certainly understand where he was coming from in his blistering review. For Ebert, it must have been truly bizarre at the time to see a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah, who had just fashioned an antiviolence masterpiece out of The Wild Bunch, to be following up on his artistic triumph with a film that was suddenly asking Peckinpah’s audiences to take a step back again and empathize with a protagonist who was using ferocious means of violence to defend his home. To me, that is precisely what made Straw Dogs such a powerful film; it was “a fascist work of art”, as Pauline Kael so eloquently dubbed it—but to Ebert, it was as though Peckinpah’s theories about violence had “regressed to a sort of 19th-Century mixture of Kipling and machismo.” It was no longer a pleasant time to feel good about blood and guts at the movies.
Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker whose love of violence in the cinema seems to know no bounds. On his fansite, he’s even made a list of his favorite killing scenes in some of the bloodiest films of recent years (including a scene from Jason X). Fans of Tarantino point out that it’s ridiculous to go to his films and expect lessons to be learned, morals to be taken into account or politics to be debated—he is a filmmaker who makes movies about movies, and for any cinephile, that should be quite enough.
Anybody who knows me well knows that I’ve struggled with Tarantino’s work. That I’ve long been unable to place the source of my reservations towards his style has bothered me year after year, but after about five years of resisting his latest output and attempting to come up with explanations, I think I’ve finally figured out why I've been struggling: Tarantino’s recent choice of genres has disabled me from being fully prepared for the tricks he’s had up his sleeve. I suppose I’ve always had affection for his first two films because they were scripted from genres and filmmaker influences I know for a fact I have always been enamored with. Reservoir Dogs (1992) resurrected the heist picture as Tarantino brought with him the influence of a host of classic filmmakers, among them Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and possibly even John Huston (QT is reportedly a fan of The Asphalt Jungle); and Pulp Fiction (1994) put a new spin on the gangster pictures of Scorsese and Leone while at the same time spicing it all up with a pinch of Godard. These two films, in my opinion, were the work of a cinephile’s filmmaker for sure.
But ever since then, Tarantino has been making films that pay tribute to a lesser kind of cinema, a kind of cinema that cinephiles do not get as much worked up over: exploitation. Some of them have worked and some of them have not, and the key to whether or not each of them has succeeded depends entirely on whether or not Tarantino has been able to transcend exploitation with each new film. Jackie Brown (1996) was an homage to the crude blaxploitation flicks of Jack Hill and Gordon Parks, and although it was a rather conventional movie it nevertheless succeeded because it had likable characters and never succumbed to the filmmaker’s occasional self-indulgences. Inglourious Basterds (2009) repulsed me at first and is still a film I struggle somewhat with because of my inability to decide whether it celebrated the gross macho violence of World War II action flicks; but, in the end, I am able to recommend the film because of Tarantino’s own pointed observations (as stated on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show) about the film’s social relevance to questions about terrorism and criminal torture raised by today’s generation. Of the Kill Bill saga, I had a completely split reaction: I found the pointless violence of the 2003 installment deplorable, and the depth of the 2004 sequel simply irresistible.
To reiterate again the point I’m attempting to make with this piece, here’s why I believe that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglorious Basterds were all successful films: they transcended their exploitative genres. The thing about me is, I hate exploitation. I think it’s a crass, ugly form of cinema—the kind of filmmaking that gives weight to the high-profile moralist’s complaint that movies can somehow influence people to be violent. Exploitation is not like a great horror or action film that can bring out the raw energy of cinematic violence as a way to exorcise our demons; it’s made primarily for the kind of audience that arrogantly chants out, “Kill! Kill!” and happily applauds when the bad guys are finally eliminated. It’s a one-dimensional artistic outlook and it does nothing to further the progress of the medium. We could debate about Kill Bill Vol. 1 and whether it was such a film, but I know for certain that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds were not. As much as I wish Tarantino would go back to choosing more tasteful genres from which to make his movies, I can lay any quibbles I have with his current choice of filmmaking to rest—as long as he keeps on transcending it.
Death Proof (2007) is a problematic film for me. I do not believe it is a film that transcends exploitation; it’s a movie that feels a lot like a product of the trashy cinema from which it came. There’s nothing in this movie for cinephiles, and Tarantino seems to have made Death Proof for two purposes: a) to cater to the “Kill! Kill!” crowd, and b) to nostalgically evoke memories from audience members who constantly devoured movies like this back in the 1970’s. Of course, it is also perhaps true that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez never intended for their Grindhouse project to “transcend” exploitation in the first place. I’m sure their intention was to bring back exploitation for modern audiences in hopes that it would revive enough interest in the genre to lead to more and more movies of the same kind—which may be the case, but I don’t think this sort of filmmaking makes for intriguing cinema in the least.
It isn’t just the vile way Death Proof goes about its business as an exploitive action flick that bothers me, either; it’s the lack of a real heart in the story. Not just in the narrative, either, but in Tarantino’s mixed bag of heroes and villains. The most purely Tarantinian character in all of Death Proof is the antagonist: Stuntman Mike, whose long speeches and B-movie punchlines, I must admit, are a true delight. The performance by Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike is a great one—one of the most enjoyable in all of Tarantino’s films—and like David Carradine’s Bill in the Kill Bill pictures or Cristoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino again confirms his talent for making likable figures out of characters who are, in their nature, despicable human beings. Bill wasted a whole audience of churchgoers, Colonel Landa executed Holocaust refugees, and in Death Proof, Stuntman Mike sadistically murders innocent women in horrifying car crashes. Logically, we should be able to hate Stuntman Mike with a passion and hope to see him killed off in no time, but, like I said, Stuntman Mike is such a living, breathing Tarantinian character that for the audience to look with disgust upon the character entirely is something of a difficult exercise.
Disappointingly, Tarantino fails to balance the villainy of Stuntman Mike with a heroine who can be just as charismatic. The first half of Death Proof is dominated by wild, voluptuous teenage girls (played by Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Jordan Ladd) who are going to spend the evening at a father’s lake house—no boys allowed. But we don’t ever really get to know any of these three girls very well, in the short screen time that they have. As characters, they are not very interesting, and their lengthy scenes of dialogue add up to nothing more than dull, superfluous exposition leading up to the moment when they will all be wiped out by one of Stuntman Mike’s gory car crashes. Tarantino does craft a sexy sequence in which the girls, unaware of Stuntman Mike’s sadistic nature, treat him to a lapdance to the jukebox tune of “Down in Mexico”, and one must commend Tarantino for his inspired decision to use one of The Coasters’ more underrated songs on his soundtrack. But of all the heroines who appear in the first half of Death Proof, the only one who arouses all that much interest is the lone Pam (Rose McGowan), who sadly becomes Stuntman Mike’s first victim—although when he explains to her that his car is “100% death proof” and that “to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat!” it gives one a visual picture of Tarantino putting his tongue in his cheek when writing such absurd lines of dialogue for his colorful serial killer.
The Tennessee heroines who dominate the second half of Death Proof are, unfortunately, just as boring and wooden as the deceased Texas heroines who precede them. Again, Tarantino fails to make any of these women (played by Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tracie Thomas) as charismatic as Stuntman Mike; the only difference between these women and the last is that these women share Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of 1970’s exploitation pictures that most cinephiles have probably never seen (or ever cared to see), such as Vanishing Point and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. I can see no purpose for the long scenes of dialogue that these women spend talking about these films except to fill the undernourished running time of Death Proof and to get Tarantino’s audience members to check out the films his characters are recommending to each other. And why does Tarantino write up an incomprehensible scene in which Stuntman Mike creepily molests one of the women while she is sleeping in the parking lot of a general store? Or the scene where another one of the women is dropped off as collateral for the sexual advantages of a perverted mechanic? These awkward scenes don’t feel like they’re progressing the plot at all—they just feel intentionally awkward.
The only remotely interesting heroine in the second half of Death Proof is Zoe Bell, who plays herself. She’s a feisty stuntwoman from New Zealand whose character does indeed have some of Stuntman Mike’s charisma, and her character so well stands out above the rest of her inferior counterparts that it feels like a missed opportunity for Tarantino not to have her and Stuntman Mike duking it out, one-on-one, at the end of the film; it would have served as an excellent foil for the Bride’s showdown with Bill. But Zoe Bell, as we will later see, spends most of Death Proof on top of a speeding car playing a game of Ship’s Mast. Although we fear for Zoe's safety, and although we are impressed with Tarantino’s relentless direction of the lengthy car chase between Stuntman Mike and the heroines that follows, there is one concrete problem with this sequence: Tarantino doesn't give us anybody to root for. We can't root for Stuntman Mike because he is the murderous villain, and yet we can't much root for the heroines, either, because they are hardly any more likable. Worse, it is only a matter of time before we realize that this car chase is all that the movie has going for it. At this moment, Tarantino throws his story out the window, and we realize that the whole movie has been nothing but a bunch of wasteful meandering in preparation for this big action climax. Was it worth all of those overblown, overwritten scenes that went absolutely nowhere?
I also take objection to the way Tarantino concludes his film. Since exploitation cinema usually calls for the death of the murderous villain, obviously Stuntman Mike has to die at some point—but I’m not satisfied with the way he exits the picture. It’s a tradition for audiences at the multiplex to enjoy the deaths of cinematic villains, but I don’t remember the last time it was pleasurable to see a villain who was sobbing and wailing in extreme pain upon the moment of death. That is exactly how the screenplay of Death Proof dispatches of Stuntman Mike: defeated by the heroines, his car wrecked and his health under serious threat, Stuntman Mike cries out for help. The heroines run up to his car, take him out, and beat him to death. While Tarantino is not entirely to blame for the ultimate circumstances of Stuntman Mike's death (it was Kurt Russell's idea to have the character feel vulnerable and scared at the last minute), I resent how the filmmakers mean for us to cheer at having just seen something that is about as enjoyable as a rabid dog getting strangled for its sins.
We need to ask ourselves this question: what if Bill had died this way? Did any of us want to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 end with the Bride cutting up a screaming Bill, torturing him to death while she departs, her daughter over her shoulder, with a big grin on her face? Is that what we were hoping for? Of course not. The reason I like Kill Bill Vol. 2 so much is because Tarantino did not conform to the stupid limits of exploitation; he cut short the Bride’s greedy mission for revenge by confronting her with the dilemmas surrounding her desires to eliminate Bill, and finally allowed Bill to die honorably. Kill Bill Vol. 2 ended so well because Tarantino made us believe that we had sat through the course of two films for a true purpose—for a climax that we could feel good about, the kind of climax that could leave us, and the Bride, at peace with our thirsts for blood. Death Proof, unfortunately, asks us to take a step backwards from the nirvana of Kill Bill Vol. 2 and celebrate the kind of reactionary violence that the earlier film so eloquently deconstructed. I’ve been told that Death Proof is a critique of the misogyny that plagues exploitation; Tarantino has essentially turned the tables and given power to the women, allowing them to get back at the sick men who have menaced them in so many other movies. But this is nothing new or profound. What Tarantino wants us to gain from Death Proof is no different from what we were meant to gain from garbage like I Spit on Your Grave.
I am reminded of one of my favorite films, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973). In that film, Robert Blake played John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop who tries to capitalize on the carnage of the highways he patrols in order to get a gold star and be promoted as a detective who can be safe from all the trouble and filth he has to deal with every single day. Wintergreen then soon finds out that the high life is not what it’s cut out to be and is demoted back to his dangerous, low-paying job. Back on the roads, he harasses a couple of drug-carrying hippies, is shot through the stomach, and is left to die on the highway in one of the most beautiful endings ever slapped onto the tail-end of any American film. What was so wonderful about Electra Glide in Blue was that Guercio had made a film that threatened to be a product of the trashy vigilante cop genre it came from, and yet it wasn’t. To use that dreaded word again, it transcended the material. It was not exploitation. We felt just as devastated as John Wintergreen must have—when he saw that shotgun barrel come out at him, reminding him in a fleeting moment of the highway dangers he should have seen unblinkingly.
Death Proof is what it is: a feminist revenge picture. It is anything more? I have tried to search throughout the movie and find any sort of concrete detail that can help me appreciate it better than I do, and yet I see so little there: the film is cynical, mean-spirited and not a whole lot of fun. No one can deny Tarantino’s wisdom of empowering his heroines, but from that point he should have found a way to rise above the silly boundaries of exploitation cinema—not lower himself to its level, which a talented filmmaker such as he ought to know better. The perfect criticism of Death Proof has already been made. It is Kill Bill Vol. 2.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Having finally published a climatic dual piece on my two favorite Huston films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King, I can now officially end the John Huston blogathon--which originally was supposed to end on August 12, but I became so determined to published some pieces I hadn't been able to write by that deadline (and wanted to wait, also, for others who were late in their contributions) that I held out for another month. Has that ever happened before in the history of blogathons?
A week before the blogathon began, John Huston himself shot this introductory video wishing us well and hoping that we would do good in honoring his legacy and his 104th birthday. Well... coincidentally, I received this new video by Huston in which he determines whether or not the blogathon was a success! CHECK IT OUT, IF YOU DARE.
(again, just for laughs)
Before I repost the links to all of your contributions, I think it would only be appropriate for me to go out by making a list of the Huston films that I think are absolutely essential for any beginner. In my own order of preference, here are the films you must see in order to fully understand just how much of a master filmmaker he really was:
1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston's masterpiece. A milestone in acting, writing, directing and everything else. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite American film of all time.
2. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Huston made several more great films after Treasure, but this was the closest he ever got to the masterful qualities of that film. Sean Connery and Michael Caine have never been better than they are here as Danny and Peachy, and Christopher Plummer rounds out the already-impressive cast as the skeptical Rudyard Kipling, who regretfully shakes their hands goodbye as they embark on a dangerous quest to become kings of Karifstan. Had Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Spielberg's Jaws not been released in the same year I would immediately declare this film the finest film of 1975... it's just so perfect.
3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
What else is there to say about The Maltese Falcon that hasn't already been said? It's the first great detective picture (and in some respects the best). It's pure film noir. It even gets better with repeated viewings; not until the third viewing, I don't think, can you truly understand the complexities of a protagonist like Sam Spade, and why, despite being a crooked detective, he won't give way to love and riches when having to choose between that and his obligations to the law.
4. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
The finest cinematic adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play there is. Huston takes Williams' story of four lost souls abandoned by God in Mexico--like iguanas--and makes it intensely personal and heartfelt, just barely managing a happy ending. The three primary actresses -- Ava Gardener, Sue Lyon, Deborah Kerr -- have a ball, especially Kerr, who steals the movie during an amazing scene in which she reflects back on her life of chastity. But it's Richard Burton's towering performance of the exiled Reverend Larry Shannon that carries the film's weight, resulting in one of the few star-studded films of the 1960's to emerge an actual masterwork.
5. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
There may be no heist picture out there, with the exception of Kubrick's The Killing, that even begins to approach the genius of The Asphalt Jungle. Huston had us somehow rooting for the antiheroes--the diamond burglars--because they all have human qualities that make us care about them in some fashion or another. Particularly Dix (Sterling Hayden), who doesn't want to use the money for any greedy advantages; he just wants to do what any Hustonian protagonist wants to do and get back home.
6. Wise Blood (1979)
Brad Dourif IS Hazel Motes. He's a living, breathing motion picture reflection of Flannery O'Connor's warped fundamentlist: a man who wants to clean his country of the commercialized Christianity that had settled in while he was away fighting in the war, and--when that doesn't work--proceeds to attempt to turn himself into a holy martyr in the most horrific way possible. Definitely Huston's most chilling film.
7. The Dead (1987)
For his final film, Huston, being ever-so-much a director with a penchant for adapting classic literature, chose to adapt Joyce's most honored short story. A Christmas party in early 20th-century Ireland is quickly exposed as the sad, fraudulent celebration that it is, as each of its participants is revealed to be a person who is unhappy, sinister, mentally unstable or simply a once-talented figure whose talents have now faded away. Not until the final fifteen minutes does it all come pouring out--in a way that I will leave for you to discover. I've only seen The Dead once, and I intend to keep revisiting it. It's a shell-shocking film, and a profound swan song for one of cinema's finest directorial careers.
8. Fat City (1972)
"How'd you like to wake up in the morning and be him?" asks Billy (Stacy Keach), observing an invalid Asian diner clerk who probably never had much of a life. "Jesus, the waste! Before you can get rolling, your life makes a beeline for the drain." Ernie (Jeff Bridges), sitting next to him, tries to look on the bright side: "Maybe he's happy." And then Billy pointedly observes, "Maybe we're all happy." These two men are at miserable crossroads in their lives. Billy is an aging boxer who has spent the last years working as a fry cook and as a ranch hand; his latest boxing match earned him barely over $100. Ernie is a teenager who tried but failed to be a boxer and has now settled down as a family man. Huston's rawest, harshest slice of Americana.
9. The Misfits (1961)
It's been awhile since I've seen this film, but I've seen it twice and have never forgotten how powerful it is. Both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe gave the best performances of their respective careers in this film. Arthur Miller's screenplay feels heavily flawed on a first viewing, and then somehow feels so, so dead-on on a second viewing.
10. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Like The African Queen, it's a war story about two people of the opposite gender fighting to survive together, but unlike Charlie and Rose, the relationship between Allison (Robert Mitchum) and Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) is never consummated. They're stuck on a desert island in the middle of WWII, and he loves her and wants her to be his wife; but she has already pledged her marriage to Christ. Frustrated by her refusal, he complains, "We don't belong to nothing but this island! We're like Adam and Eve, and this is the Garden of Eden!" For Huston, this was a variation on what Adam and Eve could have done right.
Honorable mentions to: The African Queen, Let There Be Light, Key Largo, We Were Strangers, Moby Dick, Freud, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano and Prizzi's Honor.
A handful of important Huston titles that I wasn't able to see in time for the blogathon, and am still seeking out: Moulin Rouge, The Red Badge of Courage, Reflections in A Golden Eye and The Kremlin Letter.
Here, now, is the complete list of every contribution that was submitted to the blogathon:
The Maltese Falcon (1941) by Chris Z.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Greco
A Spanish Piece on The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) by Jaime Grijalba
In This Our Life (1942) by Stacia of She Blogged By Night
Report from the Aleutians (1942), The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946) by Tom Hyland
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) by Andreas of Pussy Goes Grrr
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) by John Greco
Key Largo (1948) by Bryce Wilson
We Were Strangers (1949) by Judy Geater
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) by John Greco
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and its similarities to Kubrick's The Killing by Joel Bocko
The Red Badge of Courage (1951) by Tom Hyland
The African Queen (1951) by Ratnakar Sandasyula
The Committee for the First Amendment: Huston vs. the HUAC by Adam Zanzie
Beat the Devil (1953) by Thomas Duke
Collaborations with Humphrey Bogart by Ratnakar Sadasyula
Moby Dick (1956) by Roderick Heath
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) by Adam Zanzie
The Misfits (1961) by Tom of Motion Picture Gems
Freud (1962) by Tom Hyland
The Bible... In the Beginning (1966) by Tom of Motion Picture Gems
Reflections in A Golden Eye (1967) by Thomas Duke
Sinful Davey (1969) by Adam Zanzie
Huston's Performance in Myra Breckenridge (1970) by Larry Thomas
Fat City (1972) by Edward Copeland
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) by Adam Zanzie
The Mackintosh Man (1973) by Judy Geater
Huston as a Modernist and Anti-Mythologist by Andreas of Pussy Goes Grrr
Wise Blood (1979) by Adam Zanzie
Wise Blood (1979) by Jake Cole
Wise Blood (1979) by Bryce Wilson
Victory (1980) by Ratnakar Sadasyula
Phobia (1980) by Thomas Duke
A Discussion on Annie (1982) by Adam Zanzie
Under the Volcano (1984) by Carson Lund
Under the Volcano (1984) and Prizzi's Honor (1985) by Kevin J. Olson
Prizzi's Honor (1985) by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr
A Prizzi's Honor (1985) Piece From An Earlier Huston Blogathon by Edward Copeland
The Dead (1987) by Sam Juliano
One More Look at John Huston
by Andreas of Pussy Goes Grrr
A Tribute to John Huston
by Pickpocket 83
Announcing the Blogathon
Two Weeks Before the Blogathon
One Week Before the Blogathon
A Day Before the Blogathon
What is Your Favorite John Huston Film? Poll Results:
The Maltese Falcon 10 (15%)
In This Our Life 0 (0%)
Winning Your Wings 0 (0%)
Across the Pacific 0 (0%)
Report from the Aleutians 0 (0%)
Tunisian Victory 0 (0%)
San Pietro 0 (0%)
Let There Be Light 0 (0%)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 19 (30%)
On Our Merry Way 0 (0%)
Key Largo 7 (11%)
We Were Strangers 0 (0%)
The Asphalt Jungle 4 (6%)
The Red Badge of Courage 1 (1%)
The African Queen 5 (7%)
Moulin Rouge (1952) 0 (0%)
Beat the Devil 0 (0%)
Moby Dick (1956) 1 (1%)
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison 2 (3%)
A Farewell to Arms 0 (0%)
The Barbarian and the Geisha 0 (0%)
The Roots of Heaven 0 (0%)
The Unforgiven 0 (0%)
The Misfits 2 (3%)
Freud 0 (0%)
The List of the Adrian Messenger 0 (0%)
The Night of the Iguana 1 (1%)
The Bible: In the Beginning... 0 (0%)
Casino Royale (1966) 0 (0%)
Reflections in a Golden Eye 0 (0%)
Sinful Davey 0 (0%)
A Walk with Love and Death 0 (0%)
The Kremlin Letter 0 (0%)
The Last Run 0 (0%)
Fat City 2 (3%)
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean 0 (0%)
The MacKintosh Man 0 (0%)
The Man Who Would Be King 3 (4%)
Independence 0 (0%)
Love and Bullets 0 (0%)
Wise Blood 1 (1%)
Phobia 0 (0%)
Victory 0 (0%)
Annie (1982) 1 (1%)
Under the Volcano 3 (4%)
Prizzi's Honor 1 (1%)
The Dead 0 (0%)
Votes so far: 63
Many thanks to everyone who contributed. I would also like to extend my thanks to Professor Lesley Brill of Wayne State University, who helpfully proofread my piece on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and whose 1997 book John Huston's Filmmaking inspired my love for the filmmaker and enabled me to determine him as an auteur. I can't say it enough: get this book.
I could hold out for another month if I wanted to, but all blogathons must come to an end. Those with late contributions can still email me their links and I can always add them to the above list at any time for future reference, but as for my own dragged-out continuation of the blogathon I must declare, today, that I am officially done.
Thank you to everyone who helped make the John Huston blogathon a success.
My Two Favorite Huston Films: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) & The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Every great John Huston adventure begins with a handshake. My two favorite Huston films are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which strong, determined men embark on dangerous quests to find fortune and glory. Summing up the relationship between the two films in his book John Huston's Filmmaking, Professor Lesley Brill writes that "the themes at the center of The Man Who Would Be King... remain closely related to those of Treasure: the power of human attachments and sustaining communities and the obstacles to both; conflicts between relatively innocent native peoples and intruders from technologically developed societies; interactions between humans and an animated natural world; ambiguities of destiny and choice; the equivocal possibilities of heroism." And the quests themselves are not officially kicked off until the men do what they must do in order to set their sights in stone: shake hands on it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is about a shake of hands to find gold. "Why not try gold digging for a change?" Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) asks his friend Curtin (Tim Holt). "It ain't any riskier than waiting around here for a break; and this is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying for you to take them out of the ground--make them shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames." Dobbs and Curtin have just been cheated out of their rightful pay by the corrupt Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), and they are ready to try something new. They team up with Howard (Walter Huston), the grizzled old prospector who has experience in the gold-digging field, and then the deal is set. "Put her there, part!" says Dobbs, holding his hand out to Curtin. They shake on it, and then Huston's camera closes up on Howard as he looks upon their pact with a strange sense of uncertainty--almost as if he foresees the perils that are going to be awaiting them.
Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) in The Man Who Would Be King shake hands over a pact to become kings of an ancient empire, win the support of its people and then "loot the country four ways from Sunday." Their old plan to con the Raj of Degumber was foiled by a fellow Freemason, novelist Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer), who listens skeptically as Danny explains the new plan he and Peachy have layered out: "The less said about our professions, the better, for we have been most things in our time. We've been all over India--we know her cities, her jungles, her jails and her passes--and we have decided that she isn't big enough for such as we." "Therefore," continues Peachy, "we are going away to another place, where a man isn't crowded and can come into his own. We're not little men... so we're going away to be kings. Kings of Karifstan." Kipling thinks the whole idea is absurd, though he happily signs his signature on Danny and Peachy's "contract" to serve as witness to their agreement. Yet on the day of their departure, Kipling has second thoughts. "Man," he cries to Danny, "don't do it. The odds are too great." But Danny and Peachy remain fatefully committed to their cause. With regret and anxiety, Kipling shakes their hands goodbye.
Huston first opens these two films with scenes that tour the marketplaces where the heroes began and shook hands before embarking on their adventures. The first shot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is of a Spanish lottery bulletin, and Dobbs, looking upon it, crumbles up his own lottery ticket in disappointment. He didn't win. "Hey, mister," he asks random men on the street, "could you stake a fellow American to a meal?" A white-suited man, played by Huston himself, is approached at least three times: "Such impudence never came my way!" he complains to Dobbs, and though he is willing to give him two more pesos, the man declares that "from now on, you have to make your way through life without my assistance." This could possibly have been Huston's sly way of telling Bogart that he needed to start making movies without his constant help (they had been working together ever since Raoul Walsh's High Sierra in 1941--the same year in which Huston then directed The Maltese Falcon and thus made Bogart a star), but what I also like about this scene is that Huston is not condemning the life of poor people like Dobbs; he is fine with helping out people on the street, while at the same time realizing that one can only give away so much.
The fantastic, two-minute opening shots of The Man Who Would Be King display an Afghan marketplace that seems entirely composed of everyday Afghans working for a living. There are no rich, white-suited businessmen around these parts, and, except for a barber that may remind us of the barber whom Dobbs spends his second peso on in Treasure, there are no professions in this marketplace that we recognize from the earlier film; just blacksmiths, tambourine musicians, cobra charmers, men with scorpions crawling on their faces and children clutching snakes in their hands. Only in the evening does Huston take us behind closed doors and introduce us to at least one white man: Kipling, who is writing away in his studies until he is surprised by a maimed figure emerging from the shadows behind him. "I've come back," whispers the figure. It is Peachy, and the remainder of the movie will be narrated flashbacks of his and Danny's disastrous quest.
These openings each lead to the inevitable unlucky handshake, which is so key to Huston's sensibilities as a "beautiful losers" filmmaker. Though not all of his films (certainly not all of his best films) end unhappily, one of his most recognizable themes as an auteur was his penchant for stories of protagonists and antagonists who sweat, bleed and die for causes that end in ruin. From the moment the heroes in Treasure and King shake hands, the obstacles start piling up. Dobbs, Curtin and Howard are threatened even before they get up to the mountains, during an assault on their train after which the conductor sighs a relief that "not many passengers get killed"; and once in the mountains, Dobbs and Curtin are almost immediately seduced by the allures of a misleading stone of pyrite (giving new meaning to the term "fool's gold"). Danny and Peachy, meanwhile, are forced to imitate British officers in order to get past imperial guards blocking their way to Karifstan; and once inside the hills they must abandon their camels in order to cross an enormous river that originally looked only like "a little wavy blue line on the map."
Oh, and bandits. The Mexican thugs in Treasure are led by Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), whose often-misquoted "I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" tirade inadvertently exposes him as a fraud when he and his pack attempt to introduce themselves to Dobbs' group as the local police. The Afghan bandits in King are in some respects even more menacing because they never speak, and when they intrude in on Danny and Peachy's campfire we are unsure in figuring out if they are friends, or enemies. They observe Danny and Peachy's clothes, touch them and then hold them at gunpoint; only after Peachy surprises them by spitting explosive ammo into the fire are they able to kill each of the bandits one by one. To be sure, the bandits in Treasure are not as easily disposed of; and, as we later find out to our horrors, Gold Hat will be back.
The heroes in Treasure are lazy. "If I'd known what prospecting meant," croaks an exhausted Curtin, "I'd have stayed in Tampico and waited for another job to come up." Likewise, the heroes in King are ignorant of the basic facts of world history and how it contradicts the plans they've set for themselves. When Kipling informs Danny and Peachy that no white man has ever come out of the Afghan regions alive since Alexander, Peachy's response is terminally idiotic: "Alexander WHO?" And when we see each of the heroes in each of the films mistreating minorities, it's as if Huston is drawing out the crude Social Darwinism of B. Traven and Kipling's original characters (and at the very least out of Kipling himself, who was an acknowledged white supremist). Dobbs in Treasure, for example, is not above tossing a glass of water into the face of the innocent Mexican lottery boy (a young Robert Blake); and Peachy, in King, throws a fat Indian named "Mr. Clutterbury Das" out the window of a moving train for the sole purpose of taking advantage of an opportunity to acquaint himself with Kipling. They're all charismatic heroes in their own ways, but boy are they stupid white men.
Laughter plays a special role in both films. Sometimes laughter in a Huston film is condescending, as during Howard's infamous dance scene in which he teases a hotheaded Dobbs and Curtin as "dumber than the dumbest jackass"; or when Peachy reacts to Danny's ridiculous notion that he was destined to be king of Karifstan: "Ha, ha! Pardon me while I fall down laughing!" Sometimes the laughter is scolded as inappropriate, as when native Mexican Indians in Treasure request that Howard, having healed one of their dying children, come to their camp to be blessed; Dobbs chuckles, but Howard reminds him that their request is serious, and not a laughing matter. Danny in King has a similar reaction when Peachy laughs during a Karifstan courtroom session in which a man is on trial for collecting dozens of goats from his wife's adulterers.
Most prominently, however, laughter in the two films is portrayed by Huston as a cathartic release. "Oh, laugh, Curtin, old boy!" Howard reassures his disappointed friend. "It's a great joke played on us by the lord of fate or nature, whatever you prefer, but whoever or whatever played it on us certainly has a sense of humor! Ha--the gold has gone back to where we found it!" If laughter, in Treasure, allows Howard and Curtin to move on with their lives, it is even more helpful in King when it literally helps Danny and Peachy to proceed during a crossroads in their quest; stranded in the snowy mountain pass, their echoing laughter over a filthy memory helps bring down the peaks and fill in the crevices separating them from the path forward.
I went into much detail over Huston's examination of capital punishment in his films in my piece on The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and I believe that in Treasure and King his views on the subject are most fully-realized. What makes Treasure such a scary experience is that we might initially sympathize with Dobbs, Howard and Curtin when they conspire to eliminate Cody (Bruce Bennet), a kind man who has happened on their site and asks if he would be allowed to join them. Dobbs is unfair to Cody, yells at him simply for making coffee, and then hits him. It is a very mean-spirited treatment of a man who means well--a man who sincerely thought he was "among friends".
And, I confess that when I first saw Treasure as a junior in high school, I was in agreement with Dobbs' decision to have Cody killed. Perhaps it was due to Dobbs' convincing argument that the group cannot keep recruiting more and more men to help them dig for gold they would rather keep for themselves. I'm disgusted with my original response, though I think it is also a testament to the power of Huston's film: he brings out the animalistic feelings of us, only to bring us to a shocked realization of our mistake shortly after Cody's death. Huston's critique of capital punishment is continued during the execution of the villainous Gold Hat at the end; by throwing in that witty moment in which Gold Hat demands to be allowed to put on his sombrero before being executed by the firing squad, Huston humanizes the film's villain. In a brief fleeting moment, Gold Hat is a person just like you and me.
Unlike Dobbs, Howard and Curtin, however, Danny and Peachy are morally opposed to capital punishment from the very beginning. Under the guidance of their chipper translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), Danny and Peachy are able to train the inexperienced army of the vile Ootah (Doghmi Larbi) into good soldiers, and they are so successful in the battles they wage against Ootah's enemies that, pretty soon, they have secured peace in Karifstan. But when Ootah tries to decapitate his prisoners of war, the Englishmen draw the line between themselves and their dubious commander-in-chief. "There'll be no execution of prisoners in this army," Danny declares. Still, when Ootah himself is slain by his own people and his head is turned into a soccer ball, that should have been the first signal to Danny and Peachy that they've taken control of a race of people with a different code of honor. The same goes for when they are forced by the holy men of Sikandergul (as Howard was by the Mexican Indians) to journey with them to the holy city so that the wise-man Kafu Selim (Karroom Ben Bouih) can determine whether or not Danny is really a god. These holy men are nothing short of hypocrites: they wish not to "see any badness" in the battles that Danny and Peachy have fought, and yet within the confines of their city they quickly attempt to kill Danny by stabbing, shooting and, finally, making him walk across a bridge while the ropes are cut. They claim to be pacifists even though they are just another city of executioners.
And what of women in the two films? Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin that "if I were you boys, I wouldn't talk or even think about women. It ain't good for your health." Still, Howard is not with sexual longings of his own. Listen to how he describes the panning of gold in the riverbed: "You got to know how to tickle her, so she'll come out laughing." And how he insists that once the gold mining is finished, they should restructure the mountain and patch up "her" wounds; as Curtin notes, Howard talks of the mountain as if she's a real woman. Danny and Peachy, meanwhile, abide strictly by a principle in their contract stating that they must ignore the temptations of the flesh while pursuing their goals of royalty, as to prevent needless distraction; and yet Danny is ultimately brought down by his love for a quiet woman, Roxanne (Shakira Caine, Michael's wife) who fears him. She, like everybody in the Afghan regions, believes that union between a god and mortal can only result in the mortal bursting into flames, and her arranged wedding to Danny in front of the priests of the holy city of Sikandergul is one of the film's most uncanny scenes. A suffocating bridesmaid is the first indication that something is wrong (it seems the holy god Imbra is angry not because Danny is marrying a mortal, but because Danny has lied to the priests about being a god), and then the kiss between Danny and Roxanne tears the entire thing apart. "The slut bit me!" he sputters, unaware that his bleeding cheek has given him away as the emperor with no clothes.
The fact is, both Fred C. Dobbs and Danny Dravot meet their ends because their imaginations run away with them. Throughout Treasure, we can sense that Dobbs is giving way to greed, particularly during one of the film's most brilliant sequences in which he rashly disbelieves Curtin's warning that the hiding spot for his bag of gold has been invaded by a stealthy gila monster. Even after Curtin rescues him from a collapsed mine, Dobbs is still untrustworthy of his partner; finally, in a later scene, he shoots Curtin, leaves him for dead in the woods, steals his gold and then allows his own mind to play tricks on him. "Conscience!" he hisses to himself. "What a thing. If you believe you've got a conscience, it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you've got one, what can it do to you? Makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense!" Danny in King becomes just as full of himself when he demands that Peachy worship him as a god like everyone else: "Whatever you may think, and however you may feel, I'm a king, and you're a subject!" It is disheartening to see Dobbs and Danny take these spellbinding paths down the road to self-destruction, but it is necessary in order to achieve Huston's unique drama. Their tragic demises are in some ways called for by the genres themselves; they're "done as if by order", to quote Dobbs' irrational suspicions that an absent tiger has taken care of his dirty work for him.
Both films have sad endings, but the heroes, in pure Hustonian fashion, do not regret a thing. They are happy with their memories, good and bad. Laughing still about the irony of all of their gold being whisked away by the winds back to the mountains, Howard adds, "This is worth ten months of suffering and labor, this joke is!" And soon Curtin gets it, too; he joins in the laughter. He and Howard may not be rich men, but the joke has allowed them to recover their strength: Howard will be fixed as the Mexican Indians' medicine man, and Curtin will go visit Cody's wife--possibly to participate in one of those fruit harvests he has always dreamed about. Danny and Peachy reach such climatic moments at least twice: first, when they are stranded in the mountains and they feel that hope is lost. "Peachy," Danny asks, "in your opinion, have our lives been misspent?" Peachy laughs off that notion with optimism: "I wouldn't change places with the viceroy himself if it meant giving up my memories!" And secondly, at the end, when Danny is about to be executed, he again asks Peachy for consolation: "Peachy, I'm heartedly ashamed for getting you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved to... on account of me being so bleedin' high and mighty. Can you ever forgive me?" "That I can, and that I do, Danny," Peachy nods, again with optimism. "Free and full without let or hindrance."
I love both of these films with all my heart. They changed my life. They helped me look at troubling themes like greed, prejudice, religion and morality, and they allowed me to be at peace with all of those themes. Whenever I'm asked if John Huston was an auteur, I turn them to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King. Here are two films about adventures that each begin with a handshake, and end in bittersweet victory. And what's left is a collection of unforgettable moments in classic American cinema that have granted me with memories I would not have given up for the world.