Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Hill (1965)

There is a stunning scene in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965) in which Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) and Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews) bark at each other in the middle of a military detention camp, and it is the single greatest moment of acting in a film that is full of dozens of splendid acting moments. Roberts has only been in prison for a week, but he has already had his foot broken and his face beaten senselessly—yet the ruthless Sergeant Major Wilson is still punishing him, still forcing him to double out in the hot sun. Wilson tries to convince Roberts that it is only for the best. “Discipline!” he shouts. “The army’s run on discipline!” But Roberts has seen too much military abuse in his day, and he will not give in to “discipline” any more.

He’s in jail, actually, precisely because of his disillusionment with what the army has become. With tears in his eyes, he tells Wilson like it is: “I’m a regular soldier because I couldn’t get a bloody job in civvy street! But I was a good toy clockwork soldier—just like you are!” The argument between Roberts and Wilson becomes so heated, in fact, that at one point they both realize that the whole camp has fallen silent. Everybody is staring at them. Wilson, embarrassed, yells at everybody to get back to work. Then he turns to Roberts, and declares that he’s going to push him to the limit, and make him do whatever he’s damn well told until he is reformed into something the army can be proud of.

I have seen many antiwar dramas, many prison flicks and many POW movies, but The Hill is a film that has stayed with me. It could very well be the most painful film I have ever seen from any of those genres. And I’ve seen LeRoy's I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke—all fantastic pictures that smack you silly whenever you watch them, but The Hill just seems to hit the hardest. Some will find it a chore to sit through. Personally, I think it’s an easier film to sit through on a second viewing, but of course that was because I knew what to expect, and knew when the most blistering sequences were coming. One thing’s for sure: I would hate to have to have done time at this camp.

The Hill takes place in a British Army detention camp located in the Libyan Desert during WWII, where the soldiers are doing time for a various set of reasons. King (Ossie Davis), a black man from the West Indies, is in jail for stealing (and drinking) bottles of whiskey. Bartlett (Roy Kinnear) sold car tires to the enemy. McGrath (Jack Watson) got in a fight with the police. And Stevens (Alfred Lynch) is a deserter, obviously not cut out for fighting, who only wanted to get home to his wife. When King, Bartlett, McGrath, Stevens and Roberts first step into the camp, Lumet shows us two soldiers who are triumphantly walking out: relieved to have survived, they shake hands and hug. They are first seen walking up “the hill” in the two-and-a-half minute opening crane shot. Soon, Roberts and his four cellmates will find themselves doubling up and down this sandy hill.

Roberts sees his punishment as a mishandling of justice. He’s doing time because he assaulted a commanding officer who ordered him and his men on a suicide mission that ended in disaster. His memories are eating him alive, and he is bitter about failing to save his men. None of them came back alive. Now he is in prison for fighting for what he believed in, kept under the watchful eye of both the Sergeant Major Wilson and a new staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry), who sees his new job as an opportunity to torment prisoners, rather than reform them. When Wilson tells Williams about Roberts’ rebellious past, Williams immediately makes it a point for himself to abuse Roberts at every chance he gets. “The court martial broke you, but I’m gonna finish the job,” he growls at Roberts. “I’m gonna bust you wide open.” Roberts is unmoved: “I’ve got your number. You’d work as a dustman if they gave you a uniform and a couple of men to yell at.”

As in other prison films, the men find little ways to revolt against the staff. There is a wonderful sequence in which Roberts, sick and tired of doubling up and down the hill, sits down for a break; staff sergeants are ordered to douse him with water, and in defiance he takes a shovel and counter-douses the staff with wet sand, inspiring the other four men to do the same. For one glorious moment, Roberts and his cellmates own the hill, and are rolling around in the sand like schoolboys. And there’s the later scene in which King, aggravated at Sergeant Wilson’s constant racial slurs, throws a tantrum, rips his uniform to pieces (“This is what I think of British justice!”) and parades around the camp in his underwear.

In effect, the entire camp has a chance at rebellion in the wake of the death of Stevens, who fatally ends up a victim of Williams’ harassment: first Williams forces Stevens to double up the hill twice in a row, and then he forces him to double up the hill all by himself while wearing a gas mask. No human being could handle such agonizing pressure. There is a sad scene in which Stevens, clearly on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown and about to be doubled yet again by Williams, turns to Roberts in a last desperate attempt for help. “Please Joe, make him leave me alone,” he cries. “Please help me. I can’t take it any more.” In this beautiful moment, Roberts possibly sees in Stevens one of the men he failed to save on his suicide mission—and Williams, who stands back and grins at Stevens’ suffering, is the controlling commanding officer. But when Stevens finally collapses and dies in his cell, everybody--including Roberts--is laughing at him.

Stevens' death inspires the best-remembered sequence in the whole film, all of the camp's prisoners, enraged by Stevens’ death and demanding to know how he died, are all let out of their cells at once, banging their mess tins and chanting, “Stevens! Stevens!” It is here when Roberts and his three remaining cellmates rise to the occasion and join in the chant. Then Sergeant Major Wilson intervenes, and tries to change the subject by cracking jokes with the prisoners about smoking contests and promising them cheese for lunch, while at the same time threatening to charge “every fifth man” with mutiny if they don’t quit complaining about Stevens’ death. A staff guard asks him if the staff should bring out guns to coerce the prisoners, and Wilson retorts, “Where the hell do you think you are? CHICAGO?” What is terrifying about this sequence is that Wilson is seen as charismatic and as somebody loved by the prisoners despite the fact that he is the true villain of the film: Williams may be the one carrying out the brutal orders, but Wilson is the one who is actually giving them.

Roberts suspects that Stevens died as a result of abusive pressure at Williams’ hands, but only King is willing to back him up on the accusation. Bartlett, like a real coward, refuses to talk and presses the staff to get him transferred to another cell, while McGrath won’t talk simply because he sees the situation as hopeless. “We’re inside, Sergeant Major—inside!” he privately confesses to Roberts. “And the bloody world doesn’t give a damn! We’re the horrible 2%, the dodgy boys, the spivs, the cowards, the thieves! We’re the weak chain in the system!”

What Roberts does not know is that Harris (Ian Bannen), perhaps the only good-hearted staff sergeant working at the camp, is willing to rat out on Williams; when Roberts and King turn out to be the only ones willing to testify against Williams to the camp’s Commandant (Norman Bird), Harris decides to pitch in. This results in a hilarious scene in which King barges into the Commandant’s office in his underwear and “recommends this brand” of cigarettes, to the Commandant’s bafflement. What’s more funny is that the Commandant, who is seen in earlier scenes romancing a fat wife in bed, is fairly stupid, and doesn’t catch on until late that there has been a recent death at the camp. “Who died?” he asks in stupefied confusion (“GEORGE STEVENS!” King screams).

As was Lumet’s intent, the film echoes with a stinging sense of realism. “The physical hardship of the actual shooting is something that coincides with the physical hardship that’s necessary for the film”, he told an interviewer on the set, “and through it all--the caked sands, the windstorms going on while we were shooting, the cracks in the lips--those were all for real.” Working from a screenplay by Ray Rigby (based on his play, which was co-written with R.S. Allen), Lumet tries to capture as much of these “hardships” in the film as possible.

In the scene where Roberts and Wilson are yelling at each other, for example, we can feel their frustration and their impatience; Roberts calls Wilson a “crazy bastard” and adds, “you’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!” Then Wilson barks back, “Right! You’re RIGHT!” This is when we realize that Wilson is exactly what Roberts has accused him of being: a toy clockwork soldier, irrationally determined to follow orders and ensure that orders are followed. As the film is rolling towards a close, Wilson and Williams try to blackmail the camp’s doctor (Sir Michael Redgrave) into admitting that he was the one who passed Stevens as healthy enough for punishment, but this attempt drops with a thud, and Wilson, who previously is seen roaring at the top of his lungs (“In twenty-five years, I’ve never known a balls-up like it!”), is now seen with egg on his face. “I run this place! Me!” he pathetically mutters. “I say what goes and what don’t go!” He even feels the need to say this twice. It does him no good.

The film was made in the same year Lumet directed Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, and illuminated him as a filmmaker well on his way to becoming one of America’s greatest filmmakers--a reputation he would finally achieve in the 70’s and 80’s. Sean Connery had worked with Hitchcock on Marnie a year earlier, and with his performance in The Hill he continued to prove himself a terrific actor and not just a “fun” actor as evidenced in Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) or in the 007 pictures; he would work with Lumet again on The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989).

Of the rest of the cast, Michael Redgrave, as the timid camp doctor, is a long way away from his heroic train passenger in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). Roy Kinnear will probably be a familiar face to modern-day audiences as Veruka Salt’s spoiling father in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and seeing him as the doughy, whiny soldier in this film will show a side of him not as well known. It’s a real pleasure to see Ossie Davis in one of his younger roles, and there’s also something oddly creepy about his manic King character, who may or may not have grown up to be something like the Bible-quoting patriach who shoots his crack-addicted son dead in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). As for Harry Andrews, who worked earlier with John Huston on Moby Dick and The Mackintosh Man, his performance here is menacing to the extreme, and it scares the hell out of me.

Watching The Hill, I was surprised at how much the film moved me to take sides. It’s appalling for staff sergeants to treat prisoners in a military detention camp this way, and by the end of the film I was ready to see either Wilson or Williams get their brains bashed in. Sure enough, it is Williams who finally gets his just desserts. But Lumet is too wise a filmmaker to immaturely glorify Williams’ death, and instead looks upon it with unease. “Don’t touch him!” Roberts pleads to King and McGrath, as they prepare to knock Williams dead. “We’ve won! YOU’LL MUCK IT UP!” But by then, it’s too late.

The best Lumet films (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have a way of punishing characters who are essentially good people. And as he did with those films-- and as he does with The Hill-- Lumet proves that sometimes what the audience wants for the characters can, in fact, be the worst punishment of all.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Announcing the John Huston Blogathon

Having not even been active in the blogosphere for a whole year yet, I feel sort of unorthodox doing this, but I would like to announce my plans for a John Huston Blog-a-thon to be launched right here, at Icebox Movies--from August 5 to August 12.

I've only told this to a few people on a few blogs, but after some years of pondering I think Huston may very well be my favorite American filmmaker. It's strange for me to say a thing like that, seeing as how I hadn't even heard of him until my late middle school years, and he certainly was not the director who first inspired my love of the cinema (that would be the modern whiz kids like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and De Palma). And the first Huston film that I ever saw was Annie (1982), which is probably the first Huston movie that EVERYBODY these days probably sees in their lifetime... even though it's one of his worst films!

But after I saw The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Would Be King in the summer after 8th grade, something happened to me. I wanted to begin seeing more of his films. I was about to go into high school, and I realized that if I ever wanted to starting taking a career in film seriously someday, I had to familiarize myself with classic cinema more. I had a little help on the side from David Lean and Robert Mulligan, of course, but if I remember correctly, Huston was the first classic American filmmaker whom I paid strict attention to (excepting Hitchcock--he was British!). It's because of Huston that I got into the films of Ford, Hawks, Welles, Griffith and so many other American masters.

Every Huston film I see feels better than the last. I've been watching more and more of his flicks this year, for some reason. And yet, some of you will ask: why Huston? What's so special about him? He has never been regarded as much of an auteur: Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell don't care much for him, nor did Truffaut and Godard. His career is not dominated by one single auteristic theme, unless you could try to make a case for "male angst". Some of his great pictures have nothing in common with his other great pictures. How does The Treasure of the Sierra Madre align at all with Prizzi's Honor? Is there a lick of Beat the Devil in Fat City? Hell if I know.

I invite everybody and anybody to submit contributions to the blog-a-thon. Even if you don't feel like writing anything, though, go ahead and still participate: you may learn a thing or two about Huston, or maybe you'll teach others. Don't feel like you're obliged to gush over any loving feelings towards the man, either; if you've got a bone to pick with a Huston film or two, go ahead and rip it to shreds. I, for one, am about as far from a Huston expert as one can get and am hoping to learn even more about his filmmaking than I already know. And if you dislike Huston, go on a rant: I'm all ears. I've never quite understood the concrete criticisms of him and would enjoy a better understanding of them.

Huston died in 1987 at the age of 81. This year, he would have been 104. So, come celebrate his late birthday here at Icebox Movies in early August. I can't wait--it's going to be a lot of fun writing about a filmmaker who doesn't get much due. If you wouldn't mind, please spread the word to other blogs as well--my blog doesn't have very many folllowers, and I would love to see participation from bloggers I've never met.

The mission of the blog-a-thon will be to decide whether or not Huston should be judged as an auteur, or just as a studio director who left us with some wonderful films. But as his version of Gandalf once said,

"You will understand... in time."

See you in August, everybody.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a huge disappointment: a movie where the combined visions of a talented director (Mike Newell) and one of today's brightest video game designers (Jordan Mechner) have been horribly compromised. Because I admired Newell's excellent mob picture Donnie Brasco (1997) and also happen to have a lot of affection for Mechner's original 2003 Sands of Time game, I went into this movie with high expectations. But the story has been spun into some kind of gross, self-parodying Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. Even the production design by veteran Wolf Kroeger is an anticlimax; there is nothing here as spellbinding as, say, those magnificent icy villages that Kroeger designed for Altman's Quintet (1979). Not once did I believe that I was looking upon real Persian architecture; it's all just a collection of fake, candy-colored sets that feel like they were built to inspire a Disney theme park ride. Aladdin was more believable than this.

The casting choices are the best thing about the movie. I always thought it was a good idea to cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince (his name in the movie is "Dastan"), and he does a decent job performance-wise--although the script miserably never gives him enough ammunition to anchor the picture. Gemma Arterton plays the princess Tamina as double-crossing and sexy, and she and Dastan exchange some witty lines of screwball banter in every other scene. As he did with House of Sand and Fog (2003), Ben Kingsley again proves that he is capable of playing a Persian-Iranian, and if you felt cheated that he didn't turn out to be the villain in Scorsese's Shutter Island, rest assured: he's the bad guy in this one. Alfred Molina seems to be having more fun that anyone else in the cast, as a small business sheik who teabaggingly protests the government for leaving small businesses with the tax burdens (in one of the movie's thinly-veiled political allegories). Toby Kebbell and Richard Coyle have screen presence as Dastan's brothers, although we are never for a moment able to believe that they are Persians; we see them as white actors, and they play their characters as white.

And that's a perfect lead-in to one of my first complaints about the movie: this is ancient Persia from an Anglo-Saxon of view. The characters worship "God" instead of "Allah"; the skin color of every single major character is either black or white (or half-Spaniard, in Molina's case); and everybody speaks with a very thick English dialect. I suspect that Disney just didn't want audiences to know that this story takes place in what is essentially now modern-day Iran. I'm not implying that the filmmakers are prejudiced towards Iranians or that the movie is conservative (the plot does involve a failed search for weapons of mass destruction), or even that there is anything wrong with white actors playing English-speaking Muslims. Howard Hawks did it with Land of the Pharaohs (1955), after all. But I would appreciate it if the movie had acknowledged its Muslim history and theology a little more appropriately, and it does not.

I beat the 2003 video game on my Nintendo Gamecube shortly before I went out to see the movie. From what I've observed, the film is only faithful to the game in the sense that Dastan makes a big mistake that affects the whole kingdom, and is forced to team up with the princess to find out how to use the magical Sands of Time Dagger to reverse back time and correct everything that has gone wrong. Both the game and the movie end with Dastan stabbing some kind of giant hourglass and reversing back time to face off with the villain.

But the key difference between the game and the movie is in the enemies that Dastan faces: what was so fun about the game is that Dastan accidentally causes everybody in the kingdom to transform into skeletal freaks and monsters. No such thing happens in the movie, in which the enemies are just armies of boring, cardboard-cut-out soldiers ordered to hunt down Dastan after he becomes a fugitive from the kingdom. This makes me wonder if the filmmakers were so uninterested in the story that they couldn't even expand the budget to allow the film's enemies to be monsters as they were in the game, even despite the fact that monsters were the enemies in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks.

The screenplay is so bloated and disorganized that for some reason it had to require the contributions of at least three writers--and Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard all seem to be straying about as far from Mechner's exotic ideas as possible. In a story that, as a video game, involved a lot of gritty slicing, dicing and awesome stunts, why have they filled the movie's screenplay with stupid little subplots like ostrich racing, and waitresses with elongated feathers on their heads? There is a scene in which Dastan gets in one of those fistfights where hordes of men are crowding around in a circle to cheer and bet on who wins, and this scene brings back ugly memories of a similar scene with Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Pearl Harbor (2001).

We can be thankful that Mike Newell is no Michael Bay (or Gore Verbinski), and although he has no doubt made a few turkeys in his career, he is also a solid craftsman who had accomplished plenty of smart films. I was hoping that with him directing Prince of Persia, he would be able to work with producer Jerry Bruckheimer in the same way that Ridley Scott worked so fantastically with Bruckheimer during the production of Black Hawk Down (2001). But Prince of Persia is not one of those movies, and whatever aesthetic conceptions Newell might have had are in short supply.

I did enjoy the way Newell films the time-reversal sequences: he has the characters look upon the dagger with astonishment, as the blade shines brightly, sands flies through the air, and oblivious characters in the background start moving backwards. And I like how Newell does not feel confined by the PG-13 rating and sometimes gleefully pushes the envelope of violence; a scene where a character's throat is slit is just as potent as the basement ambush in Donnie Brasco. And Newell pays special care to the strained relationship between Gyllenhaal and Kingsley's characters, much as he did to the strained relationship between Pacino and Depp in the earlier film. In effect, Newell tries his very hardest with the material he has.

I complained at the beginning of the review that I don't think Gyllenhaal's Dastan anchors the film very successfully. And that is true: the movie does not have much of a heart. I don't mind that Dastan isn't a three-dimensional character--how could he be, in a story where everybody is a stereotype? But I would have liked to see more emphasis on how unique of a protagonist Dastan is, and why we should be rooting for him at all. In the game, the Prince can do all sorts of amazing things: he can swing from one bar to the next, he can do backflips, he can run across walls for long periods of time, and he can kick off walls (whether he's going up or down).

In the movie, the Prince's skills are terribly restrained. They are treated with such a lack of care by the filmmakers that we get the impression that everything that Dastan does could have been done by just about anybody. In one of the few sequences where we actually see Dastan kicking off walls, Newell dreadfully elects to show it in long-shot. Why doesn't he want us to gaze upon Dastan's stunts with awe? Why is Dastan rarely ever even given the opportunity to perform a stunt? We have no reason to believe that Dastan is any more special a fighter or athlete than his brothers--or even his villainous old uncle.

I did, however, manage to smile when I saw a dedication in the end credits to the late Tomi Pierce. She of course was Jordan Mechner's co-writer on The Last Express, which is my favorite computer game of all time. There is a rumor going around that Mechner is planning a Last Express movie--perhaps to be directed by Paul Verhoeven. I look forward to this project with much anticipation, and I will even say this: if Verhoeven is forced to drop out, I am convinced that Newell would be a fitting replacement. If he and Mechner secure a first-rate screenplay and a knockout cast, the result could be one hell of a movie.