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This is a big picture, which deserves more exposure. In the early 60s
Universal was more known for fluffball (but high quality) Doris Day
product, but here they show their diversity by presenting what was
obviously a prestige picture. Bob Mulligan, who scored a hit with 'To
Kill a Mockingbird' in the same year, got to try his hand at an epic.
The main titles are perfect to set the mood: youthful Jerry Goldsmith's
talents as a composer are spectacular and atmospheric. He of course
used gamelans in his score, but he uses them with concise effect, and
without cliché. The graphics of the titles are very fine: colourful
maps guide us in to a strange 'exotic' place. Such a relief from the
sterile titles of today.
This film really made a big impression on me as a kid when I saw it on TV in the late 60s. 'Pan and scan' TV viewing had a definite mystique to it, as the process of squeezing anamorphic images into The Box automatically made the picture in question important. 'The Spiral Road' was no exception. But it IS important. I can imagine the grandeur of seeing it in a full-blown picture palace. Everything in the film is competently executed. I even remember the props, such as Rock's intriguing spherical fan on his bedside table.
The performances are excellent, reliable, and everyone really delivers. Burl Ives practically steals the show (as usual), and gets some good 'honeylamb' lines in. The aged Sultan is memorable. The fabulous Larry Gates, one of the greats, never disappoints. This role was a warm up for his deeper part as the missionary in 'The Sand Pebbles', a more profound companion to this picture.
'Lord Jim' of 1965 explores the same 'dark side of the jungle', only a century earlier. All three are outstanding examinations of the many dimensions of tropical and Asian colonialism, albeit from a Western viewpoint.
I agree that it's time this picture, and many more like it, was allowed into wider exposure via video/DVD. Vendors, take note!
PS: I just saw the DVD edition, and I was not disappointed. The picture holds up very well, though I would have wished for more Burl Ives in the last sequences. Russell Harlan's camera-work is outstanding, only matched by his work on 'Hawaii' a few years later.
One of those special films I can watch over and over again, noticing
new details on each viewing, "The Spiral Road" hasn't even made it to
video--my own copy was taped off the air long ago--yet it seems to have
enjoyed a long life on television. Even harder to find than the film is
the book on which it's based, written by Jan De Hartog, whose other
works are easily found in most libraries.
The book is very Dutch is setting and tone, and this was predictably softened in the film: Dr. Anton Zorgdrager becomes Dr. Anton Drager, Dr. Brzhezinska-Jansen becomes Dr. Brits Jansen, et cetera. Much of the soul-searching in the book is lost, though not all. In particular, the very seamy backstory of Salvation Army Captain Willem Wattereus is completely missing from the film, though Geoffrey Keen is skilled enough to convey, through looks and movement, the suggestion of uncharted depths in a character reduced by the script almost to cardboard.
It is fine performances that make this film work. Rock Hudson has always, I believe, been underrated as a dramatic actor--although this is beginning to change, as new audiences discover his brilliant performance in the video release of "Seconds." Too bad they can't find "Spiral" on video as well. He made it just before "Seconds," and he's just as good, striking the perfect balance of competence and arrogance as an opportunistic and atheistic young doctor who comes to the then-Netherlands East Indies in the late '3O's to fulfill his contract: five years of service in return for a government-financed education--during which he will confront cunning natives (the whites' contempt for them is a subtle undertone carefully controlled by director Robert Mulligan), God and himself.
Other standout performances: Burl Ives as Dr. Brits Jansen, modulating perfectly the rolling transitions of his larger-than-life character from cynicism to wonder, gravity to buffoonery; Gena Rowlands as Els, the "girl" from back home, valiantly overcoming the "fainthearted" stereotyping of her part, the afore-mentioned Keen, the always-reliable Robert F. Simon, and Philip Abbott in a role pivotal to the plot.
UPDATE (12/O6): After forty-four years, this fine film is now available on DVD. What a wonderful surprise--thank you, Universal.
Any Rock Hudson or Burl Ives fan would have to agree this is a movie that
needs to be seen in order to fully appreciate these actors' work because
both performances are outstanding. The Jerry Goldsmith music is noteworthy
This is not a "great" movie and it always struck me as having too weak an
ending, but the scenes and performances (especially Hudson and Ives
together) are above average. The minor roles of the Sultan and the witch
doctor Burubi are also worth seeing.
With such bad movies on DVD it's sad this film is being overlooked (I'd have to assume it's a legal problem regarding rights.) TV viewing (when it appears that is!) doesn't do it justice since I've seen it edited into sheer confusion and it really should be seen in widescreen and remastered in digital sound! There are truly memorable scenes that you'll always recall - the rats fleeing the village and Hudson being guided through the jungle (anyone who has seen the film will know exactly what I mean!) There are also comic moments as well. I just recently discovered an old battered copy of the novel and reading the party scene where chaos breaks out reminded me how much I'd like to see this movie UNCUT again!
Hopefully - sometime in the near future - this minor gem will be released!
"The Spiral Road" has stuck in my memory ever since I saw it on TV decades ago, and I have always wanted to see it uncut and widescreen. The supporting roles are uniformly good: especially Gena Rowlands, in confident and alluring form as the sophisticated Els (and still turning in moving performances as of 2005's "The Notebook"). But this is largely a two-man vehicle for Burl Ives and Rock Hudson--and especially in the concluding scenes, nearly a one-man tour-de-force for Hudson. This is not the shallow handsome-guy Rock often had to play. He makes the most of the chance to display depth and intensity as the arrogant, atheistic city doctor who comes to the jungle with scorn for the locals, and especially for missionaries. Burl Ives shows neither the sentimental cuteness of "Frosty the Snowman" nor the over-the-top bombast of Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"--his Dr. Jansen is kind and realistic, a savvy jungle survivor and a practical mentor. Notably, for a film with a clear eye toward colonialist excesses, missionaries are not stereotyped here, but we see examples of both self-righteous culture-tramplers and people of self-sacrificing faith. Ives delivers my favorite line: "Out here in the jungle, the Lord has a way of sorta putting his thumb on people that don't believe in him."
I saw The Spiral Road as a teen-aged boy in 1963. It was the most
impactful movie of that period in my life, creating an emotional
impression in me that lingers to this day. Indeed, I cannot hear
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony without vividly recalling the scratchy
recording playing in that remote colonial outpost as the two linked
protagonists each struggled with their personal demons.
The plot of The Spiral Road takes the viewer on a journey not unlike that described in Heart of Darkness; thematic elements contained in the plot become metaphors for larger lessons to be learned regarding colonialism, missionary fervor, the hegemony of Western medicine, and the absolutism of good versus evil as understood by Calvinist colonists.
The superb cast easily sustains the epic scope and grandeur of the film while the intelligent and artful script relates a story that is at once compelling and horrifying.
Hollywood moguls; please get a clue. The Spiral Road belongs in the DVD libraries of discerning film viewers the world over!
After I finished watching "The Spiral Road" -regretting that the failed end product had been directed by Robert Mulligan, the same man who did "To Kill a Mockingbird"- I was surprised to know that both films were released the same year. After both, Mulligan (a long time associate of Alan J. Pakula) started a chain of fine motion pictures, with favorites as "Love with the Proper Stranger", "Up the Down Staircase", "Summer of '42", "The Other" and "The Man in the Moon". But something went wrong in "The Spiral Road", and I believe it has to do mostly with the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Neil Paterson. Everything seems okay in the first 90 minutes or so: I thought the story was in the lines of the Mexican film "Amok" ( based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) and the Argentinean real-life account "Houses of Fire", in which doctors fight in faraway places against strange diseases; and it also reminded me of "Gorillas in the Mist" or "Never Cry Wolf", which were based on fact. Here Rock Hudson plays Dutch doctor Anton Drager who convinces the head of the colonial health service in Batavia to assign him to a leper colony ruled by bright scientist Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), a man who might have made great advances in the study of leprosy, but who has neither ordered, compiled nor published his findings. Hudson brings conviction to the role of a man whose upbringing by a religious father has turned him into a nihilistic cynic, a rude and opportunistic scientist. Then the character of Els (Gena Rowlands) is introduced, things start to shake. It's a pity because it has nothing to do with the 1930s character or with Rowlands, who is good as usual. It is just the turning point when things begin to go bad. An endless sequence portraying the "decadence" of Dutch colonialists in a party (it's been reported that "Mulligan filmed it in Suriname with old colonial Dutch types, who were very mad when the film was released, because he had fooled them into re-enacting a colonial party") is followed by the introduction of a dwarf as comic relief. Soon Drager and Jansen disagree, argue and separate, the former starts to drink, and the third act turns into an embarrassingly silly and kilometric search for spirituality. Somebody must have told Mulligan or the adapters of Jan de Hartog's novel, that filming the spirit or the spiritual life is no easy task, and that capturing its search on film stock, a privilege reserved to a few: Dreyer, Rossellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, among the prominent... But works as Fleming's "Joan of Arc", King's "The Song of Bernadette", Rook's "Siddharta", Zeffirelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", Jewison's "Agnes of God", or Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" are failed intents. While Drager goes in circles in the jungle, Jansen disappears from the film, and his place is taken by a evil witch doctor, played by Reggie Nalder, whom I wrongly thought that I had seen doing all, from Hitchcockian assassin to green vampire. Then the film ends abruptly after Drager experiences a "moment of illumination" (as reported, mocked by Monty Python) in the spiral road to spirituality. A real shame, because for Universal-International (which I remember that in those days was perceived as the corny studio) it meant a serious super-production, and it shows. Take also note of Jerry Goldsmith's score: if Bernard Herrmann borrowed in 1946 a few notes from traditional music of the Pacific for his "Anna and the King of Siam" score, then Goldsmith chose the same. If not, Goldsmith seems to have lifted Herrmann's main theme.
One of Rock Hudson's best dramatic performances is to be found in The
Spiral Road. Coming in the midst of all those screen comedies he made
with Doris Day and others it's often overlooked. But don't you overlook
The Spiral Road casts Rock Hudson back in the day when Indonesia was a colonial possession of the Dutch and called the Dutch East Indies. Rock is a newly minted doctor his education paid for by the Netherlands and he owes them five years of colonial service. But he intends to make it pay for him.
His intention upon arriving in Batavia which is what Jakarta was called way back when is to wangle service with Burl Ives who is a doctor who has a great reputation of treating leprosy. But he also hasn't published in 20 years and his knowledge with a little editing from Rock would land him a top research job.
Ives is a crusty old soul, but a real humanitarian, a kind of Albert Schweitzer wrapped in burlap. They take to each other even after Ives finds out what Hudson's doing and even after Hudson's sweetheart Gena Rowlands comes in from the Netherlands to be with him. They even marry though she stays in Batavia weeks at a time.
Hudson's going through a spiritual crisis and is convinced of the fact that he needs nothing in the way of any kind of faith to help him in life. His father was a bible thumping hypocrite, a modern day Pharisee as he describes him. It's turned him into quite the atheist.
He's going to need something to refuel his psyche when he's caught out in the jungle matching wits with a witch doctor on his own turf. Those last 20 minutes or so when Rock the matinée idol turns into something like Cro-Magnon man are something to see.
The Spiral Road is not a pretty picture of colonialism, in this case the Dutch variety. The scenes of the drunken revelry among the rich planters with Ives even joining in the fun are revealing. One of the best performances in the film is that of Phillip Abbott as another doctor who has totally assumed an air of white supremacy to mask a whole lot of insecurities.
The opposite of him is Geoffrey Keen who is a member of the Salvation Army and who runs the leper colony. One of the most moving scenes in the film is Keen, Ives, and Hudson at the bedside of Keen's wife who has become a leper. She's never shown because of the curtains around her bed, but it's clear she's in the final stages. Keen is concerned for her, but not much more so than he is for all the people in his charge. Another key scene is when Hudson and Ives discuss his recommendations based on Ives's case study notes. It sounds like a plea for privatization which you hear often these days from folks on the right. Get rid of the ones who are able to fend for themselves and a non-religious run colony is the best way to do it. The problem says Ives is that due to the misconceptions about leprosy these people have no place else to go.
Some viewers might also object to The Spiral Road's overtly Christian message. One of the other characters is a native Moslem doctor who also falls prey to that witch doctor and Hudson's character remarks that his prayer rug wasn't enough to keep him from any harm. Of course atheist, Christian, and Moslem are all not playing in their own ballpark.
Despite the great acting and the wonderful location color cinematography which will remind you a lot of The Mission. It should because The Spiral Road was also shot in Surinam when it was still Dutch Guiana. The Spiral Road's message is not all that clear. It wants to be Christian, but can't quite come to grips with the concept.
I think that Hamlet said it best when he remarked to Horatio that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." That's the message the film gives out.
The main problem with "the spiral road" is that's it's inevitably too
long and as the movie moves at a tortoise's pace ,it may repel some
well before Gena Rowlands appearance,45 min from the beginning.
One of Rock Hudson's most ambitious movies (along with Sirk's movies and "seconds" )he does not look comfortable in this almost metaphysical tale where God himself plays a prominent part ;many scenes deal with religion and the fact that man can't do without God ,even if he devotes his life to lepers or plague-stricken crowds: there's the drunken doctor who will have a bad end ;Ives' wife ,a martyr who smiles when she learns she will die a horrible death;Ives himself on the boat ,telling his colleague he feels God in the nature,which is not obvious in the city;Hudson's memories (without flashbacks,which is better) when he recalls he told God he did not like Him and he dared Him to kill him right now;Hudson's moments of doubt and fear in the final scenes in which the sorcerer can be looked upon as an equivalent of the Devil.
Some of Mulligan's flair for eerie disturbing atmosphere would emerge again in later works such as " the stalking moon" and its "enemy" as omnipresent as he is almost invisible and "the other" in which he creates terror in the midday sun.
When allowed to ACT, Rock Hudson was capable of great things. The
Spiral Road is one of those times when he gives a tour-De-force
performance. He was always under-rated and yet always managed to
deliver - and then some!
My memory of this movie is vivid. I saw it in its original theatrical release, but never saw it on TV. And yet, the film remains in my memory ... I believe the DVD is missing a pertinent scene - between Anton and Els. It marks an important turning point in the audience's understanding of Anton. Those who saw the original will know which scene I am referring to.
Thank you, Universal for finally putting out a Rock Hudson - Screen Legends package. You included The Spiral Road and I am grateful, as every one of his fans is.
"The Spiral Road" is moderately interesting but also a bit meandering
and very oddly cast. So much of the plot seems random and casting a
whole lot of very Americans in the roles to Dutch men and women seemed
odd. After all, when I think of Rock Hudson, I don't think of him as
being from the Netherlands.
The film is set on Java when it was part of the Dutch East Indies (i.e., before their independence in 1949). Exactly when is uncertain but it appears to be just after WWII--but this is only an educated guess. It could have been much earlier--though the clothing and haircuts would not suggest this. The story is about a rather difficult to like new doctor (played by Hudson). However, instead of being a coherent story in the traditional sense, so much of the story of what occurs to him seemed very random. The first portion involved his volunteering to work in the middle of nowhere with lepers just to get a chance to work with a world famous doctor (Burl Ives). This occupies a large part of the film. However, later he marries, appears to have cheated on his wife with a native (this is VERY vague), runs around spouting that God does not exist (and acts a bit hateful in some ways about this) and then gets caught up in the middle of some odd terrorist movement led by a voodoo practitioner--where he is tormented in the middle of the jungle. If you are looking for any sort of theme or hidden message, I sure couldn't find one and just felt it was very disjoint and strange. The overall effect isn't bad...but it could easily have been so much better. Oddly, no real mention of the war or push for independence nor did you really learn anything about the natives--and surely they were more to it than just a voodoo dude and his tribe of crazies! Somewhat incoherent and I really learned very little about Indonesia and New Guinea in this one. Also, the film seems to endorse colonialism--which is strange and morally suspect.
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