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In 1456, French king Charles VII recalls the story of how he met the 17 year-old peasant girl Joan of Arc, entrusted her with the command of the French Army and ultimately burned her at the stake as a heretic.
When Arthur Davis, a junior bachelor in the British secret service's African section, is seen taking a file with him -to meet his girlfriend Cynthia- the brass fears he may be the leak to Moskow, and allows Dr. Percival to terminate the 'risk factor' by poisoning to avoid a scandal. In fact Davis's desk chief, Maurice Castle, is the double agent since the South African communists helped him smuggle out his black lover Sarah M., meanwhile his wife and mother of schoolboy Sam, to force him to cooperate with the Apartheid government. When Cornelius Muller, the South African official who failed to get him in Pretoria's power, visits London for the anti-communist operation Uncle Remus, he points out Castle still is the natural suspect... Written by
Tom Stoppard's adaptation, and Preminger's direction, seem to have produced a stylish and grown-up filmed interpretation of Greene's sardonic yet moving condemnation of the cruelty of the Cold-War, during which both the Left and the Right have forgotten 'The Human Factor.'
Both the West and the Soviets are portrayed as they execute a risibly elephantine yet humanly appalling dance of death over the crushed lives of ordinary, decent people.
This remarkably accomplished and understated politico/moral thriller is a far more effective translation of an immeasurably greater book than is the more recent film of John Le Carre's original novel of 'The Tailor of Panama.' The latter film in particular entirely fudges the politics of Noriega's Panama, and the United States' role therein. Preminger's film, by contrast, is amazingly honest and balanced, for its period, about the protagonists of the fraught global struggle of its time. In this it is faithful to Greene's intentions.
No doubt the earlier film was critically sunk by its evident contempt for the received political 'wisdom' of its age. And by its willingness to entertain the possibility that the 'democratic' West could quite easily countenance Nazi-style medical research, both for the removal of inconvenient individuals like the wretched Davis, and for sale to strategic allies like apartheid-era South Africa in the form of a poison gas 'cordon sanitaire' between them and black Africa. Certainly, even the best American reviews (which always heavily preponderate on this Website), while they 'condemn with faint praise,' studiedly avoid any mention of the political and moral core of the film. This is to circumvent, and to radically subvert, the integrity of a serious work.
However, anyone who has actually grown up since then should enjoy and appreciate this rather brilliant - if neglected - film version of a Grahame Greene classic: Script, performances, design and filming are uniformly excellent. It is far, far more than a spy-thriller. Greene's original is faithfully followed into areas that Le Carre merely touches upon.
Special praise and thanks, therefore, to BBC4's original and brave choice to programme it on their new British channel, recently! Naturally, it is not commercially available in Britain. American capitalism, however - to its partial credit! - is capable of allowing this film to exist at least as a product, relying on dialectical hostility to effectively police the public's exposure to such an evidently heretical viewpoint! Sufficient numbers of people will always helpfully parrot the 'official line' that is peddled by our cultural 'commissars' in order to prevent such views spreading in the wildfire manner which a truly free exchange of ideas would permit. Their critical contempt for the viewing public is obviously justified, I regret to say.
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