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The Last Machine (1995)
Classic Essays on Early Cinema
This television series deserves to be more widely known. Apart from the first episode, which deals with the antecedents of cinema and the early inventors and their surviving films, the majority deal with specific themes. Each was fronted by Terry Gilliam, assisted by a number of actors portraying a variety of scenes and events, in addition to the films themselves (which are all titled with date of production and director).
The whole series is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it adopts a truly international approach to the subject, instead of the usual focus upon American developments. Secondly, it places the development of cinema within a social and cultural context, with comments from thinkers as diverse as Freud and H.G. Wells. Thirdly, the sheer range of types of cinema is amazing....the first filmed surgical operation, early erotic/pornographic films, and issues of authenticity in reportage (the Boxer Rebellion filmed in Hove!)
If not already available, the series ought to be issued in DVD for both students and the interested general public.
Resistance and Reality
Prior to 'Manhunt', the majority of films about the French Resistance, certainly in Britain and America, were very simplistic boy's own adventure stuff about plucky men (and sometimes women), with little exploration of the issues relating to collaboration and resistance. 'Manhunt' changed all that.
Of course, it helped that it had literate scripts, fascinating characters, and superb performances. It was an instant T.V. 'hit'. But it was a superb history lesson. It showed the resistance movement as a collection of individuals with a variety of motives - Communists, Gaullists, evaders from labour service, and people with personal motives. They distrusted each other sometimes, and saw other groups as rivals. Similarly, the Germans were not monolithic. The S.S. and Gestapo hated the Abwere, and vice versa.
The most interesting character was Graz, the Abwhere intelligence officer, for he was on the fringe of the anti-Nazi resistance movement.
Consequently, you never really knew what happened from one episode to the next. That was what made it so exciting and watchable.
The series proved so popular that it was extended beyond the anticipated number of episodes.
In many ways 'Manhunt' prefigures themes in 'Army of Shadows' and 'Soldier of Orange'.
No Bananas (1996)
"Much in Little"
It was a T.V. series, not a big budget film, but you wouldn't think that once you have started to watch it. The episodes manage to cram in so much, and range so far and wide, that you really get the impression of a country at war at a variety of levels.
A literate script deals with the different aspects of the story lines with economy and fluency. Care is taken to create a period atmosphere that looks authentic, there is good characterisation (even the fascist sympathiser is seen as a well rounded person with his own motives), and excellent acting......but it doesn't stop there.
The Dunkirk episode manages to create an evocation of a mighty event so successfully, and on such a limited budget, that it bears comparison with the sequence in Atonement.
One of the best things that British television has produced in recent years.
The Wicker Man (2006)
So what did I make of the latest effort? It reminded me of a fish.....a fish out of water. To extend the comparison, it was like a gutted fish, though one that was trying to give the odd twitch of life now and again.
So what was missing? Context for the most part. Who were these people? What made them tick? We don't really know. If it is a fertility cult, there is (unlike the original), little exploration of this issue. That film was not sexually explicit, but it was shot through with innuendo and reference. This one isn't. So we have a fertility cult that is seemingly lobotomised. Was this a studio requirement?
Another odd thing. There's no music. The other film used music to set the scene. Here we have a pagan Celtic community in which music plays little or no part in their lives or rituals..
What else? Interesting characters, for a start. The protagonist was so flat that one didn't really care much about him. In fact, all the characters seemed to have but one dimension. It reminded me very much of one of those American 'made for TV' supernatural thrillers of the 1960s, with little exploration of anything beyond the plot line.
Ah....the plot. The following may include spoilers, if you care about such things. There is a mysterious car crash that may or may not have been engineered as part of a plot to lure the victim to the island. Fine. But the writers don't know how to capitalise upon it, so we get irritating flashbacks from time to time that add little or nothing to plot development or the build up of tension. Tension? Well, not as far as I was concerned, because there wasn't really any.
The only real question that anyone might ask is 'does he burn too'? Yes he does......but like an old curmudgeon, by this time I found myself saying 'thank god for that'!
The only twist to the plot is the revelation that the sacrificial victim has been long in the planning stage. It seems that his original girlfriend seduced him for the purpose of having his child before decamping to her island home. He later discovers (while on the island) that the missing child is his......not that it makes much difference to the acting.
And after a few months have passed since the burning, another emissary of the island cult is picking up another police cadet in a bar on the mainland......
I left the cinema pondering these questions. These people need a sacrificial victim as a sacrifice necessitated by crop failure. Fine. But he has been earmarked nearly a decade in advance. Do they have a long range forecasting facility? And then they are at it again.... Wait a minute! They obviously have a string of potential sacrificial victims that they keep in reserve against natural disasters. But if that is so, why do they all seem to be policemen? I mean, you would think the local forces would have noticed...
La Marseillaise (1938)
The Country is in Danger!
This film, despite being directed by Renoir, is largely forgotten today. This is a pity, as there are few films actually about the French Revolution (though it is used as a backdrop for a variety of plot lines), and none that really deal with the birth of the Republic.
It was made at the tail end of the 'Popular Front' government, a coalition of parties (including the communists) formed to protect the Third Republic from right-wing domestic subversion and the baleful influence of the Nazis.
It chose to use the early years of the revolution as a metaphor for this political situation - France was still a (constitutional) monarchy, and the King possessed the power of a constitutional veto. The Queen and her circle were said to be plotting a counter revolution.
Within this context, each city and region of France is requested to send a Battalion to Paris, to defend the government against its domestic enemies. We follow the adventures of some of the ordinary men in the battalion from Marseilles (who sing a new song called the "Marseilles" as they march. We see their experiences in Paris (including a love interest), and their simple and honest defence of what they believe in. Finally, they participate in the coup that leads to the establishment of the Republic and the arrest of the King.
The film is episodic, and some of the scenes are a little melodramatic. But the characterisation is excellent. The King and his court are not one-dimensional villains. The scene of his departure is quite moving.
In short, a film well worth rescuing from obscurity.
The Struggles for Poland (1987)
A Definitive History of Modern Poland
This mini series appeared at the right time - on the eve of the events that led to the collapse of the 'iron curtain' and at a time when the eyes of the world were focussed upon Poland. However, it was not a 'run of the mill' journalistic exercise. Instead, it attempted to tell the story of Poland in modern times - from a political, economic, and cultural point of view.
The script did the subject full justice. Episodes dealt with the growth of nationalism prior to 1914; the impact of the Great War and the birth of Polish independence; political and cultural life in the interwar period (including the differing roles of Pilsudski and Dmowski); the conflicting currents in the Jewish Community; the Second World War from the international point of view (including the saga of the Anders army) and the resistance movement; the communist takeover and Stalinism; the events of 1956 and the Gomulka era; and the general unravelling of the communist regime.
All this was covered by a lucid commentary and illustrated by a variety of film, some of it rather rare (material shot by Swedish journalists of anti communist protests and riots, for example). All manner of witnesses to historical events were interviewed, ranging from someone who fought in the Silesian border war to ex communist apparatchicks.
Sometimes, points were made in an interesting way - the boredom and claustrophobia of the later Gomulka regime illustrated by excerpts of Cybulski in 'Salto', and the use of popular song, cinema, and avant-gard poetry the inter-war episode. Indeed, the entire series is littered with poetry extracts, music, and excerpts from Polish feature films.
Anyone who wants to understand modern Poland must surely see this!
A Documentary Style Western
As a child, this television series fascinated me. It was, in essence, a western, but it was unlike any other example of the genre on television at the time. It was not so much that it was set in Canada in the eighteenth century (when it was a French colony), though that was interesting. For it was the approach to the story lines that made it stand out - a drama documentary approach that employed, from time to time, a narrator. (Of course, the episodes were based on real events, and the principal characters were historical personages.)
The majority of episodes were about incidents in exploration, and relations with the indian tribes. Interestingly enough, the details of everyday life were sometimes dealt with at length, including the construction of a winter shelter, hunting beaver, and the navigation of the great rivers by canoe.
Indeed, the series had some superb outdoor photography. It all seemed to be more realistic than offerings like 'Gunsmoke', which seemed very much rooted in the studio. (Where the characters seemed to spend most of their time in the marshal's office or the town saloon.)
To Kill a King (2003)
Although it presents endless possibilities for costume, action, and worthy 'English' performances, the English Civil War is not a fertile inspiration for films. It has, of course, featured as wallpaper in the 'bodice ripping' genre -'The Scarlet Blade' and 'The Moonraker'come to mind. It also provided the context for the excellent 'Witchfinder General', and the little known and undervalued 'Winstanley'. But there is only one film that comes anywhere near depicting the great and complex panoramic sweep of this period - 'Cromwell'.
I have to tell you that there still is.....for 'To Kill a King' corresponds to that animal most associated with the Puritans across the Atlantic. In short, it's a turkey. Oh, it could have amounted to something, for the ingredients are there if you look hard enough. But it would have helped if the scriptwriters and the director took time out to...well...read a history book.
Now, at this very moment, no doubt, dozens of people will immediately jump out of the woodwork and say 'but it's meant to be entertainment, not a historical documentary!' True enough, and as the credits say at the end, certain events have been altered for dramatic effect. I've no argument with that. If it had kept some sense of proportion, as in 'Michael Collins' (or 'Cromwell' for that matter) I would rest easy. But this film throws out the baby with the bathwater.
The whole of the civil war is reduced to a backdrop for an angst-ridden relationship. There is absolutely no-one else (apart from a pantomine villain) on the whole parliamentarian side, save Cromwell and Fairfax. It's like a seventeenth century version of Cameron's 'Titanic' without the special effects. The mutinous army? The Leveller 'agitators'? The Independent leaders? Not a sign of them! No, Cromwell and Fairfax call all the shots, have the king arrrested etc. etc.
Ah, you say, but that clears the ground for some fine characterisation and acting. Well....not really. You see, the characters of Cromwell and Charles I are absolutely fascinating, and we know so much about them from contemporary sources. In fact, much more interesting than what we get on the screen. The man who desperately wanted a constitutional settlement with the king; who was tolerant of divergent views; and ended up using the army to curb the tyrannical tendencies of the Presbyterian faction of Parliament (an amazing irony, if ever there was one), is depicted as a kind of seventeenth century Trotskyite, the kind of person trying to sell you 'Socialist Worker', complete with the glazed eyes. The man who was devoted to his family, liked music, and loved practical jokes, is played as a humourlous monomaniac. In short, Tim Roth's Cromwell verges on charicature.(At one point, I thought that he had turned into Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name', but it could have been the hat.)
Dougray Scott, as Fairfax, is the best thing in it - at least he seems half way believable (though not as a Yorkshireman). Charles I is something else. The real one was refined, courteous, and chaste. Presumably, Rupert Everett must have realised this, as it is evident that he put some time in watching the superb performance by Alec Guiness. (You can almost hear him thinking...'oh..it's about time that I stuttered again!') However this Charles is without charm - slapping his guard, sneering, and flirting with Fairfax's wife.... And then there is Denzil Holles. James Bolan does not appear that enthusiatic - in fact, he almost telephones his lines in.
On a positive note, the film has some moments that are unintentially hilarious. Charles accompanies Mrs. Fairfax on the virginals(?) as she gives a rendering of 'It was a Lover and His Lass'. Cromwell bursts in and starts heaving the furniture around just as they get to the 'hey nonny noes'. We later cut to the Tower of London for some curiously linked vignettes. After a torture session, one of Cromwell's guards hacks off a head for his master's delectation. Charles's Death Warrant is being signed before the trial by this evil lot. All this is done to the accompaniment of a choir of black gowned puritans chanting....no, not a jingle for Quaker Oats, but some strange dirge that is meant to symbolise ascetic intolerance. Yes, folks, nearly all the parliamentarians are sponsored by the breakfast food. Not only is this costume inaccurate, but it's slipshod and boring. After a reconciliation invoving some male bonding, Cromwell suggests Fairfax join him in invading Scotland in the same tone that a mate might propose calling for a curry after the pub shuts.
What else? Did you know that Cromwell pistolled street vendors of Charles I memorabilia? That he wasn't really a General until the war was over?
I'm not really sure who, exactly,this film is aimed at. It won't have the resonance of hokum like 'Braveheart' or 'The Patriot', for the text exposition at the start curves across the screen like battlesmoke. It doesn't have much in the way of action or sex. There aren't any fine dramatic performances. So what on earth were they trying to do?
Churchill's People (1974)
A Curious Historical Series that Flopped.
The concept of producing a series of short dramas linked to the framework of Winston Churchill's 'History of the Engish Speaking Peoples' probably seemed a good idea at the time. Each episode commenced with a short introduction to the historical topic, as if it was a reading from the book, fixing the context of the drama that was to follow. Unfortunately, each episode was scripted by a different author, and budget constraints meant that the production values usually left a great deal to be desired. The result was a very mixed bag - you never knew what you were getting.
Some episodes were unbelievably bad or unintentionally funny. Others did make an attempt, and a few stood out. A short play about the levellers in the English Civil War (the Burford mutiny)comes to mind, together with another taking an unusual look at the American revolution from the 'Tory' or loyalist side. Many of the prominent British TV actors of the time were cast in some odd historical roles - the sight of Arthur Lowe in a toga discussing the activities of the Picts can only be described as such.
The Captive Heart (1946)
We all have to help each other....
The prison camp is, in many ways, a metaphor for wartime Britain and its postwar hopes and aspirations. 'All sorts and conditions of men' are herded together in the camp, and despite the underlying tension, the boredom, and the self doubts, they must try and get along with each other. Indeed, it goes far deeper than that - they must try and look out for each other and protect each other.
And so they encourage the blind lad in his efforts to learn brail and come to terms with his blindness. A young 'tearaway' (a pre-war thief)comes to realise that even he has something to contribute. As the others try and think up a way of protecting the identity of a Czech hiding amongst them, he confesses that he knows how to open a safe, and can break into the orderly office and destroy the incriminating evidence.
There are little touches of humanity in terrible situations. The order is issued to manacle the prisoners as a reprisal for some Allied slight (this actually happened), and the elderly German reservist guard tries to indicate to the blind prisoner that he is only 'obeying orders' and doesn't want to do it. The invalid wife of a prisoner is told, back in England, that it is too risky to have her husbands baby, but she sacrifices herself in the hope that he will have a child to come home too. The blind lad tries to put off his girlfriend because he doesn't want to be a burden to her.
Some people find the main plot line a little contrived, but it is fascinating to see two strangers fall in love through a pretence.
And so wartime Britain entered the postwar world with all its hopes and fears. Sadly, with no visible common enemy to unite them, many of these hopes of a common caring humanity were not to be realised.