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|4 reviews in total|
Joseph Conrad's excellent short novel "Heart of Darkness" serves as the
basis for a film that has certain strengths, although it should be
better than it is. The novel is a frame story: An unnamed narrator
recounts Marlow's description of his long journey up the Congo River to
locate an ivory trader named Kurtz.
Marlow tells the story to several men aboard "a cruising yawl" near London. His first comment about London--"And this too has been one of the dark places of the world"--sets the tone for the remainder of the novel. By its end, the unnamed narrator, who has never seen the Congo and who is upset by Marlow's tale, finds himself looking "into the heart of an immense darkness."
Among memorable episodes in the film are the brief depiction of Brussels, which Marlow in the novel calls "The Sepulchral City"; "The Grove of Death," which shows starving Africans who have been abused by greedy white explorers; Mfumo's relationship with Marlow; Marlow's encounter with Kurtz; the latter's treatment of his pet monkey; Marlow's visit to "The Intended"; and the final horrors of Kurtz's life. If you watch the setting around Kurtz's cabin, you'll be able to imagine what "the horrors" are.
In the 20th and again in the 21st century, I lived in Paris and London: I was able to learn a great deal about French and English culture and history. In England, I spent considerable time at Canterbury Cathedral, where the infamous murder occurred. I was therefore interested in the 1964 film 'Becket' both for its history, whether accurate or not, and for the subtle existential themes embedded in it, as indicated by the subtitle, 'The Honor of God.' In the 1990s I saw a superb live performance of the play at a fine theater in the city where I live. Finally, when I was in Britain during 2007, I saw the 1964 film again. To my disappointment, I found it badly dated (I have read that film dates quickly). Peter O'Toole overacts in his role as Henry II. Sian Phillips, by contrast, is excellent as the mistress of 'old Tom, gay Tom.' The fact that Phillips was married to O'Toole for about twenty years adds considerable irony to the film.
"The Hound of the Baskervilles" is not my favorite Sherlock Holmes
film: There are problems with the hound no matter how it is portrayed,
and the violence in the film is disturbing. "The Hound" has perhaps
suffered from overexposure; it is by all odds the most famous of the
Sherlock Holmes tales. It lacks the substance of other full-length
Holmes films, such as "The Sign of Four" and "The Master Blackmailer."
And it lacks the horror of "The Last Vampire," which Conan Doyle wrote
as a tribute to his friend Bram Stoker, the celebrated author of
The acting in the Sherlock Holmes films is consistently good. For me as for many other people, Jeremy Brett was the quintessential Holmes. It is a pity he is no longer around to play the part, and an even greater pity that the Holmes films are being remade in what promises to be a greatly inferior version.
I have watched the 1997 television production of "Ivanhoe" dozens of
times, and I have taught the Sir Walter Scott novel on which it is
based to university graduate-literature classes. The novel is good; the
film is superb; Deborah Cook should be highly commended for her
adaptation of Scott's complicated narrative, whose color and vigor make
it a natural subject for a film. The book has many narrative strands;
the film is better able to portray the shifts among them than was
Scott, despite his extraordinary gifts as a writer. In the film, smooth
editing was perhaps deliberately avoided in order to make plain the
shift from one narrative line to another.
Readers and reviewers often complain that Ivanhoe and Rowena are less interesting than are other of Scott's figures. I will simply remark that Scott knew they were less interesting than were his other characters and that he perhaps deliberately made them so. In both the book and the film, they carry heavy symbolic burdens. Ivanhoe is a Normanized Saxon who is loyal both to his Norman king, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and his Saxon father, Cedric: He represents the future of England, in which, as Scott says, the Normans and the Saxons eventually came together. Rowena, for her part, represents the natural hopes of Cedric and others for the restoration of the Saxons to the throne of England, while in the film her spirited denunciation of Cedric, who is her guardian, and of the Templar Knight Bois-Guilbert makes her lively nature clear. Scott while writing the book was aware that that readers might find Rowena less than fascinating, so he took pains to state that despite her blonde hair she escapes the dullness that sometimes afflicts fair-haired heroines because of her regal bearing and her proud lineage (in the book it is she, not Athelstane, who is descended from Alfred the Great).
The film stays remarkably close to the book, for the most part. Its departures from the book are necessary and praiseworthy. The portrayal of the Jewish characters in particular is outstanding. Isaac in the book is elderly and timid; in the film he is middle-aged and heroic. Rebecca in the book is not so prominent as she is in the film, and she is attracted to Ivanhoe, whereas he is not particularly attracted to her. By making Rebecca the central figure in the film and by having her fall in love with Ivanhoe and he with her, the makers of the film adapted Scott's narrative brilliantly.
In both the book and the film, Rebecca's courage when she is told she will burn at the stake is breathtaking. It is natural to wish--as dozens if not hundreds or thousands of readers and viewers have wished--that Rebecca had married Bois-Guilbert, or, alternatively, Ivanhoe. But in the twelfth century it would have been virtually impossible for a Christian and a Jew to marry. The fact makes the conclusion of the film especially poignant--particularly when Rebecca visits Rowena to assure her, "I never loved your husband, nor he me," when in fact she and Ivanhoe have fallen deeply in love.
The film is deliberately realistic, and sensibly so for an unromantic age. The tournament, for example, takes place in the woods, as tournaments probably did in the medieval era. Moreover, Scott himself disliked the romanticism associated with chivalry. In the book, Rebecca repeatedly denounces the institution to Ivanhoe, and Scott himself remarks that in King Richard "the brilliant, but useless, character of a knight of romance was in a great measure realised and revived." Scott's sentiments are echoed in Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine's reproach to Richard near the end of the film. She says she has no patience with weak, vainglorious men, no matter how much they clothe themselves in boyish charm. She also stresses the fact that Richard's brother Prince John, although he is a "miserable little runt," has saved the kingdom from bankruptcy. And she sensibly reproaches Richard for spending so little time in England--"Three months?" "Four?"--once he had assumed the throne.
Historical fiction and the films that are based on it pose particular problems, which have not escaped the notice of readers or reviewers. During Scott's lifetime, readers objected that his introduction of Robin Hood into the narrative was anachronistic. A recent reviewer of the film objects to the Scandinavian deities such as Zernebock that are mentioned in the book. Long before the reviewer, Scott's 1970s biographer Edgar Johnson acknowledged that Zernebock "was not even a Scandinavian god but a Slavonic idol" (Johnson, Volume I, p. 745).
Writers of fiction, finally, are at liberty to invent as they please. The constraints of fiction that employs history leave it more vulnerable to criticism than are works that are assumed to be entirely imaginary. But in this general connection, I will observe that historians such as Hayden White observed decades ago that written history itself involves repeated acts of imagination.--By the way, in both the book and the film, the given name of Beaumanoir, the Grand Master of the Templar Knights, is "Lucas," not "Lucard."
I will close with a cautionary observation. The splendid pageantry of both film and book obscures the fact that each tells a grim story that includes treachery and murder. The film is extremely violent. Violence in film affects the viewer directly. In print it is somewhat less direct. But the book is, finally, more violent, and far darker, than the film.
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