An arrogant young doctor helps an eccentric older doctor care for natives in the Dutch West Indies circa 1936. Challenged by love, leprosy and black magic, he undergoes a series of ordeals on a spiritual journey through the jungles of Java.Written by
Gary R. Peterson
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.
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