Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

If I’m back on the GHP, there must be another hokey old historical epic on Netflix! And so it seems. The film in question is 1963’s Kings of the Sun, a sword-and-sandal epic inspired … loosely … by the Mound Builder cultures of historic and prehistoric North America.

kings_of_the_sun

So who were the Mound Builders? The term is used to describe a wide range of Native American cultures over a long period, and strictly speaking there’s no such thing as “the” Mound Builders. What these cultures have in common is the practice of building large mounds, often for ceremonial purposes. The similarity of these platforms to the pyramids built by cultures further to the south has often been noted.

Kings of the Sun takes the position that at least one mound builder culture was the result of settlement along the Gulf coast by refugees from the overthrow of the ruling dynasty of Chichen Itza in the late 12th or early 13th century. But although I say that, it’s a pretty silly thing to say about the plot of this movie, which is only very loosely tied to the historical premise.

Anyway, George Chakiris (Bernardo from West Side Story) is the king of Chichen Itza, right, but bad old Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon) overthrows him and he flees with his motley band of advisers, including a cranky old priest (Richard Basehart) and a bluff warrior guy (Brad Dexter). Along the way they pick up the inhabitants of a fishing village, notably the chief’s lovely daughter Ixchel (Shirley Anne Field), and sail off north, finally making their way to Texas where they meet up with a Native American tribe led by Black Eagle (Yul Brynner). Black Eagle and whatsisface (Oh, OK, he’s called Balam) compete for the love of Ixchel, they fight, they make up, the baddie attacks, they beat him, and Black Eagle dies, neatly solving the love triangle.

Kings of the Sun is a brightly-coloured, thumping-scored, completely disposable Hollywood spectacle, similar in a lot of ways to Taras Bulba and in fact directed by the same guy. It’s just a big loud pile of who cares, but it has some interesting bits in it:

  • The Maya get to wherever they are by sailing across the Gulf of Mexico, but wherever they go, it seems to have saguaro. This is weird because, as we all know:
  • Boy, Hollywood has never found an ethnicity it wasn’t willing to cast Yul Brynner as, huh? Even so, he wears a lot of brown paint in this one and hoo boy it’s uncomfortable.
  • The usual Hollywood history rapemance plotline gets inverted here: it’s Black Eagle who gets captured and wins over one of his captors rather than the lady getting won over by the guy holding her prisoner. There is a lot of Yul Brynner’s oily body writhing around all tied up.
  • It’s sort of charming how much leaping around these guys do. It’s interesting to see a period where action heroes weren’t superheroes — fit, athletic people, obviously, but not as exaggerated as they would later become.
  • There’s a standard science-vs-superstition bit in the middle where our hero, being a right guy, objects to human sacrifice. He objects so hard that Richard Basehart kills himself, even. Yul Brynner talks a lot about buffaloes.
  • There is a pretty good bit where they tell Yul Brynner that they’re going to execute them where he stands and accuses them all, with his face in shadow but the whole rest of his body brightly lit. It’s pretty good. Unfortunately it’s the only time that the corny, melodramatic staging of this movie really comes off.
  • Speaking of Taras Bulba, it is amazing how much they want George Chakiris to be Tony Curtis. In fact, there are a lot of people in historical epics of whom this is true. I dub them: Phony Curtis.
  • Anyway, it’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s bad, it’s not … as racist as it could be, I guess, maybe, but hire a Native actor to play a Native role every now and again, classic Hollywood, would it kill you?
Advertisements
Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

Movie Monday: William the Conqueror (2017ish)

A French film about William the Conqueror on newly-acquired Amazon Prime, you say? When pal Kit tipped me off about this one, I put it down on the list to watch when I got some free time. After all, William I is one of Britain’s national heroes and national villains, and it would be interesting to see what he looked like from the other side of the Channel, right?

Right?

Oh well.

WILLIAM_THE_CONQUERER_AMAZON-564x800

It’s not that bad, to be honest; it’s just a little … matter-of-fact.

We start on the eve of invasion in 1066. William is waiting to launch the invasion of England, tentatively waiting for the news — presumably of Hardrada’s invasion — to arrive. He appoints Robert Curthose his heir in a moment that is supposed to be symbolic of hope and future promise, both weird emotions to associate with Robert.

Anyway, all this talking about Robert’s future prompts gruff old William FitzOsbern, here called “Wilhelm,” presumably to avoid confusion, to reminisce to young Robert about when William were just a lad …

… and that’s the actual story of the movie. It’s about the anarchy that prevailed in Normandy following the death of Robert the Magnificent. Ickle babby William is forced to go scurrying around the countryside with only a handful of loyal vassals, etc., etc., while mean old baddie Ranulf chases him around. I think Ranulf is one of the nobles who rebelled against William in the 1040s, expanded into a generic villain who murders people out of hand and sneers and wears black.

Anyway, good old Osbern entrusts William to a band of Vikings who are pagans — in the 1040s? I guess there were probably still some pagans kicking around then, but the whole group? I dunno.

Anyway, William goes off to have adventures with the Vikings, who tell him the story of Rollo in a scene that’s kind of grey-blue and washed out to indicate that it’s a flashback, despite the fact that this is also a flashback. There is a witchity Viking lady named Hel, which … well, whatever. They get him to safety, having delivered their history lesson without any of that nasty old conflict or plot.

William and his companions Wilhelm and Gui frolic in the rustic simplicity of wherever it is and then they all grow up into adults who similarly enjoy frolicing in rustic simplicity and a-chasing the wild deer in a scene that will make you too say OK, OK, I get it! Gui falls in the water, which is extremely hilarious. Ah, youthful hijinks!

All this good-natured hilarity can have the effect of making you realise that you are halfway through a film about William the Conqueror and there has been not one battle and not much in the way of intrigue; mostly just some pontificating on the nature of leadership and a good deal of travel. However, we are starting to get the feeling that Gui is a surly little swine who is going to end up betraying everyone.

If I had to sum this middle sequence up in one word, I would call it leisurely. Lots of slow, gentle conversations. Not a lot of tension or excitement. You might find this puzzling until you watch the big fight scene that takes place when bad old Ranulf tries to kill young William. It’s … ropey. It has the universal ropey signifier of people in mail coats dropping dead when someone drags a sword over their tummies, which is a particular bugbear of mine, largely because it happens about every 30 seconds in Game of Thrones.

I don’t know if you have ever worn a mail coat, but they are made of interlinked metal rings. Fundamentally, they are made of metal, and although they have vulnerabilities they are pretty good at protecting people from sword cuts. I realise that that makes fights hard to choreograph, because fighting someone who has body armour and a shield is a tiresome process of trying to hit them in the face, hands, shins, or whatever and not super cool looking, but there you have it. The tummy-cut just looks dumb.

So a fight happens while portentous video-game-tier music plays. Ranulf kills Osbern and tries to pressure William into abdicating, but William is defiant. “Wilhelm” grows a scruffy little beard.

Then stuff starts to happen! A really mild Viking funeral! Grappling hooks! Sneaking into places! Riding around on a horsie! Daring escapes! Basically, the film turns the “adventure” dial up to 75% and kicks into a sequence of fights, infiltrations, escapades and strategic discussions that would have made a mildly disappointing episode of your third-favourite adventure.

Oh snap! It turns out Gui has switched sides and is working with Ranulf, so he and “Wilhelm” have a bit of a half-speed fight and Gui gets beat, a fact that is a total surprise because … he has been consistently shown throughout the movie to be the student in their swordfightin’ relationship … ?

Wounded, William is captured by a rebel baron — oh wait, no he’s not! He’s a nice baron after all, and with his help William goes off to France and meets Henri I, who offers to help.

I have to say that the costumes, armour and weapons in this movie mostly look pretty good except for some of the named characters, which makes me believe there are a lot of reenactors in this thing. They certainly do that reenactor thing of keeping time by drumming your weapons against your shields as you march, and they have the usual reenactorly high ratio of swords and other hand weapons to spears.

Battle battle, stab stab, horsie horsie, shakey camera movements, Henri I looking like a weenie because this is a movie about Normans by gum, choirs are singing so you know it’s important, William captures Ranulf, and “Wilhelm” doesn’t kill Gui because Gui lived to a ripe old age. And so we flash forward to “Wilhelm” telling the same story to ickle Robert and huzzah huzzah we’re off to conquer England the end.

You know, I didn’t think you could make a dull movie about the life of William the Conqueror, and yet here we are.

 

Movie Monday: William the Conqueror (2017ish)

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

timthumb

So, first things first. I somehow missed that this movie was directed by Mel Gibson; under ordinary circumstances I would not support or endorse his work. However, I was halfway through this film, looking stuff up for this blog post, when I found it out, so whoops. I decided to finish it anyway.

So, anyway, Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a guy called Desmond Doss. Doss was a conscientious objector in WWII: as a Seventh Day Adventist, his beliefs forbid him from engaging in violence or carrying a weapon. he still wanted to serve, however, and ended up becoming a medic. He won the Medal of Honour for doing some stuff that was so outrageous they actually leave part of it out of the movie, presumably because it was either narratively inconvenient or ridiculously implausible. Check it out for yourself here. 

I said this was a war movie earlier; what I meant was that it is a War Movie. I don’t know to what extent the details are based on Doss’ actual experiences, and I’m open to the suggestion that it’s all true, but I mean, he turns up in his unit and within minutes he meets a guy called Tex who is doing a lasso trick. There’s also Grease, Teach, Hollywood, Smitty, and so on. It’s a bit … on the nose.

It’s not shy about its scenes of human destruction, either. It’s like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan turned up to a million zillion, with bone fragments and spurting arteries and people writhing around on fire and whatnot. I suppose I should have expected that from the guy who brought us The Passion of the Christ and, to a lesser extent, Apocalypto. I think that some indication of the devastation that war wreaks on the fragile human body is 100% valid for a movie about a combat medic who’s also a pacifist; I’m just saying it’s not for the squeamish.

I suppose this validates the decision to create all those one-note squaddie characters, since these are the guys who you see later on getting their various parts blown off and their faces shot full of holes. It does give it more impact, corny as the setup might have been.

It’s kind of interesting to see a movie that takes a religious commitment to pacifism seriously, although the film complicates this with some stuff about Doss’ dad’s traumatic experiences in WWI and also his history of drunken abuse and so on, giving Doss multiple reasons to be unhappy with the idea of violence. In that sense, I guess it’s a morally complex film, at least up to the point of believing that a person’s deep-seated moral convictions come from multiple sources. This fits in with the fact that Doss’ brother served in the navy, apparently lacking the same scruples about violence.

There are a couple of interesting details, like the meal in which we see meat on the plates of Doss’ father and brother, but not him or his mother. Although it’s not a requirement, Seventh Day Adventists do advocate vegetarianism, a point that comes up later on in the film as well. These little moments are interesting and fun, and they do something to humanise Doss, who would be a paragon of downhome folksy virtue if he weren’t also weird. The problem is that this movie is like two and a quarter hours long, and could have been shortened by the removal of at least one tender courtship scene and one scene about military officials being jerks to Doss about his CO status.

(I was very surprised by everyone being such a tool to Doss about being a CO. I assume it’s because he volunteered, putting him outside the normal CO pathways? By WWII, the US had been employing COs in various ways for decades, and their status was — as is eventually pointed out — well understood and protected by relevant legislation. Which doesn’t mean that everyone in an army at war was familiar with all of the relevant statutes, of course.)

Anyway, it’s not bad. It has a moment of genuine (if, again, on the nose) religious content. Andrew Garfield is fine, although he is visibly too old; Doss was in his early 20s, and Garfield is 10 years older than that and it really shows. Ultimately, it’s a regular old war movie with a little bit of a twist, the kind of thing you could enjoy and go away feeling you had learned some fun facts from, even the kind of thing that could genuinely impress you with the character’s selflessness. But then you remember Mel Gibson is involved, and it leaves you with a bit of a sour taste.

Apparently this thing’s based on a 2004 documentary. I should probably just watch that instead.

 

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)

8653183,kS1cR+7EcQ8c0OY_7q_3EZxRJr_51_irBor5Z_0+fMk1uADV_XWXJyOds4BPcXqRKjyygFHHCqV92QtEZkBqiQ==

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914 is one of those historical events that fascinate people. The idea that an event that was the product of so many chance factors could have such a deadly global impact is a deeply unsettling one; like other assassinations, this is one of those historical events that historians and writers keep probing at like a loose tooth.

Sarajevo is a 2014 German TV film which takes an … unorthodox approach to the story of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The actual assassination takes place relatively early in the story, and for the rest of it we follow magistrate Leo Pfeffer as he conducts an investigation into the conspiracy. His investigation is hampered by the fact that his bosses have already come to the conclusion that this was a Serbian plot and the ideal pretext for war with Serbia. As a further complication he’s in love (or something; he’s not very demonstrative) with a Serbian woman in an increasingly anti-Serb atmosphere.

OK, so far, so good, right? The ethnic patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a principled official trying to do his job in the face of official indifference, a doomed love in a fractured society; that’s all good drama material. But Sarajevo goes to some weird places with it.

See, more than just the idea that the German and Austrian military establishments were spoiling for a fight and took the assassination as a ready-made casus belli, Sarajevo takes the position that the killing of Franz Ferdinand was itself a conspiracy orchestrated by German intelligence and corrupt Austrian government officials. The establishment shuts down the investigation, not out of bureaucratic inertia and war fever, but as a way to cover up actual wrongdoing, which is paradoxically a less terrifying idea than the more complex actual history, don’t you think? Mind you, I tend to think that way about conspiracy theories in general.

It’s well-made enough, and to the best of my limited ability it seems like it does a good job depicting the society and environment of pre-war Austria-Hungary. The decision to make the hero look small and scruffy in comparison to the better-dressed, more old-timey villains is a good one in particular. But the actual plot is weird enough that it serves as a distraction.

Part of the weirdness is … hmm. I’ve spoken before about the kind of visual language of historical filmmaking. From its slow pace to its wistful music, this film has all the signifiers we would normally associate with a character-focused historical costume drama, the kind of thing that would be about, I dunno, a Jewish-Croat civil servant in love with a Serb heiress in Sarajevo on the eve of WWI. This might tend to give the conspiracy plot some spurious credibility, but if you’re not prepared to lend it that credibility it winds up feeling really weird.

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)

Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

“But James,” you say, “although it has a historical setting, Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch isn’t a historical film per se — it’s a horror movie.”

the-witch-a24-poster-gallery

Well, OK. You’ve got me there. But unlike a lot of the movies I watch for this thing, it’s pretty good — the rare Movie Monday film that I wish I’d seen on the big screen, not for the visual spectacle, but just because I wouldn’t have been constantly distracting myself with other things as one does in one’s living room.

So, fine, whatever, it’s a horror movie that I liked, which is a rare enough thing. But the really interesting thing to me was the way in which The Witch uses its historical setting as part of its horror.

There are plenty of historical horror films, of course, and they’re mostly pretty dire: zombie movies but with knights, or things that presume all kinds of nonsense about witches and witch hunting. But this one tries to use its historical setting as an aspect of its horror.

That’s interesting because … hmm. This is tough to discuss if you haven’t seen the film.

A lot of horror movies deal with the idea of belief in the supernatural. You might get a film that’s couched in a belief in supernatural evil like The Exorcist, something where a supernatural evil takes out a bunch of materialistic moderns who don’t believe in it, like your typical mummy movie, or one where people’s belief in the supernatural is what leads to horror in a mundane world, like The Wicker Man.

The Witch doesn’t precisely follow either of those models. I don’t want to spoil the film, but this is a story where the historical mindset is genuinely relevant to the plot and characters, but neither the modern worldview nor the historical one is really “true.” Indeed, the audience’s presumed modern worldview is kind of … implicated isn’t the right word but I don’t know what the right word is … in the development of the horror.

This is interesting, because I think that’s quite rare for a historical piece that isn’t itself an adaptation of an older work. I’m not saying it’s some perfect evocation of 17th-century thinking; it’s a two-hour movie and I’m hardly an expert on that subject anyway. But it seems to be at least taking its effort to analyse and empathise with a pretty alien way of thinking seriously, which is something I’m always interested to see.

Anyway, tl;dr it’s pretty good.

 

Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

Poster - Taras Bulba_02

OK, here’s the scene: it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in December 1962, you’re all tired out from a hard week at work and you just want to go see a movie. So you go to the cinema, you’re looking at the ads, and you find a movie with a silly name, but you think, y’know, it’s Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, it’s got horses and swords and jumping off things and Panavision … this will pass the time.

By those standards, Taras Bulba is a fine film. It’s got everything you want, really. Landscapes, swordfights, grappling, betrayals, a love story, people charging around on horses, poorly contextualised stunts, Tony Curtis looking intently at stuff, battles, explosions, feats of strength, a daring break-in or two. Heck, it’s even got a few songs. It’s big, it’s bright, a bunch of stuff happens, and no one was ever meant to take it seriously. It’s got a heck of a good score, too.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing, by the way: if you don’t like people brandishing sabres, this is not the movie for you.

So anyway, as I have said, by the standards of the big-screen historical epic, this definitely is one. Better than The Conqueror, I’ll tell you that much. But I have to admit I lost interest by the end; by modern standards there’s quite a lot of padding on it, and the corny stereotypes are distracting.

I’ve talked before about how much the historical epic genre owes to 19th-century Romantic nationalism, often in the form of 19th-century novels, and this one is no exception. It’s based on a short novel or novella by Gogol, which is in turn loosely based on the history of various conflicts between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The film turns a lot of the ethnic hatred in the text into generic free-people-versus-tyranny stuff, and also leaves out the Jewish stereotypes, which is nice. It also ignores quite a lot of the rest of the story, at least as I understand it (I haven’t read the novel). The book had two editions; an 1835 one that the Russian authorities considered too Ukrainian, and an 1842 one that was more solidly pro-Russian. The film just ignores all that stuff, not mentioning either Russia or Ukraine anywhere.

I don’t think you’ll learn anything about Cossack culture or Ukrainian history from this, to be honest; it’s just the usual Hollywood barbarian stuff. They’re wild! They’re free! They love life but live by a strict code! They have virtues that snooty city folk ignore! You know the kind of thing.

So, yeah, it’s OK; it’s just a mostly content-free adventure movie with a Romeo-and-Juliet love story in it and lots of guys in sheepskin hats waving sabres. But if you’re our guy in December 1962 who’s decided he wants to see a big sweeping epic movie in which people ride around on horses and it’s bright and beautiful and there’s drama and great performances, and you’re looking at the movie ads in the paper, well, you know what’s only been out for eight days at this point? Lawrence of Arabia. And as much as Taras Bulba is an OK film, well …

… you know?

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)

Many years ago, maybe in 2002 or so, I was at the Imperial War Museum in London. There was an exhibit on about irregular and guerrilla tactics, and I was struck by the section on assassination. There was a whole big placard that asked whether assassination as a tactic could ever be justified. And then right next to it, there was a huge photo of Reinhard Heydrich, to a nicer guy than whom it could not happen. This is known as framing the question.

anthropoid_xlg

Anyway, this thought came to mind as I was watching Anthropoid, Sean Ellis’ 2016 movie about, you guessed it, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak soldiers in 1942. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play two guys parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the British with the goal of killing Heydrich. They make contact with the local resistance and gradually plan the thing, navigating the tactical challenges of the job as well as the political challenges of dealing with the resistance and others.

OK, first: it’s good. Well-directed, good performances, and quite a lot of historical accuracy. The assassination and the subsequent manhunt are depicted in great detail, with minor characters based on historical people and (apparently) careful reconstructions of just about every move of the whole thing. This does have the effect of making it weird when there are fictional characters: for instance, Cillian Murphy’s love interest plays a historical role similar to the real Anna Malinova, but is a different character. For the most part, though, it’s very plausible (I don’t know about “realistic,” but watching it you can definitely see how it could have happened that way).

Historical accuracy in a film about an assassination by resistance fighters means things are pretty brutal in Anthropoid, and the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrible consequences for the main characters’ contacts and allies, and indeed for Czechoslovakia as a whole. Indeed, the whole second half of the film is just the aftermath of the killing: the roundup of anyone even kind of connected to anyone involved, the brutal reprisals, the betrayals, the doomed last stand against the advancing Germans. Thousands were killed, which raises the question of whether killing one guy, no matter how big a villain, was worth it. It puts the relevant arguments in its characters’ mouths a little, but particularly at the end it leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether it was a good idea to blow Heydrich up. It keeps the patriotism to a minimum, too: some Czech characters are seen as defiant patriots, while others are cautious and responsible, self-interested, or just tired of the occupation.

So Anthropoid is a good movie, even if it’s not exactly a laugh a minute with its suicides and torture and severed heads and civilian casualties. It’s well-executed; the minutes before the assassination sequence are almost sickeningly tense. What it isn’t is particularly innovative — it’s a wartime spy drama, and it’s pretty much like every wartime spy drama. That makes sense considering that this is the actual event that a lot of wartime spy dramas are based on.

Unlike a lot of the historical tosh I watch on here, it’s not really a lot of fun but it’s definitely worth a watch. If you don’t know much about the Heydrich assassination, you’ll actually learn some things from it — I was surprised when I did my usual post-film lookup to find how many historical details were replicated. If you do know a lot about it, you probably won’t learn anything new, but it’s still a tense, interesting story.

 

Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)