Helen of Troy (1956) – A Movie Review

No spoiler alert needed.  It’s just that bad.

I’ve read chunks of the Iliad in Homeric Greek.  Unlike some of my professors who preferred it to the Odyssey I’m more partial to that more human scale sequel.  But I profess that there are scenes in the War Poem that are evocative and stirring.

I watched a 1950’s sword and sandal “epic” called “Helen of Troy.”  They somehow roped in Sir Cedric Hardwicke to play Priam in this spectacle.  I guess his salary ate up most of the salary budget because not another name of an actor or actress was recognizable to me except a very young Brigitte Bardot who played “the slave girl Andraste” mostly with her clothes on.

The movie had a budget of $6 million and in 1956 that was a lotta dough.  And you can see where they spent it.  There was a cast of extras that must have numbered in the thousands for the battle scenes and the elaborate props like siege towers and war engines not to mention the walls of Troy and the giant horse must have cost a bunch to make and then burn which of course they did in the last scene.

And it made about $3 million at the box office so it lost a lotta dough.  And I can see why.  The acting is shockingly wooden.  The script is laughably bad and the fight scenes look as if the combatants had never seen a sword or a spear used, even in movies.  My favorite fight is the duel between Achilles and Hector.  Instead of hurling their spears at each other they use the butt ends as cudgels and only after pounding away at each other for a while does Achilles skewer Hector as if he were a pork roast.

Mercifully the gods are completely omitted from this remarkable cinematic monument.  That surely would have been too much.  But humans suffered enough here.  Some of the Trojans are portrayed sympathetically.  Unfortunately, none of the Greeks were.  Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax and Patroclus are all presented as swine of one variety or another.

The action of the war is compressed from ten years to something like a weekend.  Hector and Achilles are finished off within five minutes of each other and before you know it the wooden horse is unloading its deadly cargo of Hellenic hoplites.  As the final credits are rolling Helen is on the trireme headed back to Sparta and she muses how even though Paris was just brutally murdered by her once and future husband Menelaus and his henchmen in the preceding scene and died the beautiful death, in a sense he would always be there with her.  Or something.

You know I like bad old genre movies.  If I’m in the mood I can watch Demetrius and the Gladiators or Quo Vadis.  They’re full of bad acting and historical inaccuracies but somehow, they manage to allow me not to suspend disbelief but rather, to revel in the conceit that I and the moviemaker both get to wink at each other and still enjoy a fake Age of Caesar or Bronze Age Greece that he’s conjured up.  But this thing is not that.  It’s too completely pointless and the characters are too unlikeable.  Pass!

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) – A Movie Review

This movie is not strictly speaking a WW II movie.  It is a chronicle of the events leading up to the death of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

James Mason plays Rommel.  It opens up with a British submarine off the coast of German occupied North Arica.  A platoon of commandoes is landed by rafts to assault the headquarters of the German Afrika Corps.  The commandoes storm the building and pour machine gun fire and grenades into the living space.  As German reinforcements arrive the British soldiers retreat.  One man is too badly wounded to escape.  As he is captured, he asks the German soldier, “Did we get him?”  And the German soldier scornfully answers in the negative.

The “him” that the Briton meant is Rommel and the suicide mission proclaims the enormous respect that Rommel’s enemies have for his skills in war.  But unfortunately for their mission Rommel was at that time being treated in Germany for a case of nasal diphtheria.  But before he can recover, the British attack his forces in the second Battle of El Alamein and Rommel is summoned by Hitler back to the desert to ward off this attack.  Unfortunately, Berlin only sends Rommel, not tanks, ammunition, men or even fuel to run the tanks they still had.  Orders are given to stand and fight to the last man.  Rommel disobeys the orders and arranges a tactical retreat to save his men.  But exhausted and still sick he is forced to return to hospital in Germany.  And his army is defeated and captured by the British and Americans.

Recovering from his illness he is visited by Dr. Karl Strölin (played by Cedric Hardwicke), the mayor of Stuttgart and an old friend of Rommel’s.  We learn that many senior officials in Germany have lost faith in Hitler and are looking for a way to remove him from power.  Rommel rejects the idea and warns his friend not to discuss this idea with him.  He declares himself to be a soldier and not a politician.  His friend warns him that a time will come when he will have to face the consequences of being a soldier in Hitler’s army.

Now Rommel is directed to help lead the defense of the French coastline against the expected invasion.  The supreme commander of the German forces, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (played by Leo G. Carroll) explains to Rommel that Hitler has taken complete control of the strategy of the invasion defense.  He explains that the strategy is being decided based on astrology and that instead of reinforcing the beaches they are concentrating on the coastal cities.  When D-Day arrives Berlin refuses to allow troops to redeploy to reinforce Normandy and so the Allies break loose from Normandy and begin their march to the Rhine.

The officers who are planning to assassinate Hitler once again approach Rommel for his support.  He tells them he must first attempt one last time to convince Hitler to redeploy his forces to avoid catastrophe.  He meets with Hitler but is rebuffed and told to remain in place and fight to the last man.  Rommel tells the coup leaders to go ahead with their plan.  But before the assassination attempt Rommel is injured when his staff car is strafed by enemy aircraft and crashes.  While he is recuperating in a hospital the attempt on Hitler is carried out but he is only injured.

After release from the hospital Rommel is sent home without any military orders and all mention of him disappears from the war effort.  One day he is called from Berlin to sat that a deputation would arrive at his home to discuss his future assignment.  But instead, when it arrives he is told that an investigation has convicted him of treason and he is given the choice of secretly committing suicide by painless sedative or being garroted.  But Rommel says he would prefer to answer the charges in open court to at least make his statement in public.  But then the officer adds that if he agrees to take the silent suicide his reputation will be preserved and wife and son will be taken care of.  If he decides to go public no such guarantees apply.  And so, he goes to his death.  The movie ends with the recitation of a speech that Winston Churchill gave honoring Rommel for his courage in risking his life in attempting to eliminate Hitler and thereby save his country from catastrophe.

This is a very unusual movie in that the Second World War is only the backdrop for the dramatic action of the plot.  We’re shown a great general, a consummate professional, learning that detaching his duty as a soldier from his responsibilities as a human being is sometimes impossible.  He is brought to understand that obeying the orders of a madman cannot fit under his warrior’s code.  Mason is usually interesting to watch in a movie and this one is no exception.  If nothing else he has one of the most distinctive and commanding voices in the history of cinema.  The movie is not highly dramatic.  It’s almost understated considering the circumstances and the people involved.  I would recommend this movie to students of history and those who enjoy a cerebral movie experience.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 10 – Richard III – Olivier’s 1955 Version

This is not one of my favorite plays.  Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster.  Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III.  But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty.  His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished.  His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice.  He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage.  Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown.  And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne.  She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward.  And it was Richard who killed Edward.  Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me.  I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster.  Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him.  This is a tough play to understand.

Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt.  He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster.  Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals.  Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne.  The acting is good.  It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot.  To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me.  The ending should be consolation enough.  Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price.  But the play rubs me the wrong way.  It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil.  It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight.  Oh well.

So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world.  I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches.  The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast.  Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen.  He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain.  All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee.  So, I do recommend this version.  It is well done and deserves high praise.

But I’d rather watch Hamlet.  I’d rather watch Henry V.  Richard III rankles me no little bit.

The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 5 Episode 8 – Uncle Simon

Cedric Hardwicke plays Simon Polk, a sarcastic misanthropic inventor who lives in his big old house with his niece Barbara.  He is a frail old man but he keeps a firm hold onto life in order to enjoy mocking and torturing Barbara with his taunts and endless demands for hot chocolate.  Barara has worked for him for twenty five years in order to inherit his fortune but also to celebrate his death.

Simon works in his basement workshop but will never allow Barbara to see his results.  When she attempts to sneak in he flies into a rage and when he attempts to strike her with his cane she grapples it out of his grasp and causes him to fall down the stairs.

Simon begs Barbara for help claiming his back is broken.  She mocks him, pretending that she hears him asking for hot chocolate.  When he expires she runs through the house smashing his possessions and opening the curtains to let light and air into the dreary house.

Simon’s lawyer, Mr. Schwimmer, tells Barbara that she will inherit Simon’s wealth but only if she remains living in the house, leaves the house exactly as it is and finally, only if she takes care of Simon’s latest invention.

The invention turns out to be a robot.  Over the course of a week the robot takes on the voice and personality of Simon, so by the end of the episode the robot is hurling abuse at Barbara exactly as its inventor formerly did.  And it likes hot chocolate.

What a goofy episode.  Honestly, the reason to enjoy this episode is to hear the Shakespearean enunciation of Sir Cedric Hardwicke coming out of the laughably foolish looking shape of the robot.  B.

 

Things to Come – An OCF Classic Movie Review

It’s been a few years since I last saw this old science fiction film.  The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells based on his story of the same name.  And it has some distinguished British Shakespearean actors in the persons of Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.  But it also has Raymond Massey who can chew up scenery with the best of them.

The plot is remarkably realistic at the start.  A Second World War begins in 1940 (this was made in 1935) and goes on for decades killing off most of humanity.  Then a plague finishes off the majority of the survivors and throws humanity into a virtual dark age where isolated communities battle for the meager resources that remain in what is practically a pre-industrial age.  In a section of England Ralph Richardson portrays a “Chief” who controls his villages as a rough and ready princeling battling the surrounding mini-states for control of the food and other resources.  Suddenly an advanced airplane lands and Raymond Massey reveals that a scientific community has survived the war and is re-establishing civilization and putting an end to nation-states.  He is taken prisoner by the chief but the writing is on the wall and eventually Massey’s friends show up with aircraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.  They use the “gas of peace” to knock out the population and shepherd them into the Global Socialist Future complete with “science.”  We are then regaled with the wonderful futuristic science and engineering marvels that allow the world to be converted into a paradise on earth.

Flash forward fifty years and everyone lives underground and the world is a garden of delights where no one seems to work very hard or gets sick and everyone is happy, sort of like San Francisco but without the human feces everywhere.  The descendant of Raymond Massey, who looks remarkably like Raymond Massey, is working on the Space Gun that will shoot a space capsule around the Moon.  But Cedric Hardwicke won’t have it.  He rallies the non-scientists (actors and hair stylists) to attack the Space Gun and destroy it with their own soft and well-manicured hands.  Raymond Massey takes his helicopter and races the mob to the Space Gun and loads his daughter and her boyfriend into the bullet just in time to fire them into space and coincidentally allow the shockwave from the firing of the gun to murder all the raging doofuses attempting to stop him.

Then Massey gives a monologue that goes on and on.  It’s a panegyric to progress.  We’ll go to the Moon and colonize it and out to the planets and then onto the stars.  We’ll never stop.  It’s all or nothing.  There’s even a choir at the end.  I think they were repeating “all or nothing.”  For someone who is a big fan of the space program he managed to make it sound unhinged even to me.

Here’s my take.  The beginning of the movie is frighteningly prescient.  He saw the rest of the twentieth century coming.  That was right on the nose.  But Wells was a socialist.  Basically he might as well have been doing forward work for Stalin.  All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.  His belief that the socialists would build some kind of scientific utopia was laughably misguided.  And the smugness of the Massey character made me immediately think of Barack Obama.  All he needed to do to make the effect perfect would have been to say a couple of times “it’s not who we are.”  Honestly, I was solidly behind the “Chief” character and would gladly have put up with the lice and dysentery to avoid having to hear the speeches about “science.”

This really is a period piece and worth seeing just to get a flavor for what the British socialists thought the future should be.  It’s very enlightening.  And the histrionics by Massey are so over the top that they’re really quite funny to see and hear.