Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1

Coming Soon: 60 Years Ago

NEW YORK JULY 1960: Although summer six decades ago did not have the same hype as summers now it was still a prime time to launch new movies. The big cinemas also were more attractive than smaller ones because they tended to have air conditioning so if it was hot outside audiences did not swelter inside.

But Disney did not yet have a stranglehold on the summer – although the studio had given note of its intentions by launching Pollyanna at the gigantic Radio City Music Hall – so the range on offer was wide. Psycho had just taken New York by storm so newcomers had their work cut out.

The expected big hitters were Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in a murky tale of evangelism and the under-rated Richard Quine’s steamy drama Strangers When We Meet with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. (Douglas and Simmons would be seen later in the year in Spartacus).

Paul Newman was hoping for a commercial breakthrough with From the Terrace, based on the John O’Hara bestseller, co-starring his wife Joanne Woodward and directed by Mark Robson. At this point Newman’s career had yet to spark, the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) in which he was relegated to leading man status behind undoubted star Elizabeth Taylor had been followed by misfires Rally Round the Flag, Boys (1958) and The Young Philadelphians (1959). Plus, Robson with two Oscar nominations and Woodward a winner for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) were more highly-regarded than the star who had but one nomination.

Also hoping for a career uplift was Richard Burton in Ice Palace, adapted from the Edna Ferber bestseller set in Alaska, co-starring Robert Ryan and Martha Hyer and directed by Austrian veteran Vincent Sherman. Targeting a different market entirely were Murder Inc, The Lost World and Battle in Outer Space.

Although Stuart Whitman was the star of the low-budget Murder Inc. set against the background of 1930s gangster Lepke, Peter Falk stole the show with an Oscar-nominated turn. The Lost World had British actor Michael Rennie and Jill St. John in the cast and was more notable for  being one of the few directorial outings of Irwin Allen, later the inventor of the 1970s disaster mini-genre. Sci-fi Battle in Outer Space was a dubbed import from Japan.

Three arthouse pictures also made their debuts. The pick of these should have been The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch as the eponymous playwright  but some of its potential had been sapped by the release a short time before of Oscar Wilde starring Robert Morley. The other two were British comedy School for Scoundrels starring Ian Carmichael and Terry Thomas and the Russian adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Sources: Variety – Jul 6, July 13, Jul 20, Jul 27, 1960.

The Giants of Thessaly (1960) ***

Spoiler alert – this film contains no giants unless you count the one-eyed Cyclops. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts story with a lot of political shenanigans thrown in.

Even lacking the Ray Harryhausen special effects of the film covering the same ground a few years later and without the kind of budget dropped into the lap of a Stanley Kubrick it’s not a bad stab at retelling the myth. And Carlo Rambaldi (later the creator of E.T.) does a decent job of the Cyclops at a time when special effects were primitive.

This belongs to the Italian-made “peplum” genre, out of which came Hercules (1958). What struck me most was the director’s use of the camera, very often tracking a character in scenes that would otherwise have been static. There are virtually no close-ups and hardly any medium close-ups.

It’s quite strange to see. On the one hand a moving camera is an expense and on the other hand lack of close-ups saves money, so it’s possible the money spent on one technique was the result of saving money from another. Alternatively, much of the director’s work has gone into arranging characters in group scenes in such a way that dramatic impact is sustained while not moving the camera.

There’s enough political chicanery going on to keep two different plots going. Back in Jason’s homeland, where he is a king, an usurper not only seeks his throne but wants his wife and tries to deceive the population into thinking Jason is dead. Meanwhile, Jason faces mutiny on board the Argo and then the temptations of the Siren, battle with the Cyclops, and then a final bold act to reclaim the Golden Fleece.

Possibly the best scene is kept for the end, when the Argo arrives home with its own brand of deception. The film is topped off with a clever trick. Sometimes what we would now view as a B-film, ideal Saturday matinee material, sticks in the mind because it has been the proving ground for a future director or star but writer-director Riccardo Freda had already turned out Spartacus the Gladiator (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954).

Star Roland Carey was unusual in this field because he was actually a trained actor rather than hired for his torso, but this did not exactly stoke his career – his appearance in Fall of the Roman Empire (1962) was uncredited. Female lead Ziva Rodann was unusual, too, in that she was Israeli rather than Italian, had appeared in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and second- billed in exploitationer Macumba Love (1960) and would later play Nefertiti in the Batman television series.

If you go in not expecting much, you might get a surprise, though, be warned the acting is wooden and other special effects, such as the storm, not quite in the Rambaldi class.   

 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Giants-Thessaly-DVD-Regions-NTSC/dp/B0006IUE20/ref=sr_1_2?crid=J9IQ33P0SVDW&dchild=1&keywords=the+giants+of+thessaly&qid=1593760959&s=dvd&sprefix=the+Giants+of+%2Caps%2C145&sr=1-2

The Greengage Summer (1961) *** aka Loss of Innocence

The alternative title assumed nobody in America knew what a greengage was – it’s a type of plum – but it was actually pretty apposite.

Until then director Lewis Gilbert had been known mostly for Second World War pictures like Reach for the Sky (1954) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1955) so this was a considerable change of pace, and filmed on location.

Susannah York, who had sparkled in a small role in Tunes of Glory (1960), now took center stage as a girl on the brink of womanhood who experiences powerful emotions for the first time – love and its perpetual bedfellow jealousy – as well as rite-of-passage experiences like getting hammered on champagne.

She is the oldest of four siblings stranded in a French chateau when their mother takes ill. Left to her own devices, she promptly falls for the suave and much older Kenneth More who is having an affair with chateau owner Danielle Darrieux (another of Darryl F. Zanuck’s girlfriends).

By modern standards, this is a gentle tale, but not without some harsh moments and York is superb as she undergoes a transformation from uncertain schoolgirl to a woman realizing the power her beauty can exert. She flares from child to adult and back again in seconds. York was headstrong in real life and insisted on being drunk during the drunken scene, which ruined a day’s work.

That was not the only crisis – there were no greengages due to poor weather so they had to be flown in from Britain and sewn onto the trees. Jane Asher plays the more sensible younger sister who is not above violent emotion herself such as fisticuffs with a local lad. Kenneth More is at his charming best in the kind of affable role he had generally moved away from.

The dialogue is surprisingly good and Darrieux is convincing as an aging beauty willing to do anything. The scenery is a bonus as are the snatches of provincial French life. All in, an engaging piece of work, with York delivering a star-is-born kind of turn.      

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Greengage-Summer-DVD-Kenneth-More/dp/B002X7TXDS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=38KFOWT9944AW&dchild=1&keywords=the+greengage+summer+dvd&qid=1593761026&s=dvd&sprefix=the+greengage+summer+%2Cdvd%2C172&sr=1-1

Goodbye Columbus (1969) ****

Despite being made at the opposite end of the decade to Loss of Innocence – for no deliberate  reason I watched these two films back-to-back –  this has a number of similarities to the earlier picture.

In the main there is a star-making turn, this time from Ali McGraw in her debut. Though playing a slightly older and much wealthier character, she is also a woman in transition, from puppy love to true love, not entirely in control of her emotions and not willing either to accept responsibility for her actions.

Richard Benjamin, in his first starring role, plays the sometimes gauche, much poorer object of her affections. He’s only connected by religious upbringing to The Graduate’s Dustin Hoffman, far more relaxed with women and comfortable in his own persona.

The camera loved McGraw the way it did Susannah York, but in these more permissive times, and given the age difference, there was much more the screen could show of the star’s physical attributes. I was surprised by McGraw’s performance, expecting much less from a debutante and ex-model (and studio boss Robert Evans’ fiancée) but she is a delight, supremely engaging as a confident character enjoying a life of privilege and engaging in witty repartee with Benjamin.

He plays a more down-to-earth character who doesn’t know what to do with his life except not get stuck with a money-making job. He would much rather help a young kid who likes art books.

It’s not a rich girl-poor man scenario but more a lifestyle contrast and both families are exceptionally well portrayed, Jack Klugman drawing on a lifetime’s exasperation as her father and Nan Martin as the uptight mother with terrific cameos from Michael Meyers as her oddball brother and especially Lorie Shelle as the spoiled-brat younger sister.

It’s a lyrical love story well told. The zoom shot had just been invented so there’s a bit over-use of that but otherwise it zips along.

A major plot point provides a reminder of how quickly men took advantage of female emancipation, the invention of the Pill dumping responsibility for birth control into the woman’s lap, leaving the male free to indulge without the risk of consequence. In other words, it was still a man’s world. Of course, without the Pill, it would be a different kind of story, romance tinged with fear as both characters worried about unwanted pregnancy and stereotypical humor as the man purchased – or fumbled with – a prophylactic.

Acting-wise McGraw is pretty game until the final scene when her inexperience lets her down. I’m not sure I went for the pay-off which paints McGraw in unsympathetic terms and lets Benjamin off rather lightly, but all in all I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Goodbye-Columbus/dp/B07R7Y38SH/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1QTJFY213DHTI&dchild=1&keywords=goodbye+columbus+dvd&qid=1592640377&sprefix=goodbye+columbus%2Caps%2C149&sr=8-3    

The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.

The Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness.

It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner) hot at that time from coming straight off a supporting role in Ben-Hur and who would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star. David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by.

After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness. There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts. In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party.

Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure. Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help from Elmo Williams, it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.   As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”

Behind the Scenes: Isadora (1968)

“Only Vanessa Redgrave could portray the full range of emotions in the tour de force title role performance of Isadora,” runs the opening line to the sumptuous 52-page program (cover shown above) that accompanied the film.

Programs like this were part of the package for a movie intended for roadshow. I’ve no idea how many Universal printed but most were shredded since after an initial launch in Los Angeles, the movie was not shown in roadshow in America (though it was overseas). It was also drastically cut from 168 minutes to 138 minutes.

Redgrave had been on the cusp of major stardom after an Oscar nomination for Morgan!(1966) and box office breakout Blow Up (1966) but under-performing Warner Brothers’ musical roadshow Camelot (1967) and flops Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) had put a dent in her surge to the top of the Hollywood tree.

Directed by Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, and Morgan!), the movie was filmed entirely on location – 72 of them – for six months. Main locations in Britain were Oldway Mansion in Devon and the British Museum.

Different rooms and aspects of South Lodge mansion in London, once owned by the Royces of Rolls-Royce fame, provided backdrops for scenes set in Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago and Boston. Yugloslavia doubled up for France and Russia, the Berlin Opera house represented by National Theatre in Rijeka, and the resort of Opatija on the Adriatic standing in for Nice.

The film was produced by the Hakim brothers, better known for arthouse picture like Purple Noon (1960) and Belle de Jour (1967). Jason Robards, on the first of two European excursions that year (the other being Once upon a Time in the West), played one of her many lovers. According to Robards, the art of acting “is an intuitive process; any actor can prepare only so much for any given part and the rest must come from a deep resource within him.” Although Redgrave received an Oscar nomination, the movie made a huge loss.