Behind-the-scenes books generally benefit from as much scandal as possible. Using that criteria, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! by Stephen Rebello leaps to the top of the list. Rebello had been primarily responsible for turning Valley of the Dolls (1968) into a camp classic by hosting repeated showings of the picture from the 1990s onwards and making it number one in his book Bad Movies We Love.
The novel Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann was a record-breaking bestseller on the “sex/sin/salvation literary rodeo” but nothing that came out of the fevered imagination of Harold Robbins could match the Susann book, an insider’s look at the murky goings-on in Hollywood with drug abuse at the top of the heap. Unfortunately for Susann, Twentieth Century Fox struck a deal for the film rights pre-publication, long before it became a sensation, so she earned only $85,000 upfront, a quarter of what was paid for Peyton Place which sold far fewer copies. Mark Robson who had brought Peyton Place to the big screen was hired as director.
Stars clamoring for roles included Natalie Wood, Bette Davis, Debbie Reynolds and Kim Novak. The list of those who turned it down was longer: Lee Remick, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Raquel Welch, Candice Bergen. Christopher Plummer and James Garner were screen-tested. Sharon Tate, Barbara Parkins, Judy Garland and Patty Duke won the main roles.
The screenwriters were as appalled at the material as the censor. But that was just the beginning of strife central. The personal enmity between Duke and Parkins rivalled that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Screaming matches and hissy fits abounded. Duke suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, mood swings and nervous skin conditions and constantly clashed with the director. Plus, despite cutting some singles and albums, she had to mime. Tate was forced into take after take for the normally economic director. The three young stars, believing this was a career-making picture, took no prisoners. Robson used a stopwatch when filming, as if he was already editing the film in his head, pushing the actresses to speak the lines faster, or undertake actions exactly on a time cue, a humiliating procedure in one scene for Tate. She refused to cry in case it messed up her make-up, which would cause further delay and further infuriate Robson. Tate was also embarrassed by publicity photos taken during her pornographic scene.
Garland was in no fit state to make a movie. She was drinking wine by the bucketload, dropping pills, slurring her lines, missing her cues and turning up late for work. Finally, it got too much and she was fired. Fans bombarded the studio with irate messages. Ginger Rogers rejected the role on account of the language. Robson put in a personal phone call to Susan Hayward, who had quit Hollywood, and turned down several comeback roles including Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. When Hayward was finally persuaded for a hefty fee, the producers had to shred Garland’ s costumes. They were different sizes. Hayward’s wardrobe was redesigned from scratch. The last straw on the troubled production was producer David Wiesbart dropping dead. That wasn’t quite the last straw. Critics trashed the picture. Luckily, audiences didn’t and lined up in droves.
This is the second volume of The Gladiators vs Spartacus opus, published separately to the tome I reviewed on February 24, 2021. Reading Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay is like having a piece of history in your hands. And it is a fascinating read. Polonsky’s take on the Spartacus legend was quite different to that of Dalton Trumbo for Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus. Based on works presenting alternative visions, Polonsky’s on the book by Arthur Koestler and Trumbo’s on the Howard Fast novel, suggested there would be differences.
The most initial significant departure is that Polonsky gives considerably less emphasis to Roman politics. It’s a classic three-act film, the first section revolt and escape, part two battle against pursuing Romans, the final segment betrayal and defeat. Rather than viewing the uprising as a glorious event, Polonsky concentrates (as does Koestler) on conflict among the escapees. Where the relationship between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons follows a pure Hollywood arc, the female lead here, Lydia, is a more unusual character and for most of the time Spartacus fends her off.
And the revolt kicks in right away. Within 25 minutes (allowing one minute of screen time for every screenplay page), Spartacus spares the life of rival gladiator Crixus and together with their compatriots they rise up against their oppressors and escape to Vesuvius. Immediately, the differences between Spartacus and Crixus become apparent, the former wanting to press on, while Crixus wants to stop at an inn (“half-brothel, half resting place”), eat his fill, get drunk and have sex. To Spartacus, self-indulgence risks turning the men into a drunken horde, but to others (as expressed by the poet Fulvius) “this is freedom…the first thing a man wants back is his vices.”
But unexpected freedom brings a rebellion “without leaders, without plans, without hope” and the gladiators have attracted a rag-tag of other slaves. Crixus wants to discard these camp followers, head south, steal a ship and get home. Addressing the horde, Spartacus is brutal in his assessment, “I see a host of dead men” unless they submit to his authority and “swear by the gods never to surrender.” Crixus refuses and leads his Gauls away. With the Roman legions in pursuit, and blocking the one path up the mountain, Spartacus begins to train his horde. In a brilliant scene, the slave army, “faces and bodies blackened with charcoal,” descend on vine ropes on the outside of the crater in the darkness to surprise the Roman encampment.
When Crixus returns, he sees not a rabble but a proper army, Spartacus the undisputed commander. Spartacus plans to build a Sun City in alliance with the “old Greek cities conquered by Rome.” But such coalitions require compromise, forcing Spartacus to return to the Greeks slaves who have run away to join his army. “Every road has its detours,” says Spartacus. Naturally, his decision causes dissension, especially from Crixus. In order to win, Spartacus is willing to become a tyrant. (“It’s survival. It’s a detour. It’s a way around what we can’t go through.”)
Divisions within the army lead to a showdown. Crixus and Spartacus fight, at one point Crixus sparing his opponent’s life, to repay the debt from their skirmish in the arena, and, reprieved, Spartacus kills him. But, eventually, Rome exerts its power, the slaves are betrayed, Spartacus refusing an opportunity to save himself, and in the final battle overwhelmed by superior forces, resulting in “eight thousand slaves on eight thousand crosses, all the way from Capua to Rome.” The screenplay ends in mythical fashion (i.e. true Hollywood). Spartacus’s body cannot be found. “They say the ground opened beneath him and swallowed him up. And some say he’ll be back.” The final scene is of Spartacus’s infant son in the desert of Qumrum “empty, formidable, immense, the barrenness everywhere and yet here the spirit and first sign of modern man.”
Polonsky’s epic (two hours forty minutes by page count) is driven by conflict, not just against the pursuing Romans, but by different attitudes within the slave army as to the best way to achieve – and enjoy – freedom. The Crixus approach would be to loot every city. Spartacus adopts a policy of the end justifying the means. These “detours” were crucial to Koestler’s assessment of the true cost of revolution (taking the Russian revolution as his starting point). This is not a story of an impotent leader, driven to destruction by more powerful forces, but one where an individual, taking up the mantle of leadership, must make cruel decisions. This is the battle commander as politician. He faces a chorus of dissent from his own chief supporters – the poet Fulvius, the priest and scribe John, and his “wife” Lydia – who challenge his rulings, each with their own idea of how the revolt should fulfill its destiny. Spartacus himself is under little illusion, resisting attempts at deification, far more realistic than your standard Hollywood revolutionary. He does not believe in the gods or destiny and, ultimately, considers the revolt has little chance of success.
Polonsky, too, ignores the rules of the Hollywood romance. There is no meet-cute, Spartacus distrusts the willful and obsessive Lydia, possessor of mysterious powers, and, unlike the Hollywood standard attraction of opposites, there is no happy reconciliation. “I would never pick a wife who wanted to rule all men, the gods, and the world,” he tells her, “I would never choose a superstitious woman like you, with a tongue like a snake.” As for many a slave, the only freedom he enjoys, beyond a brief period unshackled, is the freedom not to die in servitude. From reading the screenplay, this is very much a movie I would have liked to see take its place on the big screen as an intelligent and challenging epic.
However, the actual screenplay only forms part of this 500-page-plus volume. Dr Fiona Radford provides extensive annotations and a critical commentary to the screenplay, drawing on both historical and literary sources and on Koestler’s book and Polonsky’s own notes. The commentary is worth reading in itself. Also included are draft scenes omitted from the revised script, lengthy excerpts from Polonsky’s Journal (which touches upon the screenplay and the blacklist) plus a survey of Roman gladiators in fiction and film from 1822 (Susanna Moodie’s Spartacus: A Roman Story) to 2020 and an examination of how Polonsky’s screenplay drew upon the source material, what he left out and what he invented. Henry Macadam and Duncan Cooper contributed the background essays. The combined volumes of The Gladiators vs Spartacus come to around 1,000 pages and a thousand more informative and highly readable pages would be hard to find. Dr Radford, by the way, along with Dr Peta Greenfield, runs a fascinating podcast-driven website “The Partial Historians” focusing on ancient Rome.
Note: I have not previously awarded marks to book reviews, in part since some are mine, modesty forbids, but if I ever there was a case for a five-star review, both these volumes fall into that category.
As with volume 1, The Gladiators vs. Spartacus Vol 2 is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
When I wrote my book some years back on the making of The Magnificent Seven (1960) I was aware that Yul Brynner had attempted to set up a project called The Gladiators in direct opposition to rival Kirk Douglas venture Spartacus. What I didn’t know until I came across this fascinating new book, telling the untold story of The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Dueling Productions in Blacklist Hollywood by Henry MacAdam and Duncan Cooper, was just how close Brynner came to derailing the Douglas production. Indeed, at first it appeared Brynner’s The Gladiators, based on the novel by Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon, The Ghost in the Machine), was a cinch to be first past the post. After winning the Best Actor Oscar for The King and I (1956) and starring in box office behemoth The Ten Commandments (1956), Brynner was set to become a movie mogul after being handed a record $25 million – $230 million at today’s prices – from United Artists for 11 pictures. His first project was The Gladiators on a $5.5 million budget, Meanwhile, Douglas, rejected for the title role in the forthcoming Ben-Hur, his picture Paths of Glory (1957) producing dismal returns, struggled to find funding for Spartacus, based on the book by Howard Fast.
There are instances of two studios embarking on similar projects at the same time – sci fi adventures Deep Impact and Armageddon appeared within months of each in 1998 but Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox decided to combine competing movies about a skyscraper on fire into The Towering Inferno (1974). Here, as much as efforts were made to combine the projects both actors were determined to continue the battle despite the potential competition. At another point, Brynner sought to recruit Douglas for The Magnificent Seven. The race to the screen went back and forth for a couple of years, Brynner unable to choose between the historical drama and the western, while Douglas had the luck to have as his agent Lew Wassermann, in the process of buying up Universal who determined that Spartacus would be the ideal prestige vehicle to relaunch the studio.
What gives this volume special significance is that the films were being produced against the backdrop of the blacklist, the anti-Communist hysteria stirred by HUAC in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Screenplays for both films were the work of blacklisted writers, Abraham Polonsky on the Brynner side and Dalton Trumbo for Douglas. Polonsky was writer-director of Force of Evil (1948) as well as writer of another quintessential film noir Body and Soul (1947), for which he was Oscar-nominated, before his career was prematurely interrupted. Trumbo was held in even greater esteem, Oscar-nominated for Kitty Foyle (1941), and with A Guy Named Joe (1943) under his belt. While blacklisted, both wrote under “fronts”, Trumbo responsible for the Oscar-winning screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), Polonsky successfully switching for a time to television. Both productions proceeded with the need to keep secret the real screenwriters, Ira Wolfert fronting for Polonsky, author Howard Fast unknowingly doing the same for Trumbo.
The parallel tales of two ambitious producers dueling for supremacy and of two blacklisted writers fighting for survival make a thrilling read. At any moment, either production could be killed by revelations about the screenwriters, while the planned films faced a succession of what seemed sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Both movies pursued, for example, the same three stars – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Martin Ritt, initial director for The Gladiators, dropped out while Anthony Mann, in the same position for Spartacus, was fired. Script problems dogged both pictures. Rivalry was conducted openly in the trade press while the productions clashed over the title. Even when Spartacus nudged ahead in the production process, the spiraling budget almost put paid to the endeavor, while The Gladiators hovered in the background, intent on capitalizing should, as appeared for a long time the most likely outcome, the Douglas film flop at the box office.
The third riveting element of this book is a scoop. The authors have located the original Polonsky screenplay for The Gladiators, believed lost for over 60 years, and so are able to contrast the different approaches to the subject of the Spartacus revolution. (In a separate volume, the entire screenplay has been published with annotations and critical commentary by Fiona Radford and background essays by MacAdam and Cooper). Koestler was a cult figure, far better known than Howard Fast, and has remained in the literary consciousness ever since his suicide in 1983. With The Gladiators failing to reach the screen, Polonsky remained under the Hollywood radar for several years before his career revived with the screenplay for Madigan (1968) and as writer-director of modern western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) starring Robert Redford. The revelation that Trumbo had written Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960) and the involvement of Polonsky in The Gladiators helped break the blacklist. Trumbo went on to enjoy a successful official comeback, biopic Trumbo (2105) depicting the tribulations he suffered as a blacklistee.
Essentially an Italian take on the slick glossy American thriller in the vein of Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966) and of course Blindfold (1966) which previously brought together Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale. Produced by Cardinale’s husband Franco Cristaldi, directed and co-written by Francesco Maselli (Time of Indifference, 1966), it is a cute variation on the heist picture.
Fans accustomed to seeing the more sultry side of the Italian actress (as in The Professionals, 1966) might appreciate how effective she is in more playful mood apart from one scene where she strips down to bra and pants. The other major difference is that in her American-made films, Cardinale is usually the female lead, that is, not the one driving the story, but here she provides the narrative thrust virtually right up until the end.
The twist here (as in Pirates of the Caribbean nearly four decades later) is that the bad guy (in this case bad girl) wants to return stolen treasure. Cardinale arrives in New York to seek help from old family friend Rock Hudson, a stuffy married American cop, so rigid he even uses a timer to regulate cigarette consumption. She has come into jewels stolen by an internationally-famous thief and wishes to return them to a villa in the Alps before the vacationing owners discover the theft. The bait for Hudson is to try and apprehend said thief.
The audience will have guessed the twist, that she is not breaking in to return jewels, but once Hudson, though his police connections has been shown the alarm systems, to deposit fakes and steal the real thing. So Hudson has to work out an ingenious method of beating three alarm systems, one of which is heat-sensitive, the whole place is “one big safe.”
Most of the fun comes from the banter between the principals and the is-she-telling-truth element essential to these pictures. “I lied – and that’s the truth,” spouts Cardinale at one point. I disagree with a common complaint of a lack of chemistry between Hudson and Cardinale. What the film lacks is not enough going wrong to lighten up such a hidebound male character such as occurred in Man’s Favorite Sport (1962), which makes the audience warm to the otherwise upright Hudson, or as seen in Gambit (1966) where Michael Caine played a similar stand-offish character. Cardinale is terrific in a Shirley Maclaine-type role, as the playful foil to the uptight cop, and who, like Maclaine in Gambit, knows far more than she is letting on.
What does let the film down is that it is at cross-cultural cross-purposes. As mentioned, this is an Italian film with Italian production values. The color is murky, way too many important scenes take place outside. Italians filmmakers of this generation never bothered with sound engineers for exteriors, simply dubbing and lip-synching back in the studio. More importantly, the actual heist lacks sufficient detail, and post-heist, although there are few more twists, the film takes too long to reach a conclusion. But for the first two-thirds it is a perfectly acceptable addition to the heist canon, the script has some very funny lines, Cardinale is light, charming and sexy.
The American title of this film was Steal from Your Neighbor, which is weak. A Fine Pair while colloquial enough in America has, however, an unfortunate meaning of the double-entendre kind in Britain.
This is a testament to cinema. This was the last film I saw in a cinema before the current (second lockdown) and as the year draws to a close I would like to remember the days when it was common to visit the cinema once or twice a week. Not to be confused with David O. Russell’s similarly-titled Persian Gulf War picture starring George Clooney from 1999, from which this picture could not be further removed given that it is the study of three Scottish football managerial geniuses who in their way created the basis for the business empires of Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow’s Celtic F.C.
The death of Diego Maradona and the subsequent grief that swept Argentina is the most recent example of the power of football. The Three Kings demonstrates that this is anything but a new phenomenon. And it also very much a story of the 1960s when these three kings of football ascended their thrones.
Jock Stein (of Celtic), Matt Busby (of Manchester Utd) and Bill Shankly (of Liverpool) were born within 30 miles of each other in grim Scottish mining communities. Busby and Shankly played at international level for their country but Stein, after a career in the lower echelons of football, was surprisingly hired by Celtic in the early 1950s where his leadership skills led him to be made captain of a team he subsequently led to the Scottish championship. As managers, they reached fabulous heights, Stein and Busby leading their teams to European Cup glory, Shankly’s Liverpool dominating English football for several seasons.
As much as it is about their individual triumphs and tragedies – Busby lost most of his team and nearly his own life in the Munich Air Disaster, Stein nearly died in a car crash – it is also most pertinently about the importance of football to a community. Shankly saw his team as in service to the city. But it was also about their combined global reach.
This is a personal film for me. I grew up in and around Glasgow just as Stein’s team was reaching its peak. My father used to take me and my brother all over Scotland in his car to support the team. (My knowledge of geography owes much to the teams Celtic played in Scotland and Europe.) We were at Motherwell in 1966 when in the dying minutes Celtic won the game to clinch their first title in a dozen years. We were at Celtic Park the following year when in the dying minutes our team won the quarter-final against the Yugoslavian champions Vojvodina Novi Sad and of course we sat glued to the television on May 25, 1967, when Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup (the fore-runner of the Champions League).
In winning the European Cup, the first time anyone outside outside the Latin heartlands of Spain and Italy and Portugal did so, Celtic – with a team drawn from 30 miles around Glasgow rather than global galacticos – joined Europe’s elite, in the company of such names as Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Celtic’s verve and audacity appealed to neutrals around the world. Manchester Utd’s fabled trio of Best, Law and Charlton, plus the legacy of the Busby Babes killed at Munich, gave that team a global platform. In Shankly Liverpool had a master of the soundbite who talked like James Cagney and did the spadework for the Liverpool teams that would dominate Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.
Whether they realised it or not, the trio put their teams on a pedestal few have reached and the film estimated that a quarter of the globe’s entire population currently supports one of the three. It is also a testament to the burden carried by the managers. By the age of 62 both Busby and Shankly had retired while Jock Stein Stein died from a heart attack in the dying seconds of a vital World Cup qualifying game while managing Scotland.
The film also captures the unique circumstances of each of the working-class cities where football was the lifeblood. All three had other major football teams and it would not be unusual for a quarter of the city’s populations to attend football matches on a Saturday afternoon. Cities that had been destroyed by the Second World War and suffered from a contraction of the workforce in the recessions of the 1960s turned to football as a lifeline. Men who otherwise contained their emotions would let them loose in raucous fashion when following their favoured teams.
Directed with at times great subtlety by Jonny Owen, also responsible for the film about Brian Clough’s Eurropean Cup-winning Nottingham Forest I Believe in Miracles (2015), and incorporating rare archive footage, the documentary looks back to a time when football passion could transcend adversity.
Rather than write about the best films I have seen this year, I thought I would look at the four best books about films that I have read over the last twelve months. However, I’m beginning with an older book. I was so taken with Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of actress Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) that I sought out Garry McGee’s Jean Seberg – Breathless, Her True Story first published in 2007 and reprinted in 2018 in time for the movie.
This is a startling and ultimately a very sad book of the star as an American tragedy who shot to the heights in her first film and spent the rest of her life with a couple of exceptions falling earthwards. She took her own life, aged 40, in 1979. She was seen as both calculating and a victim, a woman of great strength and immense vulnerability, who used her popularity to espouse unpopular causes.
Her career followed no pattern anyone could understand, least of all Hollywood. Thrust into the limelight as a teenager when hand-picked as Saint Joan (1957) by director Otto Preminger – an experience that scarred her physically and mentally – she quickly shifted to France where she was enshrined in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1960), but remained in France too long appearing in less prestigious productions. She was a vivid Lilith (1964) in Robert Rossen’s dissection of mental illness, but disappeared off the Hollywood map again until reappearing at the end of the decade in roadshow musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) – in which she stole the show from Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. After blockbuster Airport (1970) and western Macho Callahan (1970) she departed Hollywood for good, her final films being made in Europe.
Why her career was so apparently topsy-turvy is explored in this excellent biography, the final departure from America propelled by the discovery that she was under investigation by the FBI.
Chinatown (1973) is one of the greatest noir thrillers ever made but with its director Roman Polanski now persona non grata in Hollywood, it remains to be seen whether the film will retain its high status. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood leaves any discussion of the director’s sexual mores until the last chapters when the shock of the allegations against him threaten to overwhelm the entire book. That said, up till then, it is a riveting book, not just the convoluted process of making this particular movie, but especially fascinating when discussing the screenplay, the working methods of writer Robert Towne, and the tangled dealings with agents.
After The Godfather (1972), Paramount was on a high and studio boss and wunderkind Robert Evans was apparently untouchable – the studio had given him his own production company – but his wife Ali McGraw had run off with Steve McQueen and he was at war with studio president Frank Yablans. Jack Nicholson, however, was approaching a box office peak. Polanski was hot and if his touch was anywhere as good as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) it would be a slam dunk. But as the movie approached its premiere, it was looking more like a stinker. Preview audiences hated it. The original score was dumped, Jerry Goldsmith brought in to make the music more evocative of the period.
The author takes a wider view than the normal “making of” book and his portrayal of Hollywood at a time of massive change and the corrosive and often self-destructive nature of many of the personalities involved gives the subject material greater bite. A film of this book is being greenlit with Ben Affleck’s involvement.
According to Stephen Rebello, Valley of the Dolls (1968) is in a class of its own. It was top of the class in Bad Movies We Love, the book he co-wrote with Edward Margulies. Rebello has now accorded to his “making of” one of the longest book titles in history – Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, The Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time. Rebello, of course, is famous for his opus on Psycho. Valley of the Dolls was based on the bitchy bestseller by Jacqueline Susann and the movie itself fell into a similar category. Director Mark Robson had been twice Oscar-nominated, once for his adaptation of Peyton Place, a novel occupying the same trashy ground as Valley of the Dolls. Although Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Bette Davis and Kim Novak were at various times in the running, the book was such a huge bestseller that Twentieth Century Fox thought it would get away with a less-than-stellar cast. The best known of the stars Judy Garland was fired over her alcoholism. Rebello has an irreverent style, but a forensic eye for detail and has produced a highly-readable book of a film now termed a camp classic.
If Valley of the Dolls was in a class of its own, then so too was Ryan’s Daughter (1970), filmed on location in Ireland. In the David Lean canon, none of his pictures have been so maligned. While not approaching the sensational box office of Doctor Zhivago (1965) it was still a massive audience favorite. In Glasgow, where I lived, it ran as a 70mm roadshow presentation at the first-run ABC2 for an entire year. But it was mauled by the critics who felt it was clearly within their rights to dole out to Lean a public humiliation after inviting him to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics where Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel in particular tore his film to shreds.
Quite why the book has taken so long to be published is another mystery given the author says he did the bulk of the research in 1999-2003. Maybe the publishers were counting on a 50th anniversary revival. Certainly, he has no shortage of material from the drunken and pot-smoking shenanigans of star Robert Mitchum to the miscasting of Christopher Jones and the director’s own haphazard personal life. MGM, which was going through a financial tsunami, backed the director to the hilt even as the budget continued to soar -it ran 135 days over schedule. Because of the overages Jones took home more than this £200,000 contracted salary and John Mills nearly double his original $200,000. Lean’s legendary perfection endangered the lives of the crew and actors during the storm sequence while the sex scene between Jones and Sarah Miles caused particular problems. The author alleges that Jones’ food was spiked. For some reason the author has dubbed this “one of the great movie follies” and while I would not agree with that estimation it remains an interesting read.
You can’t really write about 1960s films without making some reference to the revolutionary composers and lyricists who penned so many of the decade’s finest music. Rather than concentrate on the films to which the pair made vital contributions, I thought I would point you in the direction of a Eddi Fiegel’s biography of John Barry and this year’s autobiography of Don Black.
Barry, the son of a Yorkshire cinema owner, was a true child of the Sixties, a handsome man in handmade suits, living in Chelsea, driving an E-type Jaguar or a white Maserati, and friend of Michael Caine and David Bailey. He squired some of the most glamorous women of the era like Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling and was married to one its most enigmatic actresses Jane Birkin (Wonderwall, 1968, and co-conspirator of the hit single “Je T’Aime”).
After forming jazz outfit the John Barry Seven, regulars on TV program the 6.5 Special, he scored and arranged singles for pop singer Adam Faith who proved his passport to the movie business with Beat Girl (1959). But Dr No (1962) for which he was only paid £250 changed his life and he became the most in-demand film composer in British cinematic history. He followed up with successes such as Zulu (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) and although his music sold in enormous quantities in terms of singles and soundtrack albums, his work had not come to the notice of the Oscar voters.
Born Free (1966) changed all that when he linked up with lyricist Don Black. Columbia had initially insisted that an American folk group would write and perform the theme song. But Barry was determined to do it himself. While the theme for Goldfinger had taken many days and nights to complete, Born Free was a different story: “I wrote the whole thing from beginning to end in about ten minutes,” said Barry. He had previously worked with Black on Thunderball (1965). The collaboration clicked from the outset. “John’s very word-conscious,” commented Black, “and that’s unusual for most composers.” However, Black’s socially-conscious lyrics did not initially go down well with producer Carl Foreman and Barry had continuous problems over the way the music should be handled in the film. The theme went to number one in America and Barry picked up two Oscars, for original music and, shared with Black, for best song.
Even so, Barry was not welcomed in Hollywood. “I remember in Hollywood,” noted composer Leslie Bricusse, “the fraternity of film composers there being very condescending towards John, talking about him as this pop musician who’d been in a band…the top brass…saw John as this kind of upstart. ” That changed with heist movie Deadfall (1968) – the “Romance for a Guitar and Orchestra” section my favorite piece of Barry music – and The Lion in Winter (1968) for which he won his second Oscar.
The bulk of Fiegel’s book covers the music Barry wrote in the 1960s and it is full of riveting detail about the circumstances surrounding various films. This is not a new book but it’s one I go back to again and again to remind me of John Barry’s genius.
By comparison The Sanest Guy in the Room: A Life in Lyrics by Don Black was published this year. “The first thing you learn as a lyric writer,” says Black, ” is not to waste a syllable” and that is the mantra for this delightful book, full of interesting anecdotes, insights into the work of other famous lyricists, and containing many of his own lyrics. He worked with singers Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand, a string of top composers including Maurice Jarre, Francis Lai, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini and wrote musicals including Tell Me on a Sunday with Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
He grew up in council house in Hackney, London. But his initial attempts to become a songwriter floundered and he worked on the weekly music paper New Musical Express before becoming a “plugger” – a publicist – for a music publishing company and then a stand-up comedian.
However, he had become good friends with crooner Matt Monro – whom he would later manage – and the singer encouraged him to give songwriting another chance. When Barry approached him to write the lyrics for Thunderball, his career took off. Normally he wrote the lyrics once the composer had completed the tune. But To Sir, With Love was written first. Canadian Mark London supplied the music. British pop star Lulu, who was in the film, recorded it and it topped the charts in the United States.
But his closest collaborator remained John Barry. “It was easy writing with John – he would hand me a melody and I would go home and put words to it…If you write the words first there is a tendency to ramble, but if you only have a limited number of notes they provide you with a rigid framework.”
You can’t be a lyricist without versatility as proven by some of the songs he wrote in the 1960s – for films as diverse as Yul Brynner adventure The Long Duel (1967), A Matter of Innocence (1967) starring Hayley Mills, Peter Sellers comedy The Party (1968), Burton and Taylor drama Boom! (1968), biopic Isadora (1968) with Vanessa Redgrave, spy thriller Some Girls Do (1969), George Segal-Ursula Andress adventure Southern Star (1969) and The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine.
As well as the Oscar for Born Free, he was nominated for best song for True Grit (1969), Ben (1972), Gold (1974) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). More recently he has been presenting a show on BBC Radio Two. His autobiography is a very spirited read, whizzing you from one anecdote to the next, and as promised no word wasted.
Since this is my 100th blog, I am in celebratory mood and hope to convince you that The Undefeated is one of the most under-rated westerns of all time. (Be warned – this is longer than my normal reviews.)
While John Wayne was at a career peak, Rock Hudson was in a trough. Wayne had just posted his biggest-ever box office figures for True Grit, which had opened in the summer, the first western ever shown at the Radio City Music Hall, the country’s biggest auditorium with nearly 6,000 seats, although it was advertised as an ‘outdoor adventure.’ He had appeared on the covers of both “Time” and “Life” magazines, and was being talked-up as a genuine Oscar contender. True Grit was proving to have such popular appeal that, in the year of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it would finish sixth on the annual box office rankings, just shading the former and well ahead of the latter.
Rock Hudson had ended up nearly at the top of another list – of the worst-performing stars at the box office, according to Variety his last five pictures tallying a total of $8.5million. After a decade at the top of the trees, segueing from Douglas Sirk melodramas to Doris Day comedies, he had come unstuck with John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white experimental Seconds (1966), derided at the Cannes Film Festival and ignored by ticket buyers, and thereafter gone downhill fast with Blindfold (1966), Tobruk (1967), A Fine Pair (1968), and MGM’s big-budget Cinerama Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Director Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935), got his break on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Wayne provided the guarantee four years later for McLaglen Jr. to make his first foray into direction, the western Gun the Man Down. After making a splash in television – over 200 episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and around 100 of Gunsmoke – his career moved into higher gear with McLintock (1963), Shenandoah (1965) and The Rare Breed (1966). Three further westerns followed – The Way West (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967) and Bandolero! (1968) – before diversifying into oil wildcatting adventure Hellfighters (1968).
McLaglen was the victim of two erroneous assumptions. The first was that he was happy to be type cast as a director of westerns. He refuted this notion in an interview for Conversations on Film and claimed that “it’s the way my course was laid out for me,” suggesting that, in the early days at least, he had little control over the kind of projects for which he was deemed most suitable. Secondly, he was unfairly condemned as a “journeyman” director, an unworthy successor to John Ford, although Christopher Frayling put it more kindly when he asserted that McLaglen was a “figurative painter when everyone else had gone abstract,” indicating that the director was out of keeping with the times.
However, this was equally unfair, since in the 1960s, until Sam Peckinpah produced The Wild Bunch, there had been no real contenders for the Ford crown apart from a critic-driven revival of the 1950s films of Budd Boetticher long after he had stopped making them while Anthony Mann’s decade-long love affair with the western had ended with the dismal Cimarron (1960). U.S. recognition of Sergio Leone was slow in coming. Other directors considered as candidates such as John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957; The Magnificent Seven, 1960) proved too erratic, while the likes of Henry Hathaway had only consistently turned to the genre in the 1960s. McLaglen was underrated as a director of westerns, McLintock hugely enjoyable, Shenandoah belonging close to the top rank, and, as I shall attempt to prove, The Undefeated a far better movie than given credit for. While not in itself a masterpiece in the category of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch, it is McLaglen’s masterpiece.
Wayne played Unionist colonel John Henry Thomas and Hudson his opposite number in the Confederacy Col. James Langdon. The rest of the cast was composed of newcomers like Michael (later Jan Michael) Vincent and Melissa Newman (not the daughter of Paul), pro-football players Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, members of the John Ford stock company like Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, and Mexican actor-singer Antonio Aguilar. The movie was filmed on a 1,600 acre plantation in Louisiana and in and around Durango in Mexico. Nonetheless, at $7.2 million, it had a bigger budget than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Planet of the Apes (1968), which cost $6.8 million, $4.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively.
I don’t usually begin a discussion of a film by examining its composition but I am making an exception with The Undefeated. I had come to this picture with vague memories of having seen it on original release in second- or possibly third-run at my local theater. I do not recall being particularly impressed, although at that age I had not formed any critical faculties for the evaluation of the western, nor any movie for that matter, being only 16 or 17 at the time. As a result, I did not hold out much hope for the movie when it came to the current re-evaluation, in part because it lacked the critical status of The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West, which I had viewed many times since their original release, and in part because it had not been a box office or critical hit and therefore subject to the theatrical reissue, continuous television programming and re-evaluation that had accompanied The Wild Bunchor Once Upon a Time in the West.
What struck me most was how Andrew V. McLaglen constructed the movie on screen. A substantial number of scenes were in long shot, but, unlike, say True Grit, the director made more consistent use of the divisions between background, center and foreground. Most often by using the 3,000 horses as the long distance focal point in the middle of the screen, or a line of cavalry, the director achieved a fine separation of elements that, to me, at least appeared to show a mastery of composition. The screen, lengthways, was consistently divided into three, or four. Sometimes the entire action took place in the bottom half of the screen, the upper part reserved for sky or sky peering through mountains. Like a traditional landscape painter, McLaglen would work with the horizon line, sometimes with a vanishing point. It seemed to me that an artist, in the most ordinary sense of the word, was at work. This conceptual approach is apparent from the very start. When a rider arrives to announce to the Union troops that the Civil War is over, half the screen is sky.
What does let the movie down is the story. The basic concept – the reconciliation of deadly enemies – is an intriguing one and more than enough to carry the picture, but, the plot is overly complicated and the ending, while in one respect emotionally satisfying, is an anti-climax. In post-Civil War America, a group of ex-Union soldiers and a contingent of former Confederate soldiers (plus families) both converge on Mexico, but for different reasons. The Union soldiers, led by Col Thomas, are intent on selling a herd of 3,000 wild horses to the Mexican army, while Col. Langdon’s Confederates are taking their weapons and money in the same direction but in the hope of setting up a second front in order to continue the fight against the Unionists.
On the way, both groups encounter double-dealing, the Mexicans attempt to renege on the agreement to buy the wild horses, while the rebels are taken hostage by, ironically enough, forces in opposition to the existing Mexican government. The Unionists come to the rescue of the Confederates twice, once in a rousing battle against bandits, and, at the climax, by trading their horses (and their futures) for their former enemies’ lives. But this is an unsatisfactory conclusion since, to complete the circle, it should have been the Confederates baling the Unionists out of trouble, and therefore, honors even, they can come to a peaceful accommodation.
The movie opens with a battered Confederate flag. The camera tracks left along lines of grey-uniformed soldiers waiting for the expected attack. Almost immediately, their ranks are decimated by cannon fire followed by a Union cavalry charge, sabers cutting the defending soldiers to ribbons, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) in the thick of the action, a Confederate flag abandoned on the ground. As a rider brings news of the cessation of hostilities, the camera, from Thomas’s point-of-view lingers on the dead. Thomas seeks out the enemy to accept their surrender.
To his astonishment, the Confederates already know that peace has been agreed when they continued fighting and, as far as the rebel commanding officer is concerned, the war is not over. “Are you telling me,” asks an incredulous Thomas, “that you intend to keep fighting?” The officer replies, “Haven’t we just proven it?” A few minutes into the picture, the entire concept is established, emotional sides taken, Unionists exhibiting disbelief, Confederates appearing resolute.
Mustachioed and resplendent in a Southern uniform that incorporates a cape and a hat with a feather in it, the dashing Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson) spells out his post-war secret mission to his troops, a 2,000-mile trip to Mexico, arms and ammunition and uniforms hidden at the bottom of wagons, their rendezvous, 500 miles south of the border, in Durango leading to being escorted by representatives of Emperor Maximilian to the country’s capital. Langdon sets fire to their grand mansion as a romantic subplot unfolds involving two juveniles, Langdon’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman) and the slightly older Bubba Wilkes (Michael Vincent).
Thomas hands in his resignation, explaining that the 10 men remaining out of the 75 he recruited three years prior takes priority over continuing as a soldier. “Those left deserve more than a pat on the back from some newspaper editor and I’m gonna see they get it,” he snaps, as he leads his men away on their mission, to round up 3,000 horses to sell to the U.S. Army. What do men do while they wait around, capture flies as in Once Upon a Time in the West, or bicker as The Wild Bunch? Like Peckinpah’s squad, these men like to make fun of each other and, reminiscent of the scene when Warren Oates is teased over a bottle of whiskey, the ex-soldiers toss a chew of tobacco around until one stops after catching sight of approaching Indians.
In a mild twist, these are not enemies, but a group led by Blue Blood (Roman Gabriel), who, in another twist, we learn later, is Thomas’s adopted son – a major twist, in fact, if we are the homage business, given The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards is dedicated to hunting down and killing Debbie (Natalie Wood) simply because she has lived with Indians after being kidnapped. The arrival of the riders is typical of McLaglen’s compositional skills: the men appear in long shot below the horizon. The screen, in reality, is divided into two – sky at the top, land at the bottom. Crammed into the middle is a tiny stretch of men.
We cut the first rousing adventure scene, a two-minute scene of the lassoing, capture and breaking-in of thousands of horses, the screen filled with images of the racing animals. As Col. Langdon’s wagon train sets off, Charlotte tells her beau that she is “looking for something more substantial” in a man than this lovelorn youth, as if she has quickly grown up during the war. Thomas and Short Grub (Ben Johnson) head off to a staging post for a meeting with the agents who buy horses for the government but instead they come into contact with a “couple of popinjays” representing Emperor Maximilian and willing to buy the entire herd. The loyal Thomas rejects their offer out of hand until, in an attempt to defraud him, the government agents offer him $10 less per horse than the going market rate, and for a fraction of the herd.
Summary justice, in the form of a punch, is meted out to the agents. In the middle of a fog we learn that the Confederates are being pursued by Union Cavalry intent on turning them round. When Langdon hears the Union horses he orders his wagon train to race the enemy to the Rio Grande. Once across, there is a close-up of the Confederate flag and McLaglen pulls back to reveal the train of wagons which takes up only the bottom half of the screen, the upper half entirely sky. Thomas faces the same dilemma and only a massive stampede of the horses sees them safely across.
As 1969 westerns are filled with dreamers (Butch Cassidy filling his head with ideas of Bolivia and, later, Australia; Omar Sharif’s bandit in Mackenna’s Gold dreaming of Paris), there is a short scene among Thomas’s men when they talk about what they will do with the money they will earn. Most of their notions are relatively mundane but one entertains a vision of a small library under a big elm. Thomas is in no mood for such frivolities, going to sleep with his guns cocked, telling his men, “We’re Americans in Mexico taking horses to a very unpopular government.”
Blue Blood, who has been scouting ahead, returns the next morning to inform Thomas that he has found a box canyon four miles ahead where there is forage and water for the horses. But he also warns that he came across two trails, the first of wagons and horses, and the second, following the first, about 40 riders. “I’d suspect an ambush,” says Thomas. When Blue Blood and Thomas go off to investigate they find the Confederates. In a nod to the opening shot, McLaglen gives a close-up of the rebel flag, this time in pristine condition. Approaching the wagon train, arranged in a circle, they explain the situation to Langdon, who asks what the bandits could be after. “Gold, horses, women,” replies Thomas, at which point Langdon’s wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether) and sister-in-law Ann (Marian McCargo) Ann look up.
This is another twist, or will be, for what happens to captured women has been a constant theme of westerns, especially in 1969, the treatment of white women at the hands of Indians forming a central plank of The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold, and any women taken by any men in 100 Rifles, The Wild Bunch and True Grit. Hatred for an enemy being subsumed by Southern hospitality, Langdon shares a whisky with Thomas who learns that Langdon’s son was killed at Shiloh, an engagement in which Thomas participated. Meanwhile, Blue Blood who has been making eyes at Charlotte, is send by Thomas on an errand.
Next day the night picket returns, strapped to his horse, and dead. Captain Anderson (Edward Faulkner) suspects Blue Blood is involved, but Thomas reveals Blue Blood is his adopted son, information that receives a glance from Ann as she cocks her rifle. As Thomas gives her some advice, “Windage and elevation” we suspect this may be the beginning of a romance. But the Mexican leader is not open to negotiation. “We want everything,” he says, “We want wagons, horses, guns, and gold and you also have some women.”
Bearing in mind that Thomas is a soldier rather than a frontiersman or a citizen of the West who, in confrontation, would not, in the grand Hollywood tradition, shoot first, it still comes as a surprise when Thomas simply kills the Mexican as a solider would employ the element of surprise. Back at the wagons, Thomas is upbraided by Ann, “Why did you have to shoot him?” His dry response, “Conversation kind of dried up,” would not have been out of place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and while there are many other funny quips, and while McLaglen has an eye – and ear – for comedy as demonstrated in previous films, there is a big difference in audience response between lines delivered by the amiable Butch Cassidy and those uttered by the no-nonsense Thomas.
Maintaining compositional discipline, the battle begins with McLaglen creating a shot that places the wagons horizontally in the bottom quarter of the screen, the line of charging bandits above them but still below the screen’s halfway point, with the rest of the picture taken up with two huge rocks on either side of the screen with the sky peeking through them. The bandits are beaten off. Ann says to Thomas, “Tell me they’re leaving.”
If romance is brewing,McLaglen’s shorthand method of showing it is simply to put them in the same frame without resorting to anything more intimate. “No, ma’am,” replies Thomas, “they’re reforming to charge again.” He pauses, “At least that’s their plan.”
What follows is easily the best action scene in the picture, especially as it is entirely done in long shot and not, as others would be tempted to do, with lots of close-ups of individual pieces of action. As the bandits race away to reform, they head for the shelter of rocks where they are ambushed by the rest of Thomas’s outfit. When they twist away to escape the relentless gunfire, Blue Blood leads his band of Indians in a charge against them and the Mexican bandits are routed.
The symmetry of the action as the bandits race from one side of the screen to the other, encountering conflict at every turn, is stunning. Following the battle, Thomas confides in Langdon that he was at the battle where Ann lost her husband. In part, this is further shorthand, Thomas expecting such a revelation, which clearly he expects the Confederate to pass on, to kill off any incipient romance, but, in the wider emotional context, it binds the former enemies together, not in conflict, but in sadness for what they have all lost. Winners and losers, McLaglen appears to point out, all suffer the same losses. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Blue Blood are getting closer, the Indian having waved his hat in her direction on his triumphant return, the girl’s eyes lighting up at the sight.
No sooner has Thomas returned to his own camp than his men are invited back to join the Confederates to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of the reasons for Thomas to grow closer to Ann is a technical one, so that he can unburden himself. Romance, if it is that, is not advanced one iota except for the way the woman listens to the man, who recounts his own tale without prompting and without being accused of being uncommunicative and without it being beaten out of him.
It turns out that Thomas was once married but his wife left him. “She was so busy being a lady that she forgot to be a woman.” She objected to him going off hunting but, most of all, she did not want children so he adopted Blue Blood and is “as proud of him as if he were my own blood.” The adoption of the Indian was not as odd as all that in 1969 western iteration, Glenn Ford brought up by Indian in Smith! (1969) and, two years before, in Hombre (1967) Paul Newman’s character nurtured by Indians, but those were matters of chance not individual decision, a child has no say in who brings it up, but for an adult male to choose to adopt an Indian boy is a different story altogether.
Nothing more is made of Blue Blood’s adoption, but, as loyal viewers of many westerns over many years, audiences will have grown accustomed to romances between an Indian and a white woman hitting the skids.
But just as the movie clicks into gear, with two incipient romances and bandits thwarted, the question of the Confederate dream still unresolved, issues regarding the acceptance of Indians into society under discussion, former enemies halfway to reconciliation by fighting together against a common foe, both groups still to conclude their missions, the script almost destroys the fine work so far by introducing a western stereotype – the fistfight. As usual, there is no good reason, plot-wise, Thomas and Langdon dragged in, until the unnecessary fracas (with the usual side helping of low comedy) is halted by Ann firing a rifle.
Thomas and his men take their and comes across buzzards scavenging the French troops[i] sent by Emperor Maximilian to meet the Confederates. Blue Blood races off to warn the Confederates and, invited to stay the night, kisses Charlotte and, as a consequence, is beaten up by Wilkes and Captain Anderson who send him away. Later, the Indian spots Mexican troops. Meanwhile, Thomas, awaiting a rendezvous with the Mexican agents, is annoyed that his team have lost 500 horses on the journey (none of this has been dramatized) and worried that Blue Blood is three days late.
There is a nice exchange worthy of the self-delusion exhibited in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid between Thomas and Short Grub. The latter says, “I’d be thinking that he’s made off with that little Reb girl and he’d be just about by Rio Grande by this time.” Thomas replies, “That’s what I’m thinking.” Short Grub continues, “He wouldn’t do that.” Thomas agrees, “He wouldn’t do that,” while his expression shows the opposite. The agents count 2,505 horses and promise money is on its way.
Langdon’s party reaches Durango to the Confederate flag being raised and a local band playing Dixie. Host General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar) lays on a welcoming banquet. But it is a trap they are surrounded by gunman on the rooftops. “Consider yourselves prisoners of the revolution,” explains Rojas. Now Langdon’s contingent are held hostage until Thomas’s herd is brought in exchange. This is the worst possible dilemma for a Southerner. “I’m not asking any Yankee for anything,” blusters Langdon, at which point one of the Confederates is dragged in front of the firing squad, and Langdon has no option but to capitulate. Rojas sets a deadline of “noon tomorrow” or all will be shot. Blue Blood is in the crowd, and at night, when Charlotte is set upon by Mexicans he rushes to her rescue.
At the cowboy camp, Langdon explains the situation. The Unionists agree to help. But the Mexican government has no intention of paying for the herd when they can as easily steal it by force of arms. A regiment of cavalry will do the enforcing. Seizing the initiative, Thomas sets the herd on collision course with the Mexicans, leading the stampede two wagons bristling with guns.
The attack takes the Mexicans by surprise, the wild horses punching through the cavalry line, rifles picking off the enemy, Langdon slashing with his sabre. In Durango, with time running out, the General begins selecting Confederates to face the firing squad but just at that moment Rojas hears approaching hooves. All are saved. Blue Blood kisses Charlotte. Thomas, Langdon and Rojas drink to Juarez, the Mexican rebel leader.
Now comes the final twist for students of the American western of 1969. Many of the key pictures of the year had involved escape of one kind or another. The Wild Bunch take refuge in Mexico, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. All the refugees have no intention of returning home. Only in The Undefeated do the would-be escapees return home, having resolved their differences rather than running away from them. While that is an intriguing ending – Langdon resolving to run for the House of Representatives, Charlotte determined to go with Blue Blood to his home, the romance between Thomas and Ann remaining, unusually for a western, unresolved – the incidents leading up to this are, for many, anti-climactic.
Whether the ending has been truncated for reasons of running time or because McLaglen believed a longer scene showing the herd racing towards Durango and the clock ticking away was redundant is unknown. As it stands, the ending convinces me, although, to Hollywood, the idea of Americans helping foreigners overthrow their government always provides an easy get-out clause, and, as I mentioned before, in order for the picture to run full circle, it should be the Confederates who save the Unionists’ skin.
Nonetheless, it is a bold decision to end the picture in this fashion, and although the movie is not seen as having a political point to make, what could be more political, at the height of the Vietnam War, than of finding a way for bitter enemies to put aside their enmity and resolve to work together in the future? The film ends in compromise, riding out, returning as companions not enemies, to the U.S., they play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” instead of, in an echo to an earlier scene, the divisive “Battle Hymn of The Republic” or “Dixie.”
This is another impressive performance from John Wayne, especially as his character is fully-formed by his experiences in the Civil War, where, unlike the traditional western, the good guy does not need to wait for the other fellow to draw first and an astute commander will take the enemy by surprise. This is Wayne in a more thoughtful register, looking after his adopted son and the soldiers he has equally “adopted,” able to speak openly about regret and accepting the part he played, courtesy of the war, in inflicting grief on others. Gung-ho is long gone.
The actor cracked a couple of ribs during filming so for some weeks could only be filmed from one camera position, but that appears to have been no limitation on his performance, which is considerably more rounded than in the past. Had there been no True Grit between this and Hellfighters, his performance might have been praised. For a country still rooted in bigotry and inflamed by race hatred at the end of the 1960s, Wayne, taking on a role where he espoused racial appeasement and where he accepted the sadness war inevitably inflicts on families regardless of which side they are on, sounds like the opposite to his character in The Green Berets.
Rock Hudson is a shade over-the-top in his portrayal of Colonel Langdon but movies work best with opposites and it would not do if he was as reflective as Wayne. Nobody came within a mile of Oscar consideration but spare a thought for Marian McCargo’s quiet dignity as the widow.
As I mentioned at the outset, what impressed me most was McLaglen’s cinematic handling, the consistent way in which he used the screen, a discipline he maintained right up to the end when the screen is divided in two by the Rio Grande with in the bottom half the wagon train itself splitting the screen by going up the its middle. Should anyone decide to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Undefeated by showing it on the big screen, then take the opportunity of seeing exactly why Andrew V. McLaglen should not be denigrated as a “journeyman” director.
British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.
The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.
Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.