The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

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 or Wages of Fear Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco (Crack in the Mirror, 1960) 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 in this particular role 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). 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 (Shake Hands with the Devil, 1959) 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 (and Boyd was in reality saved from drowning by his co-star). 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.  Their plans are further hit by sabotage by the German Kaltenberg (Gregory Ratoff in his final role).

While some of the posters highlight the river crossing, others focus on the cliff-top sequences.

This was Boyd’s bid for stardom. Five years into a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, he had worked his way up the ranks at that studio to become male lead to top-billed females like Susan Hayward (A Woman Obsessed, 1959) and Hope Lange (The Best of Everything, 1959) before his career received a massive boost after a loan-out deal to MGM for Ben-Hur (1959). He might have been hotter yet had Fox not abandoned its first Rouben Mamoulian-directed version of Cleopatra in which he played Mark Anthony, a role that later brought Richard Burton worldwide fame and a new wife. Boyd would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star.

One of the great Hollywood what-ifs – how would Boyd’s career have developed
if he had followed up “Ben-Hur” with “Cleopatra.”

Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959), Crack in the Mirror (1960) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help for the African sequences from Elmo Williams (The Longest Day, 1962) – the nerve-wracking clifftop sequences and river crossing were actually shot in France – 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.  Filmed in CinemaScope, this is one of the films of the era which does justice to the widescreen. 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.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) ***

Forget swashbuckling shenanigans in the Captain Blood (1935) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) vein, this has more in keeping with Lord of the Flies (1963) as a bunch of third-rate pirates get more than they bargained for after kidnapping a bunch of English children.

The pirates are clever enough when required, using the ruse of pretending to be a ship in distress to defeat an enemy, capable of torturing a captured captain into revealing concealed treasure, or hiding from pursuit by disguising the masts with palm leaves, but generally short on intelligence. That the kidnapping is unintentional, no sensible pirate wanting the British Navy breathing down its neck, gives an indication of the mentality of Captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his mate Zac (James Coburn). Nor are the children Disney-cute and far from being petrified they see it as a great adventure while the crew are superstitious about having the youngsters aboard.

The kids have great fun running rings round the pirates, stealing Chavez’s hat, climbing the rigging, and ringing the bell, while turning round the ship’s figurehead provokes another bout of superstition. When the kids are eventually imprisoned in a rowboat to prevent upsetting the crew they still manage to do so by playing a game that the crew take too seriously.

An attempt to abandon the children on the island of Tampico fails when the oldest boy John (Martin Amis) dies by accident. The children are unperturbed by his death, the only question raised is who can have his blanket. Much to his surprise Chavez discovers he has a strong paternal side, protective when he discovers that one of his captives is a young woman rather than a child, and going against the wishes of his crew when he tends to a knife wound on Emily (Deborah Baxter).

The children are far more grown-up and matter-of-fact than the childish crew, consumed by superstition, and Chavez, consumed by emotion. Although there is considerable comedy to be had from the children’s endeavors, it’s largely an adult film about children. In general, they don’t react the way they would in a Disney picture, nor in the manner which many adults would expect. The sexual tension of the book is considerably underplayed. But the fact that the adults are brought into harm’s way by sheer folly, and their reactions to life are essentially childish, creates a contrast with the more savage attitudes of the children. Emily essentially exposes Chavez’s guilty conscience.

While there is ambivalence aplenty, the depths the book explored go unexplored here, much to the benefit of the picture. The movie dances a tightrope as the children who would otherwise expect to trust an adult grow to learn how to distrust, a rather sharper lesson in growing up than they might have anticipated from their middle-class innocent lives.

Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, 1955) excels in ensuring the tightrope remains in place while taking advantage of the opportunity for comedy, the realization that this adventure is far from fun only becoming gradually apparent.

Anthony Quinn (Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) reins in his tendency to ham things up, and his development from unbridled pirate to responsible adult is an interesting one. James Coburn (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, 1966) reins in the flashing teeth and reveals a more ruthless side than his captain anticipated. Deborah Baxter (The Wind and the Lion, 1975) is easily the pick of the kids although future novelist Martin Amis with his trademark sneer gives her a run for her money.

Lila Kedrova (Torn Curtain, 1966) appears as a brothel madam, Nigel Davenport  (Sebastian, 1968) as the father and Gert Frobe (Goldfinger, 1964) as the captured captain. The cast also includes Dennis Price (Tamahine, 1963) and Vivienne Ventura (Battle Beneath the Earth, 1967).

Stanley Mann (Woman of Straw, 1964), Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, 1983) and Denis Cannan (Woman of Straw) wrote the screenplay based on the celebrated Richard Hughes novel.

The 7th Dawn (1964) ****

Women are the sacrificial victims here, the collateral damage as men of high principle battle for supremacy, politics held in greater esteem than relationships and family ties, a father willing to endanger his daughter, a lover viewing the potential death of his beloved as  publicity coup. Unusually, for a war picture, this is more about repercussion than heroic success. And it was well ahead of its time in taking a far more thoughtful, not to say probing, approach to the genre. Unusually, too, each of the main characters is driven by mistaken belief. It is very much a film where the surface is merely the patina to draw an audience into something more serious underneath and deserves considerable reappraisal.

Set in 1953 in Malaysia when the ruling British government was getting ready to pass over independence to the natives before they took it for themselves. Major Ferris (William Holden), a successful rubber plantation owner, is asked by incoming British High Commissioner Trumphey (Michael Goodliffe) to reach out to terrorist leader Ng (Tetsuro Tamba), a wartime friend and former rival in love for Dhana (Capucine), now Ferris’s mistress. Ng, wishing to ensure Communist dictatorship rather than western-style democracy, refuses to end the guerrilla war.

On his return, Ferris comes across governor’s daughter Candace (Susannah York) swimming naked close to a road notorious for ambush and murder. Meanwhile, Dhana, a teacher, has organised a demonstration to protest the imposition of a curfew. On hearing her out, Trumphey overturns the ban, only for that evening’s function at the embassy to be interrupted by a grenade. In reprisal the British torch a village where they suspect bombs are hidden, the action justified when several houses suddenly explode.

When Dhana finds Candace and Ferris together, aware of his previous infidelities, and shocked by the destruction of the village, she runs away to join Ng, who still holds a torch for her. When she returns, reconciling with Ferris, she is arrested after grenades are found in her bicycle. She is sentenced to death unless she informs on Ng, which she refuses to do.

Candace, with the conviction of the young, believes she can bring about Dhana’s reprieve by offering herself as a hostage to Ng. The terrorist leader in turn promises to kill Candace on the day Dhana is executed. So Ferris, believing the grenades were planted by the British, treks through the jungle to capture Ng, rescue Candace and return before the “seventh dawn” when Dhana will hang. 

The governor refuses to bow to the terrorist threat while Ng confesses that he framed Dhana on the basis that she is expendable. Cause and principle run side-by-side neither man willing to give in to save a loved one.

Caught in the political crossfire – Dhana, Ferris and Candace.

Nor are the women passive, pawns in the great game, the film opening with Dhana wielding a rifle and closing with Candace firing one. Both are willing to die for their cause, Candace perhaps less willingly since she had not foreseen that potential outcome. So this isn’t quite a picture about impotent women but in the end both are powerless against the greater forces of a vicious struggle.

Lewis Gilbert (Loss of Innocence, 1961) creates a thoughtful, even-handed, picture, getting rid of the British sense of superiority so prevalent in pictures about the Empire, using the American Ferris to question many British attitudes, setting Ng up as a respectable, rather than heinous, terrorist who genuinely fears that his people will be unable to cope with sudden independence and require support from Moscow, and bringing to the fore Dhana who initially appears a makeweight in the tale only to become its central focus. A couple of exceptional close-ups reveal character far more than dialogue, Dhana when her execution draws close and Ferris on discovering who set up his mistress. It’s a tribute to his direction that the fabulous scenery fades into the background when laid down beside the tribulations faced  by the characters, each with so much to lose rather than gain.

William Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) is in his element, playing one of those characters that seem to come to easily to him, a man of questionable morals, happily profiteering from the misery of his fellow plantation owners, exploiting the wartime friendship with Ng that has saved him from ambush, forcing Dhana to cope with his infidelity, and yet with an upright core that spurs him into an action he deems stupid.

Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) is the surprise package, with some superb subtle acting as she faces up to the prospect of dying for a crime she did not commit. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is perhaps too innocent, setting out to snare a disreputable man, and she could have done with two extra scenes – one explaining her thought processes in offering herself as hostage and another a confrontation with the father who abandoned her. Tetsuro Tamba (You Only Live Twice, 1967) delivers a thoughtful performance as the man torn between friendship and love and carrying the weight of a nation’s expectation.

Oscar-nominated Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Durian Tree by Michael Keon.

Medium Cool (1969) ***

Self-important essay on the self-entitlement of journalists who see themselves as victims, hated by the authorities whose activities they expose and hated by the public for being so cold-blooded – it opens with a television cameraman getting footage of dead people in a car crash before phoning for an ambulance – and for filming stuff that genuine victims did not want filmed.

Filmed in cinema verite style and covering much of what went down in Chicago 1968 when demonstrators clashed with police and the National Guard and tanks rolled through the streets. Certainly strikes a contemporary chord when filming is an universal pastime and many criminals have been brought to book and various issues highlighted by social media.

As if making its point about action and controversy versus talking heads, the movie begins with talking heads, discussing the role of television and journalism in society, with cameramen telling stories of occasions when the public they were trying to help turned on them. The narrative is slight, following television cameraman John Cassells (Robert Forster) going about his business, and betraying girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) with single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). John is fired after objecting to his television station handing over to the cops and the F.B.I. footage he has filmed of demonstrations and incidents.

Because of the documentary style, much of what has been filmed carries particular resonance as a sign of the times, not so much the police violence because that is widely available elsewhere, but simpler scenes that seem far truer to life. Eileen’s son Harold (Harold Blankenship) is interviewed by an off-screen canvasser about his home life, age, brothers and sisters and so on. Questioned about his father, he explains his father is not at home. “Where would I find him?” asks the interviewer. “Vietnam.”

The boy’s mother Eileen, a teacher who has to manage five grades in one classroom, and John are skirting round the physical side of their romance until jokingly John takes the plunge. “I know your husband’s not going to come charging through the door.” “Buddy’s dead.” The director could already have delivered this information to the audience in talking-heads-fashion but this carries probably the biggest dramatic punch in the picture. This family provides a solid core for a movie which makes its points in more hard-hitting style.

Questions of respect and ethics loom large. Making no bones about finding audience-grabbing material, John is disgusted that people steal hubcaps and the radio antenna from his car when clearly he feels news journalists should be given more respect. But that the public hold an opposite view is clear from Ruth who instances turtles filmed going the wrong way after nuclear explosion distorted their instincts and they went inland to lay their eggs (where they would die) rather than out to sea. She complains that none of the cameramen present thought to turn the turtles round and show them the correct way.

A plot point allows Eileen and John to mingle with the demonstrators during the actual Democratic Convention. There is a shock – and ironic – ending in which John is himself photographed by a passerby after being involved in an accident.

Robert Forster (Justine, 1969) carries off the arrogant victimized reporter well and in her debut Verna Bloom (High Plains Drifter) is excellent as the real victim of the system while Mariana Hill (El Condor, 1970) raises the tempo as the volatile girlfriend. Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, 1976) has a small part.

Oscar-winning cinematographer for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Haskell Wexler (who also wrote the script) makes a notable debut as director, mixing fact and fiction, taking a political stance and introducing a revolutionary camera technique. Half a century on, not much has changed in attitudes to media ethics although it is another photographic revolution via social media that is leading the discussion in what takes top billing in terms of news. Its content has led the film to be seen as a landmark of the cinema.

Phantom of the Open (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

A sentimental ending and Oscar winner Mark Rylance (The Bridge of Spies, 2015) can’t save this latest tribute to that particularly British phenomenon – the loser. While no doubt this is in essence the true story of golfing wannabe Maurice Flitcroft who gained some kind of notoriety – and latterly some celebrity – as the world’s worst golfer after posting, on live television, by a long way the worst score in British Open history, it’s plagued with a woeful attempt at no-hoper charm that just doesn’t work.

Rylance (Maurice Flitcroft) is part of the problem. He could be a cousin to Jim Broadbent’s dour character in The Duke, but where Broadbent comes to life in the second half, Rylance does not, a one-note performance that fails to elicit any sympathy for the character. Where do I start with what is wrong with the picture?

Well, for a start, the idea that a crane driver is an awful job. My grandfather was a crane driver in the shipyards in Clydebank and it was a skilled and highly-prized job and earned him a little bit more than the other workers down below and instead of moaning about his job he drove on his children to become educated – my mother among three of the family to go to university in World War Two Glasgow. Clearly, also, “poor” Maurice earned enough to put down a deposit on a house, a big achievement in the 1960s.

And the idea that Maurice had never heard of golf until the mid-1970s seemed preposterous when hardly 80 miles away Tony Jacklin, the son of a steel worker, won the British Open at Royal Lytham St Annes in 1969. The whole of Britain was electrified. I remember with my brother peering through the window of a television shop to watch it live on television. Equally preposterous is the notion that golf was a middle-class hobby. I remember as a teenager just after Jacklin’s famous win caddying for my father at a public golf course, which required no payment of annual fees nor wearing of fancy golfing ensembles. Golf was far from a hobby restricted to the well-off.

The closest loser-hero to Flitcroft is British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle (also filmed) but Eddie was at least a recognized and official contender in his sport. He did not try to sneak in the back door without doing any of the endless training necessary for anyone who wants to compete at a high level. It’s just crazy to set Flitcroft up as some kind of official-tweaking hero, when he simply managed to gain entry to the Open by cheating. The closest comparison in golf in the winner-from-nowhere category was John Daly who won a major in the U.S. in 1991, only qualifying after one of the contenders dropped out, but he had been a professional golfer for four years by that time.

And I hate this grim mud-tainted view of the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in that period and certainly don’t recognize the picture painted. Flitcroft’s children, luckily, didn’t inherit the delusional gene, his twins becoming world champion disco dancers and his other son becoming a successful businessman.

Flitcroft just wanted glory without any of the hard work and it’s hard to find any sympathy for such a delusional man. Anyone who pointed out to Flitcroft just how delusional he was received short shrift in the film. Woe betide any official who thought this character was going to bring derision to golf, at a time when the sport was going through a revival, thanks to Jacklin who would inspire a generation of even better golfers like Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.

It’s almost a cosmic joke that everyday golfers looked upon Flitcroft as their idol simply because he played the game as badly as they did and that he received some kind of celebrity as a result. Odd, too, that nobody’s ever thought to make a film about a true winner like Tony Jacklin.

The Duke (2020) *** – Seen at the Cinema

The most stunning twist since Keyser Soze shucked off his disguise in The Usual Suspects (1995). But where Soze’s trick was a cinematic triumph, here moviegoers are duped by unfair sleight-of-hand. 

If ever there was a movie of two halves, this is it. For the first half we are presented with  Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) as a dour working-class liberal devoted to fighting every cause. In the second half he’s a stand-up comic with the legal profession eating out of his hand, as if the character that turned up in court bore no relation to the one in the initial section. And if his defense for stealing from the National Gallery a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington seemed rather far-fetched even for someone as cause-addicted as him that is because, as we discover in the trick ending, it was just that, entirely made up.

You may also have wondered how a 60-year-man was quite so nimble as to scale a high fence and climb up a couple of floors by ladder, then the trick at the end reveals that this too is part of the audience deception.

Which leaves you wondering just why the core of the story – that a father volunteers to take the place of his guilty son and face the prospect of years in prison – does not even merit a scene. If it wasn’t for the performance of Broadbent and Helen Mirren as his wife, as tour de force an acting partnership as you could hope for, you would wonder what on earth was the point of making the film.

Who outside Britain has ever heard of the license fee? Everyone knows about the BBC, of course, but I would doubt very much if anyone has any idea that what appears to be a free public service broadcasting body (akin to PBS in the U.S.) actually has to be paid for on an annual basis by every single person in the country who owns a television set. Since Bunton claims he stole the painting in protest against certain members of the public being forced to pay this fee, you might wonder how this is going to go down in foreign parts. Setting Bunton up as a working-class rebel on the basis of this preposterous idea is one of the barmiest notions ever to afflict a screenwriter.

This movie has been receiving rave reviews – and picked up £3 million at the box office – because it is charming, pokes fun at the BBC and the Police and the Government and feels like a latter-day Ealing comedy with Broadbent and Mirren in top form. I was duped by the reviews and by the trailer which showed all the funny bits but was bored for a first half that seemed like a very out-of-date attack on too many targets, without providing any real measure of the man who turned into a supreme entertainer in the second half. Some of the issues he raised such as racism were worthy of his defence, but others were simply ignored. The fact that workers could be dismissed in the 1960s for any reason whatsoever with no recourse to tribunals was glossed over. The fact that he was sacked for allowing his taxi passengers to travel for free – the taxi owners not Kempton thus footing the bill – or possibly for boring is passengers to death with his strident views is equally ignored.

I have to say that initially I did enjoy the film. But afterwards I began to have a niggling feeling that somewhere along the way I had been cheated. If Bunton knew he was innocent and was simply taking the fall for his guilty son, his idealistic crusade was pointless. You would have to ask why did he not just return the painting? I can’t believe there was no confrontation with his son. Are we expected to imagine that Bunton just congratulated his son on providing him with a perfect opportunity to embarrass the BBC and thought to himself it was well worth a jail sentence regardless of the fact it would put his wife through hell.

It feels like the director was expecting after the revelation at the end that the audience would just say “oh now it all makes sense” rather than the opposite, that it made no sense at all unless we were shown collusion between father and son, and the son especially accepting the burden of the sacrifice his father was making.

In The Usual Suspects, audiences went back over the film to marvel at just how clever Soze had been. Here, though, when you try to do the same, it doesn’t work. The Bunton we are shown in the first half was not a deliberate fiction dreamt up by the character, but simply a directorial device to misdirect the audience. The big reveal appears without any reference to the father and no sign of guilt on the part of the son.

This was not one of those legal pictures where there would be a last-minute reprieve or a lawyer in the Perry Mason mold saving the day. It was a contrivance so Bunton would have his day in court and deliver his philosophy on life to a wider audience. For all I know he may well have thought such an opportunity was worth the imprisonment. But for all this sleight-of-hand to work the director had to just completely ignore the core relationship between father and son and between innocence and guilt. It would say a lot for a son that he carried out the theft out of love for his deluded father, but such a scene would have to be left to our imagination.

The Learning Tree (1969) ****

Director Gordon Parks made a big noise a couple of years later with Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree shooting to fame as a slick and sexy private eye, memorable score by Quincy Jones. But The Learning Tree had possibly a bigger impact on the Hollywood consciousness, the first movie released by a major studio (Warner Brothers) that was directed by an African American. Although actors like Sidney Poitier and Jim Brown had smashed the Hollywood glass ceiling, directors lagged far behind. And this would have been an interesting tale in its own right of adolescence in 1920s Kansas had the leading character Newt (Kyle Johnson) and buddy Marcus (Alex Clarke) not faced such blatant racism.

Told today, the story would take a different route, concentrating on the dilemma of Newt in coming forward with the evidence that could convict Marcus’s father Booker (Richard Ward) of murdering a white man, not just the guilt at sending another African American to the electric chair but fear of the killing spree that must follow from enraged whites. Instead, that aspect comes at the tail end of a story that sees Newt and Marcus react in different ways to white supremacy. It’s not that Newt is spineless, toeing the line, but that Marcus, filled with venom, sees violence as the only way to establish any kind of equality.

When Newt, a reasonable enough scholar, though hardly in the genius class, is marked down by his teacher on the grounds that it’s a waste of time going to college when he will still end up a cook or a porter, the young man responds, “You hate us colored kids, well, we hate you, every one of you.” Marcus has a similar mantra, “this town don’t want me and I don’t want this town.” That underlying endemic racism contrasts with the more overt vicious bullying of local cop Kirky (Dana Elcar) who casually shoots any African American who sensibly runs away at his approach and who ends every sentence with the word “boy.”

What makes this so powerful is that for long stretches there’s just the ordinary coming-of-age tale of Newt falling in love with Arcella (Mira Waters), sneaking a kiss, finding their own special place among the daffodils, buying each other Xmas presents, the romance conducted among summer picnics, winter snow, rowing on the river, the young man showing his beloved every respect even given that he is not a virgin, having unexpectedly lost his cherry while sheltering from a tornado.  He has a conscience, too, going to work voluntarily for a farmer whose apples he stole.

It’s not just Newt’s equable temperament that’s prevents him from reacting like Marcus to the unfairness of the white-dominated world. He has the ability to get the best out of situations. A born negotiator he manages to triple the reward offered by Kirky for helping bring up a dead man from a river, and, having been taught to box, earns good money in a match. Marcus goes to jail for beating up a white man who attacked him with a whip and this not being a sanitised version of the African American world on release ends up working in a whorehouse while his father steals a supply of hooch.  

Even so this is a hierarchy even a prominent white person cannot overturn. When a judge’s son invites Marcus and Arcella into a drug store, the other two must take their drinks outside.

A staff photographer for Life magazine, director Gordon Parks, adapting his autobiographical novel,  avoids the temptation to pack the movie with brilliant images, instead concentrating on core coming-of-age aspects to drive forward the narrative. He doesn’t have to do much to point up the injustice. That’s inherent in the material.

It probably helped that the three young principals were inexperienced, although at the time of course roles for African Americans, except in cliché supporting parts, were hardly abundant.  Kyle Johnson (Pretty Maids All in a Row, 1971) was 16 when playing the 14-year-old, Alex Clarke (Halls of Anger, 1970) pushing 20 and making his debut as was Mira Waters (The Greatest, 1977). There’s no straining for dramatic acting effect. Everyone plays it straight.

Others involved are Estelle Evans (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), Dana Elcar (Pendulum, 1968), Richard Ward (Black Like Me, 1964) and Russell Thorson (The Stalking Moon, 1968). Not only did Parks write, produce and direct but he supplied the music too.

It’s an absorbing, if at times difficult, watch. It’s an accomplished picture for a beginner. And you can’t help but wondering how four decades after this story takes place little had changed for ordinary African Americans and another five decades after the film’s release the battle for equality has not been resolved.

Easy Rider (1969) *****

Just goes to show what a little bit of reimagining can do. A companion piece to The Wild Angels (1966) but which takes the viewer in the opposite direction, turning the characters from perpetrators of violence to its victims, adding in a stonking soundtrack and a bit more philosophy, though holding on to the long tracking shots of motorbikes that defined the Roger Corman approach. From the bare bones of the Corman movie emerged a cinematic – and box office – miracle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda, developing a character trait he revealed in The Wild Angels, senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil. As revelatory is the performance of Jack Nicholson, here effectively making a bid for stardom in a part that would snare an Oscar nomination.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now. 


The Wild Angels (1966) ***

Riders stretched out across a sun-baked valley – you could be harking back to the heyday of the John Ford cavalry western instead of the biker picture, the first in the American International series, that sent shockwaves through society and laid the groundwork for the more philosophical Easy Rider (1969) a few years later. Long tracking shots are in abundance. You might wonder had director Roger Corman spent a bit more on the soundtrack, the bikers just worn beads instead of swastikas, and been the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence how this picture would have played out critics- and box office-wise.

The Wild Angels set up a template for biker pictures, one almost slavishly followed by Easy Rider, a good 15 per cent of the screen time allocated to shots of the Harley-Davidson riders and scenery, and a slim plot. Here Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), trying to recover a stolen bike, leads his gang into a small town where they beat up a bunch of Mexican mechanics, are pursued by the cops, hang out and indulge in booze, drugs and sex, and then decide to rescue the badly-injured Joe (Bruce Dern) from a police station. This insane act doesn’t go well and after Joe dies they hijack a preacher for a funeral service that ends in a running battle with outraged locals and the police.

One of the weirdest posters of all time – at first sight it looks like Nancy Sinatra is holding the decapitated head of Peter Fonda in front of her.

There’s an odd subplot, given the lifestyle of freedom and independence, of Monkey (Nancy Sinatra) trying to get a romantic commitment out of Heavenly. Conversely, Heavenly, rejecting the traditional shackles of love, finds himself trapped by grief, eventually and quite rightly blaming himself for Joe’s death, and apparently turning his back on the Angels to mourn his buddy. The decline – or growing-up – of Heavenly provides a humane core to a movie that otherwise takes great pride in parading (and never questioning) excess, not just the alcohol and drugs, but rape of a nurse, gang-bang of Joe’s widow (Diane Ladd), violence, corpse abuse, and wanton destruction.

A ground-breaking film of the wrong, dangerous, kind according to censors worldwide and anyone representing traditional decency, but which appealed to a young audience desperate to find new heroes who stood against anything their parents stood for. In a decade that celebrated freedom, the bikers strangely enough represented repression, a world where women were commodities, passed from man to man, often taken without consent, and racism was prevalent.

Roger Corman (The Secret Invasion, 1964) was already moving away from the horror of his early oeuvre and directs here with some style, the story, though slim, kept moving along thanks to the obvious and latent tensions within the group. If he had set out to assault society’s sacred cows – the police, the church, funeral rites – as well as a loathing of everything Nazi, he certainly achieved those aims but still within the context of a group that epitomized some elements of the burgeoning counterculture.

In retrospect this appears an ideal fit for Peter Fonda, but that’s only if viewed through the prism of Easy Rider for, prior to this (see the “Hot Prospects” Blog yesterday) he was being groomed as a romantic leading man along the lines of The Young Lovers (1964). Bruce Dern (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) was better suited, his screen persona possessing more of the essential edginess while Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) was the eternal outsider.

Rather surprising additions to the cast, either in full-out rebel mode as with Nancy Sinatra (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966) or hoping appearance here would provide career stimulus as with movie virgins Diane Ladd (Chinatown, 1974) and Gayle Hunnicutt (P.J. / A New Face in Hell, 1968). Sinatra certainly received the bulk of the media attention, if only for the perceived outrage of papa Frank, but Hunnicutt easily stole the picture. Minus an attention-grabbing role, Hunnicutt, long hair in constant swirl, her vivid presence and especially her red top ensured she caught the camera’s attention.

Charles B. Griffiths (Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961) is credited with a screenplay that was largely rewritten by an uncredited Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971).

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