Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) ****

Setting aside the Biblical angle and the need to inject as much sin as the censor at that time would permit, this works very well as a historical drama filled with political intrigue, pivoting on the morality/sin axis, and with a terrific battle scene. The set up is superb. Bera (Anouk Aimee), Queen of the titular twin cities, allows Hebrew leader Lot (Stewart Granger) to settle his wandering tribe along the River Jordan in order to provide a buffer between her kingdom and the marauding Elamite tribe. Meanwhile, her treacherous brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker) intends using the Elamites to dethrone his sister.

Stunning image from the Pressbook.

The Sodom-Hebrew arrangement is ugly from the start. Sodom owes its wealth to salt. And it relies for its salt mining and processing to thousands of slaves, literally worked to death, corpses piled high on wagons and dumped in the desert. The Hebrews abhor slavery. But having been homeless for so many years, Lot is in no position to argue and assumes that his people can live peacefully enough alongside the heathens, even accommodating Sodom to the point of returning fleeing slaves.

Another superb illustration from the Pressbook.

In fact, in agreeing to live in such close proximity to Sodom, Lot is already in the throes of seduction. In what appears a gesture to seal the deal, Bera presents Lot with her chief female slave Ildith (Pier Angeli). In reality this is a cunning move designed to undermine Hebrew culture. Naturally, Lot grants Ildith her freedom but her presence creates disharmony, Melchior (Rik Battaglia) leading the dissenters. Astaroth seduces both of Lot’s daughters Shuah (Rosanna Podesta) and Maleb (Claudia Mori).

Eventually, of course, the Hebrews succumb to many of the pleasures of Sodom, especially after discovering their own salt deposits which instantly make them wealthy, while Astaroth continues to stir up trouble. Lot the politician is more to the forefront than Lot the good and faithful servant, ignoring the slavery for the sake of peace. However, politics remain a sticky maneuver and, in the end, of course, it is God who intervenes, smiting the wicked.

There are surprising depths to the story. Ildrith initially rejects Lot’s overtures of marriage on the grounds that it will diminish his goodness. In trying to improve living conditions for the Hebrews, Lot does the opposite, jeopardizing their beliefs, his actions rendering virtually invisible the distinctions between the opposing cultures, especially when he is up close to the dancing female slaves and men being burned alive on a wheel. Queen Bera is a political genius, skilled at keeping her enemies closer, not just taking advantage of Lot’s weakness but ensuring that Astaroth never catches her cold.

It’s a very absorbing mix of power, politics, human weakness, the dangers of collaboration, sex and action. Although Lot takes center stage, it is only to watch his decline from man of principle to weak-willed politician, through the astute workings of Queen Bera, a far better manipulator of human emotions than her opposing number.

Images showing the capture of slave Tamar (Scilla Gabel)

Stewart Granger (The Secret Partner, 1961) is surprisingly good as the Hebrew leader. He might lack the physical presence of the likes of Charlton Heston but he proves himself no mean adversary in the various action scenes, two fights with Astaroth for example, the battle itself and in quickly dealing with dissent in the ranks. It would never have occurred to me that a shepherd’s crook was much of a weapon, but in Granger’s hands it proves very effective. He knows he is being seduced, first by Ildith, and then by Sodom, but, as a human being rather than figure of spirituality, is powerless to stop it.  Stanley Baker (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) as the queen’s treacherous brother, on the other hand, just looks shifty and mean throughout.

Anouk Aimee (La Dolce Vita, 1960) is excellent as the politically astute monarch, and save for God’s intervention, would have got the better of everyone around her.  Pier Angeli (The Angry Silence, 1960) is touching, initially angry at being cast out of Sodom, gradually warming to Lot, but only too aware that in succumbing to her charms he might spoil his own innate goodness, like a femme fatale only too wary of her own powers.  Rosanna Podesta (Seven Golden Men, 1965) is good in a supporting role as is Rik Battaglia (Esther and the King, 1960) while Scilla Gabel (Colossus of the Arena, 1962) has a smaller part as the slave Tamar who meets a horrible death. Look out, too, for Gabrielle Tinti (Esther and the King, 1960), later best known for his marriage to Laura Gemser of the Black Emmanuelle series, and future spaghetti western anti-hero Anthony Steffen (Django the Bastard, 1969).

Novelisation of the screenplay with a cover placing the focus strictly on sin.

Robert Aldrich (4 for Texas, 1963) creates an excellent addition to the genre, the pace of the drama, with various storylines, never slacking. As a historical picture this aims higher than mere pulp where sexiness and torture are the audience hooks. His battle sequence is outstanding, unusual in that the balance of power shifts throughout, in part through treachery, between the participants. Although Aldrich often disparaged this picture, he has done a really good job of working up the ingredients into a heady brew, notwithstanding the “deus ex machina” ending that met audience expectation. Ken Adam (Dr No, 1962) headed up the production design and Wally Veevers (The Guns of Navarone, 1961) among the half dozen experts contributing to the special effects. Mention also to Maurice Binder for the credit sequence and Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) for a nuanced score.

Catch-Up: Reviewed previously in the Blog are Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas (1963) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Stewart Granger in The Secret Partner (1961) and The Secret Invasion (1964), and Stanley Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Girl with a Pistol (1968).

Esther and the King (1960) ***

Taking a Biblical tale as a starting point, veteran director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, 1949) stirs up heady brew of intrigue, rebellion, politics and romance. Returning home victorious, King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) discovers his wife Queen Vashti (Danielle Rocca) has committed adultery and that his minister Klydrathes (Renato Baldini) has been squeezing the people blind with punitive taxes, hanging them for non-compliance.

Casting his wife aside, the king seeks a new bride. Since he has conquered all the known world except Greece, marriage to make a political alliance is not an option, so, given women are treated as mere chattels and the king is all-powerful, all the likely virgins are rounded up including Hebrew Esther (Joan Collins) on her wedding day.

Her husband-to-be Simon (Rik Battaglia) kicks off, attacks Klydrathes and becomes a wanted man. The queen’s lover and the king’s chief minister Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) attempts to fix the bridal selection, inserting his hardly-virginal choice Keresh (Rosalba Neri) into the proceedings while attempting to murder clear favorite Esther. When that fails, Haman plots to usurp the crown. With the Hebrews facing possible annihilation, Esther is put in the position of giving in to the king in order to save her people. As her serenity soothes the savage beast, her initial hate turns to growing attraction.

Meanwhile, Simon is on a rescue mission and Prince Haman cooks up a devilish plot that will see the Hebrews blamed for passing on military secrets to the king’s enemies. Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose.

More a drama than a typical big-budget DeMille offering, with battles taking place off-screen, action is limited to a few chases and skirmishes. There is a fair amount of sin on show what with a tribe of concubines at the king’s disposal, a whipping, a striptease by Vashti in a last gasp attempt to win back the king, and some very seductive dancing routines by female slaves who, at times, look as if they were coached by Busby Berkeley. Substantial amounts appear to have been spent on costumes and production design, so historical atmosphere is well captured.

Once you realize there’s not going to be any kind of big battle or major action centerpiece common to the Biblical genre, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the political machinations, the initial torment of Esther, introduced as a rebellious soul, and the king, more at home with soldiers, shaking off his despondency at marital betrayal as he responds to Esther’s coaxing.

It was 1961 before it reached Britain.

Top-billed British actress Joan Collins (Seven Thieves, 1960) has a difficult role. Normally, you would expect expressions of passion or depths of anguish, but the rebellion she displays at the start soon disappears when she enters the palace and is helpless to change the situation except by, initially against her will, accepting the king’s desires. In that sense, her portrayal is understandable but the understated performance gets in the way of a woman who is supposed to be devastated by the loss of her husband and then trapped by the needs of her people into making the marriage.

Taking second billing, Richard Egan (300 Spartans, 1964) makes a thoughtful king, showing very little temper, possibly because he doesn’t need to with everyone, beyond the conspirators, cowering in his presence.   Regal and stately suits him fine rather than the more common explosions we are accustomed to seeing from people in that line of work.

Both stars were in need of box office redemption. It should have been a screen pairing made in heaven, both Collins and Egan coming to the fore in the mid-1950s, and if they had sustained their early promise, it would have been a star-studded picture. As it was, Collins had been billed above Richard Burton in The Sea Wife (1957) and above Jayne Mansfield in The Wayward Bus (1957) but had gradually drifted down the pecking order, in her previous outing credited behind Edward G. Robinson and Rod Steiger in Seven Thieves (1960).

Egan’s career had followed a similar trajectory – top-billed in pictures as diverse as drama The View from Pompey’s Head (1955), western Tension at Table Rock (1956), film noir Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1957), and romance A Summer Place (1959) but for his previous film, Pollyanna (1960) billed behind both Jane Wyman and Hayley Mills.

While Egan would enjoy a career resurgence it was the end of the line, at least temporarily, for Joan Collins. She was coming to the end of her seven-year Twentieth Century Fox contract but fell out with the studio after being rejected for Cleopatra, and on the evidence here you can see why. After leaving Fox, she only made five more films during the decade. This was the final picture for Irish actor Dennis O’Dea (The Fallen Idol, 1948). Director Raoul Walsh made only another two.

Sergio Fantoni (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) excels as the spurned lover and Rik Battaglia (The Conqueror of the Orient, 1960) as the schemer. Rosalba Neri (Top Sensation, 1969) and Danielle Rocca (Behold a Pale Horse, 1964) both make striking appearances. Look out also for Gabriele Tinti (Seven Golden Men, 1965).

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

Gladiator (2000) *****

As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.

I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.

If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.

Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.

Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.

Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.

Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.

But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.

Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence;  and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”

While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.   

Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.

It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.

And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.

Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.

This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.

CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.  

There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.

Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow (1963) ****

The mysterious masked Scarecrow was the creepiest character thus far put on celluloid by Disney. A lot of the action takes place at dusk so it is soaked in crepuscular atmosphere. Filmed against the sky, every horse seems to thunder past. Gallows swing ominously. Coupled with a strong storyline and clever ruses by alter ago the mild-mannered clergyman Dr Syn (Patrick McGoohan), this is one for the Under-Rated Hall of Fame.  

While the character has antecedents in folk-hero Robin Hood, the Scarecrow is more rooted in the brutal reality of Britain in the mid-1700s when to fund a host of foreign wars King George taxed already-impoverished peasants to the hilt, making smuggling essential to survival. The Scarecrow is not just the underworld kingpin but has operational skills a spy would be proud of, coded messages, secret rendezvous et al.  

Ruthless General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), sent to rid the countryside of this menace, makes no bones about putting the squeeze on the wives of villagers to force them into providing the information he requires. Outwitted from the off by Dr Syn, the infuriated general begins torching houses. Helped unwittingly by local squire and judge Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), the general acquires an informer Joseph Ransley (Patrick Wymark).

This is not the bucolic England of Robin Hood or other historical yarns of Hollywood invention featuring glorious scenery and ample female cleavage. Here, a barmaid is likely to use a meat cleaver to defend herself. This was also the era of press gangs, where government-appointed hoodlums would raid a village and carry off young men as unwilling recruits for the Royal Navy. It was a time of imminent insurrection, the King’s subjects in the North American colonies on the point of sedition. And when money – or its lack – infected every area of society.       

Although like any super-hero the Scarecrow occasionally comes to the rescue, the movie is distinguished by the fact that is more often Dr Syn who subverts the General through cunning subterfuge. Victory through force of arms is impossible since violence visited on the king’s troops would result in a multiplication of their numbers. So it is more a battle of wits. In addition, the Scarecrow faces a dilemma – how to punish a traitor with such severity his authority is never questioned again while at the same time upholding the principles of Dr Syn. Just how these issues and others are resolved make for a very involving picture.

Minor subplots – a romance between the squire’s daughter and an officer, a deserter from the Navy and the presence of an American (Tony Britton) – serve the main story. So the narrative remains taut. And, interestingly, that hangs upon what characters have to lose rather than gain. It is not about greed but survival.

For a Disney picture there is considerable directorial vigor, not just the depiction of the smuggling and pounding hooves accompanying peril or escape, but two terrific trial scenes, a masterly escape conducted in the complete absence of on-screen music and, of course, the terrifying vision of the Scarecrow himself.

The acting has a sterling quality. While Michael Hordern was a stage star, the film primarily called upon actors who later achieved fame on British television programs. Patrick McGoohan headlined The Prisoner (1967-1968), George Cole was in Minder (1979-1994), Patrick Wymark and Alan Dobie in The Plane Makers (1963-1965) Geoffrey Keen in Mogul (1965-1972), and Tony Britton in Robin’s Nest (1977-1981). McGoohan had a previous television incarnation as Danger Man  (1960-1961) and Cole had been a con man in the St Trinian’s films. You can also spot in small roles Kay Walsh, a former British leading lady, and a young Richard O’Sullivan, later star of Man About the House (1973-1976).

Director James Neilson was a Disney favorite, having helmed Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962) and Summer Magic (1963). But these were all lightweight features and it is to his credit he met the challenge of turning Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow into a dramatic actioner. British writer Robert Westerby (The Square Ring, 1953), who also created the source material for Kali-Yug, Goddess of Vengeance (1963),  fashioned the screenplay from the books of William Buchanan and Russell Thorndike

Although Disney had cannibalized the Davy Crockett television series in the 1950s, stitching together episodes for feature films, this was something of a reversal. As part of its The Magical Wonderful World of Disney U.S. television program the studio had shown The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as a three-part mini-series while Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was released as a movie in Britain.  

You will need to go onto ebay or other secondhand sources to find the movie. The television mini-series can be found below.

The Red Tent (1969) ***

If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?

But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs.  nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.

Connery and Cardinale lock horns over tea.

However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!

Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.

So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.

In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.

What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.

This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.

All eyes on Claudia Cardinale in the Japanese poster.

There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.

The Viking Queen (1967) ***

Politics, conspiracy, thwarted romance and historical inaccuracy take center stage in this Hammer romp that attempted to create another sex symbol to follow in the footsteps of Ursula Andress (She, 1965) and Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C., 1966) in the shape of Finnish model Carita. Let’s put the dodgy historical elements to one side given Hollywood trampled over history all the time, but the title is a misnomer, the story owing more to British folk heroine Boadicea than anyone who came from longship land.

On his deathbed British tribal king (Wilfred Lawson), against the wishes of powerful Druid chieftain Maelgan (Donald Houston), signs a peace treaty with Roman governor general Justinius (Don Murray) against the wishes of his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir). In different ways, the Druid and Octavian conspire to end the peace. Had new queen Salina (Carita), after falling in love with Justinius, been permitted to marry him that would have created a peaceful bond, but that is also prevented.

There’s a lot more sex and violence than you would have expected for the period, plenty scantily-clad slaves administering to the rich and the Romans, an extended brutal flogging sequence involving Salina, an offscreen rape, a cageful of Roman prisoners dropped into a burning pit, and when the British strap scythes onto the wheels of their chariots it’s a bloodbath. (Quite why the Romans never thought of importing their own chariots, given their popularity in the Colosseum, is never explained.) The chariots, whether in a race or battle, are the best thing about the picture, adding tremendous energy.

It takes quite a while for Salina to take up arms but when she does the film catches fire. She leads from the front, tearing through the Roman legions, and handy too with a sword. Ambushes appear the order of the day so any marching column or peaceful village soon ends up in a spot of bother.

There’s some of “what did the Romans ever do for us” with a snatch of Robin Hood thrown in – Justinius takes from the rich to give to the poor – plus religious fanaticism to stir the pot into a heady brew.  But mostly it’s hokum, if rather plot-heavy. Quite how the Oscar-nominated Don Murray (Advise and Consent, 1962) was talked into this is anybody’s guess. Carita, of course, would have believed she was on a surefire route to stardom but in fact this was her last picture. They two stars don’t really have that much to do and do it well enough. In supporting roles you will spot Patrick Troughton (a BBC Dr Who), Nicola Pagett making her movie debut and Adrienne Corri (Africa – Texas Style, 1967). Director Don Caffey (One Million Years B.C., 1966) is better at action than drama.

The Four Feathers (1939) ****

After I had written my review of East of Sudan, I discovered the action scenes that open the picture were filched from Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers (1939) so, out of curiosity rather than intent to stray from my designated decade, I took a look to see how much had been stolen and, to my surprise, kept on watching.

Setting aside the outdated attitudes, this is a pretty amazing picture to have come out of Britain at a time when color was in its infancy and when the Brits were not known for producing watchable historical epics with full-blown battles and thousands of extras on a desert location. Released on the eve of the Second World War, it also takes a remarkably sympathetic view of conscientious objectors. The story mostly concerns the fall of Khartoum (1885) and then a decade later events surrounding the Battle of Omdurman (1898).

Advert that appeared in American trade magazine “Box Office” in 1939.

Story concerns Harry Faversham (John Clements), pacifist scion of a military family who, having being called into war, tears up his commission and is branded a coward by three army friends and by implication his fiancée Ethne (June Duprez), daughter of a general (hence the four white feathers). Eventually, Faversham determines to make amends and, donning a disguise, spies on the enemy, enduring endless hardship and torture before finally rescuing his friends and contributing to the battle. While it all sounds too stiff-upper-lip for its own good, it’s still quite a feat of direction, tracking cameras measuring the battle charges, the enemy racing forward on thousands of camels, the traditional British square reminiscent of Waterloo  holding firm. While Korda lacks David Lean’s visual flair, and Miklos Rozsa’s score too often intrudes on intimate moments, there are still plenty of stunning sequences, boats being towed up the Nile by slaves on shore, the prison sequences, the destruction of the arsenal, the blaze of color on military parade and ballroom, and the sheer wonder at the desert and an innate cinematic understanding of its perils.

Ralph Richardson steals the show as an officer blinded by the sun in the desert and there are a couple of good twists at the end, the fiancée realizing that she, too, was guilty of immoral act in branding Faversham a coward because he objected to the senselessness of war, and a crusty old general of Crimean vintage getting his come-uppance.

It’s always difficult to come to a proper assessment of the 1930s British movie, since so many of the voices sound upper class and the directors lack the skills and understanding of pace of their American counterparts, while the actors too often fall short of Hollywood standards. This was the year of Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights, for example, and no British picture came close to that quartet, but this is an exceptionally decent effort especially in terms of historical detail. It was a commercial and critical success at the time (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Oscar nomination for cinematography) and more recently reappraised by Criterion.