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Setting aside the outdated attitudes, this is a pretty amazing picture to have come out of Britain at a time when color was in its infancy and when the Brits were not known for producing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.

East of Sudan (1964) ***

Remembering this picture as a summer holiday matinee of stiff-upper-lip-ness entangled in all sorts of Khartoumery, I came at this film with low expectations. Given producer Charles H. Schneer’s (First Men on the Moon, 1964) involvement, there were no Ray Harryhausen magical special effects. I was only aware of star Anthony Quayle as a bluff supporting actor in epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Sylvia Syms as a willowy supporting actress (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). So I was in for a pleasant surprise. Take away the back projection, stock footage and the unlikely zoo of wild animals and there is a fairly decent action film set in the Sudan on the fringes of the Mahdi uprising (that story filmed as Khartoum the following year).

Quayle is a former army sergeant awaiting court martial when he escapes from a battle near Khartoum, ends up saving governess Syms, her charge Jenny Agutter (making her debut), officer Derek Fowlds (BBC Yes, Minister) and a wounded soldier. The motley crew flees down the Nile in a boat. You know you are in for something quite different when the soldier dies and Quayle wants to toss him overboard. Overruled by prim Syms and stiff upper lip Fowlds, this good deed is rewarded by losing their beached boat while burying the dead. A picture like this only survives on twists. Burning the remainder of their boat to attract the attention of the British relief force only brings in their wake a mob of Arabs, who we are informed, in a spicy exchange, don’t know the ten commandments, especially “thou shalt not kill.”  It turns into a battle of the sexes, with Syms’ innocence and good breeding quickly eroded in the face of danger, her natural antipathy towards a scallywag like Quayle softening. Lacking due deference, said scallywag is given some choice lines which spark up proceedings. It being Africa, the animals have nothing better to do than torment them, so cue snakes, crocodiles, charging rhinos, hippos, elephants without even an entertaining monkey to lighten proceedings. Quayle sets his ruthless tendencies to one side to take a tender, paternal interest in young Agutter. Ongoing action prevents the usual male-female meet-cute African Queen-style banter and it’s all the better for it.

Capture by African tribesman takes the story on an interesting detour. Quayle, attempting to make friends, shouts out despairingly (and without irony), “Don’t any of you even speak English?” only for chieftain Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) to stride out of the bushes with the reply, “I speak, English, Arabic and Swahili.” Quayle explains, “We come in peace.” Sekka retorts, “With gun in hand?” Game on! The plot goes offbeat when we become involved in Sekka’s life. A former slave, his village presents an unusually realistic alternative world not least for Agutter, ill by this time, saved by an African witch doctor.  There are further surprises, clever ruses to foil the enemy, revelations about Syms and a surprising but very British ending.

Quayle is convincing, reveling in the opportunity to create a fully-formed character rather than  confined to a small chunk of a picture. Syms, too, with more on offer than normal, Agutter (Walkabout, 1971) not a precocious Disney cut-out, and Fowlds revealing what did for all those years before turning up on television as puppet Basil Brush’s sidekick. As a British B-picture making do on a small budget, it overcomes this particular deficiency with some sparkling dialogue and attitudes that go against both the time in which it was set and the era in which it was made.

NOTE: Khartoum, The Southern Star, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Southern Star and First Men in the Moon (with Harryhausen effects) have all been reviewed on this blog.     

Villa Rides (1968) ***

Best viewed as Charles Bronson’s breakout movie. Yes, he had played supporting roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, but these had all been versions of the same dour, almost monosyllabic, persona. Here, though somewhat ruthless, he steals the show from the top-billed Robert Mitchum and Yul Brynner with many of the best lines and best situations with an extra slice of humor (make that first-ever slice of humor) to add to the mix. He is the most interesting of the three main characters, in part because he does not have to spout any of the “good revolution/bad revolution” dialog that falls to the other two.

Villa (Brynner) is fighting the Colorados but his superior General Huertas (Herbert Lom) is planning to overthrow President Madero (Alexander Knox). Mitchum is an aeronautical gun-runner from El Paso, initially against the revolutionaries, stranded in Mexico when his plane breaks down. He has just about time to romance a local woman Fina (Maria Grazia  Buccello) before the Colorados arrive, take over the village, start hanging the leaders and raping Fina. Villa saves them, Bronson slaughtering the Colorados with a Gatling gun on the rooftop. Faced with the one-man firing squad that is Bronson, Mitchum turns sides. His  plane comes in handy for scouting the enemy, then bombing them.

The actions sequences are terrific especially Villa’s attack on a troop train. To get Villa out of the way, Huertas puts him in the front line in a suicidal attack on a heavily-defended stronghold which turns into another brilliant set-piece with cavalry charges.  The plot is constantly interrupted by politics of one kind or another and comes to dead stop when Villa is arrested by Heurtas and Villa demands a proper trial. It’s kind of hard to take when a murdering bandit, no matter how legendary, decides that he has been hard done by in the justice department.

That aside, there are interesting attempts to build up his legend. He doesn’t want power for himself, but to give it to the people, although he has sat back and let the first village be attacked so that the people there learn to hate the Colorados enough to join the fight. There’s not really any good guys – Brynner and Bronson are stone-cold killers, Mitchum a mercenary. But Brynner does marry Fina in order to prove that a raped woman should not be treated with dishonor, though he has a tendency to marry other women as well.

Bronson’s unusual one-man firing squad involves him laying on the ground with a pistol in each hand and giving prisoners the opportunity to escape before he shoots them. After all that hard work, he bathes his hands. Then he decides he can kill three men with one bullet, lining them up exactly so he can drill them all in the heart. But he’s also the one who shoots a molester in a cantina, then delivers the classic line: “Go outside and die, where are your manners?” He is at the heart of some well-judged comedy – continually sending back his meals and trying to get out of getting into a plane with Mitchum. Without him, there would be too much justification of slaughter (Brynner) and arguments against (Mitchum). This is the first time in the kind of action role that suits him that he has an expanded characterization.

Brynner did not like Sam Peckinpah’s original script so Robert Towne (Chinatown) was brought in to present Villa in a more appealing light.  Jill Ireland (Mrs Bronson) has a small part and you can also spot Fernando Rey.  

The links below seem somewhat dodgy but you could try the Talking Pictures channel which is free.

The Movie That Never Was: The Long-Lost Screenplay of Abraham Polonsky’s “The Gladiators” *****

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. 

Top pic: Variety, June 24, 1959, p44; above Variety, February 12, 1958, p3. Ira Wolfert was a “front” for the blacklisted Polonsky.

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.

Yul Brynner vs. Kirk Douglas: The Battle for ‘Spartacus’ *****

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.   

Promotional ad in 1958 for Yul Brynner as Spartacus in ‘The Gladiators.’

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.

The book is available from Cambridge Scholars.

A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) ***

British studio Hammer made a second valiant attempt at reviving the moribund swashbuckler – six years on from Sword of Sherwood Forest. More in the way of an origin story, this explains how a nobleman turned into an outlaw and how the merry band was formed. For in this tale Robin Hood (Barrie Ingham) is a Norman nobleman framed for murder, Will Scarlet (Douglas Mitchell) and Little John (Leon Greene) are castle servants (also Normans) while Maid Marian (Gay Hamilton) is in disguise. Some liberties are taken with the traditional version – there is no fight with Little John, instead, as noted above, they are already acquainted.

There are a couple of excellent set pieces and although the swordfights are not in the athletic league of Errol Flynn they are more inventive than the previous Hammer outing and there is enough derring-do to keep the plot ticking along. Robin’s cousin Roger de Courtenay (Peter Blythe) is the prime villain this time round, the sheriff (John Arnatt), although involved up to the hilt at the end, content to offer acerbic comment from the sidelines.  

When Robin and Friar Tuck escape the castle by jumping into the moat, Will Scarlet is caught and later used as bait. Meanwhile Robin’s archery prowess and leadership skills have impressed the Saxon outlaws hiding in the forest and he takes over as their head. The picture follows the swashbuckler template with clever ruses, jousting, Robin disguised as a masked monk, torture, and a pie fight.

Being plucked from obscurity and turned into a star was a standard Hollywood publicity story from the 1930s and 1940s, but the notion survived well into the 1960s – and “A Challenge for Robin Hood” was proof for one lady. Liverpool-born Sheila Forrest had won the “Girl in a Million” competition organized by the ABC cinema chain as a promotional gimmick for “One Million Years B.C.” Fifteen regional finalists had been judged at Elstree film studios by a panel including Martine Beswick, a supporting actress in “One Million Years B.C.,” West Ham footballer and World Cup winner Geoff Hurst, and “ABC Film Review” editor Peter Haigh. As well as the £1,000 first prize, Sheila won a role in a forthcoming Hammer film, which turned out to be the Robin Hood picture, known at that time as “Legend of Robin Hood,” and she appeared in a photoshoot for “ABC Film Review” (August 1967, p12) dressed as a lady-in-waiting and pictured with star Barrie Ingham (mispelt as Barry Langham in the fan magazine) and James Hayter. Unfortunately, the role was not large enough to receive a credit and as far as I am aware that was her only film..

Director C. M. Pennington-Richards had some swashbuckling form having helmed several episodes of The Buccaneers and Ivanhoe television series but his big screen experience was limited to routine films like Ladies Who Do (1963) with Peggy Mount. This was a departure for scriptwriter Peter Bryan, more used to churning out horror films like The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and he has invested the picture with more wittier lines and humorous situations than you might expect. It’s certainly Saturday afternoon matinee material and unless compared to the likes of The Pirates of the Caribbean or the classic Errol Flynn adventure it stands up very well on its own.

 Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Dig (2021) **

When stuck in a plot hole, crime writer Raymond Chandler used to send in a new character  with a gun. Director Simon Stone has employed the same concept, minus weaponry. People just keep turning up in The Dig, adding very little to the story, which in itself, setting aside National Trust hype, is on the slim side. A sixth-century Suffolk burial site (thought it does cast new light on the Dark Ages so we are told) is not in the same archeological class as a velociraptor or an Egyptian tomb.  Mostly, we are misled. For the first third it looks like we are heading for Lady Chatterley’s Lover territory with posh lady (Carey Mulligan) eyeing up the digger (Ralph Fiennes) until his wife turns up. Then it looks like it’s going to be a battle royal between Fiennes and the Establishment, but that is headed off.  

It’s 1939 so the Second world War is on its way. Cue the arrival of wannabe pilot (Johnny Flynn). A top archaeologist (Ken Stott) also appears but that doesn’t go anywhere either, bringing with him Ben Chaplin and Lily James fresh from their honeymoon. James gets the hots for Johnny Flynn and there’s just enough time before the credits roll for them to get at it.

This is the kind of film that has money to spend on an old WW2 aeroplane or maybe a CGI version of one but not enough for decent sound recording equipment. Most of the time conversations are over the shoulder or in long shot. It’s not just words, it’s expressions, faces that tell a story, and being denied these seems bizarre. It may be an artistic decision, some critic thought we were being made to “dig” for the story. But it’s hard enough to work up any enthusiasm without being made to work harder.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent, a son of the soil, self-taught, but no shrinking violet either. His scenes with posh lady’s son (Archie Barnes) are very touching, the young lad having invented a whole world for himself. Carey Mulligan just looks as though she’s about to burst into tears, probably wondering how she managed to be talked into playing (at age 34) a woman who was actually 56 at the time of the dig and wishing Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (closer to that age) who were at one point attached had not left her to it.

The dig itself is interesting – but only for about five minutes. We know all we need to know about the boring sifting and brushing and digging from other films and we don’t learn more from this except how easy it is for a wall to suddenly collapse and nearly kill someone.

The most intriguing part of the film came at the end when we discovered that the burial ship dug up was buried for the duration of the war in an Underground station in London. How did they manage that, I wondered. Whereas I didn’t wonder much about anything else in this film.  

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81167887

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961) ***

The last swashbuckler to cut a genuine dash was The Crimson Pirate (1952) with an athletic Burt Lancaster romancing Virginia Mayo in a big-budget Hollywood spectacular. The chance of Hollywood ponying up for further offerings of this caliber was remote once television began to cut the swashbuckler genre down to small-screen size. Britain’s ITV network churned out series based on Sir Lancelot, William Tell and The Count of Monte Cristo and 30-minute episodes (143 in all) of The Adventures of Robin Hood. So when Hammer decided to rework the series as a movie, their first port-of-call was series star Richard Greene.

And to encourage television viewers to follow the adventures of their hero on the big screen, Hammer sensibly dumped the small screen’s black-and-white photography in favour of widescreen color and then lit up the canvas at the outset with aerial tracking shots of the glorious bucolic greenery of the English countryside (actually Ireland). Further temptation for staid television viewers came in the form of Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) bathing naked in a lake. Robin Hood is soon hooked.  

Sarah Branch was given the cover girl treatment in British fan magazine “Picture Show and TV Mirror” but this preceded “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and instead was for “Sands of the Desert” (1960), a Charlie Drake comedy in which she plays a travel agent kidnapped by a sheik. Branch only made four pictures, with Maid Marian her final film role.

Two main plots run side-by-side. The first is obvious. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) is quietly defrauding people through legal means. The second takes a while to come to fruition. Robin Hood is hired by for his archery skills by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco) – he shoots a pumpkin through a spinning wheel, a moving bell and a bullseye through a slit – before it becomes apparent he is being recruited as an assassin. Oliver Reed and Derren Nesbitt put in uncredited appearances and the usual suspects are played by Niall MacGinnis (as Friar Tuck) and Nigel Green (as Little John).

There is sufficient swordfighting to satisfy. Director Terence Fisher, more at home with the Hammer horror portfolio, demonstrates a facility with action. Richard Greene makes a breezy hero and the picture is ideal matinee entertainment.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.

Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.

The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England.  Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.

This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.

All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Long Ships (1964) ***

Decent hokum sees Vikings ally with Moors to seek a mythical giant bell made of gold, “the mother of voices.” There are stunning set-pieces: a majestic long ship coming into port, superior battles, the Mare of Steel, the discovery of the bell itself, while a clever ruse triggers the climactic fight. There’s even a “Spartacus” moment – when the Vikings declare themselves willing to die should their leader be executed.

Richard Widmark as a wily Viking, second cousin to a con man, makes the most of an expansive role. Instead of seething with discontent or intent on harm as seemed to be his lot in most pictures, he heads for swashbuckler central, with a side helping of Valentino, gaily leaping from high windows and  engaging in swordfights although he does appear to spend an inordinate amount of time swept up ashore after shipwreck. Sidney Poitier, laden down with pomp and circumstance rather than immersed in poverty as would he his norm, is less comfortable as the Islamic ruler. Fresh from winning the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) it surely must have the chance of a big payday that lured him into this role. (Widmark and Poitier re-teamed in The Bedford Incident, 1965, previously reviewed in the blog.) The diminutive Russ Tamblyn, as Widmark’s sidekick, is easily the most athletic of the trio.

British production company Warwick could hardy believe their luck in landing an Oscar-winner. They had gone down the swashbuckling route before with The Black Knight (1954) and had made films with big Hollywood names like Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth in Fire Down Below (1957). This was a trade advertisement in “Box Office” magazine (April 27, 1964) – in the same issue was an advert for Poitier’s triumph in Lilies of the Field.

Although handy with a sword, both are equally adept as employing seduction, Poitier making eyes at Viking princess Beba Loncar (in her Hollywood debut) while Widmark targets Poitier’s neglected wife Rosanna Schiafffino (The Victors, 1963). The story is occasionally put on hold to permit the Viking horde to pursue their two favorite pastimes – sex and violence – and they make the most of the opportunity to frolic with a harem.

One of the marks of the better historical films is the intelligence of the battle scenes. Here, faced with Muslim cavalry, the Vikings steal a trick from The 300 Spartans by lying down to let the horses pass over them then rising up to slaughter their riders. But there is also an unusual piece of intelligent thinking. Realising, as the battle wears on, that they are substantially outnumbered and have their backs to the sea, Widmark takes the sensible option of surrendering.

Director Jack Cardiff, Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), brings to bear his experience of working on The Vikings (1958) for which he was cinematographer. He is clearly at home with the action and equally there is some fine composition. However, the story in places is over-complicated, he fails to rein in the mugging of one of the industry’s great muggers Oscar Homolka and there is a complete disregard for accent discipline.  Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), Scotsman Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970) have supporting roles. 

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.