Behind the Scenes: “The Comedians” (1967)

Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up  three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.

Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.

Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.

Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated  and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”

Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.

Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.

Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.

Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes.  The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.

Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.”  Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.

Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.

When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for

Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.

Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”

But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”

But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests.  He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.

The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.

Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift –  than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.

Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”

Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish.  Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.

In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.

This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.

Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”

Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968,  it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes,  was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.

Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.

SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.

The Comedians (1967) ***

Over-long, over-hyped and over-cast. Pretty much an early example of virtue-signalling, exposing corruption in a dictatorship (Haiti), but offering more through the singular self-deception of the main characters. An element of sleight-of-hand is also practiced on an audience enticed by four big stars “above the title” comprising three Oscar winners and one multiple nominee. Luckily, the ironic in-joke of naming characters with traditional English names – Smith, Jones and Brown – would probably pass most people by.

Brown (Richard Burton), a hotelier, is present throughout but Major Jones (Alec Guinness) appears only briefly at the beginning then disappears until late on to spike the plot. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the adulterous love interest, pops up sporadically as does her husband Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). There’s not much of a story, Brown, cynical about the dictatorship, is friendly with a rebel leader, Jones is an ineffectual arms dealer, and missionary couple the Smiths (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) offer comic relief until barbarity rears its head.

Great play is made of naivete but the film suffers from the Hollywood curse of only being able to examine foreign politics through the prism of a (white) American or Englishman. At the time it might have been shocking to see brutality so convincingly dispensed, and there is, also, in Mondo Cane fashion, too much time spent on strange ritual, but at the same time, of course, the U.S. was inflicting its own barbarities on the Vietnamese.

On the other hand, Brown is exactly the kind of foreigner who believes things must improve because, damn it all, he’s British and bad things can’t happen to a Brit in a strange land. He is convinced he will be able to sell a hotel located in a war-torn country, persists in believing Martha will abandon husband and son, and convinces himself he is the very man the rebels have been looking for.

Jones mistakenly believes everyone is taken in by his hail-fellow-well-met routine and his tales of heroism in World War Two jungles, thinks he is in with a chance with Martha and that his gun-running activities will avoid detection. The ambassador thinks his wife will not leave him as long as he turns a blind eye to her affairs. And Martha, probably wondering why she married such a buffoon, can’t work out to dump him. Everyone who has much to lose appears to be continually on a precipice and it’s hard to see what they could gain from their actions. 

They are all misfits, “comedians,” stuck in the rut of their own destiny, unable to change.

Nobody is more gullible than those who dupe themselves and the film comes into its own when it sets personal delusion against political naivete. In narrative terms Jones is the most obviously unmasked but the others are no less shown to be foolhardy in their expectations.

This had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, initially planned as a roadshow,  around $2 million spent on the above-the-line cast, another chunk on buying the rights to the Graham Greene bestseller and assigning the author the screenplay, location shooting in Dahomey.

Don’t expect oratorical fury from Richard Burton (The Bramble Bush, 1960) nor outbursts of angst from Elizabeth Taylor (Secret Ceremony, 1969). There’s something almost comically homely in their deception and in the outwardly confident Brown perceiving Jones as a love rival.  Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) is the big treat, an upmarket con man, his boisterous voice and mannerisms far removed from his more usual introspective performances. Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), a bit too fidgety for my liking, nonetheless attracts sympathy as the man who is batting above his weight in snaring a trophy wife he knows he cannot hold onto.

Burton was the odd one out in the Oscar rankings. Despite five nominations by this stage, he had never taken home the statuette. Elizabeth Taylor, by contrast, had won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Guinness once for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ustinov also twice Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi.  

However, in some senses if you remove the star turns, you are left with a rawer picture, and director Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) captures much of the personal intensity of the novel. Taylor, in particular, misses the mark. Although playing a German, she never once bothers attempting an accent. Had Burton been the sole star, the movie would have worked much better since his low-key playing would not have been so much at odds with other actors.  

There’s a host of striking turns from supporting stars, ranging from silent film star Lillian Gish (The Unforgiven, 1960) to Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972).

Behind the Scenes: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – 60th Anniversary

As unlikely as it sounds, John Wayne was once the leading contender to play Lawrence of Arabia. On January 14, 1953, the trade newspaper Variety reported that Cinerama, only known at the time for travelogs, was planning to move into feature filmmaking with productions of the hit Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon and Lawrence of Arabia, the latter with Wayne in the frame. Cinerama, as discussed in a previous Blog, was the sensation of the 1950s, the saviour of a movie industry eroded by television, prompting the boom in big-budget widescreen movies that were the hallmark of the next two decades.

It was a three-screen process, which meant filming with three cameras, somewhat unwieldy for working with actors. But This Is Cinerama, its first film, was the top earning film of 1952, even though it only played in a handful of cinemas. The driving force behind the idea was assistant board chairman Lowell Thomas, who, more than 30 years before, had single-handedly created the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Thomas had been a journalist covering the Middle East during the First World War. He had photographed the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in 1918 of the British forces led by General Allenby. The following year Thomas spun this event into a lecture that was launched in August in London to sensational results. Originally it was entitled ‘With Allenby in Palestine’, but after sensing the public was more interested in the unknown T E Lawrence, who he had photographed in Arab headdress, he changed the name to ‘With Allenby in Palestine and With Lawrence in Arabia’.

The show was so successful that when it came to the end of its run at the Covent Garden theatre, the owners offered 70% of the box office receipts to keep it on. Eventually, over five million people in Britain and the United States paid to see the lecture. And the Lawrence of Arabia industry was born. Thomas turned his lecture into a book which appeared in 1924 followed three years later by A Boy’s Life of Colonel Lawrence. Lawrence himself contributed to the legend with the publication of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (1926) and a shortened, easier-to-read, version called Revolt In The Desert (1926). Various best-selling biographies followed including Lawrence Of The Arabs (1928) by Robert Graves (Goodbye To All That), two tomes by military historian Capt Basil Liddell Hart, T E Lawrence: In Arabia And After (1934) and Colonel Lawrence, The Man Behind The Legend (1934) and Reginald H Kiernan’s Lawrence of Arabia (1935).

The first film on the subject was announced in 1929 by director Sydney Olcott for Supremacy Films, but the project came to nothing. In 1933 there was a US four-part serial by Jock Lawrence (no relation) called Flying Lawrence In Arabia, based on the exploits of Lawrence’s pilot during the war, Capt John H Norton. Two full-length feature films were announced the same year. First out of the gate was The Uncrowned King from RKO to feature top Hollywood star John Barrymore. Director Ernest Schoendanck spent several months in Mesopotamia shooting background material and by the time he returned the film had a new name, Fugitive From Glory.

In Britain movie magnate Alexander Korda’s London Films put Lawrence Of Arabia into production with Walter Hudd in the lead. Korda had acquired the rights to the biographies by Graves, Liddell Hart and Kiernan as well as Revolt In The Desert and an agreement from Lawrence’s trustees to use incidents from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. After seeing British actor Walter Hudd in the George Bernard Shaw play The Apple Cart, Lawrence had declared Hudd was his personal choice for the part. But Korda agreed to delay production until after Lawrence’s death.

That came sooner than anyone expected, in a motorcycle accident in 1935 and generated such enormous public demand in the adventurer that publisher Doubleday Doran printed a limited edition of only a dozen copies of Lawrence’s last unpublished 76,000-word book The Mint for sale at an astonishing $500,000 each. U.S. producer Sherman S. Krellberg planned a serial based on Lawrence and a play was written by Mary K. Brookes. Korda moved quickly, getting financial backing from the Bank of America, acquiring the rights to the Thomas book and taking on the author as a technical adviser. The film was to be directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan, who spent months in Jerusalem scouting locations, with a $400,000 budget. It was going to be momentous for another reason – it was planned as the first British film in color. In preparation, Korda sent to Hollywood for 8,000 items of color make-up and Natalie Kalmus of Technicolor was dispatched from the U.S. to supervise the process.  

But it took another two years before Korda received the go-ahead from the UK government to film in Palestine, where there was political unrest. In the meantime, the first British color film had been released, Wings Of The Morning starring Henry Fonda. Hudd had been replaced by movie star Leslie Howard and Zoltan by U.S. director William K. Howard and the film was now being produced for Paramount. By then The Uncrowned King, produced now by Transamerica, had reached the screen, but only as a 10-part serial starring Lionel Atwill and with a 16-voice choir instead of an orchestra supplying the music. More importantly, the delay also allowed other U.S. studios to catch up.

Twentieth Century Fox dispatched director Otto Brower to Britain to begin a rival production and MGM was planning a film to star either Clark Gable or Paul Muni. In the end a Fox subsidiary New World became involved in the Korda film, but the project was called off after, it was rumored, severe government pressure. In 1938, the situation changed again. The sensation of the year was a claim by an Egyptian woman Nour Dahabi in Cairo to have found 3,500ft of film showing Lawrence on maneuvers in Arabia.  MGM teamed up with Gaumont-British. And it was all change for Korda. His Paramount deal hit the rocks and he switched to United Artists, returned later in the year to the original studio, only to go back to UA who promised an increased budget. But, of course, in 1939 the beginning of the Second World War scuppered everyone’s plans.

After the war. Korda’s rights to Revolt In The Desert lapsed and he did not renew them. The American studios also gave up. John Sutro, who had helped found London Films, took over and, resurrected the project in 1947 at Rank under the banner of his Ortus Films. Although Rank was the biggest film company in Britain, involved in film production and exhibition, the film languished in development hell until 1953 when Cinerama appeared on the scene. Lowell Thomas had been instrumental in setting up the company in conjunction with Michael Todd. Thomas was the public face of the process and when projectors broke down in the middle of a Cinerama film, a short starring Thomas would fill the screen until the problem was solved.

But, as ever, the minute one company announced a Lawrence project, more popped up. David Rose claimed he was close to concluding a deal for the rights to Revolt In The Desert. British-based Anatole De Grunwald had a script by top British playwright Terence Rattigan who had written David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1951).  

In 1953 De Grunwald did a deal with Paramount who wanted Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck, who bore a likeness to Lawrence, in the lead, while De Grunwald pressed for Richard Burton. In the end the John Wayne project was shelved.  By 1956 De Grunwald had approached American director King Vidor, and the film was due to roll in March 1957 but Vidor pulled out, Rank re-entered the equation, investing £2 million in a De Grunwald production with Anthony Asquith as directing Dirk Bogarde. In April 1958, Rank pulled the plug. Re-enter Twentieth Century Fox with Mark Robson helming.

But in July 1959 Columbia made a deal with Sam Spiegel and David Lean who had turned  Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)  into the studio’s biggest hit. Meanwhile, Rattigan had turned his screenplay into the play Ross with Alec Guinness in the title role. Spiegel targeted Marlon Brando for Lawrence with a start date of summer 1960.

Spiegel had hired blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, incurring the wrath of Columbia. Lean hired playwright Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) to rewrite it.  Meanwhile, Rank announced it had Alec Guinness for the lead.  

In July 1960 Brando pulled out. While Spiegel scoured Hollywood for a replacement, British producer Herbert Wilcox spent $364,000 on the rights to Ross with Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) to star. Lean went after British actor Albert Finney (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960) but the actor baulked at a long-term contract.  His replacement was unknown Irishman peter O’Toole.  Just as unknown, Omar Sharif was fifth choice for the pivotal role of Sherif Ali.

Filming was delayed until April 1961.  Oscar-winner Alec Guinness, albeit in a supporting role, was crucial to bring cachet to the picture. The presence of two other Oscar winners, Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, bolstered the marquee.

Finally, filming got underway in May in Jordan, despite an incomplete script. But conditions were horrific. Swarms of locusts hampered transport, temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit,  the nearest water was 150 miles away. After a break, filming resumed in Spain on December 15 but Seville, chosen for its distinctive Arabian heritage, had just suffered the worst floods in a century, delaying production. The final location was Morocco and in July 1962 four planes flew 104 cast and crew there. Conditions there were as bad as in Jordan. After a few weeks in England, filming on the 313-day schedule ended on September 21, 1962. But with the world premiere set for December 10, it was panic all the way, especially after original composer Richard Rodgers of South Pacific fame quit.

Worse, ticket sales for the roadshow were poor, in part caused by the absence of a female in the cast. By mid-October sales for the U.S. opening stood at a paltry $11,424, compared to an advance of $700,000 for Exodus and $500,000 for How the West Was Won.

 The world premiere of Lawrence Of Arabia took place in front of Her Majesty the Queen on December 10 at the flagship Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End. The American premiere occurred on December 16 at The Criterion in New York.

But the public and the critics responded. On its first Saturday in London with only two performances, it set a new one-day record of $7,200. The Criterion’s opening week in New York was $46,000 which Variety described as ‘little short of amazing.’ The film was edited shortly after  launch, the original prints cut by 20 minutes.

In the end it was both a box office and critical powerhouse, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, making stars out of O’Toole and Sharif, and for the past 60 years being acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

Tunes of Glory (1960) ****

Fans of Succession will appreciate this power struggle in a Scottish army regiment set in 1948. In a reverse of The Godfather (1972) where the Corleones complain about needing a “wartime consigliore,” here the powers-that-be have decided this unnamed distinctly Highlander company requires a commanding officer with skills more appropriate to peace time.

Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) has been in charge of the battalion since the North Africa campaign in World War Two when the original commander was killed. But he has never been promoted to full Lt. Col. Naturally, having been in charge for six years, he feels the job should be his. At a time when the currency of command was wartime experience he’s less than pleased when he loses out to Col. Barrow (John Mills) who spent most of the war as a Japanese POW.

It doesn’t help that they are complete opposites. Sinclair is a tough, hard-drinking, attention-seeking Scotsman who enlisted as an ordinary soldier and rose through the ranks winning two medals for courage during the conflict. Barrow is Oxford-educated English upper-class, a lecturer at Sandhurst Military Academy, and recalls his war experience with terror rather than the braggadocio of Sinclair. Worse, he doesn’t drink.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to clash. Sinclair, who has ruled as much by preying on weakness as force of personality, is quick to start to look for flaws in his opponent’s make-up. Barrow feels discipline has been slipping and enforces tougher measures. That might make him unpopular but an army is built on discipline so soldiers can hardly complain.

But Barrow slips up by misreading the men. He chooses the worst of all issues to make a stand. For the first post-war official barracks party, Barrow insists the soldiers embark on traditional Highland dancing in regulation fashion rather than in their normal exuberant, not to say rowdy, manner. The soldiers are infuriated when Barrow insists they take lessons.

He has just lit the fuse. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. Barrow is humiliated, Sinclair triumphant. But victory does not turn out the way Sinclair expected.

Somewhat cynical rebranding of the film in Italy as “Whisky and Glory,” possibly trying to cash in on the success of “Whisky Galore” and also misleading in suggesting actual conflict with the fighting in the background.

The main thrust of the narrative, as you might expect, is the stand-off between Sinclair and Barrow and the tensions felt all round, as would be the case in any business (Succession, now, of course the classic example) when a new boss takes control. While everyone might expect, and perhaps fear, change, in the military (as in the navy) there is always the danger, should the new broom try to sweep too clean, of mutiny.

This might not amount to a raising of arms. But there are other effective methods of mounting opposition – laxity, questioning or outright refusal to obey orders – or giving the new chief the cold shoulder. Here, in the background, are other simmering tensions. Not everyone is comfortable with Sinclair’s very laddish approach to command, the back-stabbing and double-dealing Major Charles Scott (Dennis Price) ready to pounce at any opportunity.

Sinclair is also having to deal with his daughter Morag (Susannah York) asserting her independence, having the temerity not just to take a boyfriend, Corporal Fraser (John Fraser), but one from the ranks rather than the officer class. And he feels the harsh tongue of his own paramour Mary (Kay Walsh).

Emotional isolation is rarely commented upon in matters of the armed forces and yet it is so much a driving force. If not adequately compensated by camaraderie, a man at the top can be very lonely indeed, and prone to the most vicious self-torment.

Director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) superbly invokes an army atmosphere away from the more usual battleground backdrop. The picture is anchored by brilliant performances all round and a roll-call of strong supporting characters. An unflinching look at power, especially leadership and the personal toll it takes. And it was astonishing that the movie could hit the target so well without relying on the usual round of sex, violence or that old stand-by the comic subordinate. It also probes the issues of what happens – in any industry – when the wrong person is put in charge. No less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock called it “one of the best films ever made.”

The sparring between Oscar-winning Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) and John Mills (The Family Way, 1966), who won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival for this role, is of the highest quality. Dennis Price (The Comedy Man, 1964) is the pick of the support while Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) makes an auspicious debut.

Few films could boast a better supporting cast: former British leading lady Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965), Gordon Jackson (The Ipcress File, 1965), Duncan Macrae (Best of Enemies, 1961), John Fraser (Tamahine, 1963), Gerard Harper (Adam Adamant Lives!, 1966-1967, TV series) and Peter McEnery (The Moon-Spinners, 1964).

James Kennaway (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.

In the News Sixty Years Ago: April 1961

HOLLYWOOD CASHING IN ON EICHMANN TRIAL  

With the upcoming trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann dominating the media for weeks, and publishers enjoying a boom with titles on Eichmann and Hitler, and with Life magazine’s biggest issue so far in the year being one with Hitler on the cover, movie studios had at last wakened up to the opportunities. A Swiss documentary Mein Kampf was due to open as was Operation Eichmann and Stanley Kramer’s big-budget Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster heading an all-star cast. Also in the offing were a Hitler biopic from Allied Artists, Hitler’s Women, a movie based on John Hersey novel The Wall and French director Roger Vadim with an idea to update De Sade as a Nazi.

BRITISH STARS MAKE ‘EM LAUGH

At a time when the Steve Reeves musclemen pictures had dominated the foreign film market, nine British comedies had taken the U.S. by storm. While their box office figures were not colossal by U.S. standards, they were extremely hot compared to the numbers normally racked up at the American ticket wickets by British films. For the 1960 season the British beat all other foreign film contenders. A total of 135 British movies released generating $22.9 million in rentals, well ahead of the nearest rival Italy whose 116 pictures took in $12.2 million (rentals being what the studios received from the overall box office gross). Carry On Nurse was one of the hottest British comedies as well as The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack both starring Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana, and Ted Ray in Please Turn Over. Brigitte Bardot was single-handedly the biggest foreign attraction with eight movies on show.

KING AND I REISSUE FLOPS

Twentieth Century Fox had brought back The King and I (1956) in 70mm in its Grandeur format as a two-a-day roadshow at the upscale Rivoli in New York on March 23 only to discover that audiences would not bite and a week later it was shifted to “grind” (continuous performance). Meanwhile, Columbia was backing a revival of Picnic (1955) starring William Holden and Kim Novak, promising a new campaign and artwork.

FIRST PURPOSE-BUILT CINERAMA THEATER OPENS

Although the Cinerama phenomenon had been all the rage for nearly a decade, the movies had always been shown in specially-converted cinemas. Now the first purpose-built theater had opened, the Cooper, in Denver, Colorado, at a cost of $1 million with seating for 814.

TRIPLE NAME CHANGE FOR THE HUSTLER

The Robert Rossen movie featuring Paul Newman as a poolroom shark had already started filming in New York when it changed its title first to Stroke of Luck and then quickly to Sin of Angels and under that title – to confuse potential moviegoers – had snagged considerable coverage in Time, the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune before reverting back to the original title.

BARDOT BIOPIC

Although the French sex symbol had barely been a star for half a dozen years, she was already lining up a biopic to be directed by one of the leading New Wave exponents 28-year-old Louis Malle. Co-starring Marcello Mastroianni, it appeared as A Very Private Affair in 1962.

WB SHELLS OUT FOR CAMELOT

Six years before the Lerner and Loewe musical finally hit the screens, Jack Warner paid $1.5 million for the screen rights plus 25% of the net profits.

Sources: “New Nazi Beast Film Cycle” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p1); “British Humor Scores in the U.S.” (Variety, April 26, 1961, 1); “Hard Ducat Not For Reissue?” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p3); “Advert, Picnic” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, 10); “World’s First Theater Built Specially for Cinerama Opens in Denver” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, p28);  “Brave Young Director Faces Bardot Playing Herself in Her Own Biopic” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1); “WB’s Camelot Buy” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1).

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.

Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based. 

Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.

But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning  a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.

But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.

There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.

The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.

Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world.  She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.

Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.

A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

British advertisement for the film about to go on general release after a spell in the more expensive West End. The “normal prices” slogan was very commonly found on movies as they headed towards the more normal kind of cinema. in addition, by the time it was rest go into wider release the critics had delivered their verdicts and these could be tagged onto any advertising.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

The relatively short-lived “Show Time” fan magazine was launched in Britain as Odeon’s answer to the highly successful “ABC Film Review.” Both magazines were only sold inside cinemas but it was common for cinemagoers to purchase copies without necessarily going into to see a picture. This magazine ceased publication by the end of the decade. This was the launch issue in Janaury 1964.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.  

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