A Twist of Sand (1968) ***

Initially promising, ultimately disappointing thriller that proves you should not go to sea  without a big budget. Because he is the only skipper to have successfully negotiated the Skeleton Coast off Namibia in South Africa, smuggler Geoffrey Peace (Richard Johnson) gets roped into a scheme by Harry Riker (Jeremy Kemp) and Julie Chambois (Honor Blackman) to collect stolen diamonds.

Peace knows his way around this area thanks to World War Two submarine exploits and that particular expedition is recalled in flashback while its repercussions form part of a plot. Also on board the boat are the goggle-eyed knife-wielding Johann (Peter Vaughn) and Peace’s shipmate David (Roy Dotrice).

Peace has to navigate the treacherous waters of the Skeleton Coast before the team embark on a trek through the desert to find the diamonds, hidden in the unlikely location of a shipwreck, itself in imminent danger of being buried in an avalanche of sand that could be triggered by (shades of Dune) sudden movement or sound.

On paper – and it has been adapted from the bestseller by Geoffrey Jenkins – it has all the ingredients of a top-class thriller but it doesn’t quite gel. For a start, the flashback, where Peace has to hunt down a new class of German submarine and not only sink it but make sure there are no survivors, gets in the way of the action.

The sexual tension you might expect to simmer between Peace and Julie does not appear to exist, the bulk of the threat coming from the villainous-looking pair, Riker and Johann, the former already known to be untrustworthy, the latter too fond of producing a knife at odd occasions. The trek into the desert takes way too long and rather than increase tensions slackens it off and there is no real explanation as to why the ship was lost so far into the desert without entering Clive Cussler archaeological territory.

Extracting the diamonds is certainly a taut scene, with the sand dunes threatening to collapse any moment but the climax you saw coming a long way off and although there is an ironic twist it is not enough to save the picture.

On the plus side, Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than The Male, 1967) shucks off the suave gentleman-spy persona of Bulldog Drummond to emerge as a snarly, believable smuggler. But Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is wasted and this is one of the least effective bad guy portraits from the Jeremy Kemp (The Blue Max, 1966) catalogue. Roy Dotrice (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) is better value while Peter Vaughn (Hammerhead, 1968), menacing enough just standing still, overplays the villain.

Set up as a thriller very much in the Alistair MacLean vein, this shows just how good MacLean’s material was, how great a command he had of structure and not just of action but twists along the way. A Twist of Sand wobbles once too often in its structure and never quite manages to build up the necessary tension between characters. Although the Skeleton Coast sea-scene falls apart due to defective special effects, the other two sequences at sea are well done, the opening section where Peace is being chased by Royal Navy vessels, and the underwater attack on the German submarine where murky water manages to obscure the effects sufficiently they appear effective enough.

Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) does his best with material that’s not quite up to standard. Marvin H. Albert (Tony Rome, 1967) doesn’t do as good a job of adapting other people’s work as he does his own.  

Catch-Up: Richard Johnson films previously reviewed in the Blog are The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier than the Male (1967), and Danger Route (1967).

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****

An absolute delight, great storytelling married to groundbreaking special effects produces an adventure picture of the highest order. Though mostly known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, its success also relied heavily on the direction of Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) and a great script. It’s one of the few films to benefit from not being viewed in its original size, the small screen minimizing the flaws of the special effects. In essence it’s a combination of three genres – the Italian peplum, the men-on-a-mission picture and the classic detective story. it was originally entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece (see below).

Plus there are interesting stabs at philosophy – if man refuses to believe in the gods do they cease to exist? And if the golden fleece brings peace and prosperity to a nation what will happen to that country when it is stolen?  And if various people can call on their own gods for help will that not create conflict in heaven as much as on earth? And the ultimately question – what can man achieve without celestial interference?

While the episodic structure derives from the clues meted out piecemeal to hero Jason (Todd Armstrong) during his long voyage to find the golden fleece these often come minus vital pieces of information ensuring that surprise remains a key element.

Without doubt the special effects are the triumph, although some work better than others. The highlights for me were the towering bronze statue of Talos and the skeleton warriors. I can’t be the only one who thinks that some of the visuals in Game of Thrones were inspired by the sight of Talos astride two land masses separated by the sea. Talos is not so much a man-mountain as an actual mountain, first viewed coming round the corner of a cliff top, his head topping it. But where, except for cunning Jason, the crewmen are viewed primarily in miniature in relation to the giant Talos, the skeletons are the same size as the adventurers and that fight scene all the more impressive as the ensuing battle appears completely real.

Scale allows Harryhausen to wriggle out of the problems of contact. If the creatures are out of reach anyway, there’s little need to attempt to bring them into close proximity. The way the Harpies are utilised, close enough to strip clothes from a blind man but otherwise hovering just out of reach, is a classic example of clever direction. The multi-headed Hydra, on the other hand, is the least convincing monster simply because it is impossible for Jason to get close to the beast. Scale is also one of the film’s best weapons. The scenes where a miniaturized Jason is transported to Mount Olympus to face the gods are well done as are the occasions when the gods peer down on tiny man.

Outside of the special effects and the varying degrees of excitement aroused, in the background is constant intrigue. Jason is the son of the King of Thessaly slain by the usurper Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) and his crew includes Acastus (Gary Raymond), son of Pelias, whose task is to cause trouble and if Jason succeeds in his endeavor to kill him. On top of that, there is a heavenly battle over Jason’s fate. Jason, having defied Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) by first of all refusing to believe he exists and that his life is determined by fate, becomes enmeshed in a battle between the king of the gods and his wife Hera (Honor Blackman) who grants Jason a get-out-jail-free card, the ability to call on her help, but only five times.

Jason determines to recruit his own team and in the manner of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Professionals (1966) they are all experts in their fields but unlike that film and The Dirty Dozen (1967) are willing conscripts. The team also includes Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney) and in the first of the film’s many surprises and reversals, the weedy latter is able to beat the muscular former in a contest of strength.

There is enough incident to keep the story ticking along but Don Chaffey fills in the blanks with montage, the various essentials of a ship – sails, oarsmen, sides, stern, figurehead, pace set by drumbeat  – and a full color palette from the bright blue sky, from dawn and dusk to sunset and night, a wonderful image of rowers at sunset on the sea the pick. He also makes great use of the sea – pounding surf, storms, the sea turned tempest by the clashing rocks, a shipwreck. And we have dancing girls, colorful costumes, ancient backdrops and the sense that the budget has been well spent

Some scenes call for immense skills in coupling special effects with real characters. For the clashing rocks sequence five elements are simultaneously in play: the crew in danger, a tempest, rocks crashing into the water, the ship itself and Neptune.

And the romance is well handled dramatically: if Jason rescues Medea (Nancy Kovack) then she too rescues him. Love produces conflict. To love Jason, Medea must betray her country. There is hardly a moment when Jason, confronted either by monsters or kings, does not face death.  

In addition, there is a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, 1960).

Any top-notch acting would have been overshadowed in any case by the special effects. Which is just as well because the entire cast is drawn from the lower strata of the stardom ladder. Todd Armstrong, from the Manhunt tv series (1961), needs only not to mess up, which he manages adequately. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman, 1963) does well to make an impact given she does not appear until the final third. This did not turn out to be much of a star-making vehicle for either. Honor Blackman drops the slinky persona with which she had made her name in The Avengers tv series (1962-1964) and instead plays a confident goddess willing to out-maneuver husband Zeus.

The rest of the cast comprises a regiment of future movie supporting actors – Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), Niall MacGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966). Future television stars ranged from Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who) and Scottish actor John Cairney (This Man Craig, 1966-1967) to Laurence Naismith (The Persuaders, 1971), Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968), Mike Gwynn (Poison Island, 1965) and Andrew Faulds (The Protectors, 1964).

The screenplay was written by Jan Read (First Men on the Moon, 1964) and Beverley Cross (The Long Ships, 1964), husband of Maggie Smith. Cross returned to ancient worlds again for producer Charles H. Schneer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981)

Although the ending appeared to leave the door open for a sequel, none was made. A huge box office hit in Britain, it did not repeat its success elsewhere.

I first saw this film as a boy and was so enthralled I wouldn’t have noticed if there was anything awry with the special effects. I have not seen it since. Coming at it with some degree of scepticism I found that attitude misplaced for I was equally enthralled.

Catch-Up: Nigel Green’s portrayal of Hercules was a far cry from his normal screen persona of martinet. His movies previously reviewed in the Blog are The Skull (1965), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Africa Texas Style (1967).

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.

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