Swashbuckler (1976) **

Red faces all round. Uneasy pirate spoof that misses all its targets, coming close to resembling the kind of movie that gives turkeys a bad name and saved only by a spirited performance by Genevieve Bujold. Uber-producers Jennings Lang (Rollercoaster, 1977) and Elliott Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) should have known better but were seduced by the tantalizing returns for Richard Donner’s The Three Musketeers (1974) and its sequel which had revived the moribund swashbuckling genre.

Robert Shaw (Custer of the West, 1967) was nailed-on for the leading role since had made his name playing a pirate in British television series The Buccaneers (1956-1957) and was as hot as he was going to get after the double whammy of The Sting (1973) and Jaws (1975). However, the movie takes its cue from one of the chief supporting actors Major Folly (Beau Bridges).

It’s color-coded. In case we can’t tell a good guy from a bad guy, we’ve got the Man in Red, pirate Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw), shaping up against the Man in Black, unscrupulous Jamaican governor Lord Durant (Peter Boyle). Ned is presented as a seagoing Robin Hood, Durant as the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, his ruthlessness somewhat undermined by his predilection for playing with toy boats in his bath and for getting his hairy back waxed.

Twin narratives quickly unspool. Ned rescues from being hanged shipmate Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones) while Durant jails island chief justice Sir James Barnet (Bernard Behrens) and steals his treasure.

Stolen treasure being fair game, Ned and Nick hijack a coach-load of it, while Sir James’s on-the-run daughter Jane (Genevieve Bujold) ends up in their hands. Not being as black-hearted as his nemesis, Ned puts Jane ashore, but still a bit black-hearted humiliates her in a swordfight, and is disinclined to help her save her imprisoned father.

However, Jane has a trump card. For reasons unknown, Durant is heading back to England with a cargo of 10,000 dubloons, too tempting a target for any pirate. Naturally, nothing goes as planned but, as you might expect, there is a happy ending.

This might have worked, since all the ingredients are there, the laughing cavalier, the spirited woman, the humorous sidekick, the unprincipled villain. You’ve got an historically-accurate pirate ship for once, unlikely romance between high-born woman and charming scallywag, simple rescue-imprisonment-rescue scenario, and ample scope for swordplay.

Except the dialog is awful, the ship too small to accommodate any fighting so the pirates are landlubbers for the most part, and except for the duels between Ned and Jane and Ned and Durant, the swordfights are all kind of bundled together, and every now and then the action stops so we can hear a verse or two of a sea shanty sung by nobody in particular.

Though Ned and Nick trade cringeworthy, and in one case downright offensive, limericks, the best (only) laugh comes when Ned chucks Jane off a roof onto a canopy and follows up with the line “It worked.”  It doesn’t help that Durant’s pederastic tendences are played as a joke. Everywhere you look people are turning cartwheels or are “blithering idiots” or “pawns” and as you might expect there’s a cat-fight and a monkey around to relieve a jailer of his keys. You are just praying for a shark to come along to put the cast out of their misery.

In the midst of this feast of over-acting along comes Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days, 1969) who must think she’s in a different picture. She is a feisty one all right, not above putting a knife to a man’s cojones, or kneeing them in that region, and, given the lawless state of the island, branded a criminal for wounding a rapist.   At least she takes the whole thing seriously rather than as if being in a Mel Brooks picture.

It’s hard to know who to blame: the stars for acting as if enjoying a holiday from more serious fare; director James Goldstone (Winning, 1969) for failing to get the recipe right and employing a jaunty score that undercut everything, or writers Jeffrey Bloom (11 Harrowhouse, 1974) and Paul Wheeler (Caravan to Vaccares, 1974) for making a mess of the ingredients in the first place.

Of course, I am hardly blameless in drawing your attention to this, a sudden enthusiasm for pirate pictures sending me dashing into the wrong decade.

Watch for: Robert Shaw making a bid for the all-time Golden Raspberry; an unrecognizable Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, 1976); Beau Bridges (Gaily, Gaily, 1969) doing his best Frankie Howerd impression; James Earl Jones (The Comedians, 1967) sounding normal, minus the deep-throated vocal tic on which he made his name; and so many inanities it falls easily into the So Bad It’s Good category.  

Dr No (1962) *****

Minus the gadgets and the more outlandish plots, the James Bond formula in embryo. With two of the greatest entrances in movie history – and a third if you count the creepy presence of Dr No himself at the beds of his captives – all the main supporting characters in place except Q, plenty of sex and action, plus the Maurice Binder credit sequence and the theme tune, this is the spy genre reinvented.

Most previous espionage pictures usually involved a character quickly out of their depth or an innocent caught up in nefarious shenanigans, not a man close to a semi-thug, totally in command, automatically suspicious, and happy to knock off anyone who gets in his way, in fact given government clearance to commit murder should the occasion arise. That this killer comes complete with charm and charisma and oozes sexuality changes all the rules and ups the stakes in the spy thriller.

 Three men disguised as beggars break into the house of British secret service agent Strangways (Tim Moxon) and kill him and his secretary and steal the file on Dr No (Joseph Wiseman). A glamorous woman in a red dress Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) catches the eye of our handsome devil “Bond, James Bond” (Sean Connery) at a casino before he is interrupted by an urgent message, potential assignation thwarted.

We are briefly introduced to Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) before Bond is briefed by M (Bernard Lee) and posted out immediately – or “almost immediately” as it transpires – to Jamaica, but not before his beloved Beretta is changed to his signature Walther PPK and mention made that he is recovering from a previous mission. But in what would also become a series signature, liberated women indulging in sexual freedom, and often making the first move, Ms Trench is lying in wait at his flat.

In another change to the espionage trope, this man does not walk into the unknown. Suspicion is his watchword. In other words, he is the consummate professional. On arrival at Jamaica airport he checks out the waiting chauffeur and later the journalist who takes his picture. The first action sequence also sets a new tone. Bond is not easily duped. Three times he outwits the chauffeur. Finally, at the stand-off, Bond fells him with karate before the man takes cyanide, undercutting the danger with the mordant quip, on delivering the corpse to Government house, “see that he doesn’t get away.” 

Initially, it’s more a detective story as Bond follows up on various clues that leads him to Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), initially appearing as an adversary, and C.I.A. agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) before the finger of suspicion points to the mysterious Dr No and the question of why rocks from his island should be radioactive. Certainly, Dr No pulls out all the stops, sending hoods, a tarantula, sexy secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the traitororous Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to waylay or kill Bond.

But it’s only when our hero lands on the island and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as the epitome of the stunning “Bond Girl” that the series formula truly kicks in: formidable sadistic opponent, shady organization Spectre, amazing  sets, space age plot, a race against time. 

It’s hard not to overstate how novel this entire picture was. For a start, it toyed with the universal perception of the British as the ultimate arbiters of fair play. Here was an anointed killer. Equally, the previous incarnation of the British spy had been the bumbling Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1959). That the British should endorse wanton killing and blatant immorality – remember this was some years before the Swinging Sixties got underway – went against the grain.

Although critics have maligned the sexism of the series, they have generally overlooked the reaction of the female audience to a male hunk, or the freedom with which women appeared to enjoy sexual trysts with no fear of moral complication. Bond is not just macho, he is playful with the opposite sex, flirting with Miss Moneypenny, and with a fine line in throwaway quips.

Director Terence Young is rarely more than a few minutes away from a spot of action or sex, exposition kept to a minimum, so the story zings along, although there is time to flesh out the characters, Bond’s vulnerability after his previous mission mentioned, his attention to detail, and Honey Rider’s backstory, her father disappearing on the island and her own ruthlessness. The insistently repetitive theme tunes- from Monty Norman and John Barry – were innovative. The special effects mostly worked, testament to the genius of production designer Ken Adam rather than the miserable budget.

Most impressive of all was the director’s command of mood and pace. For all the fast action, he certainly knew how to frame a scene, Bond initially shown from the back, Dr No introduced from the waist downwards, Honey Rider in contrast revealed in all her glory from the outset. The brutal brief interrogation of photographer Annabel Chung (Marguerite LeWars), the unexpected seduction of the enemy Miss Taro and the opulence of the interior of Dr No’s stronghold would have come as surprises.

Young was responsible for creating the prototype Bond picture, the lightness of touch in constant contrast to flurries of violence, amorality while blatant delivered with cinematic elan, not least the treatment of willing not to say predatory females, the shot through the bare legs of Ms Trench as Bond returns to his apartment soon to become par for the course.

Future episodes of course would lavish greater funds on the project, but with what was a B-film budget at best  by Hollywood standards, the producers worked wonders. Sean Connery (The Frightened City, 1961) strides into a role that was almost made-to-measure, another unknown Ursula Andress speeded up every male pulse on the planet, Joseph Wiseman (The Happy Thieves, 1961) provided an ideal template for a future string of maniacs and Bernard Lee (The Secret Partner, 1961) grounded the entire operation with a distinctly British headmaster of a boss.

Selling Tough Guys – The Pressbook for “Dark of the Sun”

Mercenaries rampaging through strife-ridden Africa, chainsaw the weapon of choice, marketing to The Dirty Dozen crowd a formality, but how do you interest the rest of the paying public?

“Bright ideas to boost your box office” as computed by the MGM marketeers in the Pressbook fell into four categories: fashion, jungle, diamonds, and military. Oddly enough, the pick of the bunch was fashion. And not what the chic mercenary was wearing. Instead, the focus was on Yvette Mimieux who “took time off” filming to “model sensational creations by Dorothy McNab of Jamaica Fashions.” This picture is set in the Congo and Jamaica is about 3,000 miles away across an entire ocean so where did Jamaica come into it? Well, it was shot in Jamaica and that appeared excuse enough, and it was hoped that cinemas would link up with department stores showing the seven outfits modelled ranging from casual to elegant evening wear.

Creative license was used here for Mimieux never fought side by side with Taylor and Brown on the top of the train.

The jungle seemed a safer bet so managers were encouraged to kit out doormen and usherettes in jungle outfits while tropical plants and foliage and possibly tropical birds could turn the lobby into a jungle paradise. Local military Army reserve or National Guard units could be persuaded to lend military equipment to add to the display and, as a longer shot, recruitment agencies might choose to get involved. Since the main thrust of the picture involves diamonds the marketeers suggested linking up with large jewelry store chains to give away cheap industrial diamonds prior to launch or as a competition.

Since Toyota land cruisers play a significant part in the movie, MGM had set up a promotional tie-in with 1500 dealers coast to coast with the potential for one of the vehicles mounted on a ramp in front of the theater drawing attention both to the picture showing inside and the car itself. In addition, discounted tickets to members of four-wheel drive clubs might bring in customers. More standard material included an original soundtrack album and a paperback book.

Much of a Pressbook’s job was to provide snippets of information that could be fed to local journalists. Former boxer Rod Taylor did some of his own stunts, 6-foot 3-inch 240lb former gridiron star Jim Brown needed his own bed flown in to location, the temperature was so high the actual film had to be cooled down in giant vats of ice, and certain sequences used live bullets. The giant steam locomotive was a “55” built in 1902 and brought out of retirement.

And there was no shortage of usable quotes. “I don’t believe in love at first sight,” commented Mimieux; “I was warned off directing by some of the finest directors in the business,” said director Jack Cardiff.

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