The Brits were onto something in wartime Malaysian jungles in 1942 – sonic warfare. Imagine the franchise possibilities for comic-book or spy villains (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966, or Some Girls Do, 1969, anyone?). Fortunately, this ignores such temptations and takes a long hard raw look at the reality of conflict, courage and cowardice, the desire and reality of killing.
Beginning as a fairly stock examination of men in combat, the usual clash of personalities, bullying loudmouths, and it being British elements of class distinction. But it quickly moves on to something much deeper, initially tough guys worrying about what their wives are getting up in their absence back home, but on capturing a Japanese soldier what exactly to do with him once his usefulness is over. Treat him according to the Geneva Convention as a prisoner-of-war and escort him back to base or just get rid of him and save yourself the trouble.
Five main characters make up this squad. Sgt Mitchem (Richard Todd) is the ruthless leader under pressure. He was busted down to corporal for losing a previous patrol, has got his stripe back and wants to prove his worth. But he appears to be from a different generation to his troops, his stiff upper lip only too evident while the others just give lip.
Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) likes to remind him of his previous misdemeanor and question his judgement. Racist Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey) riles everyone, especially picking on Lance Corporal Macleish (Ronald Fraser) who is as likely to reply with his fists. Radio operator Private Whitaker (David McCallum) is over-keen on the spoils of war, kitbag stuffed with enemy mementoes.
After apprehending Jap soldier Tojo (Kenji Takaki) Johnstone is inclined to bayonet him right away (a bullet would attract attention). Others, more squeamish than principled, balk at the deed. At first Bamforth makes fun of the captive, belittling him, but then views him as a human being caught up in a war not of his making, giving him cigarettes, trying to make him more comfortable. When Macleish starts slapping the prisoner around, Bamforth defends him, though it’s obvious Mitchem and Johnstone have no intention of taking him back.
Then the tide turns. They are surrounded by Japs and it’s battle for real with an enemy who can defend itself. Action determines character. Some are revealed as complete cowards, others will abandon colleagues to save their skin, others are instinctively courageous, others yet again with a bit more cunning.
But the firefight when it comes is nothing like any other battle you have seen where Allied forces invariably triumph. There’s none of the clever ruses more typical of the genre.
This is by far the rawest depiction of British soldiers on the battle. The characters and conversation hit home. Tough guys are nothing but vulnerable. Although it appears that way, none of the characters actually change, it’s more that their real personalities emerge.
This is Laurence Harvey’s (The Running Man, 1963) best performance. In other pictures, his clipped delivery hid an edge of malevolence, and especially to retain audience sympathy he restrained an inner nastiness, even when ruthless as in Room at the Top (1958), this aspect more important if the male lead in a romance or essaying a decent character. Here, the real Harvey is let loose in the sense that his delivery is more normal, as if he delights in taking pleasure in using language to gut his victims. Sure, it’s an ideal central role, the guy who starts off one way and ends another, but he really brings it to life.
Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, 1963) was a rising star at this point. And it shows. He’s always trying to steal scenes, an unnecessary gesture, a roll of the eyes, forceful delivery. He turns out to be nastier than everyone else. Richard Todd (Subterfuge, 1968) also plays against type, no longer the heroic figure of The Dam Busters (1955) but fighting not just the enemy and his fellow soldiers but his internal demons.
Ronald Fraser (Fathom, 1967), often condemned to humorous supporting parts, also has a meatier role as does David McCallum (The Spy in the Green Hat, 1967).
Apart from a heavy dose of rain and some stock shots of animals, it betrays its stage roots, based on a play by Willis Hall, but that hardly matters when the dialog is so sharp, the characters so well-drawn and the drama so intense.
Leslie Norman (Dunkirk, 1958) does an excellent job of focusing on character and making the action believable. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) was credited with the screenplay.
Producer Joseph E. Levine (The Graduate, 1967) would be cancelled these days for his treatment of Michael Caine back in 1964. Levine had stumped up (along with Paramount) the $1.7 million budget for what was assumed to be the actor’s breakout picture, Zulu (1964), and signed him up to a seven-year contract. Caine would receive $75,000 – his fee for Zulu had been just $10,000 – in his first year, with increments every following year.* But before the film was released Levine rescinded the contract on the basis that Caine “looked like a queer on screen.”
While Zulu was a box office smash in Britain, in the United States it was a big flop despite the marketing dollars thrown at it by Levine. And nobody needed a younger version of the British stiff- upper-lip. And despite the buzz before the film opened, producers were not clamouring at Caine’s door, the only options on the table a small part in a television production of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964) and the leading role in The Other Man (1964), a television drama about Britain succumbing to the Nazis in 1940.
That is, until Bond producer Harry Saltzman summoned him to his table in a restaurant and in a conversation that lasted all of two minutes offered him The Ipcress File and a seven-year contract. Aged 32 at this point, Caine was mature enough to be ranked a proper rising star, the casualty rate among the twenty-somethings accorded that status alarmingly high mostly due to their screen immaturity.
However, Saltzman owed his involvement in the picture to another chance meeting. He had been in the United Artists offices in New York when hair product entrepreneur Charles D. Kasher arrived to pitch Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File as a potential movie. Saltzman was looking for an alternative to James Bond that would appeal to international audiences with the emphasis on low-cost. He put together the picture on a budget of only $460,000. But the project looked dead in the water when original Hollywood backers Columbia pulled out shorlty before shooting was due to star. Universal saved the day.
Hammer director Jimmy Sangster recommended Canadian director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) who had just turned down A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and just signed up to do indie horror movie Devil Doll (1964) before managing to ease himself out of that contract.
Caine was far from first choice. Christopher Plummer had chosen The Sound of Music (1965) instead and Richard Harris, a bigger name in Hollywood after MGM roadshow Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and a critical success after This Sporting Life (1963) turned it down in favour of Sam Peckinpah western Major Dundee (1965). In a bid to give the character the ordinariness he required Harry H. Corbett (Rattle of a Simple Man, 1964) was also considered. Caine had been sharing a flat with Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) but when Stamp decamped to America moved in with composer John Barry and was thus the first to hear the music Barry had dreamed up for Goldfinger (1964).
Aware how easily contracts could be dissolved Caine “stuck to him (Saltzman) like a drowning man to a straw.” Thus, he was present when discussions arose over naming the spy – anonymous in the book which was written in the first person. It was decided the character should have a dull name. “Harry” was chosen before everyone present realized the producer might just take offence. However, Saltzman’s real first name was Herschel, so he laughed it off.
Saltzman also came up with idea of the character wearing glasses to make him look more ordinary. Caine was short-sighted in real life and always wore glasses and Saltzman noticed how comfortable he was with them, knowing how to handle them properly, unlike clear-sighted actors given spectacles for roles without having any idea what to do with them. It was surprising how fragile the spectacles were, though, Caine getting through the allocated three pairs and new supplies having to be commandeered. Saltzman took the ordinariness too far, suggesting a duel with supermarket trolleys as one of the big fight scenes.
Even though Furie had never met Caine, he disliked him, having come across the actor and his friend Terence Stamp at the White Elephant Club in London. “I’d see Terence Stamp always there with this other blonde guy who wore glasses,” recollected Furie, “and they were rather chummy and always had these pretty girls at their table, and they were always laughing. And I sort of hated him at the time. Sometimes, I would get a bit drunk and tell whomever I was with, ‘I want to punch that guy in the face.’ I guess I was jealous.”
Joan Collins, completely out of favour in Hollywood and with no roles since The Road to Hong Kong (1962), auditioned – as did the unknown Carol White (Poor Cow, 1967) – for the part of Jean that went to Sue Lyons, in her first featured role. Otherwise, the main roles went to established British character actors including Nigel Green (Zulu), Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965)
Interestingly, laughable though it is now, a character who cooked was considered to be gay, even though Palmer clearly used his cooking skills for female seduction. Unfortunately, no great cook himself, Caine was unable to crack two eggs with one hand and the movie used the hands of author Len Deighton, so excellent a cook he had written a cookbook. That explains why the hands that picked up the eggs on screen had blond hairs but the hands that cracked them had black hairs. The cooking scene remained the cause of macho concern, with one U.S. studio executive demanding the scene be re-shot with the woman cooking the meal.
Director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) hated the script and demonstrated his loathing by gathering cast and crew together on the first morning of filming and burning the script on the studio floor. While sticking to the basis of the screenplay, characters were encouraged to improvise. The poor script – Kasher had called it “garbage” – was the reason for introducing this kind of style, the script being rewritten as production proceeded.
Furie recalled, “All day there were two writers writing our scenes for the next day…We knew where we had to get to because Harry Saltzman, the producer, had ordered the set for the climax built, so we were stuck with it.” If the pages didn’t turn up, Furie found ways to instigate delay, getting the cameramen spending an inordinate amount of time lighting a scene. Furie sipped whisky in his Scotch all day, not enough to be inebriated but “it would help me go with my gut.” The full complement of writers involved in the script were James Doran and W. H. Canaway plus uncredited contributions from Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) , Lionel Davidson (source author for Agent 8 ¾, 1964) , Ken Hughes (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) and Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962).
Furie’s style on The Ipcress File was very distinctive – “scenes where you had someone’s shoulder blocking the screen and you could only see three quarters of the screen…If you try to use the screen the way a painter uses a canvas, somehow it’s not considered acceptable.”
Furie and Saltzman did not get on, the producer loathing what he saw as the director’s stylistic excesses and was convinced he required editor Peter Hunt to rescue the project once shooting was complete. For his part, Furie’s definition of producers was “the people who tried to wreck the movie.” Explained the director, “I was very depressed always when we started shooting, thinking that it was going to be really lousy and I didn’t know what to do, so I told myself I would come up with a style of shooting that is different. I put shoulders across the screen, I shot up at things, I shot down, just to make it different, to give it ambiance. It was done out of insecurity.”
At one point the director quit the set, resulting in a chase through London with the producer’s Rolls Royce in pursuit of the London bus on which the director had escaped. However, Furie conceded, “The movie would not have gotten made without him (Saltzman) and his devotion to seeing it through, considering the problems with Universal, no matter how much I fought with him during the making of it.
To Saltzman’s astonishment when Peter Hunt arrived and examined the dailies he told the producer “this is the most brilliant footage I’ve ever seen” In order to convince the producer that it was all going to work, Hunt edited together the sequence where, with a marching band in the background, Nigel Green marches in step to the tempo followed by “dialogue between Green and Guy Doleman, carefully intercut with their closed umbrellas stepping with them in motion…Once I assured him (Saltzman) it would be a good film, he started getting confident.”
While British critics lauded the picture, its reception Stateside was mixed, “though the public weighed in heavily with its money” – Variety noting not just that it was “short on thrills,” over-stylised, and could do with being a “a trifle more lively,” the overall verdict being that it was “so soft-pedalled that the audience will be screaming for more kicks” of the Bond kind.
*NOTE: In his autobiography Caine stated his $75,000 annual salary would double every year. That doesn’t sound right. A second year of $150,000 and even a third of $300,000 might be acceptable for a rising star. But if you were looking at $600,000 for his fourth year and $1.2 million for his fifth up to $4.8 million for the final year, that would make him by the end of the decade easily the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Caine would need to be working like a Trojan, four or five films a year, to come anywhere close to earning such sums and his movies would all have to be big hits. Of course, to cover his costs, Levine could farm him out to other studios, but even so, it was a disproportionate amount for any actor to earn. Even John Wayne and Steve McQueen would not pull in such a salary by 1971.
SOURCES: Daniel J. Kremer, Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (University of Kentucky Press, 2015), p74-84; Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (Arrow Books, 1993) p189-190, 195-210; Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), p85-90; Paul Rowlands, Interview with Sidney J. Furie, Money into Light website, 2017.
Star Albert Finney and director Karel Reisz of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) turned it down. Director Lindsay Anderson, screenwriter David Storey, author of the novel on which the film was based, and star Rachel Roberts all suffered from massive doubt in their own abilities.
Anderson was the last of a generation that included Reisz and Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, 1963) to make a movie. He was better known as film critic and theatre director. As far as the screen went, he had got only as far as five episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood for television, and some documentaries and shorts. If he was going to make a movie it almost certainly depended on finance from British production outfit Woodfall which had backed Reisz and Richardson. However, Woodfall was outbid for the rights to This Sporting Life and Anderson only came into the frame when Reisz rejected the idea of directing the movie in favor of turning producer and giving Anderson his opportunity.
“I was not sure I was up to it,” confessed Anderson. Theoretically a tale of a rugby footballer Frank Machin’s (name changed from the Arthur Machin of the book) rise and fall, Anderson wanted to explore the novel’s “dark poetry” and the ambiguities of the a central character who was by turn overbearing and sensitive and involved in a “tortured, impossible relationship.”
However, Storey, also making his movie debut, struggled with the script. Until the sudden success of This Sporting Life, the aspiring artist had lived a debt-ridden life as a supply teacher (17 schools in three-and-a-half years) in poverty-stricken London boroughs, writing his novels on train journeys north to fulfill his contract to play professional rugby. Reprinted prior to publication This Sporting Life, his debut novel, received excellent reviews and won the inaugural U.S. MacMillan Award worth $7,500.
When the film industry came sniffing Storey took tea with Stanley Baker at the Dorchester Hotel, lunched with Tony Richardson at the Trocadero and was wooed by director Joseph Losey at his Knightsbridge flat. Initial expectations were that the rights would go for £3,000, but a bidding war between Woodfall and Rank sent the bill up to £10,000 with the latter emerging victorious. Karel Reisz agreed to become producer on condition he could choose director, writer and cast. He introduced Storey to Anderson and to an initially interested Albert Finney.
Storey, a working-class son of a coal miner, and Anderson stood at different ends of British class divide. Initially suspicious of each other, they had opposite temperaments. “Lindsay was an optimist,” explained Storey,” I was a reclusive, and when in doubt, morbid.” Even after Storey completed a treatment and the pair went north to scout locations, the project remained in doubt, in part because Anderson did not understand the book and had a “curious lack of confidence” and in part because Storey resisted reshaping the material into something “new.” In fact, Anderson’s lack of confidence was so deep it took several months before he actually signed his contract.
Storey, too, suffered from revisiting the area where he had grown up. The death of a sibling cast a devastating shadow over the rest of his life, the Wakefield rugby ground in fact “scarcely a stone’s throw “from the child’s grave. “Wakefield was being opened up to me in a way I had never known before,” explained Storey, referring to the grand houses visited as possible locations whose exteriors he had glimpsed while working as a marquee laborer.
Despite “exhaustive consultations” with Anderson and Reisz, the script failed to gell. “I felt the authority I wanted was not there,” commented Anderson. Although actors are often decried for interfering with the script, in this case it was star Richard Harris who arrived at the solution.
Anderson had been attracted to Harris from seeing him in the stage adaptation of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. The director flew off to Tahiti where Harris was filming Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) to be met at the airport at five in the morning by the actor, “ his 18th century seaman’s hair down to his shoulders, bursting to tell me what he thought of the script we had sent him.”
Anderson recalled, “Within ten minutes we were at it…we talked and argued right through the day. I quickly realized he was right…we had lost what was most unique and brilliant in the novel…it was Richard, who, with passionate intransigence, brought us back to the book…in the evening after his shooting on the Bounty we sat in his bungalow going through the script and his own heavily-annotated copy of the novel…and slowly a conception emerged which began to satisfy us.”
Storey agreed with the new look which basically followed a subjective point-of-view rather than being cluttered by the novel’s flashbacks. “With an unequivocal endorsement of the book and the rejection of a script which had wearied me more than I’d imagined, I found rewriting the script in the manner in which the book had been written, from the inside looking out rather than the outside looking in, a surprisingly exhilarating task…Once Richard Harris had become identified with the part …the material was no longer a problem.”
Retaining that subjectivity was Anderson’s biggest issue An Oxford scholar, he had little innate understanding of Frank Machin’s world and in consequence “was liable to slip into an objective view of scenes that needed to be presented through Machin’s own temperament.” Harris proved instrumental in keeping the director on course.
Rachel Roberts twice turned down the role – Mary Ure (Look Back in Anger, 1959) was also in the frame with four other actresses – and failed to turn up for a screen test. Karel Reisz once commented how odd it was that “the two films that made this great-hearted flamboyant woman best-known (the other being Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) were ones in which she played withdrawn, bleak, ungiving women. Rachel’s great talent was to sink her personality into the part without losing access to her own sensuality. You felt the tension.”
Of This Sporting Life, Reisz added, “She had great doubts about her ability to play Mrs Hammond because she’s a very held back, undemonstrative woman. A passionate person, certainly, but someone who’s turned puritanical through so much constant repression of her feelings. Rachel was afraid of this: she didn’t know out of which part of herself to play the role.”
Lindsay Anderson was as unsure as Roberts: “She didn’t appear to me to be the Mrs Hammond character…Rachel was anything but repressed.” Actress Sybil Williams remembered finding a whole sheaf of notes in Rachel’s script about “the Mrs Hammond character she appeared to be playing so intuitively.” Said Anderson, “Richard Harris was bit awed by Rachel. She could acquit herself with a first-rate reading in just a couple of takes. Richard took a few more to feel he had got it right. Rachel’s security as an actress made him feelmore respectful towards her.”
The scenes between Harris and Roberts were endlessly rehearsed, involving a full 10 days prior to shooting and then during evening and weekends while in production. Roberts was playing a woman “whose feelings, though fierce, are almost continually suppressed: the relationship deepens without self-explanation…through incessant conflict…It called for an actress of exception ‘interior’ quality with real wildness within as well as the capacity for an iron restraint.”
Somewhere in the BBC archive is a programme, never aired, about the making of the film shot for its Monitor arts strand, although Storey was interviewed later on the show by Huw Wheldon, later BBC managing director.
Although Lindsay Anderson only made four more movies, the most memorable being If…(1968), and David Storey never wrote another screenplay, the pair achieved considerable success together when the author turned to writing plays such as Home (1970) and The Changing Room (1971), set in a rugby club.
If This Sporting Life appears to have two main characters driven by demons, part of the explanation as to how such creatures emerged from David Storey’s imagination can be found in his riveting memoir A Stinging Delight which traces a core of depression from his earliest days through to the times in later life when he was in and out of mental hospitals. Rachel Roberts also suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in 1980.
SOURCES: Lindsay Anderson, “Sport, Life and Art,” Films & Filming, February 1963, pages 17-20; David Storey, A Stinging Delight (Faber, 2021), pages 217-218, 221-223, 227-231, 233, 240-242; No Bells on Sunday, The Journals of Rachel Roberts, Edited with a documentary biography by Alexander Walker, Pavilion, 1984, pages 37, 55, 56, 58.
What began as the last gasp of the British New Wave working class kitchen sink drama has now after a six-decade gap resolved into a struggle over political and sexual ownership. Macho athlete Frank Machin (Richard Harris) jibes against his paymasters at a Yorkshire rugby league club – in similar fashion to Charlton Heston in Number One (1969) – while trying to hold sway over widowed landlady Margaret (Rachel Roberts). While documenting the class divide over which British writers and directors obsess, Lindsay Anderson’s debut takes a wry look at power.
Machin belongs to the Arthur Seaton (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) class of loudmouth boors, determined to take as much as they can, riding roughshod over anyone who gets in their way, even attacking players of his own team. Although a fan favorite, his position at the club still requires backing from the moneyed directors, support that appears go awry when he rejects overtures from Mrs Weaver (Vanda Godsell), wife of a board director (Alan Badel). While Margaret eventually succumbs, her actions fill her with shame, the presents he buys making her feel like a kept woman.
Both Machin and Margaret are the rawest of creatures, forever appearing ready to topple into some emotional crevasse of their own making. At a time when marriage was the rock of society and women had little independence, a woman could dwindle away in face of scorn from neighbours, while a man lacking emotional intelligence would crumble in the face of his own fears.
The non-linear narrative blurs some aspects of the story. There is no reference to Machin’s background save that he was once a miner and still works somewhere unspecified to supplement his footballer’s income. He rejects the paternalism of ageing scout Johnson (William Hartnell) while appears to be seeking to resolve maternal issues, the widow with two small children at least a decade older, and although he could easily afford better accommodation refuses to move out.
His obsession with Margaret is never properly explained, except by her, who sees him as acting like an owner. Equally, Margaret is the opposite of the women in virtually every movie of the period, for whom marriage is the sole ambition. Whether she still grieves over the loss of her factory worker husband, who may have committed suicide, or loathes Machin’s dominant nature is never explained. It might have been better if they had married for unhappy husbands and wives tend to give each other both barrels, emotions never concealed. Or she could be in the throes of an undiagnosed depression – author David Storey suffered from this all his life – expressed as anger.
Machin is the other side of the British Dream – the assumption that anyone who escapes going down the pits or the mindless grind of the factory will automatically enjoy happiness. While Machin revels in his celebrity, he has no idea how to make his life happier. This is in contrast to the other footballers who either enjoy womanizing and drinking or are married or engaged and accept the unwritten rules of the game rather than fighting everyone.
There is plenty grime on show, and the football field has never been so pitilessly portrayed, and as a social document the movie fits in well to the small sub-genre of films depicting working class life, but the picture’s thrust remains that of two opposites who will clearly never meet except in the delusional head of Machin.
Power is demonstrated in various ways. Weaver has the clout to give Machin a hefty signing-on fee against the wishes of the board, Weaver’s wife takes her pick of the footballers to satisfy her sexual needs, Machin believes he is entitled to berate waiters in an upmarket restaurant, while Margaret is demeaned by accepting his present of a fur coat.
As ever with these films of the early 1960s there is a wealth of acting talent. Both Harris and Roberts were Oscar-nominated. Others making a splash in the cast were Alan Badel (Arabesque, 1966), Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965), and if look closely you will spot double Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson (Women in Love, 1969). Future television stalwarts included William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who), Arthur Lowe (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977), Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp, 1974-1978), Frank Windsor (Softly, Softly, 1966-1969) and George Sewell (Paul Temple, 1969-1971).
Lindsay Anderson (If… 1969) no doubt believed he was making an excoriating drama about the class struggle, but in fact has delivered a classic thwarted love story. David Storey wrote the screenplay based on his own novel.
As well as being first in the queue to see The Gladiator on original release over two decades ago and enjoying countless viewings since on DVD and television, the chance to see a big-screen revival (as part of this week’s cinematic triple bill) was not to be missed. There’s always some worry in going back to see a movie you adored that time will have caught up with it or that the big screen will magnify flaws. Instead, this was a pure blast, one of the greatest epics of all time and definitely one of the most brilliant scores.
I always feel kind of sorry for people who’ve only see this kind of picture on a small screen – no matter how big your television it comes nowhere near the cinematic experience. I’m not even sure why it was showing on the big screen – the 20th anniversary has passed so maybe the draw was the upcoming British Father’s Day.
If you’re quick, you will be able to see it until June 17 at the Showcase cinema chain in the U.K. This is a new 4K print. It may run longer if it picks up sufficient demand.
Director Ridley Scott was in something of a career lull after the highs of Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) and his previous historical adventures – The Duellists (1977) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – had been box office duds, so this was a considerable big-budget gamble for Dreamworks and Universal.
Few historical epics begin with action. Directors tended to want to build up the various characters before any battle got under way. But apart from a few seconds of an idyllic pastoral setting establishing how much Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) wants to get back to his Spanish farm, we are immediately, with foot-tapping music by Hans Zimmer, into one of the best battles ever filmed, not just for the tactical detail, and the sense of danger – an emissary is returned missing his head – but the ferocity of the action.
Backgrounding this is politics. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) distrusts his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and want to make Maximus the power in Rome. The reaction of Commodus is to smother his father and murder his rival. Maximus escapes but ends up a slave in a gladiator camp in North Africa and eventually returns to Rome plotting revenge.
Into the mix comes Commodus’s sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) who had romantic yearnings for Maximus in the distant past and various senators plotting to remove Commodus from office. The story basically shifts from dramatic action in the arena to outside intrigue with Maximus being seen as a man who could potentially unseat the emperor.
But Ridley Scott has such a fine eye for everything, genuine locations mix in brilliantly with CGI, the action sequences are astonishing, and emotions are kept at a peak. Even when the main narrative pauses here and there to allow philosophic and patriotic speeches they are so deftly written they often amount to the best pieces of dialogue in the picture.
Few movies have as many memorable lines. Sample: “what we do in life echoes in eternity;” “death smiles at us all, all we can do is smile back;” “people should know when they are conquered;” “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, I will have my vengeance in this life or the next;” the “little bee” sequence; and the lines that ended up as taglines on the advertising posters” a general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor.”
While he could easily have let the action speak for itself and who would not have welcomed more battles with Roman foes or more combat in the arena – and many other movies with a character in a similar predicament have succumbed to that temptation – Scott ensures that the tensions between the characters are never lost. So Commodus is driven both by wishing to please his father and desiring an incestuous relationship with his sister. Lucilla is torn between protecting her son (Spencer Treat Clark), her growing attraction to Maximus and trying to keep her brother at bay while plotting against him. Maximus, who has no head for politics, finds himself involved in intrigue as a way of gaining revenge on Commodus.
Nor does Scott get bogged down with too much exposition or the intricacies of character as has often been the downfall of epics. The story has been whittled down to essential conflict.
It’s hard to pick a winner from the various action scenes – the opening clash in the forests of Germania with snow beginning to fall; the first gladiatorial combat where Maximus takes control; a small band of gladiators fighting what seems a losing battle against chariots; Maximus being unexpectedly attacked by tigers in the arena; or his climactic fight with Commodus.
And there are substantial cameos for British stars – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings – who have lost their box office luster but not their acting ability. Connie Nielsen was a revelation.
Russell Crowe became instant superstar with his majestic portrayal. His name had already been on the lips of Oscar voters, having been nominated the previous year for The Insider (1999), but he took the Best Actor Oscar here. Although the film was named Best Picture Ridley Scott lost out – unfairly I felt – in the Best Director category to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. (How do the two films compare now, I wonder). Joaquin Phoenix and Hans Zimmer were also nominated and the movie also picked up nominations for cinematography and screenplay (David Franzoni, William Nicolson and John Logan.) All told it won five Oscars and seven nominations.
This was the climax to my cinematic triple bill this week and since it also included Nobody and The Father, it could well turn out to be one of the best days I have ever spent at the cinema.
CATCH-UP: I reviewed The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) a while back and if you compare both pictures you can clearly see how much Ridley Scott owes a debt to the previous film.
There’s a company called Park Circus – http://www.parkcircus.com – which has the rights to show on the big screen virtually all the old movies made by Hollywood studios and it’s worth checking out whether this might be coming your way soon.
Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed, and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.
The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.
In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).
Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.
The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.
And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.
And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.
Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.
Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.
It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.
Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.
If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident. And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.
That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.
There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.
In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.
Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.
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.