My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Gladiator (2000) *****

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.

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.