Worth seeing for all the wrong reasons prime example being Christopher Plummer with a false nose and almost unrecognisable as an eighteenth century periwigged English dandy in a pure squalor of a coastal town. The best reason is the very realistic background, all mud, missing teeth, drunkenness, cockfighting, poverty, debtors strung up in baskets – not the usual bucolic image of Olde England. But everything gets bogged down in an indecipherable plot. Robert Altman mastered the multi-character narrative in such gems as Nashville (1975) but here debut director Peter Coe most demonstrably did not.
This started life as a modestly successful London West End stage musical and probably for budgetary reasons the songs were discarded. All that’s left is plot. And plot and plot. All to do with sex as it happens. Husbands exist only to be cuckolded. Cleavage is obligatory for women. Young women lusting after sex have been brought up in contradictory fashion to view it as dirty. And no eighteenth century tale is complete without a regimen of long-lost daughters and sons.
It starts promisingly enough in early morning with a town crier (Arthur Mullard) filling us in on the predilections and problems of various prominent citizens, most notably Lord Foppington (Christopher Plummer), the foppest of the fops, gearing up for an arranged marriage to Hoyden (Vanessa Howard). As a virgin not wanting to come to his wedding night bereft of the necessary skills, he employs strumpet Nell (Georgia Brown) to bring him up to speed.
Meanwhile, it’s “lock up your daughters” time as a ship’s crew, at sea for ten months, given two days leave, start charging through the town, fondling and kissing any woman of any age who happens to stand still for a moment. Among this randy bunch are Ramble (Ian Bannen), Shaftoe (Tom Bell) and Lusty (Jim Dale). Ramble is given the eye by married Lady Eager (Fenella Fielding), Shaftoe takes a fancy to Hilaret (Susannah York) while old flame Nell is targeted by Lusty (Jim Dale). Mrs Squeezum (Glynis Johns) seeks sex anywhere and there’s maid Cloris (Elaine Taylor) also seeking physical fulfilment.
Of course, the whole purpose of the narrative is to thwart true and illicit love, husbands and fathers returning at inconvenient times. And had the storyline stuck to the tried-and-tested formula devised very successfully for Tom Jones (1963) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) it might well have worked. But the instinct to make meaningful comment by way of satire takes the story in very unlikely directions, an extended court scene with a barmy judge the worst of such excesses, though a food fight comes close.
It’s meant to play as a farce, the men climbing (literally) in and out of bedrooms, the town’s apparently only ladder put to continuous use. But what would work on stage sadly falls down here, and not just because the occasional song might have come as light relief. There is an element of the female confusion over sex, natural instinct going against education, and so ill-informed that at the slightest chaste kiss they are likely to cry rape, but that’s as close as the movie gets to anything that makes sense. A movie that needed a sense of pace just becomes one scene tumbling into another.
Christopher Plummer (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) makes by far his worst screen choice. He’s so concealed in his clothing that movement is inhibited and most of his acting relies on overworked eyeballs. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is pretty much lost in the shuffle. Ian Bannen (Penelope, 1966) is the pick, largely because he is required not to play villain, grump or idiot, and his Scottish charm and confidence works very well. Tom Bell (The Long Day’s Dying, 1967) is not cut out for comedy whereas Jim Dale (Carry On Doctor, 1967) who very much is does not get enough.
The movie wastes the talents of a terrific supporting cast headed by former British box office queen Glynis Johns (The Chapman Report, 1962) plus Roy Dotrice (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Elaine Taylor (Casino Royale, 1967), Roy Kinnear (The Three Musketeers, 1973), Kathleen Harrison (Operation Snafu, 1961), Fenella Fielding (Arrivedeci, Baby, 1966) and singer Georgia Brown (A Study in Terror, 1965).
Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Billy Liar, 1963) wrote the screenplay based on, as well as the original musical, a number of sources drawn from the works of Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) and John Vanbrugh. Peter Coe never directed another movie.
Originally intended to pair Audrey Hepburn with William Holden and entitled variously Wherever Loves Takes Me, Ten Days to Penang, The Durian Tree (title of the source novel), Year of the Dragon, The Third Road, and Ten Days to Kuala Lampur, the picture eventually released as The 7th Dawn marked the entrance of British director Lewis Gilbert (HMS Defiant/Damn the Defiant, 1962) into the Hollywood big-time courtesy of producer Charles K. Feldman (Casino Royale, 1967). Gilbert had already been assured of a step-up from the budgetary confines of Britain to something more substantial after being signed in 1962 to direct Susan Hayward in Summer Flight, but that had fallen through.
William Holden was always interested in making movies outside the United States, in part down to a sense of adventure, in part to avoid paying taxes. He hadn’t worked in the States since 1958. “I’ve got a reputation for going to various part of the world to take advantage of background. There’s always new stories,” he said, adding, “I have to do things that satisfy me.” Actually, he could afford not to work. He had pocketed by far the biggest-ever Hollywood payout – over $3 million from his share of the profits from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and his current fee was in excess of $750,000.
Gilbert agreed to take the assignment on the basis of a script by Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) who had adapted the novel by Michael Keon. But what appeared relatively straightforward was soon anything but as the British director became enmeshed in clashes over production, the script and the casting. While Gilbert was tussling with the problems of working on location, where he was expecting the imminent arrival of a film crew, he was summoned to Hollywood and told that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (Circus World, 1964) had rewritten the script.
Feldman was known for playing fast and loose with scripts, much to the surprise of director Edward Dmytryk and the frustration of star Laurence Harvey when new writers were brought in for Walk on the Wild side (1962), earning the producer a reputation for interference. On reading the new script Gilbert recalled, “The basic plot was similar, but apart from that it wasn’t like the old script at all. Bill Holden’s part kept shrinking while the part of the mixed race girl kept getting bigger.” This may have been a ruse to attract Audrey Hepburn. Although Holden and Hepburn were due to be paired in June 1962 on Paris When It Sizzles in a part more in keeping with her screen persona, that film was delayed (not released till 1964) leaving both free for the Malaysian picture. Despite Feldman’s assurances, Gilbert later questioned whether Hepburn had ever been committed.
Gilbert hated the new script so much that he threatened to quit, only placated when Feldman promised he could work with Hecht on a revised version of the new script. But Hecht insisted on working closer to his home near New York. Their flight from Los Angeles to New York was delayed because of engine trouble, but by the time passengers were instructed to leave the plane, Hecht, who was addicted to sleeping pills, was fast asleep and could only be removed by ambulance. Facing a three-day deadline, Gilbert discovered that Hecht refused to work in the New York hotel assigned them by Feldman so they were decanted to the writer’s home in upstate New York. That scarcely improved the script, described by Gilbert as a “cockamamie affair.” However, that would not have unduly worried the producer who was of the opinion that performers with box office clout “can make successes of weak properties.”
The script in whatever version offered a key role for a Eurasian woman. Initially Gilbert and director of photography Freddie Young planned to scour the Shaw Brothers portfolio of budding stars to fill the role, and if not finding what they wanted in Malaysia aimed to head for Hong Kong and “seek her among the actresses there” according to Holden. However, once the compromise script was approved, Feldman proposed his real-life mistress Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) for the part.
That was the first difference of opinion between director and producer, not to mention star and producer, and an education for Gilbert on just how little power he wielded when it came to confronting Feldman. William Holden objected strenuously to the involvement of Capucine, his opposition based on his experience of working with her on flop The Lion (1962). It may have counted against the actress that the duo had engaged in an affair on the African set. Holden may have wanted to treat the affair as one of those things that happened on location – and ended once the film is completed. “Whatever you do, Lewis,” Holden advised the director, “you must resist having her in the picture. I’ve just made a movie with her…and she was not very good. I think, really, the picture suffered for it and so if I make my next movie with her I’m going to look pretty stupid.”
Expecting Holden to back him up, Gilbert was surprised when the actor shied away from any confrontation with the producer, only learning later that Holden was somewhat in awe of Feldman, who had given him his big break in Golden Boy (1939) and, in his capacity as agent – the first to demand a $750,000 fee plus hefty percentage for his client – helped oversee his career. Although her three-year contract with Columbia had begun in 1961, Capucine had only made one film for the studio, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), more likely to turn up in pictures for Twentieth Century Fox, United Artists or independents. Feldman claimed Capucine was “in greater demand for roles after being starred in Walk on the Wild Side.” His position as star-maker-supreme was strengthened when he merged his agency with Ashley-Steiner and bought the rights to Mary McCarthy bestseller The Group, which boasted great parts for four women. Probably Gilbert did not quite realize what he was taking on when he raised his and Holden’s objections to Capucine. Feldman responded, “We’re not making the film for Bill, we’re making it for the world.”
Gilbert was also having problems with Karl Tunberg who was also functioning as a co-producer “and therefore my producer,” according to the director. “As I’ve often done the job myself I haven’t worked with many producers but I can safely say this one was hopeless.” As a result of Tunberg’s “inertia” the production manager Bill Kirkby resigned, and Gilbert ended taking on the role of producer as well.
Holden’s career, while not yet in the box office trough that would envelop him later in the decade, was enjoying an unexpected movie hiatus, his planned starring role in The Americanization of Emily, to be directed by William Wyler, having fallen through. Paris When It Sizzles was on the shelf for an interminably long time given the supposed box office pulling power of the stars. Made in 1962, it was not released until 1964, by which time Hepburn was back on top thanks to Charade (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). By the time The 7th Dawn hit theaters, Holden had four box office flops on the trot.
Jack Hawkins was originally intended to play the Governor and for the role of his daughter Candace, who makes a play for Holden, Gilbert suggested Susannah York who had worked on his Loss of Innocence (1961), and who was beginning to attract attention in Hollywood. By the time the crew got to Malaya, where the film was to be shot, there was one notable absentee – the wardrobe mistress. Gilbert’s wife Hylda supplied York with a beautiful sarong purchased from a girl she spotted passing on a bike. Shooting was delayed due to a strike by Asian extras on the first day. They claimed discrimination because white extras were being paid more. Around 1,000 extras were required to play peasants and the security forces.
Although it was known Holden had an alcohol problem, prior to filming he had undergone aversion therapy in Switzerland and consequently remained dry throughout the filming. Gilbert admired the actor’s approach: “Bill Holden was a delight. He was an old time star.” If you asked him to crawl across a room, and climb up onto a chair, he would do it. “Whatever the director says, you do it. That’s how film actors were trained in his day and that was certainly his training.”
Capucine was the opposite. “Because she was untrained and didn’t understand what you were saying anyway, there was little you could do with her.” When the actress complained to her lover that she was being ignored on set, Gilbert had to take the producer aside and explain her deficiencies. “She doesn’t know about working with other actors. When I’m doing a scene where Susannah’s talking to her, I’m not just working with Susannah. I’m working with her too because I will be filming her reactions, how she listens to Susannah, that sort of thing. When I get back to the cutting room I can put all that together and even improve her performance.” (That said, I felt Capucine gave the best performance of her career.)
Unlike many top productions of the era, the film was not given an exclusive run at a New York city center cinema, but went straight into a Showcase (wide) release in 300 theaters simultaneously with its opening at the Astor and Trans-Lux East arthouses in the Big Apple.
William Holden, unable to stay off the wagon, succumbed to his affliction, hitting his head while on a bender alone in a cabin and dying at the age of 63 from his injury. Capucine was 62 when she committed suicide in 1990.
SOURCES: Lewis Gilbert, All My Flashbacks, (Reynolds & Hearn, 2010) p213-231, p234-235; Matthew Field, “Gilbert Goes to War,” Cinema Retro, Vol 6, issue 18, p46; “Capucine Option Renewed,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, NC2; “Mary Magdalene to Star Capucine,” Box Office, January 29, 1962, p13; “Feldman Sees Wild Side as New Break-Through,” Box Office, February 5, 1961, p14; “Actor Harvey no Fan of Feldman,” Variety, May 9, 1962, p5; “Ransohoff Signs William Holden,” Box Office, May 28, 1962, p15; “Lewis Gilbert to Direct Summer Flight for UA,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, pE8; “William Holden Plans Continue Produce Pix in Overseas Spots,” Variety, November 20, 1963, p2; “Bill Holden Party Primes Malaya Pic,” Variety, December 19, 1962, 4; “Chatter,” Variety, April 10, 1963, p69; “West Side in Malaya,” Variety, April 17, 1963, p21; “Liz’s Cleo 10% Mebbe Soon; But Holden Coin Tops,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p1; “Holden Follows Wyler Leaving Emily,” Box Office, October 7, 1963, pW2; “Feldman Acquires Rights to Mary McCarthy Novel,” Box Office, December 16, 1963, pE11; “New UA Title,” Variety, December 23, 1963, p6; Advertisement, Variety, January 8, 1964, p51; “300 July Dates for Dawn,” Box Office, June 1, 1964, p8; Advertisement, “UA’s Blockbuster for Summer Release,” Variety, June 17, 1964, p12-13; “UA Opens 7th Dawn as Showcase Presentation,” Box Office, August 31, 1964, pE2.
Women are the sacrificial victims here, the collateral damage as men of high principle battle for supremacy, politics held in greater esteem than relationships and family ties, a father willing to endanger his daughter, a lover viewing the potential death of his beloved as publicity coup. Unusually, for a war picture, this is more about repercussion than heroic success. And it was well ahead of its time in taking a far more thoughtful, not to say probing, approach to the genre. Unusually, too, each of the main characters is driven by mistaken belief. It is very much a film where the surface is merely the patina to draw an audience into something more serious underneath and deserves considerable reappraisal.
Set in 1953 in Malaysia when the ruling British government was getting ready to pass over independence to the natives before they took it for themselves. Major Ferris (William Holden), a successful rubber plantation owner, is asked by incoming British High Commissioner Trumphey (Michael Goodliffe) to reach out to terrorist leader Ng (Tetsuro Tamba), a wartime friend and former rival in love for Dhana (Capucine), now Ferris’s mistress. Ng, wishing to ensure Communist dictatorship rather than western-style democracy, refuses to end the guerrilla war.
On his return, Ferris comes across governor’s daughter Candace (Susannah York) swimming naked close to a road notorious for ambush and murder. Meanwhile, Dhana, a teacher, has organised a demonstration to protest the imposition of a curfew. On hearing her out, Trumphey overturns the ban, only for that evening’s function at the embassy to be interrupted by a grenade. In reprisal the British torch a village where they suspect bombs are hidden, the action justified when several houses suddenly explode.
When Dhana finds Candace and Ferris together, aware of his previous infidelities, and shocked by the destruction of the village, she runs away to join Ng, who still holds a torch for her. When she returns, reconciling with Ferris, she is arrested after grenades are found in her bicycle. She is sentenced to death unless she informs on Ng, which she refuses to do.
Candace, with the conviction of the young, believes she can bring about Dhana’s reprieve by offering herself as a hostage to Ng. The terrorist leader in turn promises to kill Candace on the day Dhana is executed. So Ferris, believing the grenades were planted by the British, treks through the jungle to capture Ng, rescue Candace and return before the “seventh dawn” when Dhana will hang.
The governor refuses to bow to the terrorist threat while Ng confesses that he framed Dhana on the basis that she is expendable. Cause and principle run side-by-side neither man willing to give in to save a loved one.
Nor are the women passive, pawns in the great game, the film opening with Dhana wielding a rifle and closing with Candace firing one. Both are willing to die for their cause, Candace perhaps less willingly since she had not foreseen that potential outcome. So this isn’t quite a picture about impotent women but in the end both are powerless against the greater forces of a vicious struggle.
Lewis Gilbert (Loss of Innocence, 1961) creates a thoughtful, even-handed, picture, getting rid of the British sense of superiority so prevalent in pictures about the Empire, using the American Ferris to question many British attitudes, setting Ng up as a respectable, rather than heinous, terrorist who genuinely fears that his people will be unable to cope with sudden independence and require support from Moscow, and bringing to the fore Dhana who initially appears a makeweight in the tale only to become its central focus. A couple of exceptional close-ups reveal character far more than dialogue, Dhana when her execution draws close and Ferris on discovering who set up his mistress. It’s a tribute to his direction that the fabulous scenery fades into the background when laid down beside the tribulations faced by the characters, each with so much to lose rather than gain.
William Holden (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968) is in his element, playing one of those characters that seem to come to easily to him, a man of questionable morals, happily profiteering from the misery of his fellow plantation owners, exploiting the wartime friendship with Ng that has saved him from ambush, forcing Dhana to cope with his infidelity, and yet with an upright core that spurs him into an action he deems stupid.
Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) is the surprise package, with some superb subtle acting as she faces up to the prospect of dying for a crime she did not commit. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is perhaps too innocent, setting out to snare a disreputable man, and she could have done with two extra scenes – one explaining her thought processes in offering herself as hostage and another a confrontation with the father who abandoned her. Tetsuro Tamba (You Only Live Twice, 1967) delivers a thoughtful performance as the man torn between friendship and love and carrying the weight of a nation’s expectation.
Oscar-nominated Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, 1959) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Durian Tree by Michael Keon.
Amazing the tension that can emanate from one turn of a card. Or, more correctly, waiting for one. Only problem is we’re two-thirds through the movie before high-stakes poker begins – the pot nudging £250,00 (close on a cool £5 million now). Mostly, the earlier tension derives from not knowing what the hell is going on in this enjoyable thriller made at the height of the Swinging Sixties as playboy gambler Barney (Warren Beatty), a walking Carnaby St model driving an Aston Martin DB5, tilts the odds dramatically in his favor.
Barney is a gambler but the problem with gambling is the odds. They can be against you too much. So Barney decides to turn himself into a burglar, the kind that can clamber over rooftops, abseil between buildings, and break into – a printing business called Kaleidoscope. This just happens to print the playing cards supplied to all the major European casinos. So Barney does a little doctoring of the master printing plates. Bingo, the odds are a bit more even now that he knows what cards are coming out of the shoe – he plays chemin de fer (as it is known in posh casinos; pontoon or 21 to you and me).
While cleaning up he bumps again into fashion designer Angel – their original meet-cute taking place in a traffic jam – who he dated once in London. Unbeknownst to him, she is on a scouting mission, looking to snare the kind of high-rolling gambler who can take on and completely fleece drugs kingpin Harry (Eric Porter) being pursued by her father Manny (Clive Revill), a cop who, rather than waste so much time collecting the required evidence to put the villain behind bars, decides it would easier done by making him broke. Unable to pay his debts, some other villain would put him out of business in the traditional cemented-boot fashion.
It takes a while for the movie to line up all its ducks in a row, mainly by holding back the vital information the audience requires. But the audience is privy to details of the way Manny works that Barney is not. Even for ruthless villains, Manny has a peculiar calling card, one that would make any gambler think twice about entering his lair. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Manny to rumble Barney’s game so the stakes are much higher than the charmer imagines.
Throw in as much fashion as London was capable of generating at this time, the burgeoning romance, some exotic European locations, a castle with a moat, and the usual tourist guide stuff of red buses, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, pubs and Tower Bridge and you have all the ingredients of an easy on the eye thriller.
A bit over-reliant on star power. That is, if you don’t need Beatty to do much more than be Beatty, all teeth and charm. At this point Beatty’s career looked as if it was fast approaching its end. The box office success of Splendor in the Grass (1961) had been followed by a string of flops, romantic dramas and comedies that should have had audiences queuing up plus an occasional wild card like Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965), the biggest flop of all. He does make an engaging crook, and he never loses his screen charisma here, but there ain’t quite the right number of twists that moviegoers weaned on the likes of Topkapi (1964) had come to expect.
Hollywood had been doing its best to position Susannah York as a top box office attraction and she had snagged leading female roles in The 7th Dawn (1964) opposite William Holden and Stanley Baker in Sands of the Kalahari (1965) but she was recovering from the colossal flop of Scruggs (1965) by ‘poet of the cinema’ David Hart. Kaleidoscope offered the kind of role York could do with her eyes closed. So while the screen pair were not exactly sleep-walking it was not the kind of story that was going to create sparks.
Character actor Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967) and Eric Portman (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) take more leeway with their roles, the latter almost chewing he scenery, the former content with just chewing his lips. Look out for Jane Birkin (Blow-Up, 1966) and British television stalwarts Yootha Joyce, George Sewell and John Junkin.
The title would have been more enigmatic, original meaning of images twisted out of shape, had it not also applied, straightforwardly, to the card-making company. Giving Harry the surname of Dominion seems overkill.
Director Jack Smight (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1969) came to this after twisty private eye picture Harper/The Moving Target (1966), a big hit starring Paul Newman, but this is too lightweight a feature to command such interest, but he does keep the story rolling along and it’s an effortless watch and it has a certain offbeat quality. The screenplay was fashioned by Robert Harrington and Jane-Howard Hammerstein, making their movie debut, who also co-wrote Wait until Dark (1967). It was also the debut for Winkast Productions, the Jerry Gershwin-Elliott Kastner production team who went on to make Where Eagles Dare (1968).
Desert pictures come in two varieties – men battling the elements with little or no female distraction and men distracted from battling the elements by the presence of a female. Since the film I reviewed earlier today, Sands of the Kalahari, fitted largely into the first camp with the sole female being viewed as a prize rather than a temptress, I thought it might be interesting to compare it to Station Six Sahara, made the year before, in which the seductive Carroll Baker disrupts the men-only oil station.
David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production. It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join.
Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority. There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott.
Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself. The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.
Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate.
Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end. The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.
At any given moment Carroll Baker could be both a top Hollywood star and a middling box office attraction. She had just come off How the West Was Won (1963) but had really failed to justify the potential shown in Baby Doll (1956). Peter van Eyck (The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse, 1960). was best known for his role in Wages of Fear (1953). Scottish actor Ian Bannen (Psyche 59, 1964) was beginning to merge as a strong character actor, he and van Eyck had appeared together previously in The World in My Pocket (1961). The career of Denholm Elliott (Maroc 7, 1967) followed a similar arc to Bannen as a supporting player of distinction. Seth Holt (Danger Route, 1967) was considered a rising directorial star until his untimely death at the age of 41.
You know the score: plane crashes in inhospitable territory (in this case a desert), personalities clash as food/water is rationed, tempers run high and/or depression sets in as attempts to attract attention fail, someone goes for help, someone else has an ingenious idea and eventually everyone rallies round in common cause. That template worked fine in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).
It doesn’t here. This is not quite as inhospitable. There is water. Caves offer shelter from the blazing sun. There is food – lizards trapped, game hunted with telescopic rifle. But the food is lean, not fattened through farming for human consumption. And you have to watch out for marauding baboons not to mention scorpions. And this group is split, two alpha males intent on exerting dominance with little interest in common cause.
Of the six survivors of this crash, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) decides his leadership status entitles him to sole claim over the only woman, Grace (Susannah York). But when he accepts the genuine responsibilities of leadership, he sets off across the desert to get help. That leaves Grace to fall into the hands of O’Brien (Stuart Whitman), so alpha he could be auditioning for Tarzan, shirt off all the time.
It soon transpires O’Brien has a rather unusual idea of survival – getting rid of his companions so that he will have no shortage of food until rescue arrives. It takes a while for the others to catch on to his plan. And then rather than common cause and camaraderie, it becomes every man/woman for himself, a battle for individual survival, a return to the primeval.
The most likely challenger to O’Brien’s authority is Bain (Stanley Baker), but he has been badly injured in the crash and no match for the other man’s brawn or his weapon. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Except it’s in the desert, it’s the law of the jungle and the rule of autocracy brought home with sudden force to people accustomed to the comforts of civilization and democracy.
The movie’s structure initially takes us down the obvious route of common purpose – Grimmelman (Harry Andrews) knows enough survival lore to devise a method of water transportation that would permit the group to escape the desert, Dr Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) formulates a method of trapping lizards, and O’Brien, at least at first, appears willing to take on the role of protector, warding off baboons with his gun.
The change into something different is subtle. While the others are desperate to escape, it becomes apparent that O’Brien has found his metier. We discover little about the lives of each individual prior to being stranded. Whatever O’Brien’s standing in society, it would not have been as high as here, where his superior skills stand out. Reveling in his supremacy, he doesn’t particularly want to go home.
Like any psychopath Bain knows how to manipulate so at first it seems his decisions are for the greater good. And only gradually does it emerge that he blames others for his own mistakes and intends to eliminate his rivals for the food supply one by one. Because he is so handsome, it is impossible to believe he could be so devious or so evil.
The three principals all play against type. Stanley Baker (Zulu, 1963) and Stuart Whitman (Murder Inc., 1960) made their names playing heroic types. Here Baker is too ill for most of the picture to do any good and Whitman plays a ruthless killer. But Susannah York (Sebastian, 1968) is the big revelation. Audiences accustomed to her playing glamorous, perhaps occasionally feisty, gals will hardly recognize this portrayal of a coward, not just abjectly surrendering to the alpha male but seeking him out for protection and guilty of betrayal.
Even though this picture is set in the days before gender equality and the independent woman was a rarity, Grace’s acquiescence to the powerful male is disturbing, in part because it takes us back to the days when a woman was impotent in the face of male dominance. Such is York’s acting skill that rather than despise this woman, she earns our sympathy.
While for the most part Harry Andrews (Danger Route, 1967) and Nigel Davenport (Sebastian, 1968) appear in their usual screen personas of strong males, here their characters both are changed by the circumstances. Theodore Bikel (A Dog of Flanders, 1960) has the most interesting supporting role, the only one who takes delight in the adventure.
Director Cy Endfield (Zulu) – who also wrote the screenplay based on the William Mulvehill novel – delivers a spare picture. There is virtually no music, just image. Aerial shots show tiny figures in a landscape. The absence of character background frames the story in the present. As a reflection on the animal instinct, how close to the primordial a human being still operates, no matter how enlightened, this works exceptionally well, and melds allegory with thriller.
Dream Team Number One: Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. This was of course a good 30 years before the movie actually got made. The Horace McCoy novel was purchased in 1935 by MGM as a big-budget project teaming Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. This was despite Variety proclaiming it was “not screen material.” The premature death of Harlow put paid to the idea. Next, actor Wallace Ford (Freaks, 1932) bought it with Broadway in mind. A production was scheduled to open in 1939, but never did.
Dream Team Number Two: Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. When the comedian purchased the rights in the early 1950s he intended Marilyn Monroe to play the leading female. Although she was a mere starlet Chaplin had form in building up newcomers. Author McCoy had by that point become an accomplished screenwriter with over 30 credits including Gentleman Jim (1942), film noir Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and The Lusty Men (1952) That concept fell by the wayside when Chaplin was effectively banished from America while launching Limelight (1951) in Britain.
It was another 14 years before interest in the novel was revived by screenwriter James Poe, who purchased the rights from the McCoy estate. Although most famous within the trade for being accused of fraudulent behaviour in relation to his screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Despite an Oscar for the film he was sued for $250,000. However, he had a sterling body of work including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Sanctuary (1960), Lilies of the Field (1963), The Bedford Incident (1965) and Riot (1969) and two other Oscar nominations.
In 1965 he had signed a multi-picture writer-director deal with Columbia. He was either going to make his directorial on The Gambler or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. It turned out to be the latter. Failing to get the movie off the ground with Columbia or under his own steam, he turned to new studio Palomar, which was a production entity set up by the ABC television network, which bought over his rights as well as his script but kept Poe on as director.
Dream Team Number Three: Faye Dunaway. Yep, one big star, not two. Poe’s screenplay, while not eliminating the male lead, spun on a female star. Dunaway, hot after Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was offered $600,000 to play the role. Mia Farrow was also in contention, for $500,000. The only problem was, the budget could not remotely stretch to that. As helmed by Poe, it was to cost no more than $900,000. The film was scheduled to begin shooting in spring 1968 but a month later the start date shifted to June.
Two relative newcomers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler were brought in as producers to move the project along. Later they would be responsible for such classics as Rocky (1976), The Raging Bull (1980), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2018), but at this point they had just three pictures under their belt, although that included Point Blank (1967), Their first task: persuade Poe to rewrite the script. They felt the third act needed work with restructuring elsewhere to make the pay-off work.
But Poe, believing his position was sacrosanct, refused to discuss a rewrite. He refused to discuss anything, period, treating the producers as his assistants rather than people with some power within the studio. According to Irwin Winkler, “Poe seemed unaware of the of the normal process of preparation, even though he’d been around movie sets for decades.”
Realising that getting a star on their budget was impossible, Chartoff and Winkler changed tack and talked to good actors, but even then few were interested. A less dramatic star than Jane Fonda you could not imagine, her resume filled with light comedies, French films that utilised her sexuality or the extravaganza that went by the name of Barbarella (1968). But the pregnant Fonda was keen on change. The film was delayed until after she had given birth. Michael Sarrazin should have been out of the equation. John Schlesinger had lined him up for the Jon Voigt role in Midnight Cowboy (1969) but Universal, to whom he was under contract, asked too much to send him out on loan.
With no sign of the rewrites, the producers became antsy about the director. However, they showed their true mettle as producers, convincing Palomar there was no way the original budget would cover the ballroom set, huge number of extras, live orchestra and salaries. It would need to at least triple.
In a picture of one predicament following another, there was one crisis the producers had not foreseen. They were going to be fired. Apart from anything else, they were only executives on the picture with any experience, it being not only Poe’s first movie but that of Chartoff and Winkler’s superiors at the studio. The outcome – the guy who had told the pair they were being fired was shown the door instead.
Susannah York was cast after the producers saw a sneak of The Killing of Sister George (1969) at the Robert Aldrich studios. She had committed to Peter O’Toole vehicle Country Dance/Brotherly Love (1970), written by her cousin James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960). After too many delays on They Shoot Horses she planned to pull out in favour of the other film. Although Sally Kellerman (Mash, 1970) was set as a last-minute replacement, the issue was resolved by asking MGM to delay the start on the rival picture.
Believing Poe was in no position to helm such a big-budget picture enterprise, Chartoff and Winkler began the process of removing him only for Jane Fonda to dig her heels in. She changed her mind after witnessing first-hand Poe’s directorial skills – or lack of them – when she took part in a screen test for Bonnie Bedelia. Winkler recollected, “On the set Jane asked Poe questions about the blocking of the scene, why she moves in one direction rather than another, why in front of a sofa rather than behind it etc. He couldn’t answer her questions and told her to talk to the cameraman.” Exit Poe.
In terms of a replacement, Chartoff and Winkler set their sights of Sydney Pollack (The Scalphunters, 1968) with whom they had previous dealings, and William Friedkin, then being hailed for The Homecoming (1968) – luckily The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) had yet to be released. But studio executives had a third director in mind, Jack Smight (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968). Friedkin should have been in pole position, having only received $75,000 for The Homecoming. His agent, sensing an opportunity, demanded $200,000. Jack Smight’s agent also got greedy and wanted $250,000. Pollack’s agent was happy with the $150,000 on offer.
When Poe was eased out, filming was announced as beginning on February 17, 1969, the budget having now increased to $3.2 million – including $400,000 for extras. However, acoustic issues – seawater had eaten away the bottom of the pier – prevented use of the old Aragon ballroom in Santa Monica. That set was constructed on the Warner lot.
Pollack then turned it down. He had reservations about the script, which had still never been rewritten. When Robert E. Thompson, a television writer but “a Horace McCoy expert,” was mooted, Pollack changed his mind. The new script contained the “flash forward” scenes that prepared audiences for the shock ending. However, the new scenes and delays in starting increased the budget which now ballooned to $4.7 million.
It turned out the director was the best actor of all. “I was impressed with Sydney Pollack’s ease on the set,” recalled Irwin Winkler. “He never seemed to be working hard and yet was able to get marvelous performances out of the actors. Everybody in the company adored him.” Asked by Winkler how he remained so calm dealing with the actors and all the extras and the complicated camera set-ups, he replied, “it was really quite easy.” That same afternoon he collapsed on set and was diagnosed with “nervousness.”
The studio, the stars, the producers, all seemed confident about the picture. All they had to do was convince the audience. But at the first preview in San Francisco the audience roared with laugher at the climactic scene. That shocked the studio to the core until the producers were able to reassure the head honchos that the “fast forwards” would smooth over that problem. Which they did.
It was nominated for nine Oscars – Best Director, Best Screenplay, nods for Jane Fonda, Gig Young and Susannah York among others. Only Gig Young won.
SOURCES: Irwin Winkler, A Life in Movies, (Abrams Press, New York, 2019) p34-47; “Tough Stuff,” Variety, August 7, 1935, p59; “Ford Buys for B’Way,” Variety, September 11, 1939, p42; “Dance Marathon Reprise,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p24; “IT&T In No Way Slowing Down Theatrical Feature Program of ABC,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p4; “Crowded Slate for Palomar,” Variety, February 28, 1968, p18; “Bob Evans Chips-Service To Writers As Stars At Paramount,” Variety, May 1, 1969, p19; “Jane Fonda Gets Top Role in Palomar’s Horses,” Box Office, July 22, 1968, pW1; “Palomar Horses on W7 Space,” Variety, October 23, 1968, p3; “Jan 6 Filming Date for They Shoot Horses,” Box Office, December 16, 1968, pW5; “Cheery Side of Delay on Horses,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p21; “Winkler Wants Films With Social Comment,” Box Office, January 19, 1970, pW1.
Fans of reality television shows will be only too aware how participants volunteer for ritual humiliation, but swallowing a few locusts and being stuck with a couple of snakes has nothing on the realities facing individuals during the Great Depression who would literally dance non-stop for days on end with a ten-minute break every two hours. It’s impossible to imagine that anybody could think of dreaming up such a degrading circus to take advantage of the desperate. But then this is America, land of opportunity and the MC Rocky (Gig Young) continues to spout aphorisms and continues to promote the American Dream even as it disintegrates in front of him.
When the partner of Gloria (Jane Fonda), out-of-work actress and one of the more physical and cynical of the candidates hoping to scoop the $1,500 first prize (no prizes for coming second, of course), is ruled out through bronchitis – in case he passes it on to others rather than more any humane consideration – she pairs up with dreamer Robert who initially wanders in as spectator rather than participant. Glamorous platinum blonde aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York) is already coming apart. Sailor (Red Buttons) is a former war hero and James (Bruce Dern) drags his heavily pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia) around the dance floor.
There is not a great deal of story except to watch everyone grow mentally and physically incapacitated. There is betrayal and lust and survival instinct leads characters into sexual situations. When Alice seduces Robert, in retaliation Gloria dumps him and then has sex with Rocky, while attempting to retain control of that situation, but clearly needing at the very least consolation and confirmation of her attractiveness and at best some sign of favoritism.
As well as non-stop dancing, Rocky throws in stunts to keep the audience, who can sponsor a pair, interested. So there are 10-minute races, the last three to be eliminated. So determined are some of the competitors they will even lug their dead partner over the finishing line. Another of Rocky’s wheezes is to have Gloria and Robert marry, worth $200 in terms of the gifts they will receive from a sentimental audience, in the middle of the dance floor.
They are literally dancing for hours, over 1,000 in over 40 days so gradually the dance floor becomes less crowded as dancers collapse from exhaustion or cannot take it anymore. The spectators, we are reminded, are only there because “they want to see someone worse than them.” Just when you think nothing can shock you any more, it is revealed that the first prize is minus the cost of feeding, sheltering and looking after the winner.
Those who think they are tough find that the demands of mental and physical endurance are beyond them. This is a shocking film and there’s no doubt it will stay with you for a long time. I saw it first when it came out but not again until now and thank goodness for forgetfulness otherwise I doubt if I would have chosen to sit through it again.
It’s doubtful if any actress had achieved such a speedy transition from glamorous leading lady to serious actress as Jane Fonda. From stripping in space in Barbarella (1968) to stripping away the last vestiges of her humanity here. Suddenly, she appears in a brand-new screen persona with the grating voice, the chip on the shoulder, the feistiness and worthy inheritor of father Henry’s acting genes. It’s also a bold role for Susannah York, in an extension of the weak character she essayed in Sands of the Kalahari (1965) but far more delusional, believing in a rainbow that will never appear. Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) initially appears out of his league but his character calls for a gentle innocence that is well within his scope.
Gig Young steals the picture, offered the opportunity to bring alive a multi-faceted character, as big a spiel-merchant who ever crossed the screen, but engaging in a marathon of optimism, and at some points, such as when coaxing a demented Alice out of the shower, earning our sympathy. Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966), Bruce Dern (Castle Keep, 1969) and Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, 1988) also put in sterling work.
The movie received nine Oscar nominations but was ignored in the Best Picture category. Only Gig Young won for Best Supporting Actor. Jane Fonda and Susannah York both received their first Oscar nominations, for Fonda the first of many, for York the one and only. It was also a debut nomination for Pollack, a future winner.
Sydney Pollack directs with simplicity, concentrating on the indignities of the event and focusing mostly on the personalities draining away, and even the drama is undercut, most of those scenes directed in straightforward style. However, Pollack plays around with the innovative fast forward – flashes into scenes that have not yet taken place. James Poe (Lilies of the Field, 1963), at one time down to direct, and Robert E. Thompson, a television writer making his first venture on the big screen, wrote the screenplay from the Horace McCoy novel.
Decoding the emotional life of mathematics professor Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) lies at the heart of a spy thriller mainlining on loyalty and trust. The presence of a flotilla of potential Bond girls has opened this picture up to charges of being a spoof, but I saw the mini-skirted incredibly-bright lasses as being a reversal of the standard secretarial pool. And a supposed representation of the “Swinging Sixties” would hold true if shot in the environs of Carnaby St rather than the bulk of locations being arid high-rise buildings.
In roundabout fashion, intrigued after literally bumping into him in Oxford, Rebecca (Susannah York) is recruited into an espionage decoding department staffed entirely by gorgeous (but brainy) women. Among the older employees is chain-smoking left-winger Elsa (Lili Palmer) whom security chief General Phillips (Nigel Davenport) suspects of passing on secrets. When romance ensues with Rebecca, Sebastian dumps dumb pop singer girlfriend Carol (Janet Munro) who is already having an affair and spying on Sebastian.
Although there is no actual beat-the-clock codes to be unraveled, tensions remains surprisingly high as in the best Alan Turing/Bletchley manner, breakthroughs are slow. There’s an undercurrent of electronic surveillance, eavesdropping on recruits, bugs planted in the houses of even the apparently most trusted personnel, seeds of distrust easily sowed, codes shifting from numbers to sounds. The occasional nod to the contemporary, a disco, pop songs, Rebecca doing a fashion shoot in the middle of traffic, is background rather than center stage.
Sebastian, though worshipped by is female staff, is “more whimsical than predatory.” Nonetheless, introspective and often morose, unable to deal with emotions, it falls to Rebecca to take on the task of sorting him out which naturally leads to complications.
Most reviewers at the time complained it was a victory of style over substance, but somehow they managed to overlook the essential questions about trust the picture asked. That said, it does follow an odd structure, the third act dependent on directorial sleight-of-hand.
Dirk Bogarde (Accident, 1966) is always highly watchable and Susannah York (The Killing of Sister George, 1968) Rebecca catches the eye with an impulsive, slightly kooky character who turns out to be down-to-earth. Nigel Davenport (The Third Secret, 1964) bring his usual cynical malevolence to the party but with the twist of not knowing whose side he is really on. John Gielgud (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968) is a delight. There’s a brief appearance by a pipe-smoking Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, 1967). Janet Munro (Bitter Harvest, 1963) decidedly rids herself of her Disney persona. Miss World Ann Sidney is one of “Sebastian Girls”
In his second picture after The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene’s direction is mostly competent but the opening aerial tracking shots set the precedence for occasional bursts of style. Jerry Fielding supplied the score.
The alternative title assumed nobody in America knew what a greengage was – it’s a type of plum – but it was actually pretty apposite.
Until then director Lewis Gilbert had been known mostly for Second World War pictures like Reach for the Sky (1954) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1955) so this was a considerable change of pace, and filmed on location.
Susannah York, who had sparkled in a small role in Tunes of Glory (1960), now took center stage as a girl on the brink of womanhood who experiences powerful emotions for the first time – love and its perpetual bedfellow jealousy – as well as rite-of-passage experiences like getting hammered on champagne.
She is the oldest of four siblings stranded in a French chateau when their mother takes ill. Left to her own devices, she promptly falls for the suave and much older Kenneth More who is having an affair with chateau owner Danielle Darrieux (another of Darryl F. Zanuck’s girlfriends).
By modern standards, this is a gentle tale, but not without some harsh moments and York is superb as she undergoes a transformation from uncertain schoolgirl to a woman realizing the power her beauty can exert. She flares from child to adult and back again in seconds. York was headstrong in real life and insisted on being drunk during the drunken scene, which ruined a day’s work.
That was not the only crisis – there were no greengages due to poor weather so they had to be flown in from Britain and sewn onto the trees. Jane Asher plays the more sensible younger sister who is not above violent emotion herself such as fisticuffs with a local lad. Kenneth More is at his charming best in the kind of affable role he had generally moved away from.
The dialogue is surprisingly good and Darrieux is convincing as an aging beauty willing to do anything. The scenery is a bonus as are the snatches of provincial French life. All in, an engaging piece of work, with York delivering a star-is-born kind of turn.