Tagged: historical drama

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

The ‘International Epic’: El Cid (US-Italy 1961)

El Cid is currently available on BBC iPlayer (in a cropped form). I’m not sure why it’s there. I had assumed that it was an Easter offering like King of Kings (US 1961) and Barabbas (US-Italy 1961) but that’s not the case and it is available for a year according to iPlayer. I watched the film again for the first time in decades and I realised that it is a good representative example of international cinema at a particular moment in film history – and therefore an important title for this blog. It is classifiable as an ‘epic’ for two reasons, first as a sprawling action adventure and romance set in mediaeval Europe and secondly as an example of a film using 1950s technologies of widescreen and stereophonic sound to combat TV. Added to this, El Cid is not a ‘studio film’ and more precisely it fits into the cycle of independently-produced films made in Europe by Hollywood creatives in the 1950s and 1960s.

Charlton Heston as El Cid with Douglas Wilmer (right) as Emir Moutamin his Moorish ally

There is a great deal of information available on the Wikipedia page for the film so I’ll try not to repeat too much of it here. In 1960 Variety reported that the independent producer Samuel Bronston planned to make three ‘epic’ productions in Spain. These would become King of Kings, El Cid and 55 Days at Peking (1963). A fourth Spanish-based epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) would eventually bankrupt the producer. Across these four productions, Bronston hired many of the same personnel on more than one film. El Cid was arguably the most successful of the four in commercial and critical terms and it has some particularly interesting aspects as a production. In one sense there was nothing ‘new’ about the production of El Cid. Historical epics were first popularised in Italy with the spectacular film Cabiria in 1914. Producers associated with Hollywood had been making such films overseas since the 1920s but the 1950 production of Quo Vadis by MGM took over Cinecittà in Rome, one of the largest European studios, to create an English-language film. Succeeding American productions at the studio in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the description of ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ and more prosaically the use of the term ‘Runaway productions’. The aim was for Hollywood to make large scale productions for lower costs than in California, though eventually costs would escalate considerably. The studios were generally making fewer but ‘bigger’ films as audiences declined. These epics led to more ‘Roadshow releases’ with higher seat prices, for a more theatre-like experience.

Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as Jimena

Bronston made two significant decisions. He based the production in Spain with only some interiors shot in Italy, but he co-produced the film with Dear Films of Italy which ultimately released its own Italian language version. He raised the rest of the budget himself and then sold distribution rights separately to Allied Artists in the US and the Rank Organisation in the UK and some parts of Europe. Allied Artists was the successor to Monogram in the US and it wasn’t a Hollywood studio (i.e. not part of the MPAA). The film was intended for roadshow exhibition in 70mm (in a 2.20:1 ratio) with stereo or a standard ‘Scope 2.35:1 and mono option. The capture format was Super Technirama and Eastmancolor/Technicolor. Bronston’s strategy included recognised Hollywood creatives in the form of Anthony Mann as director, Miklos Rosza for music, Robert Krasker for cinematography and Robert Lawrence as editor. Bronston himself had been born in the Russian Empire, Rosza in Austria-Hungary, Krasker in Australia and Lawrence in Canada. Only Mann was American-born. Yakima Canutt was Second Unit director (following his similar work on Ben Hur and Spartacus). The writers included Philip Yordan working on Fredric M. Frank’s script and later Ben Barzman. Barzman had been blacklisted in the McCarthy years and Yordan was often seen as a front for blacklisted writers. Bronston himself was a nephew of Leon Trotsky and it does seem odd that he and the writers were willing to work on a production shooting in Franco’s Spain.

Sphia Loren as Jimena and Raf Vallone as Count Ordóñez

The creative team was multinational and so were the cast. Sophia Loren and Raf Vallone were the two major Italian stars in the film. Genevieve Page was the French star and Charlton Heston as the ‘Cid’ with Hurd Hatfield in a minor role were the Americans. Most of the other main speaking roles went to British actors, including Herbert Lom, John Fraser, Gary Redmond, Douglas Wilmer, Ralph Truman and Andrew Cruikshank. The spectacle of the film was created by shooting in Spanish landscapes with an array of castles and literally ‘armies’ of extras from the Spanish military. Sets were dressed and costumes made with great attention to detail.

John Fraser as King Alfonso and Genevieve Page as his sister Princess Urraca

El Cid is the story of the eleventh century nobleman Rodrigo de Vivar from the Burgos district who became an heroic figure. He ignored the animosity of Christian kings and Moorish emirs in Spain and forged an alliance to prevent a new invasion from North Africa led by Ben Yussuf (Herbert Lom). This placed him in a difficult position re the court intrigues of the Kingdom of the Asturias, Léon and Castile and subsequently a difficult  romance and marriage to Jimena (Sophia Loren), the daughter of King Ferdinand’s champion knight. Rodrigo as ‘El Cid’ became a mythical hero in Spanish literature and song and the film narrative is accurate in most aspects of historical detail, though not the famous and memorable narrative conclusion. Made primarily for American and British audiences, most of whom who would know little of the history of mediaeval Spain, the narrative does not attempt to explain the historical background. The impression is given that El Cid helped to “drive the Moors from Spain” as some contributors to IMDb suggest. The so-called ‘Reconquista’, the ‘recovery’ of Spain as a Christian country in fact took several centuries from the eight to the fifteenth when the final Moorish emirate of Granada was taken in 1492, three hundred years after El Cid died. I was pleased to see that the set decoration for the walled city of Valencia (filmed at the 13th century castle of Peñíscola) shows the beautiful arches of Moorish architecture which in my eyes were to become despoiled by Christian ‘reconquerors’. The film is not so much about driving the Moors from Spain but more about trying to achieve peace and tolerance. However, this 1961 film betrays its Hollywood ideological roots by casting white British actors with brown make-up as the Moorish leaders, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Douglas Wilmer is very good as Moutamin the emir who becomes El Cid’s most loyal supporter. But Herbert Lom as Ben Yussef is so heavily typed as the evil invader with his black-clad army that he becomes almost cartoonish (a terrible fate for such an excellent actor and stalwart of British cinema since he arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1939).

Herbert Lom as the North African invader Ben Yussef

The world premiere of El Cid was held at the Metropole in Victoria outside London’s West End in December 1961. This was an old cinema acquired by Rank which was used to launch roadshow films and the film ran successfully for over a year, while it also rolled out to major cities and seaside resorts (which often played roadshows for several weeks in the summer). I think I saw it in the Summer of 1962 in a cinema which closed soon after El Cid‘s run. There seems to be some confusion over the length of the film. IMDb suggests ‘lost footage’ was restored in the 1993 work on the print. Monthly Film Bulletin suggests that the UK print from Rank was a 180 minutes and most records suggest that this was the length in Europe. The BBC version runs for 172 minutes which with a PAL speed-up equates to roughly 180 minutes. This version is, however, cropped to 16:9 (1.78:1) resulting in some odd compositions. I presume the TV version goes back to the early 2000s when cropping was still standard practice. I note that there are several, mainly European Blu-ray discs on offer and the running times seem to vary from 172 minutes to 182 or 188. This might explain the ‘lost 16 minutes’. All the discs use the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

El Cid’s army of Christians and Moors enters the Moorish city of Valencia behind the crucifix

The MFB review of the film is rather mean I think, arguing that El Cid is only marginally better than all the other epics. How does it look now. I’ve already indicated the now outdated practice of casting Europeans in dark make-up to represent Moors. I think the narrative is too loose and rambling to justify three hours and the romance element doesn’t really work. On the other hand Heston is undeniably ‘heroic’ and Loren is very beautiful. Reports suggest that she was paid $1 million for her limited days of filming. As far as I can see Bronston gambled correctly and she was the star in Europe, including in the UK where she was listed ahead of Heston and in news stories promoting the film. The triumph of the film is Krasker’s cinematography with its use of Spanish locations, including several real castles, and the action sequences involving the thousands of extras. On this score the film is more successful than the modern blockbusters relying on CGI. The critics of the time praised Rosza’s score but a TV set is not the place to judge and I didn’t really notice it. The one trick that is missed is the opportunity to  show that Islamic Al-Andalus (at its greatest extent covering most of present day Spain and Portugal) had been the centre of European civilisation up to the 10th century with Cordoba as the great centre of learning in the second largest city of Europe. I recommend a visit to the city now to see what the Christian kings did to the great mosque of Cordoba.

The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956)

The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.

The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.

The USS Salem presented as the Admiral Graf Spee

The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun smaller cruisers and destroyers and outrun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships.  Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.

The bridge of HMS Ajax with Anthony Quayle as Commodore Harwood i/c the British squadron (front left, turning)

I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.

The Graf Spee refuels at sea. These are British ships photographed in the Moray Firth.

Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.

Lionel Murton as the American radio reporter broadcasting the final few hours as crowds waited for the Graf Spee to leave port.

It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.

The final images of the British squadron off Montevideo after the Graf Spee was scuttled.

The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.

I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.

I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!

Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il?, France-US 1966)

Résistance fighters take to the streets . . .

This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.

Gert Frobe (left) as the German commander of Paris

It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.

Orson Welles plays the Swedish consul, here with Leslie Caron on a race to save her husband

The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film  in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.

Fighters of the FFI

The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.

Kirk Douglas in a very brief cameo as General Patton

IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.

René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.

A sobering warning for Alain Delon and Leslie Caron – in a cinema watching a German propaganda film of the crushing of the Warsaw Uprising.

This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.

Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!

The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.

GFF20 #4: Arracht (Ireland 2019)

This debut feature shot in just 20 days on the coast of Connemara (the seaboard of present day Co. Galway) tells the story of one small community at the time of potato blight and famine in 1845. It’s a narrative that focuses on a personal story of survival within the context of the wider story of English indifference to Irish suffering. The inciting incident is the arrival in a small fishing community of an Irishman, Patsy (Dara Devaney) who has served with the British armed forces. He is most likely a deserter and he has strong anti-British feelings. A fisherman Colmán Sharkey is persuaded to put him up  for a few nights. The potato blight is coming soon and Colmán can smell it on the wind. At the same time, the local English landlord has raised the rents on the smallholdings. Colmán decides to try to persuade the landlord to delay the rent rise for the whole community but foolishly perhaps he allows Patsy to join his delegation. What happens next will drive Colmán into hiding during the terrible impact of the famine. Colmán represent a man at peace with the world in before the blight arrives. He’s an intelligent man with extensive local knowledge of his environment and an uneasy but stable relationship with his landlord. But his world is going to be turned upside down.

Colmán (Dónall Ó Héalai) and his brother Sean face the landlord’s English agents outside their smallholding

Dónall answering a question in GFT2

The central section of the film focuses on Colmán’s almost impossible struggle for survival as most of his friends and family succumb to starvation and disease. His salvation comes partly from his chance encounter with a sick young girl Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn) who he is able to save and who will help him remain sane. In the final sequences, the past will ‘return’ and Colmán will find some form of closure. I’m outlining the narrative in this way to demonstrate that this is not a full scale story of the famine, or of English persecution of the Irish and the resulting migrations from the West of Ireland. It’s much more one man’s story. We were lucky in Glasgow to have the lead actor Dónall Ó Héalai present for a Q&A. This was the second screening of the film at GFF, the first being the UK premiere. Dónall proved an engaging guest and spoke about the intense preparation for the shoot, including the ‘controlled’ starvation dieting and the skills needed for the water-based sequences. I found these an interesting aspect of the story. In discussion, Colman explains to the English landlord that many families gave up their fishing traditions because growing potatoes was easier. Colman’s use of his own boat takes him outside of the economic trap that catches his neighbours. Those who survive also need to know the old ways of using local resources like the kelp on the rocky shore as well as the shellfish.

Siobhán O’Kelly as Áine, one of the survivors in the community, who, like Colman, has the knowledge of flora and fauna

The film is the début effort of writer-director Thomas Sullivan. It features stunning cinematography by Kate McCullough in CinemaScope ratio and her long experience of documentary is evident in presenting Colmán’s life in hiding and at sea. Music by Kila and editing by Mary Crumlish add to the presentation of the local environment. Many of the cast, including Dónall Ó Héalai, are locals. This part of Connemara is an important region in the Gaeltacht and the film uses Gaelic throughout apart from the confrontations with the English and their agents. At just 86 minutes the film offers a thrilling and hard-hitting experience illuminating one aspect of the colonial suppression of the Irish. I was reminded of a similar representation of British exploitation of colonised people some thirty years earlier in The Nightingale (Australia 2018)  which featured the experience of an Irish woman at the hands of British soldiers as well as the murder of indigenous peoples.

Patsy and Colman outside Colmán‘s home close to the sea

The rights for distribution of Arracht are held by Break Out Pictures for Ireland and the UK. The Irish release date is April 3rd. In the UK, the company is listed as ‘Break Thru Pictures’ and the film is listed for the same opening date but no details of how many screens or locations are on the release schedule as yet. There is also an ‘international title’ of ‘Monster’ which may be used in other territories. That is an ambiguous title that could refer to Patsy Kelly or to the famine or the British colonialists. I was very impressed by Arracht and I hope it finds its audience in both Ireland and the UK. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been very good but the rather dismissive view in Sight and Sound seems to me to miss the point of the film, comparing it to Black ’47 (Ireland 2018) and complaining that it has “no similar wit or ideas”. I was unable to catch Black ’47 in the cinema but will look out for as it is set in the same region during the famine. It seems to be a ‘larger’ film with a starry cast and more of an action narrative. I think there is room for many more stories from the 1840s, especially in post-Brexit UK obsessed by an imaginary past. The Glasgow audience clearly enjoyed the film.