It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad War (War Movies 1970)

By 1970 the United States government were looking for a way out of a snakebit, calamitous intervention in South East Asia. Troop numbers in Vietnam had been reduced from the high of two years earlier but evening news bulletins still relayed death & atrocity into American homes. The Vietnam War was not only unpopular it was becoming to be perceived as unwinnable. Since 1945 Hollywood’s war movies had confirmed that History is written by the winners. Many Brits, including my father, were not impressed by Errol Flynn’s key role in the 1944 invasion of Burma. (“Objective Burma !”- liberating cinema from the truth). In 1970 war films got to change, got to reform. They were all going to be about Vietnam now. The audiences throwing ice cream at screenings of John Wayne’s propaganda “The Green Berets” (1968) were ahead of their time

Hey, the film of the book… OK. Literature has been a constant & fructuous provider of raw material for Hollywood. A great book becomes a greater film ? That is not going to happen. You think so ? You’re wrong. “Catch 22” is rightfully included in the pantheon of American literature of the late 20th century. Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, where the most sensible reaction to an insane world is don’t get even, go mad, is placed in the company of all the greats, Shakespeare, Kafka, Bilko, Tom & Jerry. It’s a rambunctious, intrepid work, non-linear & multi-charactered. Readers in the millions had their own ideas about how this book should look. The odds on pleasing all of them ? That’s one of the big numbers to 1.

Mike Nichols, a relatively new kid in Tinseltown, already an Oscar winning director with “The Graduate”, took the job. He hired Buck Henry, a fellow dry, erudite humourist (not comedian…OK) to write the screenplay & pitched the film somewhere between those other ensemble pieces of the decade, “The Longest Day”(1962) & “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). Two hours of film could never match 450 pages of print. The patient enveloped in bandages has 2 bottles attached to him by IV.When one is full & the other empty they are simply swapped around. This simple silliness still makes me laugh now. Onscreen you blink & you miss it but I would have been peeved if it had been left out. “Catch-22” is a spirited, assured venture & by no means a failure. It’s just that  man, that’s a good book.

The film, more than many, benefits from repeated viewings. Alan Arkin is Yossarian, paranoid & rightly so, his life is in the hands of a crazy gang who, if not unbalanced, are dangerously incompetent. The casting & performances of this bizarre band of brothers bring you back to this movie. It’s a long, illustrious list & here’s some highlights. Let’s see…Jon Voight, perhaps a little young to play capitalism incarnate Milo Minderbinder, lugubrious Bob Newhart as Major Major. The classy Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark & of course General Dreedle is only Orson flipping Welles. There’s a bunch of them…everywhere…someone & something different every time. Yup, “that’s some catch, that Catch-22,”. Oh Paula Prentiss is there too, not nearly enough.

The hit anti-war drama/comedy of 1970 was “M.A.S.H”, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Robert Altman’s film, the counter-culture comes to Korea, cost $3.5 million & grossed over $80 mill, 3 times the take of “Catch-22”.There are many similarities between the 2 films. War is stupid, people are stupid…we’re all singing from the same song sheet here. There is plenty of gore but “M.A.S.H” is a buddy movie with the “pros from Dover”, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, a new star about to steal “Kelly’s Heroes”, another war movie, off of Clint & Kojak) & Trapper (Elliot Gould) work hard & play hard while those around them are dying from enemy fire & bureaucratic incompetence. They are a fine team, 1970’s Butch & Sundance.

“M.A.S.H” is an ensemble movie too. Altman’s was not only free of any literary limitations, his skill in directing large casts was part of a new American cinema. Nichols made a trio of modern movies, “The Graduate”, “Catch-22” & “Carnal Knowledge” while Altman was pushing it along & innovating. The film was successful because of an anarchic energy & humour not because of its message. Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns is great support, Radar O’Reilly became a national treasure when a spin-off TV series became very successful. Oh yeah, Major Margaret  “Hotlips” Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. That is all

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Now “Patton” was the product of an entirely different infinite number of monkeys. General George S Patton’s tour of Europe & North Africa in World War II established his reputation as a crackerjack live act & as a winner. His notable speech to the Third Army just before D-Day 1944 opens the film. It portrays a straight-talking charismatic leader. I don’t know if the backdrop was an outsized Stars & Stripes though I am sure that the chestful of medals on display is not historically accurate. If all you know of Patton is from this movie then it is not the full story.

“Patton” is a good film. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director & Best Actor. I, unlike many British men of the 20th century, have never been asked to fight in a war. I have been afforded the luxury of being a pacifist & of expressing my opposition to such aggression. I can appreciate the qualities of this film, admire the powerful central performance by George C Scott, but “Patton”, still, seems to me to be an exercise in myth-making & the creation of an American hero.

This validation of rugged individualism…how the war was won…The American military was in a crisis of leadership, a small communist country was kicking their butt & in late 1969 the news broke about Charlie Company’s actions in My Lai where up to 500 unarmed civilians were murdered. Little wonder then that the United States needed, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, to go ” back to those inglorious days when heroes weren’t zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away”. Look, I was so much older then…you get me. I am able to see more than two sides to most stories now but “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favourite movie & that will not stand. The idea that we can only defeat the evil sons of bitches with those of our own…well, fuck that noise. This film was not made for people like me.

George C Scott had declined an Oscar nomination for “The Hustler” in 1962. He did the same for “Patton” but won the award anyway. Scott refused to accept & was quoted as saying , “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” A different world indeed.

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Music and Western Movies (1971)

I am male. I love films, ergo I love Westerns…cowboy pictures. Hey, a man’s gotta do what…you get me. It was not particularly the cinema that satisfied this impressionable adolescent’s passion for horse operas. Too many stars were past their best-by date in the 1960s. James Stewart  in a toupee was, at best, unconvincing. John Wayne, be-wigged, wearing a corset & ultra-reactionary, was part of an old guard that the world had passed by, left blinking & chewing dust from the slipstream. It was on TV that we saw “High Noon”, “Shane” & others from the Occidental canon. It may have been a miniature, monochromatic screen but when John Ford pointed a camera at some Mojave Desert scenery, war-painted Apache braves on the ridge, we knew that we were getting epic, iconic America.

Those mature actors like Stewart, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster & others had made some memorable Westerns. The studio system, which kept such a tight rein on production, fractured, creating opportunities & greater independence for stars to select writers & directors. By the end of the 1960s this formula had become moribund. While there were still some estimable American westerns around it was a European director who brought it all back home on the range.

Italian director Sergio Leone, born  in 1929, did not speak American, had never visited that country. What he knew about the West he had learned at the cinema. His “Man With No-Name” trilogy was, incredibly, complete by 1966. Filmed in Spain, dismissively tagged as “Spaghetti Westerns”, starring a former TV actor, the films took some time to head West. Leone’s movies were gritty, violent, morally ambiguous, stylish & funny. As cool as Quentin, without Sergio telling us just how cool. By the time he made “Il buono (the Good), il brutto (the Bad), il cattivo (you know it).” he had established a style, a star & was going for it. The first 2 of the  trilogy are better than good but they don’t have Eli Wallach in them. “The Good…” is a masterpiece.

Leone did come to Hollywood to make his films. “Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968), a wonderful impressionist epic which confused Paramount purely by casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy…well, another time. The maestro returned for  the awkwardly titled “Duck, You Sucker” (1971) his 5th consecutive Western. It’s another cracker but while Tinseltown welcomes the revitalization of tired convention it was  flummoxed by the director’s hallucinatory flashbacks, by the imaginative accents of Rod Steiger & James Coburn. There was not even a consensus on what to call the thing. “D.Y.S”, “A Fistful Of Dynamite”, “Once Upon A Time In The Revolution”…all the same film. There’s much  to praise about the film but what we have here is the soundtrack because…well, click on the clip, it’s beautiful.

Composer Ennio Morricone, a schoolmate of Sergio, was a player in Italian music (I missed “Go Kart Twist”) before beginning a 20 year long partnership with the director. His creative use of effects/samples reflected & punctuated the films perfectly. As Leone’s ambition (& budget) increased it was matched by Morricone’s talent. He became a prolific, much decorated composer of film music. This, the theme from “Giu la Testa” (another title !), is an astonishing thing. If Morricone was ever better then I look forward to hearing that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, another cinema maverick was enjoying the largesse of a major studio. In 197o Robert Altman directed “MASH”, a black comedy about war paraded as “what the new freedom of the screen is all about !”. A year later the box office money was still coming in by the truckload & Altman released his western “McCabe & Mrs Miller”. There are few heroics in this film, no sweeping vistas of Monument Valley, no-one heads anyone off at the pass. Set in the damp, dreary Pacific Northwest (hi there Dave) “McCabe &…” is a haunting, mournful, magical glimpse of How The West Was Bought. The mining camp, where life is muddy & cheap, attracts disparate, desperate folk with their own takes on the pursuit of life, liberty & whatever. “Revisionist Western” ? You what ! This is an anti-Western.

The opening music & credits gave up a whole lot about the film but there’s a lot to give & more to come. Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” is an obvious inspiration for  the mood &  the pace of the following two hours or so. The 3 Cohen songs used were not written for the film but they would not be bettered by a taciturn, log cabin troubadour from 190-something. Altman’s direction, the murky cinematography of Vilmos Zgismond, Lenny’s music…triple whammy.

McCabe (Warren Beatty) may be a fool but he’s our fool. It does not end well for him & it bothers you. Julie Christie, a tart without a heart of gold, steals the movie. The whole story may have been one of Constance’s opiated reveries. If it was then that’s OK, so it goes. Better judges than myself consider “McCabe & Mrs Miller” to be a perfect film. I know that men love a list & recently, on a social media site, I was diverted up a tiresome “my Top 10 is better than yours” cul-de-sac. All I will say is that if this film is not included in your favoured Westerns then just stay the fuck away from me.

Peter Fonda, a Hollywood prince, blew things wide open with “Easy Rider” (1969). He had made a couple of films with the exploitation don, Roger Corman before , with Dennis Hopper, he invented the youth market. Universal, spotting a bandwagon, hired young directors including Milos Forman, George Lucas &  the 2 Easy Riders to make some low budget films. Dennis took the money, a load of drugs & his friends to Peru to make “The Last Movie”, a film which so confused & disturbed the studio that he did not get to direct again for almost 10 years. Peter made a cowboy movie. His father, Henry, had starred in Westerns by John Ford, Fritz Lang & Anthony Mann. Even Captain America would have to respect such an established tradition.

“The Hired Hand” (1971) was dismissed as a “hippie Western”, the old guard were not ready to hand it over just yet. It is an elementary movie, a 3-hander about love, friendship, a man’s gotta do what…There is a lovely slow burn about the story-telling. Peter Fonda may lack the ponderance of the likes of Gary Cooper or Glenn Ford but it was time to challenge that stereotype anyway. He was helped by some talented people . Verna Bloom & the great Warren Oates did their acting thing while cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond, straight off of “McCabe &…” infused the film with an impressionist beauty which precedes landmarks like “Days Of Heaven” (1978). The memorable , chimerical soundtrack is by guitarist Bruce Langhorne, part of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort. An existential Western ? I’m not going there but “The Hired Hand” is a rewarding, thoughtful film.

I don’t think that 3 films all from the same year makes for a renaissance of the Western. Post-Leone the genre had a new energy & potential  & young directors were eager to reinterpret the stories they had grown up with. There were some fine Westerns made around this time. Hey, as long as the saloon had those wonderful swinging louvred doors, the good guy knocks a gun out of someone’s hand with just one shot &, every so often, rides off into the sunset then I’m a happy man.

Music And Movies III(That Girl Can Sing)

Well, pour some Sugar on me ! “Some Like It Hot” is a perfect comedy by one of the greatest directors. Marilyn made some memorable films but she was never better than her portrayal of the guileless Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the singer with Sweet Sue & her Society Synchopators, America’s premier all-girl band until the Shangri-Las came along. I care little for the parasitical mountain of speculation about her confused life and her unfortunate, premature death. Marilyn Monroe is a film star and a beautiful actress. It is her work on the screen by which she should be judged. Billy Wilder ensured that she gave a performance to equal her co-stars, Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis, in this wonderful film. She was never funnier and never more alluring.

I watch this story of Jerry & Joe on the run from Spats Colombo regularly & I am never disappointed. Marilyn’s performance of  “I Want To Be Loved By You” is never less than breath-taking. I am always impressed by Wilder’s lighting of this scene, keeping the spotlight on his star’s head. I would comment on the dress but then I would have to mention Marilyn’s breasts & this is not that kind of blog !

Even if Shelley Duvall had not been a regular in Robert Altman’s company of actors she would have still been the logical choice to play Olive Oyl in his film of “Popeye”. Ms Duvall hesitated when offered the part, she had been nicknamed “Olive” as a child because of her gawky clumsiness. Of course she was. Her CV at this time reads “Annie Hall”, “The Shining”, “Popeye” & “Time Bandits”… thank you Shelley Duvall.

So the maverick Altman made a live-action movie of a much-loved cartoon with a script by an ascerbic cartoonist, Jules Feiffer,  songs by the idiosyncratic Harry Nilsson & then there was criticism that the result was not what was expected…no shit Sherlock. “Popeye” was never going to be a blockbusting franchise. It is a stunning imagining of an alternate world. Altman’s technique of revealing the big picture through a collection of snapshots, often over-lapping or incomplete, is not for those who like their films to have a beginning a middle & and end, preferably in that order. It works for me & Nilsson’s snatches of tunes are absolutely sympathetic to the tone of the movie.

Paul Thomas Anderson was watching. His ensemble films & the use of “He Needs Me” in “Punch Drunk Love” confirms that. I would guess that Tim Burton was watching too. If you did not like “Popeye” the first time around then give it another chance. You are probably more mature now, you will have seen so many worse films since then & “you owe me an apology”.

I liked Jim Sheridan’s film “In America” from the moment the opening credits rolled. To cast Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, Britain’s finest young actors, in the same movie ?  You had me at “Fox Searchlight Presents”. This affecting film, about an Irish family trying to overcome the tragedy of the loss of a child & to establish their family in New York from the most impoverished of beginnings is an affirmation of the durability of core human values, love, family, friendship, hope. So, no car chases & not a lot of CGI. It is a story so assuredly & unsentimentally told that I still find it difficult to believe that the director’s next film was the 50 Cent biopic “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ “.

The two daughters, aware of the struggles of their parents but excited by the new adventure, are played by real sisters and they are a delight. 11 year old Sarah Bolger (Christy) performs that most American of songs “Desperado” at her school concert. It is a moving confirmation that life is less uncertain for the family & that the risks the parents have taken have been worth it…lovely. Sarah Bolger, my research (Ha !) shows, is now a beautiful young woman with a number of films & TV roles to her credit. I will look for her new films & she has a head start because of her great performance of this song.