Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Even More Movies for Reb . . . .

Category: Rip-Roaring Adventure

Continuing our list of recommended movies for Reb, we turn now to lighter fare, the swashbuckler (and variations thereof). For those who have emailed me complaining about the absence of some of their favorite films, please note that I'm not trying to compile a definitive list of the "greatest" movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark isn't here, for example, even though it's a great adventure movie. It's absent because everybody already knows Raiders is a rip-roaring adventure film, one of the best ever made, while I'm trying to recommend some (possibly) lesser-known movies. So, without further ado:

The Challenge (John Frankenheimer, 1983). Scott Glenn (Urban Cowboy, The Right Stuff) plays a washed-up boxer hired to return a Japanese samurai sword, lost during World War II, to its rightful owner. Upon his arrival in Japan Glenn finds himself embroiled in a modern-day war between two rival Japanese clans who claim the right to own The Equals, a perfect pair of samurai swords passed down through generations. One clan, which holds to the old and traditional ways (and is, of course, the rightful owner of The Equals), is headed by a character played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, Tora, Tora, Tora). Another, headed by a forgettable (at least by me) actor who nonetheless conveys proper amounts of malice and strength, has chosen the corrupt path of modern industrial life. Glenn becomes embroiled in the conflict and redeems himself by following bushido ("the way of the warrior") wherever it leads -- in this case, to a climactic, exciting, and brilliantly-choreographed duel inside the evil clan's corporate headquarters. If you want to see the film that was really plagiarized by The Last Samurai, this (and not Dances with Wolves) is it.

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953). William Holden (one of my favorite leading men) plays Sefton, an American aviator who lives well inside a WWII German prison camp by trading for contraband -- often with the Germans themselves. Amidst a plethora of great character acting, Sefton gains the camp's hatred and then admiration as he clears himself of suspicions that he's spying on the prisoners for the Germans. This film inspired the long-running television comedy Stalag 13, but the film's war-time earnestness and intriguing mystery is to be greatly preferred over the campy televised cartoon.

The War Lord (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1965). IMHO, this film and Lion in Winter are the only really good movies Hollywood's ever made about the Middle Ages. (Until, that is, my prayers are answered and Mel Gibson makes a film about Charles Martel and the Battle of Poitiers). Charlton Heston plays Chrysagon, one of the indomitable Norman nobles who wrote so much of the age's history. Guy Stockwell (Dean's brother) plays Draco, Chrysagon's hot-headed and irresponsible brother. As a reward for years of faithful service, the two are given a small fief in the Saxon marshes, slightly reviving the brothers' fortunes after their family bankrupted itself to ransom their (decased) father from captivity. Chrysagon falls in love with a Saxon maiden and, unable to control himself after years of deprivation and hardship, determines to exercise his "rights" under prima nocte on her wedding night. All goes without incident, except on the morning Chrysagon cannot bring himself to part with her, causing the enraged Saxons to ally themselves with the marauding Frisians to rescue the girl with predictably thrilling results. Great battles ensue as the barbarous Frisians and Saxon villagers try to storm the nobles' tower. Richard Boone gives one of his patented "I'm so rough sandpaper would say ‘ouch'" performances as Bors, Chrysagon's loyal retainer. One of the reasons I like this movie is that it portrays human life in a barely-Christianized Europe, something which many people (like the authors of a "complete" history of Christian missions I read recently, who begin their history of Christian evangelization in 1517) never really think about. Unfortunately, this is achieved in no small measure by the inclusion of a dithering priest played by Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes). Prima nocte is "Sir Priest's" idea and he's more than a bit cowed by his Norman overlords, but that's not a fatal flaw since such monks did in fact exist.

Farewell to the King (John Milius, 1989). Nigel Havers (Chariots of Fire) plays a British officer sent to recruit a tribe of natives on Borneo to fight the Japanese during WWII. Upon his arrival, he finds that the tribe is ruled by "Rajah," an American sailor played by Nick Nolte who deserted from the U.S. Navy. Havers' character, a thinly-veiled immitation of T.E. Lawrence, goes through internal conflicts between his duties as a British officer and his increasing loyalty to Rajah and the tribe. The tribe fights the Japanese, but only after "Rajah" concludes a treaty via Havers' character with Douglas MacArthur. Nolte delivers some wonderful lines for us second-amendment fans during the negotiations for the treaty. "What do you want? Freedom. And what else? Guns -- so they can't take our freedom away. Anything else? Grenades, mortars and artillery so they can't take our guns away!" The war takes a bitter turn when the Japanese, in desperate retreat, devastate Rajah's village killing (and eating) the women and children; the tribe's "army" sets out on a gruesome mission of extermination. The movie features some very haunting battle scenes as the Japanese, led by a menacing officer who rides an eerie white horse, are dogged by the vengeful tribesmen who've been taught the stirring Irish "Rising of the Moon" by Nolte's character. The bittersweet ending should not be revealed. For people who, like me, love to spend time in John Milius' world this film is one of the best ways to burn a few good cigars.

The Wind and the Lion (John Milius, 1975). John Milius' purpose in life was to direct all the great adventure films that went to earlier men like Michael Curtiz and Cecil B. DeMille. In this movie -- made, it should be noted, at the zenith of disco, in the year South Vietnam finally fell, and just a few months before that peanut-farming sillypants from Georgia flopped into the White House -- Milius takes a small incident from U.S. history and turns it into a leonine hymn to America, simplicity, manliness, and the warrior virtues. In the real Pedicaris Incident, an insignificant satellite of Morocco's U.S. Diplomatic community was kidnapped by a quasi-prophet called the Raisuli; Teddy Roosevelt's Republicans cried their famous phrase, "This government wants Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" and promptly sailed back into office (after paying Pedicaris' ransom). The film, of course, is a great improvement over reality. In Milius' hands Pedicaris becomes the recently-widowed Mrs. Pedicaris, fetchingly played by the beautiful Candice Bergen. The Raisuli, played by Sean Connery, becomes a patriot longing to protect the old desert ways of the Riff from the corrupting influence of European society. Teddy Roosevelt, played to the hilt by Brian Kieth, is the fiery apotheosis of an Awakening America determined to bypass European dithering and assert the inviolability of justice by rescuing the fair widow. Thus are we treated to one of the greatest chest-thumping, flag-waving, heart-pounding scenes in American cinema, as the U.S. Marines land in Tangiers and shame the decadent Europeans by taking the situation well in hand. But the character of the Raisuli is too charismatic to remain an enemy, and Milius' film soon has him allied with the Americans in a desperate struggle against European duplicity! If you, like me, are the kind of fellow who's memorized George C. Scott's opening speech in Patton, you're gonna love this film: Chauvinism just don't get any better than this.

The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, 1966). Based on the famous story "The Most Dangerous Game," Wilde plays a member of a safari expedition which refuses to pay off the natives and gets massacred almost to the last man. The last man is the white hunter/guide, played by Wilde, who is sufficiently respected by the tribe that they give him a chance to save his life. He's stripped naked, given a knife, and allowed a head start equal to the distance of an arrow fired from a native bow. The rest of the film is a series of hairs'-breadth escapes and brilliant tactics, as Wilde desperately attempts to reach the safety of his own civilization. One of the finest things about this movie is that it tells a riveting story with hardly any dialogue at all.

Hell is for Heroes (Don Seigel, 1962). This film teeters between a WWII adventure story and an earnest commentary on bravery. Steve McQueen plays an outcast soldier thrown into a unit of outcasts who are detailed to hold a large section of the Allied lines against a superior German force. There's a lot of trickiness and anxious moments as the Americans try to convince the Germans that they're occupying this captured bit of the Siegfried line in strength. Part of that effort is a young Bob Newhart, who puts his comic talent at portraying one side of a telephone conversation to good use by pretending to talk to headquarters on a landline the Germans have tapped. ("Uh, sir, it's about the morale film you sent us . . . . Yes, sir, I know there are other priorities. It's just that the battalion's seen that movie ten times. They're becoming surly.") Eventually, the Americans have to attack the German positions anyway, with the alienated loner McQueen in the lead.

The Hunter (Buzz Kulik, 1980). Steve McQueen plays a character "based on" the real-life Papa Thorson, a legend in the bail-agent community. While he's out catching a series of oddball bail-jumping bad guys (his cornfield-chase scene with a, uh, dynamic, pair of fugitives is a lot of fun, and was filmed in the actual field where the real event took place), one of his former captures is stalking his pregnant live-in girlfriend thereby providing us with the climactic episode. This is not great cinema by any means. In fact, it really doesn't have a plot -- just a series of conflict-resolution episodes. The acting's not that great either -- LeVar Burton plays a young kid who Thorson takes under his wing with all the gusto of a serious valium habit. But the good guys win with style and McQueen's wizened presence makes it a great way to down a few beers.

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979). This film is about a very small New York City gang which travels to a kind of gang United Nations in Central Park, there to hear the ominous Cyrus (leader of the city's most powerful gang, the "Riffs") explain his plan to take over the city. But just as he's on the verge of uniting gangland in a jihad against the established order, Cyrus is killed by a maniacal member of another gang who puts the blame on the Warriors. Stranded miles from their "turf," the gang has to fight its way back across the city to reach the safety of its Coney-Island home. Most people I know don't like this movie because it glorifies gangs, lawlessness, and bad manners. They're right, it does all those things. But I watch it as a kind of parable on Romans 2:14 because the gangs, having not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, thereby becoming a law unto themselves. The film's ridiculously over-the-top, glorified depiction of gang life shows these fellows having some attenuated relationship with loyalty, bravery, crude ideas about justice, and even a primitive sort of chivalry. In fact, without those things the story can't happen at all, and yet the whole morality play occurs in a realm that has already declared its secession from civilization and the social order. So I like to think of the characters showing the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another. But then, I'm a really weird person.

Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965). Jimmy Stewart plays a veteran desert pilot carrying a bunch of travelers across the Sahara desert. A sandstorm forces the plane to crash, and the survivors (played by an assortment of great actors including Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Peter Finch, and the unforgettably-faced Ronald Fraser) have to find a way to reach civilization or die. They have a minuscule amount of water, and are surrounded by hostile nomads. One of the group, played by Hardy Kruger, claims to be an aeronautical engineer and persuades the men to build a jerry-rigged airplane out of the crash's debris. As they struggle to complete this desperate project, dehydration and stress begin to tear them apart. Wonderful character acting, coupled with a number of unsentimentally-resolved sub-plots (like the conflict between Kruger's technocratic engineer and Stewart's cranky seat-of-the-pants veteran pilot), make this a fascinating and entertaining film. The cinematography is wonderful -- you feel hot and thirsty even though you're equipped with a 32-ounce mug of cola and have the AC on full. Great family movie, if you have older children. Unfortunately, it's being remade into a "new, improved" version starring Dennis Quaid (ugh!); the new release will undoubtedly be superior. They've put sultry blonde Miranda Otto in the cast in order to thwart sexism (and, no doubt, to film some sex scenes), and it's been set in the Mongolian Desert this time (thus simultaneously avoiding insulting the Arabs with the earlier film's references to hostile tribesmen while, at the same time, finding a place where it's safe for Americans to shoot a movie). I can't stand remakes. They're always about "rescuing" the original from some social/artistic evil.

The Prisoner of Zenda (Richard Thorpe, 1952). From the 1894 novel by Richard Hope, the film follows the adventures of Rudolph Rassendyll (Stewart Granger) who, while on vacation in the quasi-Balkan country of Ruritania, is noticed to bear a distinct likeness to Ruritania's King, Rudolph V. Turns out the Rassendyll's are the "bar sinister" branch of the Elfburg family who provides Ruritania with its royalty, and every fifth generation or so the Elfburg features adorn a Rassendyll's face. With the help of some crafty nobles, Rassendyll masquerades as the King in order to thwart a coup attempt by the evil Duke Michael. James Mason plays Duke Michael's chief henchman, Rupert of Hentzau. Mason is really at his best in this movie -- he plays the evil and decadent Rupert with enough charm so that you like him even when you should be hissing and throwing popcorn at the screen. In fact, when you end up throwing popcorn and hissing you realize you like him even more! Lots of plots, counter-plots, close calls, Sigmund-Romberg uniforms, horseback chases, castle-burgling, and sword fighting. To cap it all off, the movie has a (and bed-less) romance between Rassendyll and King Rudolph's fiancé, Princess Flavia, played by the wonderful Debrah Kerr which ends the only way it can when people do the right thing. I think this is a great family movie.

The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939). The best of all the "Four Feathers" movies (1915, 1921, 1977, and 2002) -- although the 1977 made for TV production starring Beau Bridges, Jane Seymour and Harry Andrews isn't too bad, either. John Clements plays Lt. Harry Faversham who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a yellowbacked coward who resigns from his regiment before it's sent to war against the insane Khalifa. Faversham's friends -- and his fiancé, Ethne -- each give him a white feather, a token of their disdain. Ashamed, Faversham tries to win back his honor by following the regiment in mufti; he saves each of his three friends and returns home to win back Ethne's love. This is a wonderful story, because it doesn't have the soft, easy morals of modern tales. In a modern movie, Faversham would be the only noble character and it would be the others who must repent of their sinful judgmentalism. Why is this better than the 2002 movie? Well, Miklos Rosza wrote the score (I've got every Rosza soundrack I can lay my hands on), and you can't beat C. Aubrey Smith refighting his old battles on a tablecloth with walnuts and wine glasses.

The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975). John Huston tried to get this movie made for decades. Finally, Sean Connery played Daniel Dravitt and Michael Caine appears as Peachy Carnahan, two British soldiers who've decided to desert and take over the legendary kingdom of Kafiristan, which lies somewhere to the north of Afghanistan across the Khyber Pass. (Christopher Plummer makes a nice appearance as Rudyard Kipling). Their original plan is to awe the natives, find the gold, and scoot. But in a battlefield accident Dravitt's life is "miraculously" saved when a native arrow can't penetrate the dog tags under his tunic; the natives begin to think he's the reincarnation of Iskander, the mythical God-King of Kafiristan (who grew out of Alexander the Great). Like Alexander, Dravitt becomes king of Kafiristan and falls in love with a beautiful native girl (played by Shakira Caine, Michael's wife thank you very much Sandra Meisel now go debunk the DaVinci Code or something.). He and Peachy almost end their friendship since Dravitt wants to remain and rule Kafiristan while Peachy wants to enjoy the good life their new-found riches will buy them back in India. I can't say more without spoiling things, except to note that one of the distasteful features of the film is its warm and wonderful depiction of Masonry as a bond of universal brotherhood. But the film has something that almost makes up for that, a really neat hymn sung by the two friends; it's a combination of the tune of "The Minstrel Boy" with the lyrics of "The Son of God Goeth Forth to War." Here it is:
The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train.

That martyr first, whose eagle eye
Could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky,
And called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue,
In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong:
Who follows in His train?

A glorious band, the chosen few
On whom the Spirit came;
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew,
And mocked the cross and flame.
They met the tyrant's brandished steel,
The lion's gory mane;
They bowed their heads the death to feel:
Who follows in their train?

A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior's throne rejoice,
In robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of Heav'n,
Through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given,
To follow in their train.
Try singing it. Better yet, try singing it during the recessional as the rest of the parish wheezes through some trendy AmChurch "fluffenlieder." You'll like it.

K2 (Franc Roddam, 1992). Michael Biehn plays Taylor Brooks, an arrogant, ego-centric mountain climbing attorney. (He's the kind of jackass who lets you know that his life's philosophy is drawn from Sun-Tzu's Art of War). Matt Craven plays Harold Jameson, Taylor's unassuming mountain-climbing partner. When Taylor and Harold save a mountaneering expedition from diaster, they intrude themselves (courtesy of Taylor's pushiness) into the expedition's attempt to scale K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world. Taylor's selfish, devil-take-the-hindmost drive and Jameson's cooperative, solid competence eventually bring them to the summit after everyone else in the expedition has either died or stayed behind to care for the ailing team-leader. Once at the summit, disaster strikes and Taylor must choose between certain personal survival and a chance to save Jameson's life. Predictable and cliched? Yes, but only if the last movie you watched was filmed in 1955. Set against modern culture, Taylor's choice represents a breathtaking, shocking moment of moral clarity (which is why the film was reviewed as "predictable and cliched" by everyone). Although the only force impelling Taylor to goodness is mere "buddyhood," it's still worth watching -- and letting your kids watch as well.

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