Archive for January, 2011

Ten Reasons

Posted: January 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

A Blog Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

The next Remake Chronicles essay will likely not be up until early next week; it is coming, and so are several others in relatively rapid succession. As always, we offer the following as a gentle throat-clearer between acts. Posted for the first time, here and elsewhere, today.

I learned this lesson well, years ago.

These are the ten reasons no young writer just sent contributor copies of a new novel should ever, ever, happily show it around at the drudgery day job.

1 ) The immediate response from everybody is, “How much money did you get paid for it?” If you tell them it’s none of their business, they get upset at you. If you tell them, they walk away laughing derisively.

2) People with no intention of reading it, who are not even friends of yours, will demand free copies.

3) The book will eventually be wielded against you, in criticisms of your work: i.e., “You may be a big shot writing books, but…”  This will go on for YEARS, if you stay there that long. Be prepared for it.

4) Some bosses will actually resent you pursuing a writing career on your own time — like it’s their business — and will demand that you stop. Yes. This happens.

5) The habitual non-readers who do pick up the book out of curiosity will later tell you that they got one page into it and then gave up, because it was “too slow;” or, if they’re abusive assholes, will tell you “it sucks,” also after reading only one page.

6) You will get called fun names like “Poindexter.” Of course, you get this for just being spotted with a book you’re *reading*, but admitting to *writing* one gets the same abuse, doubled. I’m told by older writers that decades ago co-workers would have mockingly called you Steinbeck or Hemingway or Shakespeare, but not any more, as this would require your co-workers to even be able to summon those names, and those times are long gone. 

7) You will be asked how come you’re not as rich as Stephen King.

8) “I have a great idea for a book: a bank robbery. Now all you have to do is write it, and we can split the money…”

9) Some people will offer total incomprehension of what this object is, and what your contribution to it might have been. They will flip through its pages, find no pictures, then stare blankly at it, unsure what they should do. They will ask you great questions like what the word “novel” means or whether you painted the cover. When they put it down, it will be with substantial relief.

10) The worst: there’s a very real danger that some psychopath among your co-workers will immediately run to their lawyer and claim either that you stole their brilliant idea or that “everybody knows” the cellar-dwelling serial killer in chapter seven is a libelous portrait of themselves.


Explanation: the next remake column will be a few days later than anticipated, due to circumstances beyond our control (the remake has not shown up as anticipated). Thus, to hold its place, another past movie rant, originally posted on various online locations from April 29 2010. Enjoy. A-TC

I hereby propose an official name for the sinking feeling one gets upon seeing publicity for a movie starring a performer of genuine talent who has made great films in the past but who has taken a paycheck for something you wouldn’t want to watch if somebody stapled your eyelids to your forehead.

The Fraser.

Prompted by the trailer for Brendan Fraser’s Furry Vengeance  — in which Fraser is beaten up by CGI raccoons, and so on — and the cognitive dissonance that comes with suddenly remembering how good Fraser was in School Ties, Gods and Monsters, and even George of The Jungle.

That moment of cognitive dissonance is a Fraser.

To achieve a true Fraser, a movie must be so visibly an appalling waste of talent, from the trailer alone, that you as a member of the audience are left despairing as you wonder whether anybody in the business has ever seen the good films made by the performers and has any idea, whatsoever, how to use them to greatest advantage.

Any trailer prompting a “Fraser” is so complete in its awfulness that the actual movie cannot either redeem it, or render it worse. It is a black hole of suck, in two minutes or less. You can feel the audiences cough in an otherwise silent theatre. You can feel the performers loathing themselves for not being able to get better.

Also, to prompt a “Fraser,” it cannot be an aberration in an otherwise brilliant career, a hiccup in a filmography that will surely return to its previous heights next time; it must be a sad but regrettably accurate barometer of a career’s general direction, even if that career still produces good movies from time to time. The greater the heights once achieved by the performer, the purer the nausea one feels during the Fraser” When Robert De Niro gives you a Fraser, as he does from time to time, it is to that sinking feeling what an underwear yank with a crane is to the high school gym-class wedgie — the ultimate, the platonic ideal. It’s hard to get a taste of him playing Fearless Leader in Rocky And Bullwinkle and then live with the knowledge that he also gave us Vito Corleone, Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle.

Now, we have to be fair about this. A Fraser-evoking trailer is somewhat more forgivable in the cases of brilliant supporting players who are sometimes stars: i.e., Ben Kingsley, who’s gotta eat (even if Gandhi didn’t always), and Michael Caine, who has always alternated paycheck roles with quality ones (and they’re sometimes the same ones, as per The Dark Knight.)

Think, rather, of Liam Neeson shouting “Release the Kraken,” or playing the lead in The A-Team. Seeing a trailer for The A-Team and realizing that it’s Liam Neeson, Liam fucking Neeson, stepping into the shoes of George Peppard, in a remake of a crappy TVshow decades old, is a downer that may last entirely all the way through the main feature that follows. That’s a Fraser.

But even that’s not the worst of all possible Frasers, as you can cheer yourself by remembering that it really hasn’t been all that long since Neeson’s last good movie and probably won’t be all that long before his next one. A pure Fraser, of the sort that can bother you all day, only increases from repetition, from the realization that the beloved performer who just gave you a Frazier is the same beloved performer who’s been giving you Frasers for years on end.

To wit: almost every trailer for every new movie starring Robin Williams now prompts a Fraser.

As does almost every trailer for every new movie starring Steve Martin.

As does almost every trailer for every new movie starring John Travolta.

See? The Fraser. I think it’s a useful addition to our critical vocabulary.

Upcoming Remake Chronicles will include To Be Or Not To Be, The Wizard Of Oz, House of Wax, Wages of Fear / Sorcerer, The Front Page, Dawn Of the Dead, and the disasters that befell two ships called The Poseidon.


 

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935). Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. 132 minutes. ****

Mutiny On The Bounty (1962). Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Charles Lederer, with uncredited script contributions by Eric Ambler, Borden Chase, William L. Driscoll, John Gay, Ben Hecht.  Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Marlon Brando,Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. 178 minutes. **

Other Known Versions: These are not adaptations of the Nordhoff/Hall trilogy of novels, but other dramatizations of the same historical events. The Mutiny Of the Bounty (1916; 55-minute silent); In the Wake Of the Bounty (1933; 66-minute documentary retelling with some staged scenes; starring a pre-stardom Errol Flynn (!) as Fletcher Christian); The Bounty (1984; 132-minute theatrical film starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian).

 

*

The known facts are these.

On 28 April, 1789, officers and crew members of the HMS Bounty, then returning from Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit plants bound for Jamaica, rebelled against the ship’s Captain, William Bligh. The leader of the mutiny was his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian.

There were any number of factors contributing to this crime. First, the hard work, dangerous conditions and deprivations of the long voyage to Tahiti had been followed by five months of relative languor on the island, with its idyllic weather, plentiful and tasty food, and native hospitality that included plenty of sex with enthusiastic local women. After that kind of layover, you should only excuse the expression, Christian and crew then faced the prospect of many additional months of labor at sea, all so they could return to England’s weather, English cooking, and English sexual repression. One can imagine Christian and company holding their hands up palms upward like a set of scales and weighing the options.

More to the point was the behavior of Bligh, who never would have been given a coffee mug reading World’s Greatest Boss. By the time the breadfruit plants were ready for export, Bligh had taken a distinct dislike to Christian and was abusing him at every opportunity. Anything that went wrong, according to Bligh, was Christian’s fault. Nor did he spare the crew his wrath. Floggings became more and more frequent. Turn those hands into a set of scales again. On the one hand, you can stay in Tahiti with a doe-eyed lass eager for her sixth orgasm of the day; on the other, you can have months in a cramped and unpleasant space with a man likely to order the flesh to be lashed from your back. It isn’t rocket science.

Rather than kill Bligh outright, Christian set the Captain and 18 of his loyalists adrift on a longboat before returning to Tahiti, where the mutineers picked up their native lovers and several additional hands, before searching for some secluded island where they could bear to hide out for the rest of their lives. That was Pitcairn Island, where they eventually turned on one another in an orgy of killing that proved, if nothing else, that mutiny can be habit-forming. Also that British mutineers really have no idea how to get along with Tahitians they’ve talked into going with them, since the killings began when a couple of the women died and the Brits decided this meant that the Tahitians along needed to give up theirs. This is not the way to make friends on remote uncharted islands. By the time the colony was found, only one of the men was still alive, living with nine women and a gaggle of children. The descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian allies still live on Pitcairn today.

As for Bligh, he rose to the occasion with one of the all-time greatest feats of survival at sea, piloting the overcrowded and undersupplied longboat for 3618 nautical miles, until, 47 days of sheer indomitable will  later, he landed at the port of Kupang, Timor, having lost only one man on the long journey. (Three more, weakened by thirst and starvation, died not long afterward…but he got them to port where they had a fighting chance, and that’s something.) Upon his return to Britain, a naval court acquitted him of all personal liability for losing control of his crew, and put him back to work, which may have been a bit of a mistake, as he went on to become a target of two more great historical mutinies during his lifetime.  Some men just don’t know how to inspire loyalty.

It’s a fascinating story, rendered all the more dramatic by the disconnect, in almost all dramatic versions, between our understanding that mutiny’s a crime and our willingness to consider Christian a flawed hero and Bligh a martinet who brought it on himself. The major problem, dramatically, seems to be that its effectiveness decreases in direct proportion to the degree of fairness to Bligh. Portray Bligh as a corrupt and unreasonable tyrant who inflicts pain for its own sake and you put your audience on tenterhooks, awaiting that special moment when Christian’s finally had enough. Portray him as a relatively decent man by the standards of his time who resorts to the corporal punishment standard at the time when crew discipline is shot by the pleasures of the harbor – as 1984’s The Bounty does – and the tension ebbs accordingly. Up to the mutiny itself, it’s not a tale improved by intelligent nuance.

In fact, one of the reasons the 1935 Bounty still outshines all other versions is that it throws nuance out the window…until, returning to the strict facts of the story, it brings nuance back.

Casting To Type

It begins by casting Charles Laughton, one of the most unlikely major movie stars of all time, as Bligh. Laughton, a pudgy (eventually obese) little man with a bulbous lip, would be assured his permanent place in cinema history had he never played any parts other than his heartbreaking lead in Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), but he was a prolific performer who played major roles all the way up to the 1960s, most famously as villains, since the combination of his face and his delivery, coupled with the right screenplay, virtually guaranteed the successful evocation of a character who could only be improved by a punch to the face. (He could also be likeable indeed, when the screenplay called for it.) Laughton’s Bligh is an out-and-out monster, not just stern, but unreasonable and corrupt and cruel. He is not interested in earning the loyalty of his men, or in fulfilling any obligations he might have to their welfare. When he orders a man flogged to the point of death, it is because he enjoys it, and when he browbeats Christian, it is because he hates the man (hates everybody, really) with every fiber of his being.

As if to complete the extermination of any possibility that we might harbor any sympathy for the martinet tormenting his crew until they set him adrift, the same film casts the manliest of manly men, Clark Gable, as Christian. He’s a hero from frame one, even when he’s scouring saloons for men to be pressed into service against their will. This Christian has charm, a no-nonsense bearing, and a deep moral outrage already simmering from prior encounters with Bligh. When this Christian tells us right off that his Bligh is a straight-up sadistic monster, and when he reacts to every fresh outrage on the trip out with the anger and contempt of a man being pushed to the breaking point, there is absolutely no doubt who we should be rooting for. By the time Christian spits, “He doesn’t punish men for discipline. He likes to see men crawl,” it’s not just resentment talking. In movie terms it could not be better structured. You don’t set up that kind of dynamic without also assuring the audience that it’s worth waiting for the moment of karmic retribution.

In the 1962 Bounty, Trevor Howard plays Bligh as just as cruel but far more restrained in his personal manner, and Marlon Brando plays Christian as an upper-class fop openly contemptuous of the mission who, for the longest time, delights in baiting his superior. Just look at this scene, their first meeting. In real life, Bligh and Christian already knew each other, and were not on bad terms. But look at how the no-nonsense Bligh is here invited to despise Christian at first sight.

 

 

Granted, it’s actually fun, in the second film, to see how many times Christian skirts insulting Bligh to his face, without going far enough to earn himself a punishment. For the longest time, starting with their spectacularly uncomfortable first meeting, his defiance of Bligh takes the form of infuriating politeness, best embodied by his comment, “I assure you, sir, that the execution of my duties is entirely unaffected by my private opinion of you.” Indeed, one of the funniest scenes in any version of the story takes place in this version, after the ship’s arrival at Tahiti, and after Bligh orders Christian back to the ship to prevent him from getting it on with the king’s beautiful daughter. It turns out that the king considers this an insult to his daughter, and threatens to call off the deal…a diplomatic crisis that obliges a supremely uncomfortable Bligh to order Christian back to the island to have sex. The scene that follows is a tiny masterpiece of comedic manners, as the repressed Bligh dances around the issue and the deeply amused Christian pretends at length to not get what he’s being asked to do.  The scene ends with the perfect punch line, as Christian, pretending to be struck by this thought for the very first time, notes that it’s not like he’s being asked to fight for his country. It’s insolent, it’s open mockery, it’s entirely civil and it’s designed to leave Bligh alone in the room feeling like a palace eunuch. (And what really makes it hurt, from Bligh’s point of view, is that Christian knows what he’s doing, Bligh knows what Christian is doing, Christian knows that Bligh knows what he’s doing, and Bligh knows that Christian knows what he’s doing.)

That’s funny as all hell. It isn’t absolutely fatal to a dynamic that requires us to hate Bligh and follow Christian, but it does unbalance the story a little, away from the original’s perception of Christian as hero, and therefore farther away from the emotional catharsis that the original provides at the moment of Christian’s rebellion.

So that works.

But there are two serious problems with the 1962 film, each major enough to be fatal.

First Problem: Misguided and Unbalanced Story Economy

It’s startling, now, to remember just how much story the 1935 version tells in a little over two hours. It establishes the antagonism between Bligh and Christian. It shows us Bligh’s shipboard atrocities and gives us fine reason to hate him. It lands at Tahiti and provides us with various romances between the Bounty crew and their native lovers. It continues to ratchet up Bligh’s villainy throughout the interregnum on Tahiti. It dramatizes the departure from Tahiti, the events leading up to the mutiny, a detailed retelling of the mutiny itself, the final words between Christian and Bligh, an extended sequence detailing Bligh’s astounding and unexpected heroism in piloting the longboat to safety, Bligh’s personal return to Tahiti to arrest the mutineers, pursuit aboard the Pandora, the court-martial of the mutineers (and innocents) captured by Bligh, a couple of climactic courtroom speeches, and a wrap showing Christian and company living comfortably on Pitcairn. All of this, without ever once seeming to rush through the story, and still leaving time for vivid supporting characters, enjoyable dialogue, and visual sweep.

Let’s grant that much of what it includes is Hollywood hokum. Bligh never did take to the open waters in relentless pursuit of the Bounty mutineers, nor was there any thrilling high-seas pursuit. (The wreck of the Pandora, the vessel holding the captured members of the mutineers, is real, but Bligh was not aboard it and thus did not cause it with reckless seamanship.)  In real life, the Bounty was never seen again, and its fate remained a mystery until Pitcairn was rediscovered by another British vessel many years afterward. But that’s still a lot to stuff, effortlessly, into a little more than two hours. Even by today’s attention-deficit standards, the story moves.

This is a major requirement when it comes to any telling of this particular tale, which by its very nature it bleeds tension at the midpoint, when the Bounty lands in Tahiti and Bligh’s unhappy crew gets to party with all those delightful native women. In both these two films and the unrelated 1984 The Bounty, the narrative effectively stops dead during this little vacation in paradise. The layover is integral to what happens afterward, but it needs to handled in a manner that never allows us to forget that this interval of peace is just an illusion, and that the central conflict continues to fester at the story’s core.

The 1962 film is effective enough until the Tahiti scenes and acceptable during them, but doesn’t quite manage to jump the hurdle. It never regains the lost momentum. (It doesn’t exactly help that some of what happens after the intermission is just plain stupid.)  What’s worse, for a big-budget epic with musical overture, intermission, and entr’acte that clocks in three quarters of an hour longer than the Gable version, it otherwise gives us less. The mutiny itself is rendered a daytime event and truncated to the point where it sits on the screen like a dead lump. It pretty much amounts to Christian saying he’s had it, and taking Bligh prisoner almost without a fight. The pursuit consists of a white sail glimpsed on the horizon, that might be a navy ship on the Bounty’s tail, and might just be some entirely unrelated ship following an errand that has nothing to do with any hunt for mutineers. There is no highly dramatic trial, just a declaration by a board of inquiry and a personal rebuke of Bligh much milder than the one he gets in 1935. Nor do we get to see the fate of the mutineers who allow themselves to get captured.  The aftermath is reduced to Christian’s suicidal shame at what he has done.

The most jaw-dropping of all the elements denied to us has been referenced before, the sudden appearance of nuance in the characterization of Bligh, as dramatized by his seamanship in piloting the longboat 3600 nautical miles to the nearest safe port.

In the 1935 film, we stick with him and watch with dropping jaws as this supercilious little son of a bitch who we’ve been given every reason to hate suddenly proves himself to be courageous, resourceful, and fully capable of inspiring men who would lose all hope without him there to provide an iron example. (There’s even a moment of kindness, breathtaking coming from him, where he gives special care to one of the men closest to death.)  It’s bad news for Christian and company that he survives, but that doesn’t matter. By the time he does get his overcrowded little boat filled with dying men to port, the audience cannot help but admire his accomplishment.

The 1962 film cannot be bothered to show us any of this. It has Bligh on the longboat, declaring his intentions to a band of dispirited men who glumly obey his orders and start to row. It cuts back to the Bounty mutineers and several scenes later suddenly returns to a uniformed Bligh, painlessly back in civilization, and marching into a government building to hear the verdict on his actions. Seriously: what the hell? It’s like dramatizing the life of Abraham Lincoln and forgetting to mention the Civil War.

 

Second Problem: An Incredibly False, Stupid, and Dramatically Inert Ending

All three of the major films based on the Bounty incident, even the 1984 Mel Gibson film that is certainly the most historically accurate, distort the actual events for their own purposes.

The 1935 version ramps up Bligh’s villainy, adds a thrilling sea pursuit for additional derring-do, and ends with Christian and his fellow mutineers living happily on Pitcairn, eliminating all the nasty Lord Of The Flies stuff where they turned on one another later.

The 1962 version has Christian, who’s determined to return to England and face the consequences, fatally injured trying to put out the fire a fellow mutineer set to destroy the Bounty after their arrival at Pitcairn.

Forget that this is actually further from the truth than the 1935 version, since we know that burning the Bounty was Christian’s idea; in real life, he had too much common sense to ever want to go back to England. He burned the Bounty so it wouldn’t be spotted by any passing ships, in the hopes that Pitcairn would remain on the books as uninhabited. More to the point, it makes absolutely no sense as staged. This being a would-be blockbuster, the fire aboard the Bounty is presented as a major conflagration, with flames leaping multiple times the height of a man, even as Christian rows from shore to try to save it. Sorry. As seen, that ship was already toast, and Brando’s Christian should have known it. It also came equipped with cannons and therefore must have had gunpowder aboard…a factor that is totally ignored as Brando and his minions leap aboard to fight the fire.

Christian’s death is also a serious bummer at this point of the proceedings, but that didn’t have to be fatal to the film, as anybody with even passing interest in movies can quickly come up with a dozen whose heroes die tragically (but with a point) in the final scene. But it doesn’t work at all here. Christian’s death is stupid, and his death scene interminable. It is impossible to give a damn about the loss of a man we are supposed to have cared about, only relieved when he’s done emoting.

We cannot make this any clearer. Any scene starring one of the five greatest actors of the twentieth century, portraying the tragic death of the central figure in one of the most famous stories of all time, that nevertheless emerges as having about as much dramatic resonance as a detergent commercial, seriously needed to be rethought from the ground up.

The result was predictable. Brando had emerged from his great performances of the 1950s an iconic figure and one of the most universally-imitated performers of his era. Misfires like Mutiny (and being a pain in the ass to work with) contributed to a precipitous decline in his career that continued throughout the 1960s, and led to him being considered pretty much “over” by the end of the decade.

By the time the next decade began, he ultimately had to take a screen test, a virtual insult to a star of his caliber, in order to land the lead role in a little gangster movie called The Godfather.

 

Conclusion

 

All things being equal: 1935 version, one of the great Hollywood films. 1962 version, an interesting alternate take that turns to crap at about the halfway mark.

 

* * * * * * * * * *

And now, for the wife’s opinion…

 

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935). Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. 132 minutes. ****

Mutiny On The Bounty (1962). Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Charles Lederer, with uncredited script contributions by Eric Ambler, Borden Chase, William L. Driscoll, John Gay, Ben Hecht.  Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. 178 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Known Versions: These are not adaptations of the Nordhoff/Hall trilogy of novels, but other dramatizations of the same events. The Mutiny Of the Bounty (1916; 55-minute silent); In the Wake Of the Bounty (1933; 66-minute documentary retelling with some staged scenes; starring a pre-stardom Errol Flynn (!) as Fletcher Christian); The Bounty (1984; 132-minute theatrical film starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian).

Commentary by Judi Castro

 

I’ve just finished re-watching the 1935 and 1962 MOTB and can definitely see the differences in the tastes of one generation of viewers to the next.  

1935- My parents are  ages 5 and 1 respectively.

1962- My parents are married with one child age 3 and another (moi) on the way. 

Why do I bring this up?  Because again, my Dad introduced me to both these films and I think his take influenced me as much as anything else before I reviewed these films just this week.  See, I can remember my dad talking about Clark Gable and how he was a man’s man, rough, tough and sure.  And how the Brando character was just pretty, like the film.  Hmmm….think on that.  He-man vs nancy-boy.  And Laughton’s Bligh was petty, vindictive and cruel, whereas Howard’s was just plain military cruel.   Kinda Raamses vs Cheney.

Let me proceed to state my case.

Both films have homoerotic overtones, as many naval films have accidentally acquired. However, the earlier Gable version has his larger than life persona to help offset this.  The scene where he and the midshipman lie down together on the beach and share bananas is lessened by their Tahitian “wives” joining them minutes later.  The Gable Christian is never seen as anything but a good man in a cruel position.  One willing to bend only so far, so to speak.

The Brando version of Fletcher Christian is beyond the pale.  From his flouncy intro to the ongoing costume changes, we are shown a man who cares more about his appearance than his ship and crew.  Early on, he is asked, “Why did you join the King’s navy?”  His response could just as easily have been “It was the priesthood or the Navy and I went with the nicer outfits.”  We hear about his pomaded hair and well cut suits more than once.  Between that and Brando’s overly affected soft speech pattern, if he was trying to insinuate a homosexual bent for the character, I believe he went a bit further than expected.

Now, do I believe that either character portrayal was directed toward a sexually ambiguity?  No.  I feel in the earlier version this was not even looked at as a possibility, given the actor playing the role.  In the latter, I believe the actor himself wielded the power to finagle the character in the direction he sought to portray. No ambiguity, just a bit of bravado on the part of an actor about to lose control.

Point Two: The taskmaster and the taker.

Charles Laughton was an actor who made me believe. In MOTB, I believed he was a petty criminal, soured on the aristocracy, who had gained a bit of power and wielded it with an overly iron fist.  He had learned all the rules and regs and used them to keep both his peers and his betters down. He used the system as the slave owner used the whip.  Nothing genteel here, just rough-hewn and so be it.

Trevor Howard, however, was too elegant to be the rough boy raised up from the ranks.  He was much more the militaristic user we’ve read much about these days.  He sought to gain prestige and profit and his crew be damned.  The military, or in this case the East India company (Halliburton; oops) needed to feed their slaves cheaply, so the Bounty is set the task of obtaining breadfruit (oil, oops again).  Howard, as Bligh, shows this to be the only important measure and so crew sicken and die under his harsh measures.  The comparison to any ongoing military engagement is inevitable, so I better stop here, before I really get off course.

Both films are beautifully shot. And, the stories are well written, as long as you don’t have any historical comparison (or an Adam-Troy Castro historical narrative throughout).  I must admit that I am partial to the Technicolor for the sheer splendor, but the opening shot did remind me of Dr. Doolittle.  But, overall, the less obtrusive and more entertaining is the shorter earlier version.  Superior acting and a more compact story with a few more details, just make me like it a bit more.  Thanks Dad!


by Adam-Troy Castro

A few words of explanation: while the examination of movies and their remakes will continue to be the major purpose of this blog, it is not the only movie writing I have done, nor will it be the only movie ranting I intend to do here. What follows is a previously-published blog post on the subject of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and its much inferior “Director’s Cut,” Apocalypse Now Redux. Consider it a palate-cleanser before the next big remake essay, still a week away. A-TC

Is more of the same too much? That’s the question that greets viewers of the restored, re-edited version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War fantasia, Apocalypse Now, a film that codified genius in its first release and is here presented under a different title, with almost an hour of scenes cut from its original release. The critical consensus is that the re-edited version embarrasses current Hollywood product by emerging as the best film of the year. That happens to be more or less arguable, but that, alas, is more a commentary on the bankruptcy of so much of today’s filmmaking than it is on the the quality of the restored material. For while Apocalypse Now Redux contains much that is brilliant, it is almost entirely material that appeared in the previous release; the additions, while interesting on a historical level, dilute rather than enhance the impact of what appears on screen. It is all too often easy to see why these scenes were cut during the first release. They were either redundant or just didn’t work.

Both versions of the film are loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” transferred from Africa to Vietnam. In both, a troubled, burnout military assassin named Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned by a group of officers that include a young Harrison Ford to seek out and “terminate, with extreme prejudice” the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is now somewhere in Cambodian jungle, operating a private war with natives and AWOL soldiers who “worship him like a God.” In both, Willard undertakes this journey up the river in a small patrol boat with several navy men who know nothing of his mission except that “it’s gonna be hot”; in both, he experiences so much surreal military madness on the way that by the time he gets to Kurtz he isn’t sure whether he wants to kill Kurtz or join him. Both versions suffer from a wonky geography, of the sort that requires a major military action just to get the boat into the river but then allows the crew easy contact with USO shows and mail drops much further upstream. Both versions end with the bloated Kurtz droning on about his philosophies at such length that the eventual assassination seems less like Willard carrying out his assignment and more like Willard doing something, anything, to get the blowhard to shut up.

It’s the journey to Kurtz that provides both versions of the film with its memorable power, but the meat of the journey is contained in the shorter version. Take the film’s greatest set-piece, an encounter with a mad Colonel named Kilgore. Duvall plays the role as if his life depended on it, giving what might have been the best performance in a career filled with great ones.  Kilgore is, now and then, one of the most chilling and perversely funny creations in the history of film: an arrogant, swaggering military man so lost in his own myth that he reacts not at all to explosions taking place right next to him. Willard knows at once that Kilgore knows he won’t be killed no matter what he does, a quality that makes him frightening even to an assassin like Willard. Kilgore, who blasts “The Flight of the Valkyries” from his choppers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes,” isn’t an evil man; he’s capable of wanting to give water to a wounded enemy soldier, but so easily distracted even from such moments of potential nobility that he walks away without providing the wounded man with so much as a sip. The distraction? Sheer fan-worship of a stoned Californian PFC named Lance (Timothy Bottoms), who happened to be a legendary surfer before being drafted to Nam. Kilgore, an avid surfer himself, mounts an airborne blitzkrieg on an enemy village not because it furthers Willard’s mission, but because access to its quality surf will provide Lance an opportunity to show his stuff.

 
What follows, a massive and terrifying aerial assault on both soldiers and civilians, for the most trivial of reasons, is one of the most indelible (and most elaborate) battle scenes ever filmed, all the more terrifying for the absurdity of forcing soldiers to surf under heavy fire. It ends, of course, with a genial Kilgore delivering the film’s best speech, declaring how he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. “It smells like…” he gropes for the word: “Victory.” Sheen’s character, a pretty cold-blooded bastard himself, stares at him in astonishment.

It’s a great moment. And in the film as originally released, it’s a punchline. But the restored print adds more. The napalm has blown out the waves, so Lance can’t surf.  The Colonel throws a tantrum about it. Willard takes advantage of the distraction to get Lance back to the boat so their mission can continue. Lance steals a surfboard. Everybody in the crew, including Willard, shares a hearty laugh as, shrouded by jungle canopy, they hide from helicopters broadcasting demands for the board’s return.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We establish at the beginning of the film that Willard’s a major burnout case: alcoholic, self-destructive, even suicidal. He wants a mission in part because it’s all he’s good at, and possibly in part because he wants to be killed on the way. He never smiles at all during the edited film. Allowing him to laugh, and even to indulge in hijinx, humanizes him in precisely the wrong way. It also lessens the impact of everything that happened before with Kilgore. Coppola was correct in removing this scene the first time, as it deals the film a heavy blow. There are unfortunately others to come.

Another of Apocalypse Now’s set pieces is an encounter with a travelling USO show, where three Playboy playmates gyrate and shout come-ons to soldiers who then riot and force them to flee. In the original, this is a wonderful dark bit of comedy, contrasting the empty consolations of entertainment with the violence more central to the soldier’s lot. The re-cut version eventually brings us to an abandoned base where the chopper ferrying the playmates has gone down. Willard, humanized still further (and again, in the wrong way), trades their road manager precious fuel in exchange for getting his boatmates laid. What follows is grotesquely comical coitus interruptus as the Playmates, so busy chattering about nothing that they don’t even seem to notice the imminent sex, allow themselves to be used in a chopper containing occupied coffins. None of it plays: not the soldier who begs one Playmate to pose exactly as she did on her centerfold, not the same Playmate’s endless monologue about her birds, not the other girl’s emotional collapse about posing nude, and not the punch line involving the horny 17-year-old inner city kid Sweet, who has been pacing around waiting for his turn.

It’s wrong, wrong, wrong in part because the girls don’t come off as characters, in part because it stops the film dead, in part because it’s way too obvious that the film does what it can to get only the white soldiers laid, in part because procurement seems way out of character for the emotionally dead Willard, and in part because it defuses the tension that should be building at this point in the story — but mostly because it really has nothing to do with anything. The film has already made the presence of the Playmates, in the context of the war, grotesque; bringing them back for a little sex comedy adds nothing and subtracts a lot. Again, Coppola was correct to remove this scene in the seventies, and misguided to replace it now.

The longest of the film’s restorations occurs way upriver, after Sweet’s death, when the crew of the little boat discovers a crumbling plantation still occupied by its original French owners. The frenchmen live with their own private army, repelling assaults by both sides as they stubbornly hold on to that which they insist is theirs. There is a military funeral for Sweet, adding nothing, followed by a profoundly dysfunctional family dinner where the embittered frenchmen harangue Willard with a history of the french involvement in Vietnam. Some critics love this scene, considering it as surreal as anything that comes before or after. It is surreal, all right, but there are still problems with it, as the little history lesson (shouted in thick accents),  feels way out of place in a film that otherwise functions better as a nightmare than it does as a realistic portrait of the average soldier’s experience in-country. (I mean, give me a break). It also goes on way too long, and stops the film as dead as the second Playmate encounter, but that’s a minor point. What’s absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG, is Willard’s subsequent seduction by the beautiful french woman whose husband has been killed. This is the same guy who, we’re told at the onset, returned from his first tour unable to speak a word to his wife until he said yes to a divorce. This is the same guy who needed a mission because he wasn’t able to do anything else. Giving him a bittersweet encounter with a spacey french broad, whether she smokes a mean cigar or not, is the greatest mis-step in the re-edited version — and it’s even worse when you consider that these scenes, which feature the french broad going on and on about the two sides of Willard’s nature, also also include the only sappy syrup-music in the entire film. The brilliant making-of film, Heart of Darkness, shows us Coppola throwing a temper tantrum after several days of filming the sequence, cursing that it’s shit and doesn’t work. He was right then, and he should have resisted the temptation to restore it.

The most problematic sequence in either version of the film is the encounter with Kurtz, played by a Marlon Brando who showed up on the set weighing far too much to be a believable Green Beret (especially a dying one). Brando had yet to become comfortable with showing his increased weight on film, and insisted on being photographed only in extreme shadow. His mostly-improvised scenes are rough going even though he did produce a memorable monologue about an atrocity involving  innoculations. Many viewers believe they don’t work at all. I take the position that they work just fine in the original film, where the abrupt change in tone takes place at the end of a film that up until then moves like a rocket. I feel that, as cut, Brando gave the film precisely what it needed at that point. But the recut version places Brando after the second playmate encounter and after the interminable plantation sequence; i.e. after the film has already squandered its momentum and cannot afford anything that slows the story still further. Worse, it adds even more slow-motion Brando, who at one point reads at length from TIME magazine. By the time Willard finally gets off his ass and provides Kurtz with the mercy killing he desires, the film feels like it’s been dead for more than an hour.

Apocalypse Now, whether Redux or not, still looks fantastic, with brilliant photography that accentuates every bead of sweat, astounding visuals that elevate warfare to the level of literal as well as figurative nightmare and surreal comic-opera performances from, in addition to those already cited, Frederic Forrest and Dennis Hopper. The original version was a flawed work salvaged from one of the great disaster-ridden productions in film history; among other things, it almost killed Martin Sheen. Coppola himself thought the film was a disaster until he heard the critical reaction. But he came closer to a disaster than he ever knew. Redux is that disaster. Somebody once said that writing is an exercise in killing your darlings, by which he meant that writers need the courage to remove the lines and scenes and little bits that fail to work as well as intended. With Apocalypse Now Redux, we learn once again that the same is true of filmmaking, and see, with perfect clarity, just how crippled even masterpieces can become when those murdered darlings are pulled moldering from their graves and returned to that which was vital and astonishing without them.


commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. **** Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Other Known Versions Not Covered Here: True Grit (TV-movie, possibly a series pilot, 1978; starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn; more a sequel than an actual remake); also Rooster Cogburn (1975), theatrical sequel starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.

*

It all comes down to dirt and lighting.

There are any number of great movie westerns prior to 1969, when True Grit was made, but to modern eyes, even many of the best of them look awfully antiseptic, more like the theme-park frontier town of Westworld (1973) than the actual dusty, unwashed, primitive, blood-soaked actual American west. The cowboys and gunfighters riding for days on end to get from one clapboard outpost of civilization to another may never change their clothes once between Desolation and Despair, but somehow they almost look minutes from their last hot shower, a short drive from a clothing change, one phone call away from a proper dentist. There are exceptions, of course; you need look no further than The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) to find a town where the saloon is clearly a dusty refuge for dusty men, and people organize lynching parties because that may be the only entertainment option that beats another long night spent listening to their grizzled neighbors suck food particles from between their few remaining teeth. But that movie was in black and white, which among other virtues can cut to the heart of the matter by eliminating the often false gloss bestowed by color. In all too many others, even those that work on other levels, the saloons, the hotels, the general stores, and the sheriff’s offices are all awash with steady light even at midnight, the illumination suggesting vast track lighting just above the frame; and the costumes suggesting that nobody in the old west was ever dirty, unless they were drunks who could be reformed and bad guys too mean by their very natures to rush down to Pop’s General Store for a six-pack of Irish Spring.

In 1969, this was just starting to change for the dying cinematic genre known as the western, in part because of the influence of foreign filmmakers like Sergio Leone and domestic ones like Sam Peckinpah, not too mention the technical advances that permitted scenes to be filmed in natural or dim light. The Wild Bunch (1969), released at almost the same time as the original True Grit, was then revolutionary in its presentation of a world where life was cheap, gunfights were not just deadly but ugly and brutal, and the right people didn’t always survive. But we were still years off off from the saloons of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Unforgiven (1992), bars where it really didn’t matter whether anybody had bothered to clean your glass or sweep the floor – let alone mop up the bloodstains – because it was just too dang-blasted dark in there to tell the difference anyway. The brightly-lit, well-scrubbed westerns sometimes give the impression that there wouldn’t be all those gunfights in the street if there weren’t some people created, perhaps off the assembly line, just plain bad; the newer ones that did a better job at capturing the ambience establish at a glance that life in this place and time is brutal and short and that regular showdowns between killers shooting at one another at close range might be the only natural reaction.

There are hints of this in the Hathaway version of True Grit, which movie icon John Wayne called the first real role anybody had given him in twenty years. You couldn’t not provide those hints and still provide a recognizable version of the hard-drinking, one-eyed, fat old Marshal Reuben Cogburn. His living conditions are exactly the same as those described in the Charles Portis novel, and later portrayed in the Coen Brothers remake. He lives in the back room of a dry-goods store, on what looks like a hideously uncomfortable rope bed, with missing cords that ensure he sinks halfway to the floor throughout the night. He shares his space with sacks of grain and a well-fed population of rats who feed with relative impunity thanks to a cat named General who can’t be bothered to kill them. At night, he drinks himself to oblivion with whiskey he has confiscated during his law-enforcement activities of the day; since he spends nothing on booze and doesn’t seem to spend much on rent or clothing, and has no dependents, it’s a relative mystery what he does with the pittance he earns for going after fugitives. (My theory is that he buys even more booze.)

Any close examination of this lifestyle, added to the subsequent revelations that he’s estranged from his family, can only establish him as a wreck of a man, living an empty and joyless existence punctuated only by the one thing he’s good at, killing.

And yet, with the evidence right there in front of our eyes, it’s not the impression we come away with watching John Wayne play the part.

In the 1969 True Grit, Reuben Cogburn is downright cuddly: a standup fella we’re downright happy to accompany for two hours.

It’s not due to any failure on his part as an actor. Though he did not possess anything close to the on-screen versatility of Jeff Bridges, John Wayne’s movie career possessed its share of nuanced roles, challenging roles, and even just-plain unlikeable roles. You only have to see his turns in Red River  (1948) or The Searchers  (1956) to know that he was capable of capturing a certain authentic human darkness.

But that human darkness seems absent from the 1969 True Grit. That movie’s Cogburn may be an alcoholic, poverty-stricken fat man who happily takes on the job of killing a malefactor in exchange for what we would now consider spare change, but the film makes him a comforting presence in a world where, thanks to him, all the correct people will soon be killed, and everything will turn out to be more or less all right. It’s a performance that pleased his fans and won him the only Academy Award of his long career. But it somehow doesn’t feel quite real. It feels more like it emanates from that theme-park west of the brightly lit saloons rather than the muddy, messy realities of the actual one.

Why?

Well, there are many reasons for that, among them Wayne’s shaky health at the time. The movie protects him very well, but he had just lost a lung from cancer, and couldn’t walk much more than ten paces without exhausting the little breath he had. On screen this is easy as attribute to the character’s fat; there is only one moment where he seems to lose his wind in the middle of a long speech and has to take a fresh breath in order to continue. He’s also acting alongside Kim Darby, who was stiff and wooden and eight years too old for her part; and the even more wooden and charisma-free Glen Campbell, latest in a series of pop singers considered square even at the time who got shoehorned into a number of Wayne’s movies in what amounted to a transparent and spectacularly tin-eared attempt to court the youth audience. (Others had been Frankie Avalon and Rick Nelson.) Actors blossom opposite good actors and look worse opposite bad ones, and the only great actors in the 1969 True Grit are Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, neither of whom is on screen much.

But the real problem is that John Wayne is not playing Reuben Cogburn, but John Wayne: and not the John Wayne he actually was, a guy who loved Gilbert and Sullivan and harbored doubts about his acting abilities, but “John Wayne,” the character played by John Wayne who may have had different names and job titles over the years but who was always recognizably “John Wayne,” an iconic figure who rarely altered from one movie to the next.

This can be defined as a movie star’s job, even when that movie star frequently plays other people; Bruce Willis is not always “Bruce Willis” and Clint Eastwood is not always “Clint Eastwood” and Jack Nicholson is not always “Jack Nicholson,” but you know exactly what I mean when I put those names in quotes and you know exactly what I mean when I put “John Wayne” in quotes.  By 1969 it referred to a rough-edged, tough-talking frontier man with a lifetime of standing up for the right thing, who will not bullshit and not waver in his duty, and who will at one point prove that he has a heart even if he plays all his emotional cards close to the vest.

The second you see John Wayne playing “John Wayne” in the rancid little bed where Reuben Cogburn lays his drunken carcass to sleep, you know that it’s really “John Wayne” and that you should trust him implicitly.

By contrast, the 2010 Coen Brothers film has as its center a lead, Jeff Bridges, who might have a gallery of great performances behind him, but who has never developed a persona that amounts to his name in quotes. He doesn’t bring Reuben Cogburn to him, as John Wayne did in 1969, but instead goes to Reuben Cogburn. And so you begin with an advantage that services the story of the Charles Portis novel: namely, that you don’t walk in already knowing who this guy is. You can see how debased he is, and this time it isn’t a beloved actor performing a bit, but a character whose circumstances can be felt. You don’t know what he’s going to do. You certainly don’t know whether he’s going to rise to the occasion, and how. You may really know, especially if you’ve seen the prior movie or read the novel, but you can be a little less confident, a little less certain that this Reuben Cogburn won’t let you down.

This permits a scene that never would have appeared in any John Wayne movie, the one in the 2010 film where Cogburn gets drunk and discouraged on the trail and declares that he’s tired of hunting a bunch of bad guys he ain’t gonna find anyway, and that he’s giving up. John Wayne’s Cogburn never wavered. He was gonna find his man no matter what. This Reuben is, at heart, a mean old failure who gave up on his family and took to the bottle and pretty much ended up a nothing; giving up is after all what he does, and it makes everything that follows play at a much higher level.

There are many other things the Coen Brothers did much better, in 2010, than Henry Hathaway and company did in 1969. They used a grungier, and more authentic sense of time and place. They cast a better, age-appropriate actress as Mattie and made damn sure that the movie was about her, not about the hero she enlisted. For the most part, they cast better actors in the supporting roles (or at least using some who performed at the same level that Hopper and Duvall did in 1969).  They honored the dialogue and distinctive voice of the Portis novel. They preserved the downbeat ending. They staged just about every dramatic high point (and I include the famous action climax, with the line “Fill your hands,  you son of a bitch!”), better than Hathaway did, among other things making sure we remember that the heroine is a 14-year-old girl who, formidable as she might be, is still a child who knows that she initiated this trail of vengeance and must now react to the sight of bad men reduced to cooling meat before her eyes.

This is crucial to capturing the depths of the story. In the 1969 film, when Mattie falls in the snake pit at the moment her violent quest reaches its conclusion, it is just another thing that happens. In the 2010 film, we are reminded (consciously or not) that she has compromised her innocence, and perhaps damned herself.

The Coens also trusted the audience in a manner that the makers of the 1969 film did not, by sometimes trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. In 1969, John Wayne’s Cogburn saw Mattie crossing the river on horseback after being left behind, and beamed, “She reminds me of me.” (There was, in 1969 movieland, no higher praise.) In 2010, Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn just watches her, his eyes stony. His thoughts, his emotions, are his own. When he subsequently stops La Boeuf from beating her with a switch, it’s possible to debate whether that’s because he thinks her chastisement has gone far enough…or despises La Boeuf… or has just been taken by surprise by an actual feeling for the girl. In 2010, we can’t know. In 1969, John Wayne told us.

It’s no contest, artistically, which is more satisfying.

*

{Response by Judi Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. ***1/2 Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Let me get this out of the way first off…  I am NOT a fan of westerns.  I had my fill of cowboy films every Saturday afternoon of my early years.  They were as inescapable to me as the war films on veteran’s day weekends.  Every saturday I was thrown into some gunfight or Indian attack on the fort or whatever.  Just the perfect fare for a young reader in love with fantasy/science fiction/horror and historical biography. Right!   But, a few so called westerns stood apart from this pack of blood.   True Grit was one of the noble breed that fell into my “not really a western” group of acceptable films. 

The story I remembered from my childhood told of vengeance by a person I could relate to.   Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, was in her later teens, but still seeking the man who killed her Pa.  I could go with that, I have a Pa, I would kill anyone who shot him, so that worked for me.  Hiring John Wayne,(bigger than life in every film I remembered), smart move on her part, even if he was playing at being drunk (an unconvincing act by him for the most part).   So far, no problem.  Then along comes  Glen Campbell and blows every line he can get his mouth around.  The man couldn’t even die well.  I mean geesh!  But at least his part was small and I could forget it between viewings.  Because, alas, yes, there were many, MANY, viewings of this film.  It starred on of my Pa’s film icons and in one of his most famous roles, and therefore became required watching.

Now, jump ahead 40 or so years, and the Coen brothers, who I consider to be a good film team despite the tendency to allow the fool to overcome,  saunter in and show us that the movie I have a vague fondness for from my childhood has nothing whatsoever to do with the original material, and they are going to show us all how it should have been put together.  Quite the act of chutzpah on their part, wouldn’t you say?   I mean my Pa couldn’t have been the only one to enforce the love of this classic onto his impressionable children, so the outrage heard around the net(world)  was understandable.

But, they did  what they set out to do.  They brought True Grit back to its source material and hired great actors to play the iconic roles.  Joel and Ethan Coen gained a new notch on my respectability meter with their production. 

I won’t compare the actors in the roles, it would be unfair to the original.  This True Grit is a capital W western, a film (not a movie) to be watched over and over.  The scenes and lines to be savored like a great meal.  So fully satisfying that even I, the hater of westerns, fell in love with this production. 

In writing this, I have not read Adam’s portion, and I will continue to give my opinions in this manner.  I hope that this format will be able to give our readers a glimpse into our discussions in the car and our living room, after we have watched these films and the remakes.