Posts Tagged ‘Toshiro Mifune’


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ****

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al.  Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others.  128 minutes. ***

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, *

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai.  Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. **

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

*

The citizens of a tiny, isolated village eking out a living from the land suddenly find themselves threatened by bandits who plan to swoop in, just a few short months from now, and take everything they have. The villagers are bereft. They are outgunned, outnumbered, and not used to fighting. But perhaps it is possible to mount an effective defense. Perhaps they can send representatives abroad, in search of warriors willing to fight for them – warriors who will fight for little pay other than their own subsistence and a chance for a meaningful death. Hungry warriors, who just might also be great warriors, able to defend a largely ungrateful village against a far superior force.

This is the germ of what many, including myself, consider the single greatest motion picture ever made by the single greatest movie director of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (It is sometimes referred to as The Seven Samurai, but the vagaries of translation and the absence of a Japanese equivalent for the word The render both titles equally accurate for English speakers. I usually include The because it’s a more natural way to say it, but omit the article when I have a second or two to think about it.)

Seven Samurai casts an enormous shadow, and not just because it was imitated by many of the action movies that followed it. It is, among other things, the first movie where a disparate team of fighting men are gathered one at a time for an impossible mission, and – given that we first see the lead samurai  helping a village rescue a hungry child from a kidnapper  – quite possibly the first film ever to introduce an action hero by first showing us how effective he is in an unrelated adventure. It was a key film in the careers of director Kurosawa, whose collaborations with his frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune encompass many of the greatest movies ever made; and for international star Mifune, whose performance as the clownish but effective warrior known only by the clear alias Kikuchiyo is quite possibly the best of his own career. It was the most expensive Japanese movie made up to that point, made by a studio that was also filming Godzilla at the same time and almost went under due to spiraling costs. It is so terrific a film that its first remake, the western, isn’t even half as good and still emerges as a classic; so memorable that it has been remade, unofficially or otherwise, in multiple  media ranging from comic books (a two-part Justice League story taking place on an Earth menaced by alien invaders, and featuring the various DC superheroes as the titular superheroes), to the Stephen King novel Wolves Of the Calla (very much a Samurai homage), episodes of Kung Fu and Star Trek (an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled “The Magnificent Ferengi”). Yet another remake, set in a backwater region of Thailand and featuring a motley crew of unemployed military contractors in the roles of the Samurai, has been announced for 2014, and the sheer awe people feel for the original film can be measured by how many people, temporarily forgetting the number of different eras and backgrounds to which the essential plot has been transplanted, angrily label the very idea as blasphemous. Seriously. C’mon. That ship has sailed, and I suspect the 2014 version might not entirely suck.

Seven Samurai (1954)
The most important thing any non-Japanese viewer need to know about the original Kurosawa film is that not all of it translates.
 
Oh, it’s very easy to understand in its broad strokes. A village is threatened by bandits who intend to arrive at harvest time and take all their food, leaving them to starve. The villagers can muster no defense by themselves. The old man who serves as the local repository of wisdom tells a delegation of citizens that they need to find samurai warriors to protect them. The villagers protest that they don’t have any money to pay samurai, except possibly in food. The old man says, simply, “Find Hungry Samurai.” This the villagers do, in large part because Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a respected but impoverished samurai of many years experience, puts his own persuasive skills to the task. Counting Kambei, six samurai are varying skills agree to go; as does a mysterious, filthy, and downright clownish derelict, Kikuchiyo (Mifune), who is no samurai but claims to be one. As the battle begins, Kikuchiyo turns out to be something the others never suspected: not just an able killer and useful comrade, but also a fine leader of men and a pivotal bridge between the samurai and the villagers who fear them.

These are some of the things that don’t translate.

For example, we first  see Kambei, having his head shaved so he can pass for a monk and therefore get close enough to a cornered thief to kill the man and rescue the child he has taken hostage. Much is made of the shaving of his head. Westerners may not understand that this is not just an aesthetic cost but also a social one; samurai of his rank traditionally wore their hair in top knots, and Kambei’s temporary sacrifice of his demonstrates among other things his willingness to descend to lower social strata if the need is urgent and the cause just. For the farmers who have traveled to the city to recruit samurai but been rebuffed by many, this is no small consideration in their decision to approach him with their life-and-death problem.


 
Secondly, westerners may fail to realize that samurai is not just a profession, but a social class; people were born to that exalted rank, and took deep pride in having a master to serve (one reason why being a ronin, a “masterless samurai,” is considered such a despicable fate). Understand this and Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, makes a lot more sense. Not only has he never been a samurai, but he will never be an samurai, and never could be a samurai, despite his evident skill with a sword. It is significant that he takes his name from a birth certificate that the others clearly recognize as stolen; it is also significant that – in a touch few westerners will understand – the name Kikuchiyo is mispronounced and misunderstood by him, and according to some sources might even obviously be a girl’s. It is also not just splendid slapstick but a very sensible point of character that he proves hopeless when it comes to handling horses; as peasant stock, he certainly would not have had any experience as a rider. Kikuchiyo picks at lice and scratches his unclean body and both worships and disdains the samurai simultaneously, all acts of a man eager to be accepted by the class that didn’t just oppress his own, but – as is revealed in one powerful scene – orphaned him.

(Kikuchiyo steals the movie outright, which here qualifies as grand theft.)
 
Thirdly, there’s the matter of the four samurai who die in the course of the mission to save the village. None die from arrows or swords. They’re all shot with one of the small handful of muskets possessed by the bandits, each one of them falling to what is – in a very real sense – the future. Even the most skilled samurai, Kyuzo, dies from a musket wound; it is profoundly powerful that when Kikuchiyo is shot and mortally wounded in the last few minutes of the film, he survives just long to stagger toward his murderer, a look of infinite rage on his face, and return the favor with a sword-thrust. There’s more going on, in that moment, more resonant history than a good guy killing a bad guy, a character we love killing one we have reason to hate. It’s the samurai code holding off the future for a few minutes longer, and Kikuchiyo becoming every bit what he pretended to be.

None of this is a hundred percent necessary to understand; certainly the same character notes (Kambei’s compassion, Kikuchiyo’s ambivalence toward his companions) are established in broad and subtle strokes, throughout. It is all so much of a piece that the 160-minute international version, for years the only one available in the United States, doesn’t seem to be missing all that much from the 207-minute restoration. (It certainly moves faster, one thing to keep in mind when introducing the film to skeptical friends who’ve never seen it, as I recently discovered when I brought the two-disk Criterion version over to show my friends with the home theatre.)

The movie manages to juggle a great number of character threads, including among them the journey of the young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who comes to Kambei as an inexperienced student and is distracted during the preparations for battle by, shall we say, the concerns of the young; villager Rikichi  (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who for deeply personal reasons of his own becomes angry whenever his own matrimonial status is mentioned; the timid villager Yohei, who is frightened of everything; and the supremely talented samurai Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is the only one of the bunch who you could really call a superhero of swordsmanship. It deals with the very real fear the villagers have for the samurai who have put their own lives on hold to save them, the very real reasons the samurai should fear them back, a love story, low comedy, great battle scenes, and deep sad reflections on the warrior’s lot. It starts slowly but builds in suspense and power throughout, until we get to the final hour, which races like wildfire as the last remaining bandits – evidently a band of slow learners – continue to charge the village that has been slaughtering them. It is beautifully filmed, like all Kurosawa films, and like most of the best Kurosawa films doesn’t permit depth or entertainment to rob from each other. It is considered, by many, the single greatest movie ever made. I happen to concur. Lawrence Of Arabia comes second, Casablanca third, Citizen Kane fourth. Or so goes my math. On other days I’d switch the order of numbers two through three. Nothing ever dislodges Samurai.
 

 
The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

When first released in the United States, Seven Samurai went by the name The Magnificent Seven, which was cribbed for a western remake starring a bunch of then-famous or soon-to-be-famous actors whose full roll call would someday fuel any number of trivia challenges. For the record, I post the full list of gunfighters without resorting to notes: Yul Brynner (who came pre-bald, but played the Kambei part, here named “Chris”), Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and (the one nobody can name) Brad Dexter.

The bandits of the original film were a bunch of faceless outsiders who were for the most part only glimpsed when they came close, but westerns of the time required a sneering villain, and so the first major alteration in the storyline is the addition of one, who styles himself the “friend” of the luckless village he loots every year and shows up in the first scene to kindly announce that he will be back in a few months, to take everything. (He also kills the one guy foolish enough to attack him, thus rendering it clear to even the stupidest member of the audience just what the stakes are.) This stretches common sense a little, as the bandits of the first film aren’t aware that they’ve inadvertently given their group of terrified farmers advance warning and these guys all but dare theirs to get guns and shoot back, but hey: in doing so, it fulfills many of the requirements of the western, and gives us an absolutely dandy villain in the person of Eli Wallach, who gets great lines like – again, typed here without recourse to notes – “If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!” What a nice guy.

The shorter running time means that the team is collected a lot faster, which is a good thing, even a great deal of psychological acuity is sacrificed. Here, as in the first film, we get two of the gunfighters, actually two-and-a-half, introduced at once: here by the simple expedient of having the two played by Brynner and McQueen, previously unknown to one another, voluntarily team up to fight a cause no reasonable person could possibly object to – in this case, agreeing to deliver the body of an indian who dropped dead in the street to Boot Hill over the objections of local racists who believe it more proper to let the corpse continue to lie in the street and attract flies. (More nice guys.) The third member of the future band of brothers, Horst Bochner – an amalgam of the Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo characters from the prior film, in that he’s BOTH the callow youth and the ex-farmer, wannabe gunfighter with the reason to hate gunfighters —  follows them on their journey with a big grin on his face,  enjoying the show. (There’s a great exchange during this interval as well. following an exchange of lead: McQueen asks Brynner, “You elected?” Brynner examines the bullethole in his hat and says, “No, but I’ve been nominated real good.”) The subsequent introductions of the Coburn and Bronson characters pretty much echo the introductions of their counterparts in the original film, but Robert Vaughn’s Lee is a fine innovation: an icy-cold killer who has made so many enemies in so many places that a suicide mission to save a bunch of a strangers actually sounds like a form of escape, to him.
  
It’s terrific Hollywood entertainment even at this point, but some of the changes from the original are already evident. To wit: the seven samurai included a number of guys who qualified as the best Kambei could get; these guys, even Bochner, are all prodigies, deeply dangerous men and dead shots. (Even Vaughn’s Lee, who it turns out has lost his nerve, pulls it together to prove himself an extraordinary talented gunman.)

Other changes: unlike the Japanese villagers, who always knew they needed samurai, the Mexicans only go out in search of weapons and acquire their gunfighters almost by accident; the love story ends happily as the youngest of the gunfighters voluntarily gives up on his life of violence and goes to join the girl; and, most notably, a twist that has never made any sense to this viewer. In this film, the bandits actually succeed in taking over the town, taking the gunfighters hostage; and Wallach’s bandit, believing that the gunfighters have learned their lesson, has them escorted out of town and released. Oh, sure, he says it’s because he thinks they’ll take word of his victory up north…but in that case, a guy this ruthless would simply kill most of them. Here, he lets them all go…and thus gets all his men killed stupidly when Brynner and company return for revenge. There is only one reason for this: namely, that this is a two-hour movie as opposed to a more than three-hour one, and John Sturges does not have the time to have it come down to the last few bandits, as Kurosawa did. So the screenplay gives us an unreasonable shortcut, and hopes we buy it.

It’s overall just about half as good a movie as the Kurosawa one is, but that’s still good enough to render it a classic of its kind, helped along by star power and some terrific dialogue I happily quote now. This is Charles Bronson’s O’Reilly to some local boys who idolize him:

”Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”
  
A dialogue between villain Calvera (Wallach) and captured hero Vin (McQueen):
  
Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hmm? Why, huh?

Chris: I wonder myself.

Calvera: No, come on, come on, tell me why.

Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”

Calvera And?

Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.

(And, finally, there’s this exchange, which I cheerfully count as the best gunfighter dialogue in the history of the movies.)

Chico: Villages like this they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years.

Chris Adams: You think it’s worth it?

Chico: Don’t you?

Chris Adams: It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.

Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn’t that true? Hmm? Well, isn’t that true?

Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name – maybe two hundred of ‘em! Rented rooms you live in – five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses – a thousand! Home – none! Wife – none! Kids… none! Prospects – zero. Suppose I left anything out?

Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you’re tied down to – none. People with a hold on you – none. Men you step aside for – none.

Lee: Insults swallowed – none. Enemies – none.

Chris Adams: No enemies?

 Lee: Alive.

Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.

Chris Adams: Yeah. So did I at your age.

 

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

It’s embarrassing to note this, but this – not officially a remake, but come on — is the first version of the basic story that I ever saw; and back then I kind of liked it, though it has aged horribly (or I have), and it is in its 105 minutes far more interminable than the 207-minute Samurai.

It was produced by Roger Corman, who did occasionally make some commendable contributions to cinema but much more frequently – I hate to say this to his many fans, but it is true – seemed less interested in making good movies than in making movie-shaped objects that people could somehow be fooled into buying tickets for. This, a knockoff of Star Wars, is one of them: a film in which one representative of peaceful planet beset by angry world-conquering types led by a megalomaniac named Sador (b-movie fixture John Saxon) recruits warriors to fight for it.
 
The special effects are awful, by today’s standards, but it’s a given that they would be. More to the point, the screenplay (by John Sayles, of all people), is largely a collection of colorless declarative sentences. It’s the kind of science fiction that uses the word “galaxy” to describe every possible unit of interplanetary distances, even when they’re really only talking about solar systems. And the performances are almost all terrible, even when they come from people like Richard Thomas and George Peppard who normally can be expected to deliver better. Darlanne Fluegel, as the female lead, is particularly awful, but Sybil Danning is even worse. She wasn’t always. But she was terrible, here.

We need not take up much space with it, except to note that a key scene from both prior films – in which the hired mercenaries show up in the village they’ve agreed to defend, only to discover everybody hiding from them – here ends pointlessly as the villagers just pop up and say, hi, whoops, we didn’t realize you were the good guys. This is ludicrous. In both prior movies, the antipathy of the villagers is part of the point; here, it’s a scene included only to provide the narrative parallel. We’ll also give the movie reasonable credit for its few good ideas, among them representatives of a race that communicates in degrees of heat and which is seen, at one point, acting as the “campfire” the humans utilize to cook weiners. That’s pretty funny. But alas, so is the alien makeup used by several others, worst of a bad lot being the pancake makeup and forehead-eyes worn by one race, of which it needs to be said that whoever thought this stuff would survive a close-up should have been shot.

Does anybody survive this mess unscathed? Well, yes…and here we get to one of the neatest bits of movie-geekery, ever. Robert Vaughn plays Gelt, a killer who we first encounter hiding in darkness, from the price on his head.

Gelt: I could buy your planet ten times over with what I’ve gathered in this room: plutonium, cadmium, quanine crystals… I’ve been very well paid for my work.

Shad: I’m sorry; I’ve wasted your time…

Gelt: NO… WAIT… Listen to the rest of it. I sleep with my back to the wall, when I CAN sleep. I EAT SERPENTS, seven times a week. There’s not a major city in this galaxy where I can show my face, or spend my wealth. Right now, your offer looks very attractive to me… A meal, and a place to hide. Agreed?

If any of this sounds familiar at all, it is because this is the same motivation professed by his character from The Magnificent Seven, twenty years earlier.  He had only sixteen lines in that first film and probably fewer here, but was memorable in both – and it started a cycle of self-reference that continued with a 1993 episode of Kung Fu: The Adventure Continues where he played a version of the same character, a third time. Nor is Vaughn finished with this. He’s wrapped a UK film set for release in 2012, The Magnificent Eleven, which turns the samurai into a neighborhood soccer team and casts him as the head of the “bandit” team they are gathered to defeat. Vaughn’s riffs on this one story now span more than fifty years, and counting. Impressive.

Three Amigos (1986), A Bug’s Life (1995)

Neither of these films are “official” Samurai remakes either, but it’s worth noting that the resemblance between their plots and the plots of the original film are very much deliberate. In the first, a Mexican village beset by a bandit called El Guapo seeks mercenaries to fight him off, and winds up with the titular idiot silent-movie stars; in the second, an animated Pixar film,  a colony of ants recruits makes the same request of the seven members of a flea circus, to protect their own harvest from a swarm of predatory grasshoppers. Three Amigos is a comedy grab bag, that doesn’t bother much with narrative consistency once it sets up its premise (and is funny only fitfully), but A Bug’s Life owes a lot to Samurai, especially in this speech from the lead villain, Hopper: “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line.”

The Warrior’s Code

Seven Samurai, a world classic and one of the greatest films ever made. The Magnificent Seven, one of the top twenty westerns. Battle Beyond The Stars, a reeking embarrassment. Three Amigos: Fitfully Amusing.A Bug’s Life: Also a classic of its own kind.

And now, the wife sounds the alarm.

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ***1/2

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, et.al. Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others. 128 minutes. ***1/2

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, 1/2

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. (can’t rate as I’ve never forced myself to watch)

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

I’m probably going to anger a few purists, but I happen to like both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven about equally.  Both films carry the same energy and tell the same basic tale.  The transposition in time and place doesn’t affect the basic story or moral codes.  And, while the story presumes to play off the good versus evil, neither absolutely states that the lesser evil is better (only safer).

So, since this was so good twice, someone figured let’s do it again.  Only this time let’s set it in outer space, and use our new special effects to make It REALLY good!  (Small pause for sarcasm snarfs!)  OK, breathe easy.  Battle Beyond the Stars, 105 minutes of my life lost to one of the most poorly written, directed and conceived remakes ever!  Were any of the actors really even trying, or was this just a quick (I know Corman schedules) paycheck?  George Peppard pretty much meandered through his part, and Richard Thomas just attempted to un John-Boy himself and lost that fight. Robert Vaughn just hit replay, and I’m still not sure what the hell Sybil Danning was attempting, but porn acting is as close as she got.  Seriously, this could have been so much more, but it was just pieces and ideas stuck together with dry bubble gum.  No look or feel, just unending boredom, where even my bathroom break couldn’t have come fast enough.

Now, back to the good stuff.

( I’m skipping Three Amigos because I haven’t watched it, and recently having seen Martin Short perform live, really have no desire to see that movie.)

The achievements of Akira Kurosawa have made me a lifelong admirer.  Not a fan, but I do enjoy almost all of his work that I’ve seen.  For Seven Samurai, his clear vision is seen in every nuanced detail.  From casting to sets and locations, each decision is that of a master artisan molding his clay.  And, he has never gotten more out of his leading man, Toshiro Mifune, than in this film.  The matching brilliance of man, part and direction proves that no film is just the actors in it.  Maybe, current filmmakers could take note and try to remember how a good film will last well beyond its meager shelf life. My only problem with this classic, is that in its full length, it’s a tailbone buster. The pacing of the longest version tended to slow a bit much and left me time to think of other things.  The shorter lengths always kept me rapt.

As to The Magnificent Seven.  Wow, what can I say.  I Hate Westerns, but this is one of the group that I say isn’t just a Western.  This isn’t a cowboys and injuns shoot out at the ranch.  This film has bad men, searching for anything, worse men looking for a free ride, and good men, caught in the middle of a pincer trap.  The best compliment that I can pay to any  Western genre film, is to say that it really isn’t one.  This film is about people and good films of this type are few and far between.  The characters  here have become recognized as hero archetypes rather than caricatures.  The Magnificent Seven paid perfect homage to its revered predecessor.

Finally, I’ll touch on A Bug’s Life.  We included this one at my insistence.  I love this film.  It’s a perfect introduction for anyone to the Seven Samurai mythos.  The crew who worked on this are known as film buffs, and Stanton’s script and Lasseter’s shot direction clearly show their love of the earlier films. Both films have scenes adapted to this lighter version of a hard tale.

If there’s a tween film lover in your life, get them to watch A Bug’s Life, then a few days later, hit ‘em with The Magnificent Seven, and a week or so later, finish the education with Seven Samurai.  The discussions should prove fun.


A matter of liberty.

 

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains.  129 minutes. *** 1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. *

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

This much is going to be hard to anybody born before or after a certain date to understand.

Once upon a time, Billy Jack was hot shit.

If you saw that movie when you were twelve and the social environment of the early sixties and early seventies were still part of the air which you breathed, it was possible to watch that movie and consider it deep. It was possible to completely miss the impressive non-acting of several of its principals, the troubled “half-breed” hero spouting native indian philosophies while looking like the whitest of all white men ever to set foot on this planet, and the martial arts sequences that – to put it mildly – cheated tremendously on the protagonist’s behalf, and feel that you were watching a movie that dared to tell the truth. It was possible to hear the narrative-fable theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” and grow absolutely and totally addicted to the special chill that ran down your spine at the point in the lyrics when the village that has just slaughtered another village for its great treasure turns over the stone that allegedly hides it to find the chiseled words, “Peace on Earth.” I know this. I had the single, and for a while there listened to it obsessively.

(Nowadays I ask some tough questions of that fable. Why chisel an inspirational slogan on a monument, and mount it dirt-side down? Why invite the bunch of aggressive assholes in the next village to “share” in your “great treasure,” thus inviting their raid, when you can just tell them, “Sorry, guys; it’s not money, it’s just a philosophy?” Isn’t it really fucking stupid to build an impressive-looking vault, call it your “treasure,” make sure everybody in the neighborhood knows about it, and not also take the pains to make sure that everybody knows it’s monetarily worthless? What’s the matter with you? Do you want to be slaughtered in your sleep?)

Billy Jack (1971), second and best of a series of action-oriented films that began with the much inferior Born Losers (1967),  did have a perfect formula for audience identification: posit a bunch of young, likeable outsiders, living near a town of bigoted dirtbags. Establish that they’re bullied and harassed every time they show their faces. Give them a protector – another outsider, albeit one who can take care of himself and kick ass. Keep pushing him into positions where he has to bruise up dirtbags who badly deserve it. Make sure the bullies are not interested in peace, and that they keep escalating the violence. Make sure that tragedy ensues and that the hero pays the price.

It’s impossible to not root for the hero in a circumstance like that, even if one right-wing acquaintance of mine was so permanently bruised by the film’s suggestion that beating up hippies for no reason might not be a good thing, that almost forty years later  he angrily cited Billy Jack as the sole proof of his major grudge against liberal Hollywood, that (in what I assure you is a direct quote), “long-haired maggot-infested dope-smoking FM types {are} the de facto saviours in every flick.” He honestly believed this. Because of one movie, Billy Jack.

(My written response at the time was so baffled that I’ll indulge myself by digressing at length to provide it.

“I know very few movies that fit this rather demented description, which for me crosses the border into hate speech. Especially the “maggot-infested,” unless you’re talking about zombie movies. Maybe you mean “lice-infested”, which is your desperate projection and something I’ve ONLY seen in one movie hero, Toshiro Mifune in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

And, ummm, the hero of EVERY flick? Really? Including forty years of cop movies? And ummm, all the science fiction movies, and all the romantic comedies, and all the gangster movies, and all the horror movies, and all the historical dramas?

And, ummm, when even the one example you came up with is forty years old, a breakthrough indie and not a studio-produced mainstream film, and…

…boy, this is like shooting fish in a barrel…

…not at all how you represent it?

I’m not defending Billy Jack, which is a pretty slanted piece of work by design, but I will characterize that film properly. And I will point out that the only real narrative difference between that film and that conservative favorite championed by Uncle Ronnie, Stallone’s adaptation of David Morrell’s First Blood — both being films about Vietnam war heroes who return home as outsiders with hair-trigger tempers, and who are hassled by local authorities about their long hair until they erupt into violence — is that Billy Jack, unlike Rambo, had friends. Those friends fit some of the adjectives you provide, except for two: the absolutely bugfuck “maggot infested,” and the far more central “de facto saviours.” Because if there’s one thing that distinguished the counterculture types in BILLY JACK, it was that they were barely even capable of protecting themselves; they required the unstable Billy Jack to intervene, and thus contributed to the eventual bloodbath.

So what else is there? EASY RIDER? Sui generis. Maybe a few other films from way back when, and those historically set then. Beyond that you have a whole lot of gun-wielding law and order types, who I guess you would call conservatives; a few idealistic liberal types who are rarely presented as action heroes, who appear in issue dramas; certainly damn few of the sort you present.

Let us be honest. You don’t see characterizations of the sort you decry in “every” film for thirty years. You saw liberal positions in SOME films. But you resent seeing them in ANY films so much that it drove you to a sweeping statement that doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality. It’s the logical equivalent — and THIS IS A METAPHOR — of a gay-basher being so panicked by seeing two guys holding hands on Castro Street, and being so offended by having had that vision pass his retinas, that he tells everybody, “I hate San Francisco because they’re all faggots!”)

Anyway, Billy Jack led to The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974), which ended with the beleaguered hero at the center of another bloodbath initiated by establishment forces, and from there to one of the films under discussion today, Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). It’s a remake of the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and is surprisingly faithful to the original’s screenplay, as well as its overall plot structure.

In both, a powerful senator dies just as his help is needed to force through a bill much-desired by powerful business interests back home. The wealthy kingmaker wants the governor to appoint a cooperative non-entity to fill out his term; the governor shows just enough backbone to reject the names provided him and appoint someone else, a popular local figure who knows nothing about politics and can be trusted to not try to accomplish anything while warming his Senate seat. Alas for them, he wants to create a national youth camp at the very site the bad guys have invested in; he refuses to play ball; and so they frame him for high corruption, a charge he fights with a grueling filibuster while their stranglehold on the media prevents any word of his fight reaching the people. It all ends with the freshman Senator’s sponsor, a man he once respected, driven by conscience and self-loathing to reclaim his better self and reveal the conspiracy before a startled America.

The story skeleton does lead to some pressing questions: to wit, how could a “national youth camp” (only for boys in the original), possibly not be a boondoggle? Exactly how many kids, out of how many applicants, will be able to attend – maybe one in a thousand? Even if the fund-raising efforts of the nation’s children do come up with enough money to pay for the damned thing, who decides what counselors get to run it? Who secures their travel? Who provides the insurance? Whose neck swings if a kid falls off a rock into a canyon? These are all things that need to be considered, and frankly, neither movie does; nor do they have to. The “youth camp” is just there to be something so wholesome and natural and inoffensive that nobody except a bad guy could possibly be against it.

But in terms of effectiveness, the two films could not possibly be more different.

Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

It’s easy to laugh at this film, in the wrong way, today. It’s easy to laugh at many of Frank Capra’s great films, in the wrong way, today. They really do come from a simpler time – or, if you prefer, a time that liked to think of itself as simpler.

Jefferson Smith is a perfectly designed protagonist for this story. He’s not just an idealist, not just a fundamentally decent man, and not just – excuse me – a yokel, but an overgrown boy, in that he is driven by enthusiasms and by his perception of the world as a place that generally runs the way idealists wish it would. He is not totally unacquainted with evil, as he knows that his father was murdered at his desk for standing up against a venal corporation, but he still has the capacity for wonder. It makes sense, in a way that it does not make sense of Billy Jack, for him to be tapped as a seat-holder Senator; nobody without a personal axe to grind could possibly disapprove of him. It would be like trying to dig up dirt on Captain Kangaroo. It makes sense, therefore, that his first act when he arrives in Washington is to slip away from his handlers and spend hours gaping at the town’s many great monuments, overwhelmed by a sense of  history that the people seeking to exploit him have lost.

(The montage, like most sightseeing montages in the movie, suggests an insane itinerary if taken in strict chronological order; the actual physical placement of the various sights is ignored, and we are made to believe that Smith leaves the mall, treks out to Arlington, returns to the mall, and while at the mall zigzags from place to place without doing the reasonable thing and seeing what he has to see in order of proximity. Almost every movie tracking a city by its landmarks commits this sin – the remake sure does, in a different context — but it’s jaw-dropping here. The miraculous thing is that Smith manages this miracle of tourism, which would take a couple of days even if conducted with reasonable efficiency, in only about six hours. They grow them fast in the state he comes from.)

(Another point: just how long do you think Jefferson Smith would remain in office, as even a place-holder Senator, if one of his first acts upon being appointed is stomping around town decking all the reporters who wrote mocking stories about him? It feels good on screen, but it’s not the kind of thing the gentlemen of the fourth estate can be expected to shrug off. I’m just saying.)

In any event, James Stewart is perfect as this paragon in a way that he never would be, after his service in World War Two. (He has a reputation, today, for playing paragons of decency, and in his career only played one outright villain, but his roles actually took a turn for the dark with the films he made for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.) He can indulge himself in gee-whiz optimism, pretend that he really doesn’t have any idea how the world works, and be surprised when he encounters honest-to-gosh corruption. He can do all this without irony, in a way that few movie stars could today, and make us believe that a tough girl like Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders would have her own idealism rekindled via close proximity with him. The soft focus of the close-up at the moment when she falls for him is a now-laughable 1940s cliché, but damned if it doesn’t work here.

The key thing to note, though, is something rarely recognized: he’s not the guy the story is about.

He’s just the protagonist. He’s a fine role model and a good man, but – aside from a few moments of doubt, and an increased level of resolve – he’s the same guy at the end that he was at the beginning.

The main character? Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), who sees in him the kind of man he once was, and who is still so co-opted that for a long time he goes along with destroying Smith. The entire movie is a wait for the moment when Paine has had enough, when he has endured so much of Smith’s filibuster and seen so much strength in his character that he cannot bear any further painful reminders of the man he used to be. There is a reason why the movie ends with his surrender, even before we find out whether it makes a difference. Because that’s where the story’s been heading all along, the release we have been waiting for. It only works because it is character evolution refracted against Jefferson Smith as catalyst.

It’s a cynical film about politics with as idealistic a core as could possibly be imagined, and it works to the extent it works in large part because it has the correct Jefferson Smith at its center.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977)

By comparison, the first major problem with the remake is that this makes absolutely no sense as a Billy Jack vehicle.

It really doesn’t. Billy Jack is a guy who has been convicted of a number of assaults and at least one vengeance killing; he was once the instigator of a massive hostage situation. Granted, many people in his home state see extenuating circumstances in all his crimes and even see him as a hero for what he’s done, but that support runs strictly along partisan lines; everybody else will see him as a contemptible criminal who should still be in prison. It makes no sense for a governor, even one played by the same guy who once played Hymie the Friendly Robot, to pardon him all his past crimes and choose him as nice, inoffensive seat-warmer guaranteed not to cause any trouble. Seriously – huh?

Even allowing that, it makes no sense in terms of Billy Jack’s character. He may be an outsider, but he’s also been in the armed forces, been in prison, and on several occasions seen local corruption lead to tragedy for the people he’s sworn to protect. How then does he suddenly become the polite, respectable, starry-eyed innocent this movie requires him to be, when he goes to Washington and takes his seat among the sharks? He may be an idealist, but he knows, because he’s learned hard, that the system’s fucked up. For him to suddenly become James Stewart circa 1939 requires a form of retroactive amnesia. If nothing else, it simply isn’t in him to be that polite to power even before he realizes the nature of the scam that’s going on. Any charisma he might have disappears into the background.

The second major problem is that the movie is pretty shoddily made. It’s not that Laughlin didn’t have a budget; swooping helicopter shots capturing your hero with the Grand Canyon as backdrop cost money to film, and even if he blew all he had with that, Washington D.C. remains one of the world’s great movie sets, and can lend a movie class even when the catering table has a hand-written sign advising crew members to take only one plate. No, it’s shoddy in terms of staging. Capra’s staging may have been designed to be invisible, but it was also very conscious: he always knew where to place his camera, where to cut, how often to cut, and how to stage actors so that the way they inhabit a setting, in relation to one another, built tension and excitement. Laughlin’s understanding of this, as evidenced in this film, is only rudimentary. For the most part, people sit around stiffly and recite dialogue at one another. The setups make even the gifted veteran actors, like E.G. Marshall and Sam Wanamaker, look like amateurs in some of their scenes. The staging and performances of some of the very lines that the 1939 cast made crackle are so amateurish that the result looks like what you’d get if a bunch of not-very talented high school students tried to re-enact the original screenplay on YouTube.

One example of this takes place during the opening credit sequence, which follows the ambulance carrying the previous Senator through the streets of Washington. It is an extraordinarily dull ride, as filmed, but there is a particularly awful moment at the midway point, when the ambulance disappears behind a sewer works van parked in the middle of the street, and the camera remains fixed on that van, in the center of the screen, for a disturbingly long time as the ambulance makes a left turn in the distance. Oh, sure, we follow the ambulance again as soon as it comes back into view. But the sewer works van remains in sight for so long that viewers are invited to believe that it’s somehow important and that we should pay attention to it. No. It’s just a fucking sewer works van.

Another example would be the opening narration, over aerial shots of the National Mall. We are literally looking at the Capitol dome when the narrator intones, “This story takes place in the nation’s capitol.” Gee. Thank you ever so much. 

The third major problem is the presence of Delores Taylor, who – in a statement I truly hate making – is, as an actress, a great producer’s wife. It’s not just that (god, I hate being reduced to this), she was not an attractive woman; in Hollywood terms, she’s pretty worn-looking, with a drawn face and deeply sunken eyes. It’s not even that she can’t act very well, though that’s true  It’s that she’s been established as Billy Jack’s girlfriend and that for more than half its running time, the movie has no idea what to do with her. The character arc of the cynical Washington insider who gradually comes to believe in the fresh young Senator still belongs to Saunders – (played by Hollywood royalty Luci Arnaz, who gets an “introducing” credit in the cast list)  — and Taylor is for much of the first half of the film reduced to reaction shots where she nods sagely or utters an approving line, just to remind viewers that she’s still there. It is a fine indulgence of viewers who saw the earlier films, but  this movie falls prey to a common failing of sequels in general and cannot be bothered to even introduce her and establish again just who she is.

Taylor does eventually get a decent scene or two, but before that we have an ugly interlude where assassins, apparently sent by the villain Bailey, corner her and a female aide in a warehouse, intent on gang rape. It’s an all-black group, which is both Bailey’s attempt to pin the crime on a street gang and Laughlin’s cynical cinematic shorthand giving Billy Jack an excuse to beat the crap out of them. Taylor’s character, showing off some martial arts moves she must have learned from Billy, joins in the fight. We won’t question the likelihood of this, even though her character was in previous films a committed pacifist; after all, she’s also a pacifist who has been raped and had several people she cares about beaten, brutalized, and murdered. Maybe she stopped being a pacifist between films. It would make sense. But a persuasive martial artist, even one with limited skills, she is not. She manages to raise her foot about as high as her knee and big scary black men go flying.

Admittedly, you can’t have a Billy Jack film without him beating up a few people, and they might as well be black guys, since the previous films all featured rednecked white guys as his targets du jour. Even counting this scene, James Stewart punches out more people in Capra’s version than Laughlin does in this one. But it’s a terrible scene.

Fourth major problem: Luci Arnaz. She’s terrible. She is no Jean Arthur. She is not even Lucille Ball. I cannot think of any movies or TV appearances where she was better, but it’s hard to imagine any where she’d be worse.

Fifth major problem:  a subplot about a “top secret” file of nuclear secrets, which gets a blackmailer assassinated in the dead of night at Arlington National Cemetery. This goes nowhere. It’s there so this movie can claim some of the same narrative logic as its predecessors.

That said: everything that happens after Billy Jack begins the climactic filibuster is staged as the same events were staged in the Capra film, and we must report that, as Billy Jack receives the telegrams telling him to step down, the telegrams that are meant to destroy him, something magical happens. For almost five full minutes, the inherent power of the material sets fire to whatever flows in Laughlin’s veins, and the man pulls out a performance. It is unexpected and it is electrifying. It is also not worth sitting through the film for. If that’s what you want to see, watch the Capra film again and you’ll get a version that was terrific from the beginning.

The film was only barely released, allegedly because of threats from a sitting Senator. Laughlin said, “At a private screening, Senator Vance Hartke got up, because it was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite’s daughter was there, [and] Lucille Ball. And he said, ‘You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.’ [I]t was three years later, he gets indicted for the exact crime that we showed in the movie.” We’re not saying that the implied causality  is impossible. Threats from powerful politicians have sandbagged movies before; certainly, a complaint from supporters of President Nixon helped get a song removed from the film version of 1776.  But the movie’s terrible quality could not have helped. (We have also been informed, by a reader, that lawsuits between Laughlin and his investors were also involved.)  As recently as 2004, Laughlin was working on yet another sequel, which he actually intended to call Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose. (Sanity prevailed, and he shortened the title, though he didn’t succeed in finishing the movie.)

Report From The Committee 

The 1939 film, a historical curio and genuine classic. The 1977 film, a near-total misfire, that achieves its needed level of quality in only a few minutes of performance from the wooden lead.

And now, the wife starts her filibuster…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains. 129 minutes. **1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. 1/2*

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

I approached these films with a bit of trepidation.  I had never seen either movie, but I was very well aware of the 1939 “classic”.   I also, had vague memories of the Billy Jack series about a guy who kicked people and hung out with hippies.  So, did I really want to venture into this rather rocky territory?

So we began by viewing the 1939 Capra film.  And yes, it very much is a Capra film.  Doesn’t matter who wrote it, this film hits on all the Capraesque qualities I’ve come to know and grow tired of.  Yes, I am going to say a few bad things about the Capra characters.  Naivete is not a virtue!  Redemption doesn’t ever come about via wordsmithing. Good and evil are two sides of the same being.  And, bad girls aren’t fixed by the love of a good man!

Ok, so the big bad politibosses need a chump to placehold for two months.  Get a party man they say, but accept a gosh golly gee Boy Ranger troop leader with ideals.  what does this guy do on his first trip to DC?  While he should be trying to learn what will be expected of him in the Senate, he wanders off on a sight seeing tour.  Right!  He doesn’t even seem aware that he may be inconveniencing people who are waiting for him.  His first task is to attempt to write a bill to present, which he manages overnight.  Amazing!  He has no clue of procedure or law and yet is allowed his piece.  PUHLEEZE! And the very idea that he would attempt a filibuster, just to make a point…Never woulda happened! Never would have been allowed.  Politibosses play a lot rougher than that.

Would the corrupt senior Senator ever have taken the Grinch-like turn if not for the need of a hopeful Capra ending?  Oh come on, the man had already agreed to sacrifice the lamb, led him to the slaughter and even gave the butcher the knife while he held him down.  Not really true to life eh?

I know many “good” folks, but even they have their gray moments.  No human being is pure unto death.  Even Mother Teresa had a PR team for spin on a few things she said (check out the article by Christopher Hitchens).  So how can Capra decide that the black and white approach is all there is?And, gee, come on!  The secretary/girl friday who states early on she’s only there for what she can get, even she gets Capra’d and has a change of heart over the character assassination tango she’s a major player in.  Never gonna happen.  Not back then, and definitely not today.

Now, all this said, the film deserves its classic status.  It’s enjoyable, watchable, incredibly well acted and directed.  With all its flaws, and good view.

This can’t be said of the Billy Jack remake.

Billy Jack is a war veteran with anger issues.  He’s a convicted criminal with anti establishment sympathies.  who would EVER put him in the Senate?  How?  He’s not stupid, he’s run up against corrupt government before, and again I say HE’S A CONVICTED FELON!  Geesh!  Absent a brain, couldn’t anyone in his production company come up with a better classic fit for the man? Well, at least I got to hear One Tin Soldier again.  That was a plus. Or the plus.

All in all, I was right to fear this column.  I found one really good reason to avoid rewatching the Billy Jack films (they stink like a used litter box).  And, I watched a classic film, and found that even if I enjoy the basics, I no longer have a tolerance for the more innocent age that never existed.


* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.

  

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
  
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.
 

 

Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
 
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.
  

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas
 

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.
   

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
 
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
 
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.
  

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
 
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
  
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
  
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.
 

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.