Storylines In Review – Xmas 2017 Catchup
|By ignoring all the
Xmas madness, the holidays become a good time to stay home, lock the door, and catch up on some
reading and viewing. For my 2017 Xmas-catchup viewing, I’ve decided to watch and review one
example of each storyline I’ve been considering for this website, selecting a film from the
queue on my shelf (or hard drive). I’m still adding to the webpage, but I can guarantee that
none of the titles have anything to do with Xmas.
Is Paris Burning? / Paris brûle-t-il? 1966
Storyline: The Decisive Battle
Comment: I may have chosen this as the only war film I can think of with a happy ending. It tells how Hitler’s order to burn Paris in August 1944, as the Allies drew close, was delayed until it was too late. It ends with the giant bells of Notre Dame cathedral ringing out for the first time in over 4 years, the massive crowds gathering in the streets, with a cut to colour for the end titles appearing over an aerial panorama of modern Paris.
The 1965 source book follows the approach popularised by The Longest Day, where a broad range of participant-witness accounts are adapted by Cornelius Ryan into a single narrative. The book’s French and American co-authors, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, had met in the army at war’s end in Paris, and their work became a bestseller which sold close to ten million copies in thirty languages.
Although primarily credited to Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, the script was the result of several writers - alongside Marcel Moussy and Beate von Molo, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and Claude Brulé also contributed.
The young Francis Ford Coppola recalled how he was nervous about the assignment, but Gore Vidal told him to relax, they would simply adapt alternate chapters of the book, and hand in the result. This simplistic approach might help explain how the French and German writers were brought in as script doctors, to restore some balance and authenticity.
It was filmed by veteran director René Clément with official cooperation and there is very little stock footage - mainly a tank battle south of Paris, and the street crowds at the end. Thus there are realist reconstruction scenes like German tanks taking up position in front of Notre Dame to shoot at a police HQ taken over by the Resistance, and a pair of Resistance reps having to crawl, due to snipers, across a traffic-free main boulevard, dragging their bicycles.
The producer’s decision to have an ‘all-star’ cast a la The Longest Day hurt the film both commercially and artistically. The final third is full of US stars in guest spots which undermine the realism (that was Kirk Douglas as Patton?), and whose salaries inflated the cost – to no avail, as the film did not make a profit. Belmondo, Delon et al who play key Resistance figures simply disappear, and don’t even get a look-in on the final triumph. And unlike The Longest Day, where characters speak their own language, which is then subtitled where necessary, everyone speaks English.
Is Paris Burning? is almost ‘through-composed’ i.e. with non-stop music, almost like a 1920-30s ‘city symphony’ film. The score by Maurice Jarre was reconstructed last year on a 2-CD set for the film’s 50th anniversary, the main ‘Paris’ theme having become a sort of popular anthem when set to lyrics by Maurice Vidalin and sung by Mireille Mathieu.
Ashenden (BBC 1991)
Storyline: The ‘Secret Agent Champion’ Storyline
Comment: I chose this work as representative of the ‘secret agent champion’ storyline as it was a formative influential work in the field of ‘spy’ lit – it was the first realist spy story. The New Statesman described the work as “A collection of stories so accurate that Churchill ordered the destruction of 14 of them, while Russian intelligence immediately set up a special unit to read British spy novels for clues.”
Somerset Maugham based his 1928 cycle of 16 linked stories on his WWI experience working undercover for MI6 in Switzerland as a counterespionage operative. This was primarily as an agent handler, in charge of network of informants who worked for money, but it seems he also got involved more directly in operations which included assassinations of German agents. Maugham was already an established writer and his surrogate protagonist Ashenden has a similar ‘cover’ as a popular playwright, his presence in neutral Switzerland explained as a health cure for his TB. He also made a trip to Russia on a mission to try to head off the collapse of the Eastern Front due to the imminent Bolshevik coup. Apart from the doomed Russian mission, Maugham seems to have been reasonably successful, but found the job increasingly disillusioning and this is reflected in his story-cycle (presumably the grimmest stories were the ones burnt, though the surviving 16 are bleak enough.
Hitchcock filmed a version of a stage play built around 2 ("The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican"), of the 16 stories, Secret Agent , which was only a loose adaptation – cf it gives Ashenden an MI6 colleague posing as his wife at his Swiss hotel. In 1991, BBC-TV broadcast this 4 x 52 min adaptation by David Pirie, which is much closer to the original, though it reworks details, probably to make it more cinematic. The 4 stories reuse Maugham’s original titles, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Traitor, Mr. Harrington's Washing, though they are reordered, so that the first focusses on his writing skills as the reason MI6 want him. It also has an added prologue framework of a now elderly Ashenden in his villa on the Riviera, angered at a song on the radio which obviously reminds him of his past involvement, the context only being clarified in the final episode. As elsewhere in this storyline, the protagonist struggles to maintain his integrity in the midst of a cynical milieu where almost anything goes. Scriptwriter David Pirie makes this conflict more explicit than in the short stories, where it is only implied. (He even suggests Ashenden volunteered to obtain material for his plays.) Directed by Christopher Morahan on location (with Hungary, Austria and Yugoslavia standing in for Switzerland, Russia and Italy), it is likely as authentic a screen version as we will get. It has never been released on home media, perhaps because of the royalties that would be payable to guest stars like Alan Bennett (as The Traitor).
BFI Screenonline: “Compared with Hitchcock's adaptation Secret Agent (1936), Ashenden is notable for its textual and tonal fidelity, capturing well the passion beneath the detached veneer of the main character.”
The Voyage Of Charles Darwin [BBC 1978]
Storyline: The Sailing-Voyage Storyline
Comment: I’ve selected this award-winning 7x1hr BBC docudrama as it works as both documentary and drama, and was a source of inspiration for the storyline’s major recent sailing-voyage drama, the 2002 Master & Commander, as the screenshots below show.
The storyline has a framework of a marathon sailing voyage; in this case it is the voyage of HMS Beagle carrying young naturalist Charles Darwin into South American waters down the coast of Brazil around Cape Horn to the Galapagos Isles. Officially to survey the South American coast, it was a voyage that took nearly 5 years, from 1831 to 1835. This is where Darwin collected much of the evidence he used to back his theory of evolution. (The stick insect is one item which resurfaces in Master & Commander.) Darwin strikes up a friendship with the ship’s captain, FitzRoy, despite their different world views. Later scenes show that Darwin’s 1859 book, which created a controversy in learned circles, also drove them apart, the captain ending up committing suicide. Written by Robert Reid, the drama is based on Darwin’s journals and letters. The episode titles give the flavour of this –
#1 "I Was Considered a Very Ordinary Boy"
#2 "My Mind Was a Chaos of Delight"
#3 "How Wide Was the Distance Between Savage and Civilised Man"
#4 "Can Any Mountains, Any Continent, Withstand Such Waste?"
#5 "I Felt Myself Brought Within Reach of That Great Fact – That Mystery of Mysteries"
#6 "Suppose That All Animals and All Plants Are Represented by the Branches of a Tree – The Tree of Life"
#7 "In the Distant Future, Light Will Be Thrown Upon the Origin of Man, and His History"
"a profoundly stimulating mix of entertainment and information" - Christian Science Monitor
Selection: The Night My Number Came Up (1955)
Storyline: The ‘Fateful Flight’ Storyline
Comment: I chose this as it was a pioneering work in tackling the idea of ‘the hand of Fate’ which lurks behind many of these ‘fateful flight’ dramas. The idea of an intervening Fate or destiny is usually presented as a superstition which needs to be swept away by modern reasoning, which has a scientific explanation for everything. In this case, that does not prove so easy….
Compared to airliner-in-peril dramas like The High And The Mighty (1956), this British production is not a well-known film internationally, though well-thought of by those who ‘discover’ it. (cf Leonard Maltin: "... first-rate suspense film will have you holding your breath as it recounts tale of routine military flight, the fate of which may or may not depend on a prophetic dream.")
It has an unusual origin. In 1946, Air Marshall Sir Victor Goddard was about to fly to Tokyo when he was told of a colleague’s dream where Goddard was killed in an air crash on mountainous Sado island. The details of Goddard’s flight however did not match the next day’s flight plan. Then the details – type of plane, number of passengers, route, weather conditions etc changed one after the other till they matched the dream, and the plane with Goddard aboard did indeed crash on Sado. Goddard nevertheless survived the crash-landing. When he retired from the RAF, he wrote an account of this odd experience, which was published in 1951 in The Saturday Evening Post. This was frequently a source for Hollywood film projects, but in this case it was British studio Ealing that bought the rights, at the suggestion of director Leslie Norman. (Ealing made several dramas with supernatural elements in a modern setting, such as The Halfway House, Dead Of Night and The Ship That Died of Shame.) To write the script, Ealing commissioned R. C. Sherriff, who had scripted another factual aviation drama the year before, The Dam Busters.
Much of the drama is psychological as the story of the dream gets around among the passengers and aircrew, who have different reactions or rationales that are put to the test. However to say too much here would spoil it. (The original trailer, included on the DVD, has an audience request card to see it from the beginning, plus an additional scene re the dream.)
Selection: Valhalla Rising (2009)
Storyline: The ‘Castaway’ Storyline
Comment: I chose this experimental Danish film to represent the storyline as the most brutally direct and visceral, without any attempt at imposing a modern rationale on a form dating back centuries.
A protagonist can be cast away via a shipwreck, airplane crash etc but the more popular older form was known as the captivity narrative, focussing on how he or she survived after being taken captive by a tribe less ‘civilised’ than his or her own. These narratives, purportedly by real-life survivors, had a sensational appeal in their time [17C-], though today we would likely take a different view, with the word civilised kept firmly inside quote-marks, if not openly disputed. Any villains of the story are likely to be those who regard themselves as more civilised, as in this film.
Here, a mute Viking or Norse warrior, blinded in one eye, is the captive of a displaced group (Picts?) eking out a miserable existence in the treeless far north of Scotland. (They have no fort or longhouse, nor are any tents seen.) He is kept as a cage fighter for gambling purposes, chained by the neck and moved around to fight the warriors of other groups. Otherwise, he is kept in a cage, tended to by a Scots slave boy. Eventually One-Eye, as the boy calls him, breaks free and kills his guards. He and the boy join another equally brutal group claiming to be Christians (“We're God's own soldiers”) on their way to reclaim Jerusalem from the ‘heathens.’ Caught in a sea fog for weeks, the crew wind up lost, off course, landing they know not where – in fact, somewhere in North America. (Note that the trailer and some press materials are misleading about the film's content and nature.)
The part where they end up drifting west rather than sailing south is the story’s weak point, unnecessarily, as seafarers of the time certainly knew west from south, and were indeed sailing across the Atlantic at the time the story is set. It’s always obvious to the viewer from the lush surroundings the crew are nowhere near Jerusalem, so there is no ‘reveal’ element here. (The first half of the film was shot amidst barren, treeless Highland glens in rainy, muddy conditions, and the second, amidst lusher scenery west of Loch Ness.)
The crew’s ‘civilising’ mission goes about as well as that of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1972 Werner Herzog film Aguirre The Wrath Of God, to which the film has been compared. As co-written by director Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen, and Matthew Read, it’s a heart-of-darkness story, a descent into mental breakdown and self-destruction, with only 120 lines of dialogue spread over 5 acts. (The film has 5 onscreen chapter intertitles, such as Men Of God.) These thuggish, piratical hypocrites are all castaways in a realm their limited mindset cannot comprehend. One by one, they succumb to their own stupidity and venality, except for One-Eye, the one realist among them who sees and accepts the inevitable end awaiting him. Their nemesis, the local Indian tribe [Newfoundland Beothuks?], remain unseen until the finale.
Selection: Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Storyline: The People's Champion Storyline
Comment: I chose this to represent the storyline as a recent real-world example of a storyline mainly populated by action-oriented examples, where the protagonist uses incredible martial arts or gunfighting skills to tackle oppressive or illegal practices single-handed, without regard for any laws.
Here, the protagonist, Donovan,
is using his lawyer’s skills to defend US-constitutional rights on everyone’s behalf,
even those of an enemy agent. Later, he uses them in Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange
following the 1960 capture of downed U-2 spyplane pilot Francis Gary Powers.
This more comprehensive [142 min] version of events resulted from British playwright Matt Charman coming across a footnote reference in a JFK biography to an unnamed US lawyer who went to Cuba in 1962 and negotiated the release of thousands of prisoners after Kennedy’s ill-advised ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion plan failed - not only the 1,113 military captives but another 8,500 political prisoners as well. (This is mentioned in the film’s epilogue.) Charman found out this was the same lawyer who had brokered the Abel-Powers exchange earlier the same year, and pitched the project to Spielberg's DreamWorks. Charman’s script, written in 6 weeks, was then given to Ethan and Joel Coen, who had worked with Spielberg on their True Grit remake, and wrote the final draft.
Against his instructions, Donovan turns the prisoner exchange into a 3-way affair, by insisting the new East German regime, unrecognised by the West, also turn over a US student imprisoned as a spy. Donovan was not simply an insurance lawyer in private practice. The script mentions he had been on the Nuremberg Trials prosecution team, but not that during the war he had been General Counsel at the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor), which makes his ignoring his instructions more remarkable. (In the script, the US government plainly has no interest in recovering the student as he is innocent, and thus has no spy secrets he could possibly spill in captivity.)
The First Of The Few / Spitfire (1942)
Storyline: The ‘Artist
In The Making’ Story
Selection: The Dogs Of War (1980)
Storyline: The ‘Sinner's Sacrifice’ Storyline
In this storyline, a lifelong-sinner protagonist attempts to redeem himself by a final noble
act. There are many examples of this, usually with a Mexican setting, where he is a mercenary
who switches sides, but I chose this as a more realist example [it's R-rated] than the US instances.
Selection: The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Storyline: The ‘Evolutionary Struggle’ Storyline
Comment: From the 1950s onwards, there was no shortage of examples of this story setup, where an alien arrival threatens the future of the human race. These were either humanoids, or 'BEMs' - Bug Eyed Monsters, and their spacecraft were flying saucers. None had the simple premise of a single alien microbe picked up by an unmanned US space probe, and multipling in earth's rich environment. That is, until former medical student Michael Crichton posited it in his 1969 bestseller. Here, the science team assembled in an underground lab to study and contain it discover that the microorganism enters the atmosphere as spores which cause lethal blood clotting when inhaled. Like the novel, the film has a documentary framework of official printouts etc implying it is a true story.
Told partly using split screens, the story (running over 2 hrs) is a procedural, like a police-forensics case, set in a lab that has real medical gear, and what were then state-of-the-art computers. The team for the first time included, at the suggestion of scriptwriter Nelson Gidding, a female scientist who is not just a pretty young assistant.
Only too late do the team discover that the organism also mutates - to eat into plastic gaskets, and the film's original cinema trailer carried a warning [pictured] that nobody will be seated during the last ten minutes. Only some quick thinking and action by the team's young doctor saves the day - until next time.
Selection: Last Night (1998)
Storyline: The ‘Life-Ending Reconciliation’ Storyline
Comment: Written by director and co-star Don McKellar, this Canadian comedy-drama
is set in Toronto during the last few hours before some sort of [unexplained] solar flare hits,
extinguishing all life on Earth.
Selection: The Macomber Affair (1947)
Storyline: The Away-Break Crisis Story
I chose this b&w drama as a classic example of the 'safari romance' setup long popular in
this storyline. Here, a 'white hunter' safari guide conducts an American couple on a big-game
hunting trip in Kenya. The husband's ambition to be more macho creates a marital crisis the guide
finds himself in the middle of.
Selection: Lust For Gold / For Those Who Dare (1949)
Storyline: The ‘Treasure Hunt’ Storyline
Comment: I chose
this example for its more adventurous narrative approach to a storyline often beset by cliched
Selection: This Happy Breed (1944)
Storyline: The 'End Of An Era' Storyline
Comment: This adaptation for the screen by Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan and director David Lean from Noël Coward's play, opens out the stage play from its original 3 acts x 3 scenes so it has 20 scenes covering (in only 115 minutes) the 20 years of the Interwar Era, 1919-39. (The 2-disc DVD version has the script as a PDF.) As the narrator [Olivier] announces, this is the story of an ordinary London family between the two World Wars. The historical events of the Interwar Era - the General Strike of 1926 etc - form a background to the family drama. It was a considerable change from Noel Coward's prewar stage plays, but he wrote it as part of his contribution to the war effort, a with Coward and Lean's preceding collaboration, the 1942 In Which We Serve. The concept was also akin to his filmed play Cavalcade, which covered 1900-29, but focussed on a wealthier family and their servants. It was filmed, in Hollywood, in 1933 and its 'upstairs/downstairs' approach would become the inspiration for the 1970s BBC tv serial. It is also said to be the forerunner of Britain's longrunning soap opera, ITV's Coronation Street.
This Happy Breed opens with the family moving into a house in Clapham, South London, after the husband returns from WWI, and ends with their leaving it owing to the impending Second World War. Its innovation was to film a realist story in Technicolor, which due to the extra cost was then restricted to more romantic genres, where the colour became a production value. Here, the colour was kept toned down (slightly desaturated we would say today), by avoiding garish colours in the costume design and set decor, and even using makeup so the actors had a pallid appearance. It commemorates the ordinary domestic life which had ended when the war began, making it seem an enduring peacetime value.
Selection: Ill Met By Moonlight / Night Ambush (1957)
Storyline: The Cross-Border Raid Storyline
fact-based drama fits the main parameter of this storyline in that the commando team achieve
their daring objective, but then have great difficulty escaping from enemy territory back to
safety. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's dramatisation of the abduction, from German-occupied
"Fortress Crete" one night in April 1944, of the garrison's kommandant General Kreipe,
follows the actual events. However it does not dwell on the reprisals the Germans characteristically
took on surrounding villages for partisan actions. Ongoing sensitivity over this (some partisan
factions were anti-royalist socialists and thus anti-British) may have been part of the reason
the film was not shot on Crete but in France's Alpes Maritimes near the Italian border.
Selection: Forbidden Planet (1956)
Storyline: The 'Space Voyage' Storyline
Comment:This is the first major space-voyage drama onscreen, the first set entirely on an alien planet, the first big-budget colour / widescreen SF film, the first to have an electronic score, and a major inspiration for Star Trek, according to series creator Gene Roddenberry. It is also the first major use of the 'conceptual breakthrough' story development in this context - the space-crew protagonists discover the planet has a deadly secret which they must comprehend and tackle before it destroys them.
Early in the 22nd century, the Planetary Federation Cruiser lands on Altair-IV to rescue any survivors of the Bellerophon mission 20 years before. The Bellerophon's scientist Dr. Morbius tries to turn them away - for good reason, as it turns out. A mysterious unseen 'planetary' force tore the other crew members limb from limb. He and his teenage daughter Altaira somehow survived in a secure base with the help of their powerful robot, Robby. There, Morbius is studying the planet's now extinct advanced civilisation, the Krell. The space cruiser, landed in Altair-IV's desert wastes, is soon menaced by this same 'planetary' force - which they. like the Krell, discover too late is actually 'monsters from the Id'.
The 1952 screenplay by Irving Block and Allen Adler, 'Fatal Planet', set on the planet Mercury in 1976 [!] was reworked by Cyril Hume. There is a theory [unattributed] that the basic story setup was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Selection: Juggernaut / Terror On The Britannic [UK DVD title] (1974)
Storyline: The ‘Civic Disaster’ Storyline
films or tv-movies became a dominant feature of American film and tv drama in the early 70s. Usually
the main characters were trapped passengers or occupants, played by ageing Hollywood ‘guest’
stars, nearly all of whom would survive their terrible ordeal with their makeup intact. This was
however a British contribution, which subverts the usual clichés.
Selection: The Alleyn Mysteries / Ngaio Marsh's Alleyn Mysteries (BBC, 1990-4)
Storyline: The ‘Decent
Selection: Turtle Diary (1985)
Storyline: The Liberating-Relationship Storyline
It might seem I chose this title as it deals with a physical liberation – of a pair of
sea turtles from London Zoo Aquarium – but it’s more complex than that.
Selection: The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968)
Storyline: The 'War Is Hell' Storyline
Comment: After the runaway success of Tom Jones, Tony Richardson and his Woodfall Films team were able to write their own ticket, and this antiwar polemic was his biggest budget production. It was written by Charles Wood using a largely invented, slightly absurd Victorian dialogue style, while adhering to the basic facts of the Crimean war expedition of 1854. (Wood's other 60s scripts like The Knack, Help, How I Won the War, and The Bed Sitting Room all had an absurdist edge; he later wrote the fact-based realist antiwar drama Tumbledown for the BBC in 1988, set around the Falklands-War.)
It did not find its audience at the time - cinemas showing it were almost deserted - but has since found admirers. The live-action scenes are a series of atmospheric vignettes of the lives of the officers and men of the Light Brigade leading up to the war. These are punctuated by a series of Victorian-style political-cartoon sequences animated by Richard Williams and set to music by John Addison.
The irony that the closest the film has to a hero is the man who causes the disaster is one of the reasons the film lacks conventional appeal. (It was the dashing Captain Nolan's vague armwaving that led to a charge up the wrong valley.) On top of that, he is then killed by the very first cannon-shot [see image left]. This is a film that probably suffered from conventional expectations, and has to be viewed on its own terms.
Selection: Il Conformista / The Conformist (1970)
Storyline: The 'Faustian Pact' Storyline
Comment: Adapted by director Bernardo Bertolucci from the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, this co-production between Italy, France, and West Germany posits Fascist collaboration as a form of Faustian pact. In 30s Fascist Italy, a clerk (named Clerici) joins OVRA, to conform to the ruthless mores of the day and advance his career in the Party. (OVRA translates as the Vigilant Organisation For The Repression Of Anti-fascism; in effect they were the Fascist secret police.) As in other ‘Faustian’ tales, he is given an immoral, illegal task to prove his worthiness, or rather, ruthlessness. (Clerici as a boy had shot a child molester, and has a fixation about sexual ‘decadence’.)
While on his honeymoon in Paris, he is to lure his old professor, now in political exile, into an ambush in the woods, so he can be assassinated. He does and pays the usual terrible price. His marriage is simply another conformist move and while on his honeymoon he also succumbs to sexual decadence in the form of temptation put in his way, from the professor’s young wife, who is also interested in Clerici’s wife - which again worsens the consequences. The film ends in 1943 with his career in ruins after Mussolini’s fall, and Clerici in an unbalanced mental state where he denounces a blind friend as a former collaborator – as bleak an ending as can be imagined.
The author Alberto Moravia had no illusions about fascism, his cousins having been murdered by the secret police in 1937, and Moravia himself blacklisted for his Jewish ancestry. Bertolucci uses art-deco production design to present the superficial glamour of fascism, and uses extensive light and shadow contrasts, including a reference to Plato's metaphor The Cave (where Man sees only the flickering image of reality). Moravia evidently felt the appeal of fascism was partly from sexual repression, and there are scenes dramatising this throughout.
[c] Storylines In Review 2017