Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vintage Movies: El Cid

You will soon be a King: you must start to think like one. Any man can kill. Only a King can give life!  

What is heroism?

What place does mercy, let alone Christianity, have in war?

Where can I find a really good movie about people hitting each other with giant swords?

If you find yourself asking any of these questions, chances are that El Cid is just the movie you need to see. Forget BraveheartEl Cid is the knight-in-shining-armour-standing-up-against-tyrants-and-foreign-oppressors movie.

The movie is based on the life of Rodrigo Diaz, a Castilian knight and Spanish folk hero who successfully waged war on the Moors in Spain for many years, although dogged by Spanish infighting and betrayal. Charlton Heston plays Rodrigo, a man devoted to ideals bigger than himself. Convinced that fighting won't settle the disputes between Moors and Spaniards, Rodrigo frees an emir he has taken captive raiding a Christian village. This act wins him the Moor's respect, but lays him open to a charge of treason at the court of King Ferdinand and puts a stop to his wedding to the beautiful Jimena (Sophia Loren). It takes a hard-fought single combat to redeem his name and rise to fame as the King's own champion. But after King Ferdinand's death, Castile becomes the bait in a power struggle between the three unscrupulous heirs while a fresh invasion from Africa threatens to snuff them out altogether. Can Rodrigo fight off the Moors, earn Jimena's forgiveness, and serve a King of dubious morality with honour and loyalty? It might look difficult to anyone else, but for El Cid, integrity, honour, and bravery is all in a day's work.

This remarkable movie has been called the best ever on the subject of knights. It's a grand, sprawling epic with a somewhat episodic plotline, as all stories tend to have which cover an entire life. I wouldn't call it particularly historically accurate—the siege of Valencia, for example, did not play out in the way the movie depicts—and there are a couple of jarring attempts at multiculturalism. But these are not serious flaws and if the movie is mostly fiction, it's fiction that does what fiction does best: makes you love the truth. There are plenty of wonderful moments in this two-and-a-half-hour celebration of genuine heroism, from the feeding of Valencia to the oath in the town square to the wonderful little moment where El Cid defeats fourteen men single-handed and then explains that, if God is on his side, four hundred would not be too many.

A stirring tale of chivalry, love, war, and honour—El Cid is one of our favourite vintage movies and should not be overlooked. By way of parental advisory, I note that there is some medieval-style violence, handled discreetly, which may make the movie unsuitable for very young children.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Vintage Movies: The General


There were two loves in his life: his engine and...
The silent era was a great time for physical comedy. Since the movies at that time were purely visual, with audio cues provided only by the soundtrack, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for witty banter. You couldn't crack a joke, but you could certainly fall off a horse.

Buster Keaton is still fondly remembered as one of the best of the old physical comedians—right up there with Charlie Chaplin. The General, the only thing I've seen him in, is wonderful. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer during the Civil War. The Union Army hatches a villainous plan to steal “The General”, Johnnie's train. In the process, they also unexpectedly steal Annabell Lee, Johnnie's estranged sweetheart. The Union spies set off helter-skelter for their own lines and safety, but they reckoned without Johnnie.

This movie is a masterpiece of understatement. Buster Keaton executes every mishap and pratfall with a quiet, dogged, almost despairing look on his face; the great deadpan that made him famous. But it's not just him. Nobody in this movie appears to know that they are in a comedy. When a group of important Union generals having an important strategic meeting on the back of a stopping and starting train fall over for the third or fourth time, they look as serious and businesslike about it as if they really are important generals. The effect is, perversely, even funnier than if it was mugged up for the camera.

There are some brilliant special effects in this movie, including the business with the (real, live) cannon and the crash at the end, but these difficult and expensive set-pieces are treated with laconic indifference by the cameraman and editor. The whole movie is an extension of Johnnie's (or Keaton's) deadpan understatement. The result is, again, tactfully hilarious.

The General is a rara avis: physical comedy that still manages to come across as refined and tasteful. One of the really great movies.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Lady Vanishes

Iris Henderson: Well, I don't see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people.
Charters: Oh, don't you? If that's your attitude, there's nothing more to be said! Come, Caldicott. "A thing like cricket!"
One of the biggest names in movies from the first half of the 1900s was, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. He had a long and varied career, with most of which I am entirely unacquainted and with some of which I am unimpressed. The Lady Vanishes, on the other hand, is extremely good.
It's a snowy night in the little mountain country of Mandrika and a little village hotel is stuffed to the rafters with people trying to get back to England and points west. The train is delayed, so its passengers are forced to try to find a room to themselves: Iris Henderson, an American socialite returning home; Gilbert, a young musical eccentric who won't take any nonsense; Miss Froy, a sweet little Miss-Marple-type who won't stop chattering about her governessing jobs; Caldicott and Charters, two Englishmen very disgruntled about possibly missing the next big cricket game; and many others.
Nothing odd happens right away. But the next morning, on the train, Iris wakes after a nap to find that the friendly Miss Froy has vanished without a trace. Even more disturbing is the fact that every other person on the train denies having ever seen her. Is Iris surrounded by conspirators, or has she gone mad?
The Lady Vanishes is another excellent vintage movie, full of humour and mystery. Or to put it another way: spies, secret messages, an excellent demonstration of why you should never get into a fight in a moving vehicle filled with magician's contraptions, and wit:
I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?

As usual with this kind of movie, it's relatively family-friendly as long as half the family doesn't get some of the jokes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Quiet Man


Is this a courting or a donnybrook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until he's your husband and entitled to hit you back.
In this beloved vintage film, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his native Ireland after spending most of his life in the US. He buys back his childhood home White O'Morn from the Widow Tillane and, after a vision of a red-headed beauty (Maureen O'Hara) on the hillside, even consults the village matchmaker. But the path to home and happiness is not to be smooth for Sean Thornton. After a life spent in Pittburgh, he has little patience for the ceremonies of Irish village life, and the local bully Red Will Danaher—who happens to be the lovely Mary-Kate's brother—takes a violent dislike to him. It'll take more than money and a smile for the community to accept Sean Thornton.

This is a hard movie to review, because although on one hand I really love it, on the other hand I feel keenly aware of its shortcomings.

Maybe the best thing about this movie is the richness of its themes.Yes, yes, it looks pretty, the scenery is lovely, the acting is fantastic, it's an updated Taming of the Shrew, you'll laugh a lot. But most importantly, you'll also think a lot.
First and most obviously, The Quiet Man is a movie about Ireland, or some kind of Platonic Irelandishness that never existed, but in which the physical Ireland is able to participate in its good moments. Confused yet? Well, in this Ireland, everyone is friendly, the pub is jolly (and the centre of village life), the clergy are benificent, the train is always late, the sun's always shining, the grass is always green, the fish are always shy, the women are either shawl-clad old biddies or gorgeous redheads, the men are either immense prizefighters or tiny alcoholics, and everyone attends the horse-races. In this Ireland, Catholics and Protestants get on so well that they almost share the same congregation and even the IRA wear bland smiles and carry fishing-rods.
Second and more importantly, the movie is about tradition. (Some plot details follow). After growing up in Pittsburgh, Thornton doesn't understand the Irish traditions. While courting Mary-Kate, he starts off with the correct formalities, but soon it becomes obvious that his heart isn't in it:
Thornton: I don't get this. Why do we have to get [the matchmaker] along? Back in the States, I'd drive up, honk the horn, the gal'd come runnin'...
Mary Kate Danaher: Come a-runnin'? I'm no woman to be honked at and come a-runnin'!
In my least-favourite scene, Sean and Mary-Kate run away from their chaperone to ca-noodle in a graveyard. Mary-Kate objects at first. After all, there is a sequence to be observed:
Mary Kate Danaher: Well, we just started a-courtin', and next month, we, we start the walkin' out, and the month after that there'll be the threshin' parties, and the month after that...
But Thornton doesn't relish the idea of a long courtship. As they kiss—thereby skipping several months ahead—a thunderstorm breaks out, suggesting some kind of Divine displeasure.

If God and village custom disapprove of this iconoclastic wooing, however, the movie certainly milks it for all its worth. Yet as the movie goes into its second act, the culture clash escalates and in the end, tradition has its way.
Specifically, one tradition that most people today would call the least romantic thing on earth: the idea of the dowry, or bride-price, which becomes a bone of contention between Mary-Kate and Sean. Mary-Kate insists that she won't be properly married without it. Thornton, on the other hand, thinks she is just mercenary and because he refuses to take action, Mary-Kate begins to lose all respect for him.

Although the movie never explains the reasoning behind a dowry, it's downright fascinating to see a culture depicted in which its benefits are simply taken for granted (along with the need for respect and leadership). And seeing the movie again, recently, I was struck by its insistence on outward forms of love. Courtship, marriage, and love is done in a community context, not a personal context: Sean can only approach Mary-Kate through the medium of the matchmaker, can only marry her with her brother's consent and the dowry (however small), and soon realises that he will only be able to win her love and respect by taking a certain rather spectacularly public course of action. In this movie, it's not what the characters feel that counts, it's what they do.
As I said, there is plenty to like and plenty to think about in this delightful movie. As usual, despite the G rating, I'd be inclined to advise parents to use their own discretion with this one. They sure could—and did--do a lot with a G rating in those days.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Thin Man


Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn't care, but I'm a very timid fellow.

The old black-and-white days saw quite a variety of genres that have now nearly vanished. So far we've looked at examples of two those genres, the swashbuckler (with The Mark of Zorro) and the screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby). Another example of a genre which seemed to lose all its shine with the advent of colour and the vanishing of the Hays Code was the film noir. These movies, as made by Alfred Hitchcock or the famous Bogart & Bacall pairing, used the chiaroscuro of black-and-white movie-making to great effect in their world-weary stories of crime and passion. Think hard-boiled detectives, femmes fatale, and gangsters. Film noir was the dark side of the swashbuckler.
Strangely, it was the fusion of this cynical genre with light domestic comedy that spawned one of the longest-running franchises in film history. The Thin Man was adapted from a darkly comic book by Dashiell Hammett, brightened up considerably, and given two winning stars in the persons of William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The Thin Man is Clyde Wynant, millionaire inventor, who vanishes one winter leaving his severely dysfunctional family not particularly worried—apart from daughter Dorothy Wynant, who is getting married soon and wants her father there to give her away. She tries to enlist the help of retired detective Nick Charles, who is holidaying in New York with his new wife Nora. Despite the entreaties of Dorothy and the enthusiasm of Nora (and various journalists) Nick refuses to have anything to do with the matter.
I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for.

But as odd circumstances (not to mention bodies, one of them nearly Nick's own) keep piling up, will he be able to resist?
It's not the murder mystery that makes The Thin Man memorable. It's Nick and Nora, and their relationship. There are all too few stories about married couples fighting crime (or, indeed, doing anything) together. The sourness that pervades the rest of the movie, especially around the blighted Wynant family, just manages to set off the cozy, alcoholic Charles home, where barbed wit barely hides real affection.
Nora Charles: Take care of yourself
Nick Charles: Why, sure I will.
Nora Charles: Don't say it like that! Say it as if you meant it!
Nick Charles: Well, I do believe the little woman cares.
Nora Charles: I don't care! It's just that I'm used to you, that's all.

The Thin Man is technically a fantastic movie, with plenty of wit, excitement, and great acting. But take the film noir label seriously when considering younger viewers. Despite the happy marriage enjoyed by the main characters, there's infidelity, adultery, and bigamy going on in the supporting cast. Although the movie came out before the Hays Code was put in place, this is treated with a very light hand and will probably shoot over the heads of smaller viewers.
If you enjoyed The Thin Man, there's a whole string of sequels, gradually declining in quality (although After the Thin Man is also quite good).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Vintage Movies: Bringing Up Baby


There's a leopard on your roof and it's my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.
It is the day before his wedding, and the life of absent-minded paleontologist Dr David Huxley (Cary Grant) is about to become very complicated.
Not that it isn't complicated enough already. The last bone to complete his brontosaurus skeleton is due in the post at any moment. Wealthy Mrs Carlton Random means to give the museum a million dollars and it's up to David to clinch the deal, and if that's not enough, his fiancee and secretary Miss Swallow is already showing the steel hand inside the velvet glove.
Enter the flighty heiress Susan Vance (played by Katherine Hepburn). In a few brief moments she's accidentally disrupted his business meeting, appropriated his golf ball, and nearly run off with his car, all with a gay and carefree insouciance. By the next morning, she's ruined his hat and jacket, convinced Mrs Random's lawyer that he's as mad as a hatter, and enlisted him to transport her pet leopard to Connecticut. Hilarity continues to ensue as the characters run into a grande dame aunt, a scatterbrained big game hunter, a thieving dog, and a severe case of mistaken identity...
Now it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but - well, there haven't been any quiet moments.
Bringing Up Baby is probably the funniest movie I've ever seen. It's filled with brilliant acting, zany characters and unforgettable lines (“I've got my head, I've lost my leopard!” “I'll be with you in a minute, Mr Peabody!” and, of course, “Oh, David...you've torn your coat”) that make it, for my money, the best of the old screwball comedies.
If you liked Bringing Up Baby, you might also enjoy His Girl Friday, You Can't Take It With You, and the more macabre Arsenic and Old Lace.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Mark of Zorro

One cannot talk about vintage movies without mentioning the great swashbucklers! Actors like Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, and Olivia De Havilland shot to superstardom in melodramatic pictures sprinkled liberally with fancy dresses, swordplay, and witty banter.
Of all the old swashbucklers we've seen, the favourite in our home is an unassuming little picture from 1940: The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Basil Rathbone. Tyrone Power plays Don Diego Vega, the son of the alcalde of California who is sent to Spain to complete his education. On his return, he finds California changed since he went away: the peasants seem afraid, the new alcalde is spoken of with fear and hatred, and his evil henchman Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone) is bent on squeezing every last penny out of the taxpayers.
Don Diego can see that something must be done. By night he is the bold and daring Zorro, terror of evildoers. By day he becomes the effete and foppish Don Diego, an inveterate flapper of lace-edged handkerchiefs and languid suitor of the alcalde's enchanting niece Lolita (Linda Darnell). Will he dislodge the evil alcalde from California, or does discovery, disgrace, and death await him?
This movie is wonderful; a movie to savour. It stays on a low simmer throughout with witty dialogue and thousands of hilarious little character moments. Although the plot is not complex, not a single opportunity is missed. Some of the funniest moments in the movie occur as Don Diego's parents, together with the local priest, bewail their son's shallowness:
Fray Felipe: To think that the boy that I helped to raise, the boy that I taught to hold a firm wrist behind a true point, has turned into a puppy!
There's so much to like about this movie. It is set in a world that is the right way up; in other words, a world where fathers, mothers, and the Church are loved and respected; where true nobility and leadership means protecting the poor, not preying on them; and where the heroic happy ending means putting the sword up, like Diego does, and saying--
Don Diego: We're going to follow the customs of California...we're going to marry and raise fat children and watch our vineyards grow.
There are some objectionable overtones to every book or movie, and The Mark of Zorro is no exception. However I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for all audiences. Like many old-fashioned movies, everyone from little children after a simple good-versus-evil story to grown-ups who enjoy well-made classic cinema full of wit and excitement will enjoy The Mark of Zorro.
If you enjoy The Mark of Zorro, take time to sample the other great swashbucklers of cinema. Captain Blood is one of the very best, of course; but don't miss the Ronald Colman The Prisoner of Zenda, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea-Hawk, or the hilarious Court Jester. Swashbucklers are now a lost art, but some recent attempts haven't been too bad: older viewers might like to try Cyrano de Bergerac or The Mask of Zorro.

Feature Week: Vintage Movies


In the first half of the twentieth century, just as there were many worthwhile books to read, there were also many worthwhile movies to see. Many of the reasons I read older books also apply to movies. As with books, the limits of the respectable meant a higher overall moral standard—so while older movies do tend to be laced with double-entendre, they do not tend to include anything worse. Also in the age before gigantic special effects, movies needed to rely on drama and wit to keep people interested; so they also tend to include little in the way of violence and gore. And, of course, we now have the benefit of time and perspective. Movies that haven't stood the test of time have faded into obscurity.
Unfortunately, many of the good movies are also at risk of fading into obscurity. This is a blog for vintage novels, not vintage movies, so I cannot possibly mention all the worthwhile vintage movies in one short week!. I will, however, have the opportunity to discuss some of my favourites, showing particular regard for more obscure movies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Swallows and Amazons Series by Arthur Ransome


Here I am, back from five very busy weeks in New Zealand! I'm sorry for leaving you all without book reviews for so long, but things seem about ready to return to normal.
Today I'd like to review a famous children's book series—the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. These tell the stories of a group of children in the English Lakes District and other regions as they go sailing and camping in the school holidays. An eclectic mixture containing irreverent humour and wild flights of imagination together with more facts about camping, gold-mining, and (of course) sailing than you can poke a stick at, it's hard to imagine a childhood without them.
There are twelve books in the series, mainly revolving around the six original characters: the four (later five) Walker children, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger; and the two piratical Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy. There's Nancy and Peggy's uncle, known mainly as Captain Flint; there's little Walker sister Bridget; there are the birdwatching twins Dick and Dot Callum who constitute the brains of the party.
Swallows and Amazons opens with the Walker children petitioning their father, in the navy, to let them camp on an island in a lake, with their beloved sailing-dinghy the Swallow. The telegram they receive in answer is the kind of thing that would get a modern British parent hauled in for criminal negligence, bad parenting, and failure to sort garbage: If the children aren't duffers, they won't drown. And if they are duffers, they're better off drowned. The peace of the Walkers' island is soon shattered by the arrival of the infamous pirate sisters—the Amazons Nancy and Peggy, who have a ship of their own and fancy that they have a prior claim to the island. And so war is joined...
Swallowdale takes place the following summer. When the Swallow is damaged, her intrepid crew is forced to make camp in a hidden valley at the lakeside. Meanwhile the “natives” are restless: Nancy and Peggy's tyrannical Great-Aunt insists on them being home for meals.
Peter Duck is the old sailor who accompanies the Swallows, the Amazons, and the infamous Captain Flint on an imaginary treasure-hunting expedition to the Caribbean.
Winter Holiday and a frozen lake means no sailing...unless a sail could be rigged on a sled? With the help of newcomers Dick and Dot, the Swallows resolve to try it. This was my second-favourite book in the series.
Coot Club tells of Dick and Dot's sailing experiences in the Norfolk Broads. Meanwhile a local boy's efforts to protect birdlife from noisy motorboaters results in a minor feud...
In Pigeon Post, the Swallows, Amazons, and D's take to the high plain. Their beloved Captain Flint has been prospecting for gold in South America and failed to find anything, so they start their own mining operation, hampered by a sinister rival, Squashy Hat, a phantasmal armadillo, and the threat of wildfire.
We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is hands down my favourite of the books. On the eve of their father's return from duty in the Orient, the four Walkers strike up a friendship with young Jim Brading, captain of the cutter Goblin and are given permission to sail the Stour estuary with him—as long as they don't go out to sea. Then one day Jim doesn't return with fuel from his shoreside errand, a bank of fog drifts in, and the Walker children suddenly realise that they are adrift...In real danger from fog and storm, the Walkers face their biggest test yet.
Secret Water tells how the Swallows' camping trip with their beloved father is threatened when he is called away on duty again. Instead, he maroons them on an island with a dinghy and tells them to map the area before he returns. The Amazons soon turn up to complete the party. Exploration and war, naturally, follow.
The Big Six returns to the Norfolk Broads, where the D's and their Norfolk friends are faced with a mystery: Someone is vandalising boats, and the D's friends are being blamed for it. Can they catch and expose the real vandal before the young Death-and-Glories are banned from sailing?
Missee Lee is the pirate queen who captures the Swallows, Amazons, and Captain Flint on their imaginary trip to the East Indies. The other pirate lords think the Swallows and Amazons should lose their heads, but Missee Lee (who would much rather be studying in Cambridge) thinks they should become her captive Latin students instead. Caught between death and a fate even worse, the Swallows and Amazons plot their escape.
In Picts and Martyrs, the Ds' holidays with the Blacketts is threatened by the advent of the Great-Aunt.
In Great Northern, the Walkers, Blacketts, and the D's go on a cruise of the Hebrides with Captain Flint. Dick is fascinated by the possibility of spotting a rare bird on one of the islands and eventually finds himself battling to protect it from an unscrupulous collector.
There are many, many things to like about this series. The major theme of the series is that of children and young teenagers taking on the responsibilities of adults. In every book, the characters show maturity and initiative when it matters. Meanwhile the books are chock full of information on sailing, birds, mining, mapmaking, navigation, and goodness knows what else.
There are also things to be aware of—some evolutionary content, and I was always quite disturbed by the depiction (even in play) of human sacrifice in Secret Water. Perhaps the most egregious fault is the counterpoint to the independence and capability of the young characters: authority figures (with the notable exception of the Walker parents) are often disrespected.
Although flawed, the Swallows and Amazons series is well worth reading and enjoying—especially We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Skeleton by GK Chesterton

The Skeleton by GK Chesterton
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No; I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King's jest,
It was hid so carefully.

Rest in joy, Craig Smith, pioneer homeschooling father. I have been privileged to be with the Smith family here in New Zealand for the last four weeks. Two months ago today Mr Smith was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. On Friday night God took him home. It's a terrible loss to everyone who knows him but we live in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection!

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