Review: The Wind and the Lion

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

The opening shots of rolling sea and thundering Berber cavalry, well-handled as they are, don’t really hint that The Wind and the Lion is going to be a good—more precisely, a special—movie. They might presage any epic film (“epic” in the Hollywood sense) since Ben-Hur, getting off to an obligatorily actionful start, only to succumb to Charlton Heston monumentality, Philip Yordan poeticalism, or what Pauline Kael once exasperatedly termed David Lean’s “goddam good taste.” The first indication that John Milius has something distinctive going here comes after the Berbers have reached and breached their destination, a compound above Morocco where, on this pleasant afternoon in 1904, they propose to kidnap thirtyish American widow Eden Pedecaris and her two children.

Mrs. Pedecaris has just ordered son William off the wall overlooking the town—”It’s not safe! The edge is no place to play”—and is waiting for a servant to bring the red Bordeaux selected to inaugurate lunch. Her companion, a tall, white-suited, slightly stuffy-looking English sort, springs into action as the first of the marauders comes riding right through the garden lattice; calling to his hostess to seize the children and take cover, he produces a revolver from inside his immaculate costume and stands firm, squeezing off one shot at a time with target-range deliberation. The first Berber spills to the ground; a second dies in midair, his body hurtling lifelessly on to shatter a statue by the goldfish pool. They keep coming, though, crashing through windows, leaping over shrubbery, until the man pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. “Damn”—scarcely an exclamation point to it. He has a second in which to say this and look rebukingly at the pistol; then a horseman is on him and chops him to earth. Now, that Englishman was a bit of an ass—the official screen identity for his race—and one might get politically exercised about his cool, businesslike dispatching of Third-Worlders charging selflessly in the face of colonialist-imperialist firepower. It’s pretty pathetic firepower, too, five or six pistol rounds—that a man should stand there in the open and expect it to suffice against the risen might of North Africa implies a degree of European complacency that fairly begs to be violently contradicted. Except that, the way Milius stages the scene, all those pre-ordained cavils we’ve been conditioned to respond with—if we have any degree of “radical” awareness—are revealed to be so much bullshit. That man stands and defends his momentary charges with impeccable dedication and the most effective fighting style possible in the circumstances, and when he’s done all he can do, he’s felled like so much meat. And those intruders are about their business, too; and before we can comfortably visit judgment on them any more than we could upon the Englishman, Milius begins to pull more switches on us…. But at this rate I’ll be running through the whole film—not that I’d mind.

I’ve no wish to preempt Time and Newsweek at the game of spotting trends and discovering major turning points—about one and four-sevenths per year, on the average—after which the cinema can never be the same again. Still, the simultaneous arrival of two respectable entertainments of some size—this film and Jaws—helmed by very young directors does suggest a shift I can only see as auspicious. If, in the case of Jaws and Steven Spielberg, I sense some danger of the manipulative school of filmmaking running rampant, about Milius I feel a good deal more secure. While I don’t discount the intelligence behind Jaws (and intelligence is not in such long supply that we can afford to reject any out of hand, even in the service of electrodes-in-place cinema—just compare Jaws and The Towering Inferno), I’m still hard put to identify Steven Spielberg—which, at this point in his career, isn’t necessarily a bleak sign. What he and Milius have in common is a desire to make movies that move, and move audiences on something approximating the scale we associate with Hollywood of yesteryear. And by scale I don’t exclusively, or even primarily, mean size of production or amount of money spent, though in these senses both films are big pictures. I’m referring more to the quality of hugeness that rarely attaches itself to the highest achievements in the medium—La Règle du jeu, Sansho the Bailiff, Letter from an Unknown Woman, just to grab three out of the ether—but abounded in splendid movies like Gunga Din, King Kong, Gone with the Wind, the Korda Thief of Bagdad—films we’re likely to hail as grand rather than great. (Some films put the two together, in which case look out, baby! Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Red River, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, North by Northwest, The Wild Bunch….) In recent years the ambition to carry on this sort of moviemaking has not only been notably absent—it was practically outlawed by hip commentators who saw Cinemobile productions like Easy Rider as the wave of the future and dollar-scared executives who desperately wanted to believe them.

The key difference between Spielberg and Milius is that Milius is obviously making (and this goes for his screenplay credits, too) films that mean something to him. Even if one hadn’t read an interview here and there, it’d be easy to tell from just watching The Wind and the Lion that John Milius believes in, and has profoundly missed, movies that surge instead of prowl across a screen. He’s been to college, of course. He knows that it’s 1975, not 1935. He knows that, while a modern audience might sit through and even manage to take delight in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer or The Four Feathers, you couldn’t make those same movies today and get away with it. So when Sean Connery makes his official entrance in The Wind and the Lion (not that first glimpse at the head of a hard-riding troop whose dynamics are all tied up with a camera rushing precariously uphill and around corners backwards, and Fordian shadows whipping over all, but his entrance), Milius does him proud: camera moving around some shrubs, closing compulsively on that hooded figure who sits with his back to the mayhem, contemplating a flower and finally deigning to turn his gaze our way. A lackey comes out of the trees beyond with a captured horse, a magnificent beast. As we and the rapt Mrs. Pedecaris watch, he mounts. A moment’s stillness. Then the critter backs into the trees, scrapes that regal cloak up over Connery’s head, and dumps him. Eden laughs; the rider behind her gently sets a blade at her throat. The lackey runs up with a white stallion, clearly the bandit chief’s own; Connery makes an almost invisible gesture of exasperation—because the reins do not fall right or because he should have had this horse in the first place? He mounts, rides as if to pass Mrs. Pedecaris, then leans over and slaps her hard. “You do not laugh at the Raisuli!” And, even as you feel you should, you don’t.

Milius’s incredible balancing act might have turned very rancid, yet miraculously his mixture of full-blown romanticism and a genial sense of its absurdity produces a deeply satisfying picture. We cut from the completed raid to a hand spread out on a world globe; as John Huston—in the person of John Hay—reads a communication from the Secretary of State to President Theodore Roosevelt concerning the kidnapping of three American citizens in Tangier, the camera pulls out to reveal T.R. (Brian Keith) posed and poised as though to wage a painted war. There is no one else in view; the voiceover seems to be reverberating in Roosevelt’s memory rather than produced by an actual speaker at that moment. It’s a grand pose, and a rather silly one, too. Rather abstract on Milius’ part, isn’t it? Roosevelt shifts his eyes for a second and then adjusts the pose ever so slightly. A flash goes off. The President relaxes. Fade.

It keeps going that way. Billy Williams’s 70mm camera pans over a hundred miles of the Riff as Connery’s voice intones homage to the land and to himself: Mulay Achmed Mohammed El Raisuli the Magnificent, the instrument of Allah’s Will. The camera reaches him on a hilltop and he turns to Mrs. Pedecaris, asking with lovely self-irony that disarms any putdown, “Have you nothing to say to that?” … But I’m doing it—recounting the whole damned movie!

If Milius’s characters seem to know they’re in a John Milius film, the writer-director knows where he stands as well. Our point-of-view character on much of the action is William Pedecaris, Eden’s son, whom we first glimpse perched on that edge where it isn’t safe to play. The boy is no mere prop in the scenes which require his presence: he participates with a half-terrified sense of deliciousness (the child performers in the film are remarkably tolerable overall), at one point seizing a long rifle to blast an enemy Berber—and a masterful stroke of editing integrates the collapse of the wounded man and William’s own tumble from the recoil with the viewer’s eager participation in a rousing adventure sequence—vicarious experience given a wonderful immediacy. Gun freak and movie freak Milius (he appears, if my eyes don’t misgive me, in a quick bit as an arms salesman peddling a machine gun to the sultan—who proceeds to fire it wildly à la General Mapache in The Wild Bunch) is perfectly aware that he shares that onscreen boy’s golden memory-vision of an impossibly admirable kind of heroism. The Wind and the Lion is an adult version of a child’s adventure story, but not adult enough to spoil it.

If I stress the Moroccan sections of The Wind and the Lion it isn’t just because the greater portion of the film transpires on that side of the ocean which geographically separates but stylistically links its two larger-than-life protagonists. Sean Connery’s Raisuli is the juiciest star part in recent memory and he makes the most of it. Part of the beauty of the film and the performance is that we never for a moment forget Sean Connery; even his unconcealable accent is flaunted as though it ought to be perfectly acceptable as an aural replica of what a cultured Berber chieftain talked like. The large-spiritedness of John Wayne’s least neurotic roles finds a worthy echo here. It’s part of the meaning of the role. At one point Raisuli is calling up some of his former adventures as he muses over a campfire. Mrs. Pedecaris, who has of course developed a real taste for playing on the edge by this time, is all ears—but no more so than the Raisuli’s men who have heard the tale a hundred times. They even prompt him when his attention wanders; as he describes how a former enemy was blinded by having hot coins set on his eyes, a thrilled lieutenant plays Mose Harper to his Ethan Edwards, pantomiming the action for one of his comrades. The scene operates as a comment on what such legends, on celluloid, used to mean to moviegoers who were not afraid to indulge in a sense of awe.

I’ve gone beyond the limits of any quickie review I ever saw, so I’ll terminate this with some miscellaneous observations: It was John Huston’s shaggy-dog direction of Milius’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean that convinced the writer he had to direct in order to protect his vision (Dillinger was his first directorial endeavor—see MTN 25). As John Hay, ever approaching Roosevelt with a warily avuncular “What are you doing, Theodore?”, he’s treated as an outmoded but affectionately tolerated director figure within the film—and incidentally winds up on the Ethan Edwards end of another Searchers gambit, an outrageous variation on the “You speak good Comanch’ for a white man—someone teach you?” scene….

John Ford’s influence is all over the film. The man in the white suit is highly reminiscent of that powerfully ambivalent figure of Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) in Fort Apache (they even shoot the same). Horses scarcely ever behave as they’re usually supposed to on-camera: they prance and plunge and turn their riders in circles even when said riders are trying to have a serious conversation; one rolls in the dirt scratching himself while Teddy Roosevelt sits against a tree and meditates for the press over a grizzly bear he’s just slain in Yellowstone Park. And the irresistible manliness of both Raisuli and Roosevelt is evocatively set off against a sense of feminine inability to console the aching loss both men see approaching with the modern age: Eden Pedecaris’s relationship with Raisuli is destined to be consummated only through the marriage of true minds over a shotgun passed in the heat of battle, and T.R., though his wife leans into view at one state dinner, likewise makes meaningful contact only with a grizzly he has to kill, an enemy he never meets, and his daughter Alice, who shares secret knowledge of the failing sight in his left eye and who is the last to leave him alone with his legend in the final moment of the film….

The Mayaguez incident has supplied Milius with the most fortuitous audience setting-up since FDR and Churchill pitched camp in the namesake of Casablanca. I’ve refrained from saying anything about this so far because Gerald Ford’s attendance at the Washington press preview has made the connection doubly newsworthy (“We’ve found our Patton!” chimed one aide) and I don’t propose to get into an analysis of gunboat diplomacy. Milius is not without political consciousness, and his attempts at satirizing turn-of-the-century big-stick-waving result mainly in a wretchedly written and acted scene that succeeds only in demeaning one of his and my favorite character players, Geoffrey Lewis (as Consul Gummere in Morocco); I like better Roosevelt’s statement of dedication to protecting “the rights of Americans,” standing on the platform of a campaign special while two ambiguously glaring Indians frame his beaming face. The Wind and the Lion is worth discussing in political terms, but I hope it won’t be discussed first, foremost, and finally in those terms. Surely we can be adult enough to have a good time, too….

RTJ

THE WIND AND THE LION
Screenplay and direction: John Milius. Cinematography: Billy Williams. Production design: Gil Parrando. Editing: Robert L. Wolfe. Stunt supervision: Terry Leonard. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Herb Jaffe.
The players: Sean Connery, Candice Bergen, Brian Keith, John Huston, Simon Harrison, Polly Gottesman, Nadim Sawalha, Geoffrey Lewis, Steve Kanaly, Vladek Sheybal, Deborah Baxter, Roy Jenson, Antoine St. John, Aldo Sambrell, Akio Mitamura, Billy Williams.

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson