Shortly before the end of a promotional screening of 102 Dalmatians, an anxious Disney publicist leaned into the press row where I sat and announced that a couple of the film’s reels had been shown out of order. Did we critic types happen to notice, she asked?
Of course, reply my astute colleagues. I, however, keep my mouth shut. You could have shown me this shrill hunk of junk upside down and backwards, and I would have remained willingly obtuse.
“Man is an endangered species,” alerts the introductory card to this adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s Star Wars inspired epic sci-fi novel. It should have warned us that logic was also hitting hard times.
The year is 3000 and the place is Earth. After a millennium of brutal subjugation by the Psychlos (seemingly an unholy mating of Star Trek’s Klingon and Ferengi races), humans live like cavemen in the irradiated wilds, foraging through a dying Earth. Rebellious young Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, in flowing locks and an unchanging expression of determined sincerity) searches for a better land and discovers a race of intergalactic corporate pirates, eight foot alien slavers sucking the planet dry of resources in the name of profit.
If you’ve never heard of South of Heaven, West of Hell, there’s an excellent reason. If you have heard of it, it’s probably because you stumbled upon the information that it marks the directorial debut of singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, who managed to sweet-talk a spectacularly quirky cast into abetting the enterprise: current girlfriend Bridget Fonda and her papa Peter; indie-world luminaries Vince Vaughn and Billy Bob Thornton (for whom Yoakam made a memorably loathsome villain in Sling Blade); character-acting stalwarts Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Luke Askew, and Scott Wilson; and such icons of the florid fringe as Bud Cort, Paul Reubens, and Michael Jeter. All should file for workman’s comp and alienation of audience affection because they got themselves mired in one of the dumbest, most inept, most tediously self-indulgent messes in the history of showbiz hubris.
Just back from the Crusades after twenty years, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood peers up at an abbey window to espy his onetime Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) decked out in nun’s habit. “What,” demands her scruffy swain, “are you doing in that costume?” “Living it,” she retorts. In Robin and Marian, Richard Lester’s superb deconstruction of sustaining, fatal legend, Robin is a player past his prime, so taken by his own heroic mask he would choose to die under its weight. In fashioning one of his finest performances, Sean Connery must have called upon something of his own struggle with a devouring fiction, the near-loss of his own face to a single fixed expression of heroism.
In forty years of filmmaking, Sean Connery has climbed into a remarkable variety of cinematic costume: suits from Savile Row, uniforms of every stripe, American West gear, exotic regalia from loincloth to kilt to Spanish grandee’s piratical splendor, the robes of a Benedictine monk, the sturdy tweeds of an elderly British archaeologist, and the slightly seedy duds of a boozy publisher. He’s been spy, soldier, scientist, submarine captain, cop, poet, miner, thief, messiah, sheikh, fertility god, and dragon. No matter the clothes, period, or genre, Connery displays the sangfroid of an instinctively naturalized citizen, at home from Sekandergul to Oz.
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Ripeness has gone to rot with a vengeance in Richard Lester’s latest film. In some wasteland out at the edge of the world (patently not a holy land) a one-eyed old man and some women and children hide out in a cracked, ungarrisoned castle and do not guard a golden statue coveted by King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris), because it’s really only a stone, and besides, it was too heavy to carry away from the turnip field where it was dug up. Not even Robin Hood’s still-illusioned alchemy can shapechange the “pig” who peevishly orders the castle razed and its inhabitants butchered back into a lion-hearted monarch. Richard’s death is flung like accidentally accurate doom from above; but Justice in this diminished world is old and one-eyed, its bolt flung in fallibly human long shot rather than sent as sign of any god’s terminal exasperation with a hero long fallen from divine or mystic or even human grace. The heroic vision that Richard once embodied, and gave Robin a taste for, is apparently laid to rest where it went bad—in a stony land of too much sun and too many senseless massacres. But although Robin, Little John, and we watch the king’s funeral cortege in longshot, it soon becomes clear that Robin has managed to internalize some vestige of the former dream, and now means to take it home—home to the cool green fastnesses of Sherwood Forest where it first thrived.
If Nicol Williamson’s practical Little John finds sustenance in plain bread, the sights he’s seen in the wide world, and his love for Robin, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood is hooked on more exotic fare. Grizzled, just this side of being old, he lacks the cleverness to buy cynicism as life insurance, but is just simple enough to be a hero. He’s hardly ever able to contain the gay, brave boy who, untouched by time and circumstance, struggles free to shout “I’ll save you!” to an uncooperatively grownup Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Bergman’s knight in TheSeventh Seal comes home from the Crusades to seek God among the ruins, but finds only ruins and, inevitably, death. Lester’s peasant-knight returns to quest for a present, if not a future, in the past, and ends by putting a period to a life that cannot, will not dwindle into obscurity and old age, but must burn out in a flash of meaning. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a proper end. Some richer, more resonant image must replace that of a spent king bleeding in the foreground of an empty stonescape, a uselessly burning castle thrust up in the dusk behind him, a monument to death without dignity or purpose.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
A lot of things work against Richard Lester’s new film Robin and Marian. In the first place, as two of England’s most treasured heroes, those ur-Communists Robin Hood and Little John, Lester has cast (horrors!) two rowdy Scots, Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. In the second, he has allowed the film itself to take a back seat to the heavily flacked return to the screen of Audrey Hepburn. Further, he has settled for an always inappropriate and often downright bad film score from John Barry which threatens to sabotage some of the film’s best moments (one keeps wishing period music had been used). And, worst of all, he has accepted from James Goldman a selfconscious and often labored screenplay that, in attempting to capture the conflict between a man’s mortality and the timelessness of myth, is at best adequate, and at worst overwritten with an embarrassing sappiness (Marian’s final profession of love to Robin falls somewhere between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s counting of the ways and Maria von Trapp’s enumeration of a few of her favorite things). In fact, Goldman’s screenplay bears some uncomfortable similarities to that other Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the image of the fair-fighting hero debunked with a kick to the balls; two heroes in a hesitant jump from a high place (cf. “I can’t swim!” with “We might hurt ourselves!”); and the woman eternally fond of them both, but desperate to dissuade them from following the suicidal course of reckless adventurism.
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
It’s hard not to think about Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing The Man Who Would Be King, for reasons that range from their broadest similarities as adventure yarns involving men balancing vision against obsession and finally losing everything in their efforts to get everything, down to minor but perhaps tellingly matched details like the strings of frisky mules who in both cases wind up spilling fortunes of gold back into the wilderness from which they came. To enumerate a few other likenesses: one could easily see the Mexican Shangri-la that Walter Huston falls into in Treasure of the Sierra Madre as something of an incipient Kafiristan (who knows that Huston didn’t have Kafiristan in mind even then, if it is true that he’s had a film version of Kipling’s story forming in his head for some twenty years) and the schism that festers briefly between Peachey Carnehan and Danny Dravot when Danny decides to take a wife and remain a .king in Kafiristan as another version of the paranoia that alienates Fred C. Dobbs from his companions and finally leads to his death—as Danny’s much less self-destructive delusions lead to his. Cutting it a little finer, there is the director’s own little joke in Treasure when Bogart (who, interestingly, was one of the actors—Clark Gable was the other—Huston originally intended to play the roles in his version of Kipling’s story) keeps on badgering John Huston to “stake a fellow American to a meal” (Huston plays a small part as a moneyed American in a Mexican city full of penniless expatriates) until Huston gets pissed off and tells Bogart, “This is the last peso you’ll get from me; from now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance!” In The Man Who Would Be King Peachey Carnehan swipes a watch from Kipling—if not the auteur, at least the author who set Peachey and Danny out into the world and into Huston’s imagination.
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
John Huston said recently he has made only three good films in the past decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, and The Man Who Would Be King. Though I’m still holding out—more or less alone, I think—for The Kremlin Letter to be included among his better works and I have serious doubts about Reflections, there is certainly no argument that The Man is one of the director’s finest achievements of any decade. It’s a pretty neat trick to make a film so completely faithful to the spirit of Kipling’s original story while not violating for even a moment the spirit of John Huston as well.
If Hollow Man doesn’t dive anywhere near the implications of its T.S. Eliot–inspired title, settling for the form and function of a summer movie, it nevertheless offers something extra. That extra is the edge provided by director Paul Verhoeven, the perverse Dutch master who brings his cruel, nasty personality to the party. Despite Showgirls, Verhoeven is a distinctive talent—sometimes incoherent, but often bracing.
One of the most eagerly anticipated offerings at Cannes this year, Shadow of the Vampire is the first feature in a decade from E. Elias Merhige, whose only previous effort was the one-of-a-kind avant-garde feature Begotten (1990). That amazing film visualized a timeless cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, in Druidic images at once primeval and postapocalyptic, that seem to have been developed on protoplasmic stock and projected with a flickering bioluminescence. What more appropriate directorial casting, then, for an imaginary (?) account of how F.W. Murnau, the cinema’s first poet of the supernatural, might have made Nosferatu, the first, albeit unofficial, screen version of Dracula.