Film Review: The Bounty (dir by Roger Donaldson)


Oh, poor Captain Bligh.

For those who recognize the name, it’s probably because they’ve either read a book or seen a film that portrayed him as being the tyrannical captain of the HMS Bounty.  In 1787, William Bligh and the Bounty set off on a mission to Tahiti.  When, after ten months at sea, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti, the crew immediately fell in love with the relaxed pleasures of island life.  When Bligh ordered them to leave Tahiti and continue with their mission, his own second-in-command led a mutiny.  Bligh and the few men who remained loyal to him were set adrift in a lifeboat while Christian and the mutineers eventually ended up settling on Pitcairn Island.  Against impossible odds, Bligh managed to make it back to civilization, where he faced both a court-martial and a future of being portrayed as a villain.

Though most historians agree that Bligh was a knowledgeable and talented (if strict) captain and that the mutiny had more to do with Christian’s desire to remain in Tahiti than Bligh’s treatment of the crew, most adaptations of what happened on the Bounty have laid the blame for the mutiny squarely at Bligh’s feet.  Personally, I think it has to do with the names of the people involved.  William Bligh just sounds evil, in much the same way that the name Fletcher Christian immediately brings to mind images of heroism.  In 1935’s Mutiny On The Bounty, Charles Laughton portrayed Bligh as being a viscous sadist.  In 1962’s Mutiny in the Bounty, Trevor Howard portrayed Bligh as being an overly ambitious martinet, though ultimately Howard was overshadowed by Marlon Brando, who gave a bizarrely mannered performance in the role Christian.

In fact, it would seem that there’s only one film that’s willing to give William Bligh the benefit of the doubt.  That film is 1984’s The Bounty.

The Bounty opens with Bligh (played by Anthony Hopkins) facing a court-martial for losing the Bounty.  That the admiral presiding over Bligh’s court-martial is played by Laurence Olivier is significant for two reasons.  Olivier’s stately and distinguished presence lets us know that the mutiny was viewed as being an affront to British society but it also reminds us that Hopkins began his career as Olivier’s protegé.  Much as how William Bligh was a star of the British navy, Hopkins was (and is) a star of British stage and screen.  One gets the feeling the scene isn’t just about the admiral judging Bligh.  It was also about Olivier judging Hopkins as the latter played a role that had already been made famous by two other great British thespians, Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard.

By opening with Bligh on trial, The Bounty allows itself to be told largely through Bligh’s point of view.  We watch familiar events play out from a new perspective.  Once again, it takes longer than expected for Bligh and the Bounty to reach Tahiti and, once again, Bligh’s by-the-book leadership style alienates a good deal of the crew.  However, this time, Bligh is not portrayed as being a villain.  Instead, he’s just a rather neurotic man who is trying to do his duty under the most difficult of circumstances.  Bligh knows that the crew blames him for everything that goes wrong during the voyage but he also knows that the only way their going to survive the journey is through maintaining order.

In fact, the film suggests that Bligh’s biggest mistake was promoting Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) to second-in-command.  Christian is portrayed as being good friends with Bligh and one gets the feeling that Bligh promoted him largely so he would have someone to talk to.

The film does a good job contrasting the dank claustrophobia of the Bounty with the vibrant beauty of Tahiti.  When the crew first lands, Bligh proves his diplomatic skills upon meeting with the native king.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that, while Bligh views the stop in Tahiti as just being a part of the mission, the majority of the crew view it as being an escape from the dreariness of their lives in Britain.  For the first time in nearly a year, the crew is allowed to enjoy life.  When Bligh eventually orders the crew to leave Tahti, many of the men — including Christian — are forced to abandon their native wives.

Unfortunately for Bligh, he doesn’t understand that his crew has no desire to return to the dreariness of their old life, either on the Bounty or in the United Kingdom.  Bligh’s solution to the crew’s disgruntlement is to become an even harsher disciplinarian.  (Bligh is the type of captain who will order the crew to clean the ship, just to keep them busy.)  However, Bligh no longer has Christian backing him.  When the inevitable mutiny does occur, Bligh seems to be the only one caught by surprise.

Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that turns Bligh into a character who is, in equal amounts, both sympathetic and frustrating.  Bligh means well but he’s so rigid and obsessed with his duty that he can’t even being to comprehend why his crew is so annoyed about having to leave Tahiti.  Since Bligh can’t imagine ever loving anything more than sailing, it’s beyond his abilities to understand why his men are so obsessed with returning to Tahiti.  Hopkins portrays Bligh as being not evil but instead, rather isolated.  He knows everything about sailing but little about emotion or desire.  Ironically, the same personality traits that led to him losing the Bounty are also key to his survival afterward.  By enforcing discipline and emphasizing self-sacrifice, Bligh keeps both himself and the men who stayed loyal to him alive until their eventual rescue.

Interestingly, Mel Gibson portrayed Christian as being just as neurotic as Bligh.  In fact, if Bligh and Christian have anything in common, it would appear to be they’re both obsessed with what the crew thinks of them.  Whereas Bligh is obsessed with being respected, Christian wants to be viewed as their savior.  When the mutiny finally occurs, Christian gets an almost messianic gleam in his eyes.  While Christian is not portrayed as being a villain (and, indeed, The Bounty is unique in not having any cut-and-dried villains and heroes), Gibson’s portrayal is certainly far different from the heroic interpretation offered up by Clark Gable.

(The rest of the cast is full of familiar British character actors, along with a few future stars making early appearances.  Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson appear as members of the Bounty’s crew.  One remains loyal to Bligh while the other goes with Christian.  Watch the movie to find out who does what!)

The Bounty is best viewed as being a character study of two men trying to survive under the most trying of conditions.  Just as Bligh’s personality made both the mutiny and his survival inevitable, the film suggests that everything that made Christian a successful mutineer will also make it impossible for him to survive for long afterward.  Whereas Bligh may have been a poor leader but a good diplomat, Christian proves to be just the opposite and the king of Tahiti makes clear that he has no room on his island for a bunch of mutineers who will soon have the entire British navy looking for them.  Whereas Bligh makes it back to Britain, Christian and the mutineers are forced to leave Tahiti a second time and end up settling on the previously uncharted Pitcairn Island.  (Of course, no one knows for sure what happened to Christian after the mutineers reached Pitcairn Island.  The last surviving mutineer claimed that Christian was murdered by the natives who were already living on the island.)

The Bounty has its flaws.  There are some pacing issues that keep the film from working as an adventure film and a few of the actors playing the crew aren’t quite as convincing as you might hope.  (If you only saw him in this film, you would never believe that Daniel Day-Lewis is a three-time Oscar winner.)  But it’s still an interesting retelling of a familiar story and it’s worth watching for the chance to see one of Anthony Hopkins’s best performances.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Dresser (dir by Peter Yates)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1983 best picture nominee, The Dresser!)

Taking place during World War II, The Dresser is a story of the theater.

Sir (played by Albert Finney) was once a great and famous Shakespearean actor but that was a long time ago.  Now, he is reduced to playing in regional theaters, traveling across Britain with a company made up of a motley collection of forgotten has-beens and never-weres.  He can still draw an audience, one made up of elderly theater goers who remember seeing him in London and people who are merely looking for a distraction from the war.  While bombs echo outside, Sir alternates between playing Othello and King Lear.  Backstage, Sir talks about the memoir he’s going to write and barks out orders to the members of his company.

Though Sir’s overly florid style of acting may seem old-fashioned, there’s no denying that his talent.  We don’t see much of his performance but, when we do see him, we never doubt his claim that he was once declared to the greatest King Lear to have ever appeared on the British stage.  Onstage, Sir is in complete control.  Offstage, he often struggles to remember where he is or what play he’s going to be performing.  At one point, when he’s meant to be getting ready to play Lear, he puts on his Othello makeup.

Fortunately, Sir has a dresser.  Norman (Tom Courtenay) doesn’t appear to have much of a life outside of taking care of Sir’s every whim.  Perpetually high-strung but blessed with a biting wit and an all-important bottle of Brandy that he takes a drink from whenever Sir gets too difficult to deal with, Norman is the one who holds the theatrical company together and who, most importantly, protects Sir.  When Sir can’t remember who he’s playing, Norman reminds him.  When Sir harasses a young actress, Norman is the one who hushes it up.  When Sir insults another actor (Edward Fox), Norman is the one who brokers a peace.  When it’s time for Sir to play King Lear, Norman is the one who helps Sir to transform into Shakespeare’s most tragic monarch.  Neither Sir nor the rest of the acting company seems to have much respect for Norman. The other actors consider Norman to be an ass-kisser and Sir … well, Sir doesn’t have much respect for anyone.  But for Norman, a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Sir’s theatrical company provides him with the only safe place he’ll ever find.

The Dresser is an adaptation of a stage play.  (A few years ago, another version was produced for the BBC with Ian McKellen as Norman and Anthony Hopkins as Sir.)  It’s a good film, though I imagine that it’ll be best appreciated by people who have actually worked in theater.  Finney and Courtenay are both great and I also liked the performance of Edward Fox.  That said, it’s definitely a filmed play the feels more appropriate for PBS than for a movie screen.  As a result, it seems to be a bit of an odd pick for a Best Picture nomination.  I imagine that, much like Birdman, it benefitted from being a movie about actors and performing.

The Dresser lost Best Picture to Terms of Endearment.  It’s still worth seeing, if just for Courtenay’s final monologue.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Gandhi (dir by Richard Attenborough)


Gandhi-poster

I just finished watching the 1982 best picture winner Gandhi on TCM.  This is going to be a tough movie to review.

Why?

Well, first off, there’s the subject matter.  Gandhi is an epic biopic of Mohandas Gandhi (played, very well, by Ben Kingsley).  It starts with Gandhi as a 23 year-old attorney in South Africa who, after getting tossed out of a first class train compartment because of the color of his skin, leads a non-violent protest for the rights of all Indians in South Africa.  He gets arrested several times and, at one point, is threatened by Daniel Day-Lewis, making his screen debut as a young racist.  However, eventually, Gandhi’s protest draws international attention and pressure.  South Africa finally changes the law to give Indians a few rights.

Gandhi then returns to his native India, where he leads a similar campaign of non-violence in support of the fight for India’s independence from the British Empire.  For every violent act on the part of the British, Gandhi responds with humility and nonviolence.  After World War II, India gains its independence and Gandhi becomes the leader of the nation.  When India threatens to collapse as a result of violence between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi fasts and announces that he will allow himself to starve to death unless the violence ends.  Gandhi brings peace to his country and is admired the world over.  And then, like almost all great leaders, he’s assassinated.

Gandhi tells the story of a great leader but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie.  In order to really examine Gandhi as a film, you have to be willing to accept that criticizing the movie is not the same as criticizing what (or who) the movie is about.

As I watched Gandhi, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  Reportedly, Gandhi was a passion project for director Richard Attenborough.  An admirer of Gandhi’s and a lifelong equality activist, Attenborough spent over 20 years trying to raise the money to bring Gandhi’s life to the big screen.  Once he finally did, it appears that Attenbrough didn’t want to leave out a single detail.  Gandhi runs three and a half hours and, because certain scenes drag, it feels ever longer.

My other thought, as I watched Gandhi, was that it had to be one of the least cinematic films that I’ve ever seen.  Bless Attenborough for the nobility of his intentions but there’s not a single interesting visual to be found in the entire film.  I imagine that, even in 1982, Gandhi felt like a very old-fashioned movie.  In the end, it feels more like something you would see on PBS than in a theater.

The film is full of familiar faces, which works in some cases and doesn’t in others.  For instance, Gandhi’s British opponents are played by a virtual army of familiar character actors.  Every few minutes, someone like John Gielgud, Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, John Mills, or Nigel Hawthorne will pop up and wonder why Gandhi always has to be so troublesome.  The British character actors all do a pretty good job and contribute to the film without allowing their familiar faces to become a distraction.

But then, a few American actors show up.  Martin Sheen plays a reporter who interview Gandhi.  Candice Bergen shows up as a famous photographer.  And, unlike their British equivalents, neither Sheen nor Bergen really seem to fit into the film.  Both of them end up overacting.  (Sheen, in particular, delivers every line as if he’s scared that we’re going to forget that we’re watching a movie about an important figure in history.)  They both become distractions.

I guess the best thing that you can say about Gandhi, as a film, is that it features Ben Kingsley in the leading role.  He gives a wonderfully subtle performance as Gandhi, making him human even when the film insists on portraying him as a saint.  He won an Oscar for his performance in Gandhi and he deserved one.

As for Gandhi‘s award for best picture … well, let’s consider the films that it beat: E.T., Tootsie, The Verdict, and Missing.  And then, consider some of the films from 1982 that weren’t even nominated: Blade Runner, Burden of Dreams, Class of 1984, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, My Favorite Year, Poltergeist, Tenebrae, Vice Squad, Fanny and Alexander…

When you look at the competition, it’s clear that the Academy’s main motive in honoring Gandhi the film was to honor Gandhi the man.  In the end, Gandhi is a good example of a film that, good intentions aside, did not deserve its Oscar.

Review: A Bridge Too Far (dir. by Sir Richard Attenborough)


1977 a bridge too far

“Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far” — Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning

With the recent passing of Sir Richard Attenborough I decided to bring up one of the films which first brought his name to my attention. I was quite the young lad when I first saw Attenborough’s epic war film A Bridge Too Far. I would say that it was one of my earlier memories of watching a film with my father who was a major fan of war films. One could say that I got my appreciation and love for the genre from him.

A Bridge Too Far was adapted from the Cornelius Ryan book of the same name which depicted from start to finish the disastrous World War II battle known as Operation Market Garden. The film states that the Allied landings at Normandy, France in the summer of 1944 had the German forces reeling and on the verge of collapse. With Eisenhower having to choose between competing plans to chase Hitler’s forces right into Berlin from his two best generals in George S. Patton and Bernard Montgomery, the film already lays down something that’s become synonymous with military disasters throughout history. Political expediency and pressure on Eisenhower led to an operation that was never attempted in military history and one which required every aspect of the operation to go according to plan for it to work. As the film would show this was not meant to be.

The film begins with the operation’s early days as Allied commanders rush to put Montgomery’s plan to drop 35,000 paratroopers behind German lines in occupied-Netherlands in order to capture and hold key bridges until Allied armored forces arrived to reinforce them. It’s a daring plan that the Attenborough films with a obvious confidence and enthusiasm, but also one that already showed some nagging doubts from field commanders who would be in the thick of the fighting if intelligence reports were inaccurate. One could almost say that Attenborough was making the film a sort of anti-war message which was a rarity when it came to Hollywood and and film industry depicting the events of World War II at the time.

While the film does explore that very anti-war theme throughout it’s really a by-product of how the battle itself unfolds and shown to the viewers that might give one such an idea. Yet, in the end A Bridge Too Far was a much more complicated film to just be labeled as an anti-war film. Yes, the battle itself was a disaster for the Allied forces of American, British and Polish soldiers involved, but despite the political bumbling and military arrogance of those who command from behind a desk, the film actually does a great job of showing that bond soldiers earn when confronted with the horrors of battle.

Attenborough and producer Joseph E. Levine pulls together an all-star cast for the film with names such as Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Robert Redford, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier just to name a few. Films such as A Bridge Too Far rarely get made anymore in this day and age. The cast itself is part of the reason why the film still holds up to scrutiny decades after it’s release. While all-star casts such as this seemed to have been common place before the 1980’s it still looked like a daunting task for Attenborough to manage so many Hollywood stars and veteran British actors. Every character from Hopkin’s Col. Frost, Connery’s Gen. Urquhart and Redford’s Maj. Cook get to shine in their sections of the film as their individual stories about the battle all tie-in together to show just how complicated the events that they were filming truly turned out to be.

At times, one almost could feel overwhelmed by the amount of recognizable names and faces that come across the screen, yet Attenborough and producer Levine were able to juggle not just the logistics of the film’s screenplay, but the egos and reputation of the very stars who would become the backbone of the film.I think in a lesser filmmaker A Bridge Too Far could easily have turned into the very Operation Market Garden it was trying to depict.

It’s a film that never celebrates the concept of war itself, but actually shows that war remains a bloody and chaotic affair that relies not just on planning and execution but on the whims of lady luck. While Attenborough’s film never reached the sort of iconic status that another Cornelius Ryan adapted film has attained in The Longest Day, it does remain the more powerful of the two as it doesn’t just explore the historical event as a sort of academic exercise, but as an exploration of that old military adage of “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.

So, in the end I recommend that those looking to watch and experience the earlier directorial works of Sir Richard Attenborough should check out A Bridge Too Far. It remains to this day one of his more underappreciated films especially when compared to his later more acclaimed films like Gandhi, Chaplin and Shadowlands.

44 Days of Paranoia #37: The Day of the Jackal (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 1973 British thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

For our previous entry, I reviewed The Fugitive, a film that is often described as a classic but which, in my opinion, has failed to survive the test of time.  Therefore, it’s appropriate that this entry is the exact opposite: a film that lives up to its reputation.

Taking place in the early 1960s, The Day of the Jackal tells the story of a nameless assassin (played by Edward Fox) who is hired by a group of terrorists to assassinate French President Charles De Gualle.  Accepting the job, the assassin tells his employers to call him “The Jackal.”

We follow the Jackal as he prepares for the assassination.  He meets with a gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) and has a special rifle designed.  A forger gets him some fake ID papers but makes the mistake of trying to blackmail him.  After disposing of the forger, the Jackal makes his way to Paris.  Determined to protect his identity, the Jackal seduces both men and women so that he’ll be able to avoid having to check into a hotel.  Whenever it appears that someone might be a security risk, the Jackal calmly kills them.  It’s all strictly business.

However, the French do know that the Jackal is in Paris and that he’s planning to kill the President.  In a plot twist that continues to be significant today, one of the terrorists has been captures and, after being brutally tortured, has revealed the plot.  Inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is tasked with tracking down the Jackal and preventing the assassination.

When I talk about how much I love old movies, I’m talking about films like The Day of the Jackal, an unpretentious movie that achieve success not through flashy visual effects or overwhelmingly loud action scenes but instead by simply being a well-made film.  For the most part, director Fred Zinnemann takes a low-key, almost documentary approach to the film’s material.  Zinnemann establishes a pace that is deliberate but never boring.

The film also features two excellent lead performances.  With his coldly aristocratic features, Edward Fox is perfectly cast as the nameless assassin.  You not only believe that he could kill someone but you also believe that he could get away with it.  He’s a thoroughly believable killer and it’s hard not to be impressed by just how good he is at being the bad guy.  The Jackal’s sleek professionalism and charisma is contrasted with the gray and rather shabby middle-aged men who are trying to stop him.  As played by Michael Lonsdale, Inspector Lebel is initially a rather underwhelming figure but, as the film progresses, his own strength is gradually revealed until he becomes a worthy adversary of the Jackal.

Finally, I should mention that the film ends with a little coda that is pure perfection.  I’m not going to ruin it by revealing it here but it’s worth watching the entire film just for that final line.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive