Celebrate National Trivia Day With The Actors Who Could Have Been James Bond!


 

Today is National Trivia Day so I thought why not share some trivia?  I love film trivia.  I especially love trivia about who was considered for certain films.  Hell, one of my most popular posts on the Shattered Lens dealt with all of the actors who were considered for the Godfather!

(I even came up with an alternative cast for The Godfather, even though I consider the actual film to be the best cast film in history.)

I also happen to love the James Bond films.  (Well, not so much the recent Bond films.  I’ve made my feelings on SPECTRE clear.)  As a franchise, I absolutely love them.  So, with all that in mind, here is a look at the actors who could have been Bond.  I’ve compiled this article from many sources.  And yes, you could probably just find a lot of the information on Wikipedia but then you’d miss out on my editorial commentary.

Hoagy Carmichael

Ian Fleming himself always said that his pick for Bond would have been the musician, Hoagy Carmichael.  He even made a point, in Casino Royale, of having Vesper Lynd exclaim that Bond looked like Hoagy Carmichael.  Of course, the first actor to actually play Bond was Barry Nelson in a 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale.  Nelson is probably best remembered for playing Mr. Ullman in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Barry Nelson, the first James Bond

When Dr. No went into production in 1961, many actors were considered for the role before Sean Connery was eventually cast.  Many of them were very well-known actors and, had they been cast, Dr. No would not have been remembered as a Bond movie.  Instead, it would be remembered as a star vehicle for … well, let’s take a look at some of the better-known possibilities:

Among the famous actors who were mentioned for Bond in 1961: Cary Grant, Richard Burton, James Mason, Trevor Howard, Stanley Baker, George Baker, Jimmy Stewart, Rex Harrison, and David Niven.  (Of that list, I think Burton would have made for an interesting Bond.  If the Bond films had been made in the 1940s, Grant would have been my first choice.  Trying to imagine Jimmy Stewart as a British secret agent is … interesting.)

Once it became obvious that a star was not going to play Bond, the role was offered to Patrick McGoohan and Rod Taylor.  McGoohan had moral objections to the character.  Rod Taylor reportedly felt that the film would flop.  Steve Reeves, the American body builder who became famous for playing Hercules in Italy, was reportedly strongly considered.  At one point, director Terrence Young wanted to offer the role to Richard Johnson, who later played Dr. Menard in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Of course, the role went to Sean Connery and made Connery a huge star.  In 1967, after Connery announced that he would no longer play the world’s most famous secret agent, there was a huge and widely publicized search for his replacement.  Some of the names that were considered are intriguing.  Others are just bizarre.

Oliver Reed

To me, perhaps the most intriguing name mentioned was that of Oliver Reed.  Reed definitely would have brought a rougher edge of the role than some of the other actors considered.  However, that’s one reason why Reed wasn’t picked.  Apparently, it was felt that he did not have the right public image to play the suave Mr. Bond.

Somewhat inevitably, Michael Caine was sought out for the role.  Caine, however, refused to consider it because he had already starred in three back-to-back spy thrillers and didn’t want to get typecast.  Caine’s former roommate, Terrence Stamp, was another possibility but wanted too much control over the future direction of the Bond films.  Future Bond Timothy Dalton was considered to be too young.  Another future Bond, Roger Moore, didn’t want to give up his television career.  Eric Braeden has the right look for Bond but was German.  Rumor has it that producer Cubby Broccoli even considered Dick Van Dyke for the role, though I find that hard to believe.  An even more surprising possibility was the nobleman Lord Lucan, who was offered a screen test in 1967 and who, ten years later, would vanish after being accused of murdering his children’s nanny.

Lord Lucan

Among the actors who auditioned before George Lazenby was cast in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Michael Billington, Jeremy Brett, Peter Purves, Robert Campbell, Patrick Mower, Daniel Pilon, John Richardson, Anthony Rogers, Hans De Vries, and Peter Snow.

After the mixed reception of both Lazenby’s performance and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby was soon out as James Bond.  Even today, there’s a lot of controversy about what led to Lazenby being dismissed from the role.  Some say Lazenby demanded too much money.  Some say that Lazenby was merely used a pawn to try to get Sean Connery to return to the role.  Regardless, Lazenby only made one film as Bond.  (Of course, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has retroactively been recognized as being one of the best of the series.)

With Connery still claiming that he would never return to the role, the film’s producers went through the motions of looking for a new Bond.  Once again, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were considered.  Connery suggested that a talk show host named Simon Dee should play the role.  An actor named Roger Green auditioned.  So did Michael Gambon, though he later said he was turned down because, in his own words, he “had tits like a woman.”  Interestingly, several Americans were mentioned.  Clint Eastwood as James Bond?  Burt Reynolds?  Adam “Batman” West? The mind boggles but their names were mentioned.

John Gavin

And interestingly enough, an American was cast.  John Gavin is best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho but he was also, briefly, James Bond.  After Gavin accepted he role and signed a contract, Sean Connery announced that he would be willing to return to the role.  Gavin was paid off and Connery went on to star in Diamonds are Forever.

After Diamonds, Connery left the role for a second time and, once again, Bond was recast.  This time, Roger Moore would finally accept the role.  However, before Moore was cast, several other actors were considered.  Some of the regular possibilities were mentioned again: John Gavin, Simon Oates, Timothy Dalton, and Michael Billington.  Others considered included Jon Finch, Ranulph Fiennes, Peter Laughton, and Guy Peters.  Some of those names are probably as unknown to you as they are to me but it’s intriguing to think that Guy Peters may not be a well-known name but, at one time, there was a possibility that he could suddenly become one of the biggest stars in the world.

Looking over the history of the Bond franchise, it’s interesting to see the number of times that Moore tried to leave the role, just to be talked into returning.  Every time that Moore considered quitting, a new group of actors would be considered for the role of Bond.  In 1979, when Moore said he might not return after Moonraker, Timothy Dalton, Michael Jayston, Patrick Mower (who was also considered for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Michael Billington were all considered as replacements.  So was Julian Glover.  Ironically, when Moore did agree to return to the role, Glover was cast as the villain in For Your Eyes Only.

David Warbeck

To me, the most intriguing actor mentioned as a replacement for Roger Moore was David Warbeck.  Warbeck was a television actor and model who subsequently had a nearly legendary film career in Italy.  Not only did he play a key role in Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker!, but he also starred in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat and The Beyond.  He also appeared in the best of Italian Apocalypse Now rip-offs, The Last Hunter.  In interviews, Warbeck claimed that he was under contract to Cubby Broccoli to step into the role in case Roger Moore ever walked off the set.  The likable and rugged Warbeck would have been an interesting Bond.

In 1983, when Moore again said he might not return to the role, Michael Billington (who actually did appear in a Bond film when he played a KGB agent killed at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me) would be once more considered as a replacement.  British TV actors Lewis Collins and Ian Ogilvy were also considered for the role.  In a repeat of what happened with John Gavin in Diamonds are Forever, American actor James Brolin was actually put under contract until Moore agreed to play the role in Octopussy.

James Brolin, in a screen test for Octopussy

After A View To A Kill, Moore left the role for the final time.  Famously, future Bond Pierce Brosnan was actually cast as his replacement until the surge of interest created by his casting led to the renewal of Remington Steele, the American television show in which Brosnan was starring.  Once the show was renewed, Brosnan could no longer work the Bond films into his schedule.

Among the other names mentioned: Sean Bean, Simon MacCorkindale, Andrew Clarke, Finlay Light, Mark Greenstreet, Neil Dickson, Christopher Lambert, Mel Gibson, and Antony Hamilton.  Sam Neill was another possibility and reportedly came very close to getting the role.  Watch any of the films that Neill made when he was younger and you can definitely see hints of Bond.

Sam Neill

In the end, Timothy Dalton finally accepted the role.  Ironically, for an actor who spent 20 years being courted for the role, Dalton turned out to be a bit of a flop as Bond.  He made two movies (both of which were considered to be disappointing when compared to the previous Bond films) and then left the role.

Looking over the contemporary reviews of Dalton as Bond, one thing that comes through clearly is that a lot of people resented him for taking a role that they felt should have gone to Pierce Brosnan.  When the Bond films resumed production with Goldeneye in 1994, Brosnan finally stepped into the role.  Reportedly, if Brosnan had turned down the role, the second choice was Sean Bean.  Much like Julian Glover, Bean may have lost out on 007 but he did end up playing the villain.

Sean Bean

Among the other actors who were reportedly considered before Brosnan accepted the role: Mark Frankel, Paul McGann, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, and Lambert Wilson.  Ralph Fiennes, who has been M since Skyfall, was also considered.

As opposed to his predecessors, Brosnan seemed to be very comfortable with the idea of playing Bond and never threatened to leave the role.  Looking over the Bond-related articles that were published from 1995 to 2004, I found the occasional speculation about whether Rupert Everett would be the first gay James Bond or if Sharon Stone would be the first female James Bond but I found very little speculation about Brosnan actually leaving the role.  Indeed, when Brosnan officially retired as Bond in 2004, it was less his decision and more at the prodding of the franchise’s producers, who felt that the series needed to be rejuvenated with a new (and younger) actor.  After Brosnan left, the series was rebooted and Daniel Craig played the role in Casino Royale.

In the past, I’ve made it clear that Daniel Craig is hardly my favorite Bond.  I loved Skyfall (and I consider it to the 2nd best Bond film, after From Russia With Love) but, even in that case, I felt that the film succeeded despite Craig instead of because of him.  With Casino Royale, we were supposed to be seeing a young and inexperienced Bond.  That’s never come through to me, probably because Craig looked like he was nearly 50 years old when he made Casino Royale.

Among the actors who were mentioned for the role before Craig received the role: Ralph Fiennes (again), Colin Salmon, Ewan McGregor, Henry Cavill, Rupert Friend, Julian McMahon, Alex O’Laughlin, Clive Owen, Dougray Scott, and Goran Visjnic.  Dominic West, who I think would have been great in the role, reportedly ruled himself out because he heard a rumor that Brosnan would be returning to the role.

Dominic West

Daniel Craig, of course, has been talking about leaving the role ever since he was first cast.  I think Skyfall would have been a perfect movie for him to leave on.  (It would have saved the world from SPECTRE.)  However, Craig has apparently agreed to do at least one more Bond film.  Maybe two.

When Craig does leave, who will replace him?  Idris Elba, of course, is probably the most widely discussed possibility.  James Norton has also been named as a possibility.  Others that I’ve seen mentioned: Tom Hardy, Jack Huston, Aidan Turner, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Henry Cavill (again).

My personal choice?  Dominic Cooper.  He’d be an off-center Bond but I think it would still be an intriguing pick.

Dominic Cooper

Who knows what the future may hold for 007?  All I know is that I look forward to the speculation.

Happy National Trivia Day, everyone!

Action in the Alps: WHERE EAGLES DARE (MGM 1969)


cracked rear viewer

Alistair MacLean’s adventure novels, filled with muscular action and suspenseful plot twists, thrilled moviegoers of the 60’s and 70’s in such big budget hits as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ICE STATION ZEBRA. In his first foray into screenwriting, 1969’s WHERE EAGLES DARE,  he adapted his own work to the silver screen, resulting in one of the year’s biggest hits, aided by the box office clout of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood . The film’s a bit long, running over two and a half hours, but action fans won’t mind. There’s enough derring-do, ace stunt work, explosions, and cliffhanging (literally!) to keep you riveted to the screen!

A lot of the credit goes to veteran stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, in charge of all the action scenes as second unit director. Canutt staged some of the most exciting scenes in film history, from John Ford’s STAGECOACH to William Wyler’s BEN HUR, and certainly keeps things busy…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)


As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #8: Anne of the Thousand Days (dir by Charles Jarrott)


Anne

After I finished writing my review of Rolling Thunder, I continued the process of cleaning out my DVR by watching the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days.  How does a film like Anne of the Thousand Days compare to a film like Rolling Thunder?

They might as well have been conceived, written, directed, and released on different planets.

I recorded Anne of The Thousand Days off of TCM on March 26th.  The main reason that I set the DVR to record it was because Anne was a best picture nominee.  It may seem strange to think that this rather conventional film was nominated the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, and Midnight Cowboy.  It gets even stranger when you consider what wasn’t nominated that year: Medium Cool, If…, Last Summer, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice’s Restaurant, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time In The West, and a long list of other films.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend this entire review listing all of the 1969 films that feel like a more appropriate best picture nominee than Anne of the Thousand Days.

And yet, Anne was nominated for best picture.  In fact, it received a total of 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film that year.  Tellingly most of the nominations were in the technical categories and the only Oscar that it won was for its costumes.  Genevieve Bujold received a nomination for playing the title character and Richard Burton became the third actor to receive a nomination for playing King Henry VIII.

As for the film, Anne of the Thousand Days tells the oft-told story of King Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Told in flashback as both Henry and Anne wait for her to be executed on charges of adultery, the film shows us how middle-aged Henry VIII first met and fell in love with 18 year-old Anne Boleyn.  Standing in the way of Henry’s pursuit of Anne was the fact that 1) Anne intensely disliked him, 2) Anne was already engaged, 3) Anne’s sister was already Henry’s mistress, and 4) Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas).

Fortunately, Henry happens to be king and being king comes with its perks.

For instance, as king, he can order Anne and her fiancée to break up.  As king, he can casually dismiss his former mistress.  And, as king, Henry has the power that Anne finds to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.  At first, Anne merely loves the fact that Henry is obsessed with her.  But slowly, she comes to love Henry as a man as well…

The only problem is that Henry is still married and Catherine is still popular with the people.  Even after Henry divorces her and marries Anne, the common people refuse to accept Anne as their queen.  When Sir Thomas More (William Squire) refuses to recognize Anne as queen, Anne demands that More be executed.  When Henry initially shows reluctance, Anne announces that she will not sleep with him until More is dead.

Needless to say, Thomas More is quickly executed.

However, Henry’s attention has already moved on to Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson) and, desperate to get Anne out of his life, he arranges for Cardinal Cromwell (John Colicos) to frame Anne on charges of adultery and incest.  With Anne facing a humiliating trial and the possibility of execution, Henry makes her an offer.  If she agrees to an annulment, he’ll free her.  However, their daughter — Elizabeth — will lose her claim to the throne…

It’s telling that Charles Jarrott did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work as Anne of the Thousand Day‘s director.  There are a lot of technically good things about Anne of the Thousand Days but, despite all of the melodrama and sex and historical detail to be found in Anne, it never comes to life as a movie.  The costumes are to die for, the sets are impressive, and the cast is full of talented British character actors but the whole movie just feels oddly flat.  Try as it may, it can never convince us that either Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn is worth all the trouble.

Anne of the Thousand Days was obviously a big production, which probably explains all the Oscar nominations.  But otherwise, it’s one of the more forgettable best picture nominees.

Horror Film Review: Exorcist II: The Heretic (dir by John Boorman)


Exorcist2poster

The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror films of all time and a personal favorite of mine.  But what about Exorcist II: The Heretic?  Well, it would be a bit of an understatement to say that The Heretic has not quite received the amount of critical acclaim as the first film.  Since it was first released in 1977, The Heretic has been widely considered to be one of the worst sequels of all time.  It’s a film that is often cited as evidence as to why not all successful films need a follow-up.

Myself, I have sat through The Heretic twice.  And yes, it is a pretty bad film but I have to admit that I enjoyed it each time that I saw it.  It’s not a scary film at all.  It’s not a successful horror film.  But, as an unintentional comedy, it’s hilarious.

The Heretic opens four years after the end of The Exorcist.  Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is dead, having had a heart attack during the first film while performing an exorcism on Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair).  In the years since, some in the Vatican have cast doubt on whether or not Merrin actually performed exorcisms.  It turns out that, contrary to everything that we saw in the first film, Father Merrin was actually something of a rebel.  His teachings are controversial.  For instance, he was convinced that everyone has latent psychic powers and that the demon Pazuzu possesses those who have the potential to be the strongest psychics.  Why?  Because those people have the ability to lead humanity into a shared global consciousness and…

Well, it gets a little bit complicated.  That’s one of the big differences between The Exorcist and Heretic.  The Exorcist kept things relatively simple.  The Heretic drags in a lot of metaphysical argle bargle.

The deceased Father Merrin has been brought up on charges of heresy.  The Cardinal (Paul Henreid, many, many years after Casablanca), assigns Father Lamont (Richard Burton) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Father Merrin’s final exorcism.

The presence of Richard Burton is what elevates Heretic from merely being bad to being so bad that it’s good.  As written, Father Lamont is supposed to be something of a naive idealist, someone who never met Father Merrin but who has been intrigued by his writings.  Reportedly, several youthful actors turned down the role and eventually, production decided to make Lamont an older man and they ended up casting Richard Burton.  Speaking in a shaky rasp and staring at the camera with bloodshot eyes, Burton appears to be at the height of his famous self-loathing in this film.  Burton is so miscast as an idealistic priest that the film becomes fascinating to watch.  Occasionally, the film tries to make us suspect that Lamont himself may be possessed but with Burton snarling his way through the role, how could anyone tell the difference?

Lamont tracks Regan down in New York.  Regan doesn’t remember a thing about the exorcism and appears to be an overly happy teenage actress.  (A good deal of the movie is devoted to her rehearsing a big dance number.)  She is under the care of psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher).  Tuskin has a device called the Synchronizer.  When two people are hooked up to it, they can literally see into each other’s minds.  They can share the same memories.  They can … wait a minute.  What the Hell?  The Synchronizer essentially appears to be little more than a blinking light but it can actually allow you to enter into someone else’s mind?  Doesn’t that seem like that should be a big deal?

Well, it’s not.  Everyone pretty much just shrugs and accepts it…

Through the use of the Synchronizer, Reagan, Lamont, and Tuskin get to watch a lot of scenes from the first Exoricst.  It also allows Father Lamont to have visions of Africa and another exorcism, this one involving a young boy named Kokumo.

This leads to one of my favorite parts of the film; Richard Burton wandering around a dusty African market and randomly telling people, “I am looking for Kokumo.”  It turns out that Kukomo has grown up to be a doctor and he’s now played by James Earl Jones, who appears to be amused by his dialogue.  Also showing up in the film’s Africa scenes is Ned Beatty.  Beatty plays a pilot who flies Lamont to Kokumo’s village.  “Have you come here before?” Beatty asks.  “Once … on the wings of a demon,” Lamont replies.

Well, okay then…

The first Exorcist worked largely because William Friedkin directed it as if he was making a documentary.  John Boorman takes the exact opposite approach here, trying to turn a cheap sequel into a metaphysical meditation on good, evil, and nature.  It’s amazingly pretentious and it would actually be rather annoying if not for the fact that Burton doesn’t make the slightest bit of effort to come across as being in any way emotionally or intellectually invested in his over-the-top dialogue.  When you combine Burton’s overwhelming cynicism with Linda Blair’s nearly insane perkiness, Louise Fletcher’s genial confusion, and James Earl Jones’s cheerful humor, the end result is something that simply has to be seen to be believed.

So, yes, The Heretic is as bad as you’ve heard.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #26: Cleopatra (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Cleopatra_posterWhile watching the 1963 best picture nominee, Cleopatra, I had many thoughts.  The film lasts over 4 hours so I had a lot of time to think.

For instance, I often found myself impressed by the sheer size of the production.  I marveled at the recreation of ancient Greece and Rome.  I loved looking at the ornate costumes.  I loved feeling as if I was taking a look back at what Rome may have actually looked like at the height of the Roman Empire.  Making it all the more impressive was that this film was made in the days before CGI.  When the film’s Romans walked through the streets of Rome, they weren’t just actors standing in front of a green screen.  They were walking down real streets and surrounded by real buildings.  It reminded me of the awe and wonder that I felt when I was in Italy and I was visiting the ruins of ancient Rome.

(I don’t know if any of the cast accidentally flashed everyone like I did when I visited during Pompeii on a windy day but considering how short some of the skirts on the men were, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did!)

And, as I marveled at the recreation of Rome, I also thought to myself, “How long is this freaking movie?”  Because, seriously, Cleopatra is an amazingly long movie.  It’s not just the film is over four hours long.  It’s that the film feels even longer.  Gone With The Wind, The Godfathers Part One and Part Two, Once Upon A Time In America; these are all long films but, because they’re so great, you never find yourself checking the time while watching.  Cleopatra is the opposite of that.  Cleopatra is a film that, at its slowest, will make you very much aware of how many seconds are in a minute.

I found myself marveling at the lack of chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  If anything, this is the most shocking thing about Cleopatra.  If Cleopatra is famous for anything, it’s famous for being the film where Elizabeth Taylor (cast in the role of Cleopatra) first met Richard Burton (who was playing Mark Antony).  Their affair dominated the gossip headlines.  (If TMZ and YouTube had been around back then, there would be daily videos of Richard Burton punching out paparazzi.)  Cleopatra was the first of many big-budgeted, overproduced films that Taylor and Burton co-starred in.

(Then again, they also starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film that is almost the exact opposite of Cleopatra.)

In the role of Mark Antony, Burton spends most of the film looking absolutely miserable.  Elizabeth Taylor, meanwhile, seems to be having a lot more fun.  It’s almost as if she understood what Cleopatra was going to become so she went out of her way to give the type of over-the-top performance that the film deserved.  The same can also be said about Rex Harrison, who plays Julius Caesar and who, perhaps because he appears to have shared her attitude, actually does have some chemistry with Taylor.

Actually, if anyone gives a truly great performance in Cleopatra, it’s Roddy McDowall.  McDowall plays the future Emperor Augustus with a mesmerizing intensity.  Again, McDowall’s performance is not exactly subtle but Cleopatra is not a film that demands subtlety.

As the film finally neared its end, I found myself wondering how Joseph L. Mankiewicz went from directing two close to perfect films, A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve, to directing this.  Even more amazing, Mankiewicz had previously directed one of the best Roman Empire films ever, 1953’s Julius Caesar.  (When compared to Cleopatra, the low-key and thoughtful Julius Caesar appears to have been filmed on an entirely different planet.)  Well, in Mankiewicz’s defense, he was not the original director.  He was brought in to replace Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously attempted to make the film with Joan Collins, Ben-Hur‘s Stephen Boyd, and Peter Finch.  When Mankiewicz was brought in, the cast was replaced with Taylor, Burton, and Harrison.  Between the expensive stars, the troubled production, and all of the offscreen romantic melodrama, Mankiewicz probably did the best that he could.

Today, Cleopatra is mostly interesting as an example of a film from the “Only Gigantic Productions Will Save Us From Television!” era of Hollywood filmmaking.  Cleopatra started out as a $2,000,000 production and ended up costing $31,000,000.  It was the number one film at the 1963 box office and it still nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.  While the film does have some kitsch appeal, the critics hated it and it’s easy to see why.

And yes, it was nominated for best picture of the year, a tribute to the size of the production and the determination of 20th Century Fox to get something — anything — in return for their money.

Cleopatra is a bit of a chore to sit through but it can be fun if you’re in a snarky mood.  It’ll do until the inevitable Angelina Jolie remake comes along.

Film Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir by Michael Radford)


Nineteen-Eighty-Four

Yesterday, as I was flipping through the channels, I came across a documentary that was being shown on This TV.  The documentary was called Nineteen Eighty-Four and it told the story of a low-level British bureaucrat named Winston Smith (who bore a strong resemblance to a youngish John Hurt)  who, after having a secret affair with a free-spirited woman, was charged with committing “thought crimes” against the state.  As a result, he was tortured by a man named O’Brien (who looked a lot like Richard Burton) until Winston finally came to love the government above all else…

What’s that?

Okay, you caught me.

This movie was not a documentary.  Instead, it was an adaptation of George Orwell’s famous novel about a dystopian future Britain (quite cleverly renamed Airstrip One in both the book and the film) where the citizens spend their time giving thanks to Big Brother, a leader who may or may not actually be a fictional creation of the ruling party.  It’s a world where everyone knows that “Big Brother is watching you” and every day is scheduled around the “two-minute hates” that are directed towards Big Brother’s enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein (who, much like Big Brother, may or may not actually exist).  It’s a world dominated by three separate superstates that are in a state of perpetual war, though we’re also given reason to suspect that the war is just as fictional as Big Brother and Goldstein might be.  It’s a world where order is kept by the Thought Police and history is regularly changed for the benefit of the ruling party.  It’s a world where people can become unpersons and cease to exist and where all good citizens understand that one plus one equals three if the government says that it does.

So, no, it’s not a documentary.

It just feels like one.

Richard Burton 1984

As I watched Nineteen Eight-Four, it was impossible for me not to compare Orwell’s vision of the future (which is faithfully visualized in the film) with our present world.  Even though the book was written in 1948 and this film was shot and released in 1984, it was hard not to feel as if Nineteen Eighty-Four could have just as easily been made yesterday.  Beyond the obvious NSA-as-Big-Brother comparisons that everyone makes, it was hard not to compare the brainwashed citizens waiting to hear from Big Brother with the people today who slavishly repeat whatever talking points they hear on MSNBC or Fox News.  How different, I wondered, was Big Brother railing against Goldstein from our President continually telling us that we’re at war with the “forces of cynicism” and that anyone who disagrees with him is not just expressing an opinion but instead is being unpatriotic?  When O’Brien explained how the Party stayed in power by keeping the people perpetually angry at unseen enemies, he might as well have been talking about our own elected officials.  And, when the Thought Police finally arrested Winston and Julia, it brought to mind the images of the militarized police force of Ferguson, Missouri.

And that, I think, is why Nineteen Eighty-Four remains so powerful as both a book and a film.  We live in a world where we are told more and more often that, regardless of what it does, the government is in charge and must be obeyed.  We live in a world where we are currently told that good citizens must obey the law simply because it is the law.  We’re told not to question why a police force needs to resemble an invading army.  We’re told not to question why a member of the police force might happen to shoot an unarmed black teenager multiple times.  We’re told not to question the official history.  Instead, we’re just supposed to live in a state of blind obedience and accept, on faith alone, that those in charge are always right.  We’re supposed to “respect authority” and not think about the specifics.

Thought Police or the Ferguson PD?

Thought Police or the Ferguson PD?

In short, we’re living in the world of Nineteen Eight-Four whether we realize it or not.

As for the film itself, it’s a powerful and surprisingly faithful adaptation of Orwell’s novel.  John Hurt is perfectly cast as Winston Smith and Suzanna Hamilton is sympathetic as Julia.  The two of them have a very real chemistry in this film and it makes the inevitable final scenes all the more disturbing and tragic.  This was also Richard Burton’s final film.  After years of alcoholism, Burton died shortly after filming ended and he looks ill throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But his obvious ill-health actually works to the role’s advantage.  As played by Burton, O’Brien becomes the perfect embodiment of the morally corrupt ruling Party.  The scenes where O’Brien tortures Hurt as difficult to watch, as they should be.  But both Hurt and Burton give such committed performances that you can’t look away even when you want to.  Finally, Nineteen Eighty-Four was an early job for the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and the film has a memorably bleak look to it.  The drabness of Air Strip One perfectly mirrors the empty life of its citizens and it serves as a perfect contrast to the lushness of Winston’s fantasies.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not an easy film to watch but it’s one that everyone should track down and see.  Watch it and ask yourself how different 1984 is from 2014.

1984-john-hurt