Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

cracked rear viewer

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: King Solomon’s Mines (dir by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton)


So, this is a weird one.

As we all know, today is Oscar Sunday!  As I wait for the big show to begin, I’ve been watching some of the Oscar-nominated films that I have collected on the DVR over the past month.  For instance, this morning, I watched 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines.

King Solomon’s Mines was nominated for best picture of the year and watching it … well, you really have to wonder why.  It’s an adventure film, one that was shot on location in Africa and it features a lot of footage of wild animals.  It also features several scenes that were shot in actual African villages and a good deal of time is devoted to documenting tribal rituals.  It’s true that the film has a plot but, for the most part, it’s a travelogue.  One gets the feeling that it was mostly sold as a chance for American and European audiences to see a part of the world that, up until that point, they had only read about.  Not only would they get to experience Africa from the safety of the neighborhood movie theater but they’d get to see it in a color as well!

(Seriously, it’s difficult to watch the nature footage in King Solomon’s Mines without imagining a serious voiced narrator saying, “However, one gazelle has strayed too far from its mother.  The lion cubs will eat tonight…”)

As for the plot, King Solomon’s Mines is based on a novel by British adventure enthusiast H. Rider Haggard.  Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) is an experienced guide and hunter.  When we first meet him, he’s helping two rich Englishmen hunt an elephant.  It’s a disturbing scene, largely because it’s obvious the footage of the elephant dying is real.  Allan prevents his clients from killing more than one elephant and later talks about how much he hates his job but still, it’s pretty much to impossible to really like him after watching that elephant die.

Anyway, Allan gets hired by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother John (Richard Carlson).  It seems that Elizabeth’s husband disappeared in Africa while searching for a legendary treasure.  Allan tells Elizabeth that her husband is probably dead.  Elizabeth still insists on searching for him…

…and, from that point on, you can pretty much predict everything that is going to happen.  Though the footage of Africa looks great, it’s just not a very interesting film.  Playing the type of role that would probably be played by Gerard Butler if the movie was made today, Stewart Granger comes across as being bored with it all.  For that matter, even the great Deborah Kerr seems as if she’d rather be hanging out with Robert Mitchum.

Still, it is interesting to note that Hugo Haas shows up as a villain.  Who is Hugo Haas?  He was a Hungarian actor who, after playing a bad guy here, went on to direct several idiosyncratic B-movies, like Hold Back Tomorrow, The Girl On The Bridge, Bait, and One Girl’s Confession.  If nothing else, watching King Solomon’s Mines has inspired me to, someday, do a little Hugo Haas film festival here on the Lens.

King Solomon’s Mines seems like an odd best picture nominee.  Its triumphs are largely technical and even those successes no longer seem that special.  It was, however, a big hit at the box office and I imagine that probably has something to do with its nomination.  However, when the Oscars were awarded, best picture went to All About Eve.

Stewart Granger was no match for Bette Davis.

Review: The Wild Geese (dir. by Andrew V. McLaglen)

1978’s action war-film, The Wild Geese, is a film adaptation of Daneil Carney’s unpublished novel about a group of mercenaries on a mission during the turbulent, revolutionary times which beset central Africa during the 1960’s and early 70’s. It boasts an all-star cast of British actors who were a who’s who of the time. Under the direction of Andrew V. McLaglen, The Wild Geese, manages to be an action-packed and well-told film with some memorable performances from its cast.

The story begins with a meeting between Allen Faulkner (played by Sir Richard Burton) and British banker Sir Edward Matheson about a rescue to take place in the fictional Central African nation of Zembala. The first third of the film details Faulkner’s recruitment of the mercenaries who will comprise his team of 50 including an old friend of his, Rafer Janders (played by Sir Richard Harris) who reluctantly joins Faulkner for a last mission. This early part of the film shows a mercenary company in action as they train, prepare and make any last minute adjustments before they are inserted into enemy territory to begin their mission. The second half of the film covers the rescue of their mission target. An imprisoned and deposed African leader about to be executed by the man who overthrew him.

It is during this second third of the film where the action begins to pick up. While tame and quaint by today’s action and war film standards, the action sequences in this film was quite energetic and well-shot for its time. It also shows the mercenaries not as the typical good guys fighting the faceless and unnamed enemy. They’re shown using tactics that even people of today would find shocking. From using concentrated cyanide gas to kill sleeping soldiers in their barracks to the use of cyanide-tipped crossbow bolts to silently kill sentries. The film shows mercenaries for what they are and that’s soldiers paid by a private citizen and/or group to accomplish a mission using any means necessary to accomplish the task. It is this employer and hired hand dynamic which drives the final reel of the film as the success in pulling off the rescue mission becomes a moot point as betrayal works against the team and their continued survival deep in enemy territory.

The excellent performances by Burton and Harris as old war hounds whose only talent lies in waging war is accompanied by the roguish charm exhibited by a much younger Sir Roger Moore as Irish pilot Shaun Fynn. The rest of the cast also includes fine performances from Hardy Kruger as Pieter Coetzee, the racist Afrikaaner who slowly gains understanding as to the nature and consequences of the troubling times afflicting Africa. Even Stewart Granger as the banker Matheson shines in his brief but pivotal role in the film.

For a small film (when compared to other war epics of the era), The Wild Geese actually has an epic feel to it that should’ve appealed to an American audience, but instead fell by the wayside as its release Stateside was troubled by bankruptcies within the production company. With the advent of home video, and now DVD, the film has become a big cult-hit amongst fans of the war genre, especially those of the mercenary film subgenre which is still dominated by subpar releases. It is a testament to the work of director McLaglen that the film never slows down too much to ruin the pacing of the film. The film never gets too enamored with the war scenes to lose sight of some of the political and philosophical themes the film starts to explore in the last third of its running time. Some might say that his direction was quite workmanlike and make it sound like a negative. In fact, this workmanlike quality allows the actors and the story to take center stage.

The Wild Geese is a rare gem of a war film which delves into a little-known subgenre. With some very strong performances from a cast full of knighted British actors, a former Hitler Youth and real-life mercenaries hired as extras the film manages to distinguishes itself from the many awful war films which began to dominate the late 70’s and early 80’s as tiny studios began popping up outside of Hollywood. A wonderful and underappreciated war film which should entertain even the most jaded film fan.