Film Review: The Adventurers (dir by Lewis Gilbert)

The 1970 film, The Adventurers, is a film that I’ve been wanting to watch for a while.

Based on a novel by Harold Robbins, The Adventurers was a massively expensive, three-hour film that was released to terrible reviews and even worse box office.  In fact, it’s often cited as one of the worst films of all time, which is why I wanted to see it.  Well, three weeks ago, I finally got my chance to watch it and here what I discovered:

Yes, The Adventurers is technically a terrible movie and Candice Bergen really does give a performance that will amaze you with its ineptitude.  (In her big scene, she sits in a swing and, with a beatific look on her face, begs her lover to push her “Higher!  Higher!”)

Yes, The Adventures is full of sex, intrigue, and melodrama.  Director Lewis Gilbert, who did such a good job with Alfie and The Spy Who Loved Me, directs as if his paycheck is dependent upon using the zoom lens as much as possible and, like many films from the early 70s, this is the type of film where anyone who gets shot is guaranteed to fall over in slow motion, usually while going, “Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh….”  A surprisingly large amount of people get shot in The Adventurers and that adds up to a lot of slow motion tumbles and back flips.  Gilbert also includes a sex scene that ends with a shot of exploding fireworks, which actually kind of works.  If nothing else, it shows that Gilbert knew exactly what type of movie he was making and he may have actually had a sense of humor about it.  That’s what I choose to believe.

Despite the fact that The Adventurers is usually described as being a big-budget soap opera, a good deal of the film actually deals with Latin American politics.  For all the fashion shows and the decadence and the scenes of Candice Bergen swinging, the majority of The Adventures takes place in the Latin American country of Cortoguay.  If you’ve never heard of Cortoguay, that’s because it’s a fictional country.  Two hours of this three-hour film are basically devoted to people arguing and fighting over who is going to rule Cortoguay but it’s kind of impossible to really get to emotionally involved over the conflict because it’s not a real place.

Ernest Borgnine plays a Cortoguayan named — and I’m being serious here — Fat Cat.  Seriously, that’s his name.  And really, how can you not appreciate a movie featuring Ernest Borgnine as Fat Cat?

Fat Cat is the guardian of Dax Xenos (Bekim Fehmiu).  Dax’s father is a Cortoguayan diplomat but after he’s assassinated by the country’s dictator, Dax abandons his home country for America and Europe.  While he’s abroad, Dax plays polo, races cars, and has sex with everyone from Olivia de Havilland to Candice Bergen.  He also gets involved in the fashion industry, which means we get two totally 70s fashion shows, both of which are a lot of fun.  He marries the world’s richest heiress (Bergen) but he’s not a very good husband and their relationship falls apart after a pregnant Bergen flies out of a swing and loses her baby.

Throughout it all, Fat Cat is there, keeping an eye on Dax and pulling him back to not only Cortoguay but also to his first love, Amparo (Leigh Taylor-Young), who just happens to be the daugther of Cortoguay’s dictator, Rojo (Alan Badel).  In fact, when Fat Cat and Dax discover that an acquaintance is selling weapons to Rojo, they lock him inside of his own sex dungeon.  That’s how you get revenge!  And when Dax eventually does return to Cortoguay, Fat Cat is at his side and prepared to fight in the revolution.  Incidentally, the revolution is led by El Lobo (Yorgo Voyagis), who we’re told is the son of El Condor.

The Adventurers is melodramatic, overheated, overlong, overdirected, and overacted and, not surprisingly, it’s eventually a lot of fun.  I mean, the dialogue is just so bad and Lewis Gilbert’s direction is so over the top that you can’t help but suspect that the film was meant to be at least a little bit satirical.  How else do you explain that casting of the not-at-all-Spanish Bekim Fehmiu as a Latin American playboy?  Candice Bergen plays her role as if she’s given up any hope of making sense of her character or the script and the rest of the cast follows her lead.  Ernest Borgnine once said that The Adventurers was the worst experience of his career.  Take one look at Borgnine’s filmography and you’ll understand why that’s such a bold statement.

The Adventurers is three hours long but it’s rarely boring.  Each hour feels like it’s from a totally different film.  It starts out as Marxist agitprop before then becoming a glossy soap opera and then, once Fat Cat and Dax return home and get involved in the revolution, the film turns into “modern” spaghetti western.  It’s a film that tries so hard and accomplishes so little that it becomes rather fascinating.

And, if nothing else, it reminds us that even Fat Cat can be a hero….


The Fabulous Forties #38: The Devil Bat (dir by Jean Yarbrough)


The 37th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1940’s The Devil Bat, which Gary Loggins reviewed on this site back in October.  Since, for the most part, I agree with Gary’s review, I’m going to recommend that you go read it and then I’ll just add a few thoughts of my own.

The Devil Bat is usually described as being one of the films that Bela Lugosi made during his decline, even though he made it just a year after appearing in a supporting role in the Oscar-nominated Ninotchka.  Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a small-town chemist who uses radiation to create a gigantic bat that he unleashes on everyone who he feels has wronged him.  The bat targets anyone who makes the mistake of wearing an aftershave lotion that Carruthers has created.

I would argue that there is a hint of genius to be found within The Devil Bat.

First off, there’s the fact that the giant bat is so clearly fake that it actually becomes rather charming.  Wisely, the film makes no effort to convince you that the bat is real.  Whenever that big, fake bat is lowered in on a bunch of often-visible wires, it works as almost a Brechtian alienation device.  In much the same way that Godard used jump cuts in Breathless, Devil Bat uses that big, fake bat to remind the audience that they are watching a film.  As a result, the audience has no choice but to think about the conventions of the horror genre and how their own world view has been shaped by watching movies like Devil Bat.

The other hint of genius is the satirical masterstroke of casting Bela Lugosi as a small town chemist.  Lugosi remains Lugosi, regardless of what role he plays.  When the film’s characters accept, without even a second glance, that Bela Lugosi, with his thick accent and his theatrical acting style, is a humble suburbanite, the film becomes a perhaps inadvertent satire of American conformity.

Needless to say, Lugosi was always a far better actor than he has ever been given credit for being.  In The Devil Bat, he plays Dr. Carruthers with a weary sense of resignation.  Carruthers never becomes a standard evil villain.  Instead, he’s a man who has been so beaten down by life that he now see no other option beyond using a giant bat to kill those who he feels has betrayed him.  Much as he would in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, Lugosi brings an almost redemptive sadness to his mad scientist.

The end result is that poor, misunderstood and underestimated Bela elevates the entire film.