Saturday, 30 October 2010

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

Former TV director Franklin J. Schaffner had climbed to the top of the Hollywood pyramid helming galumphing great studio productions like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970), by applying the lightest gilding of New Wave style to them, in creative zoom shots and expressive lensing, snappy rhythmic editing, and restrained use of sound overlaid upon discursive vision. Such effects imbued these projects with a cinematic sprightliness, whilst still conveying a lustrous scale inherent in their imagery, subjects, and budgets. Nicholas and Alexandra on the other hand saw Schaffner embracing what might be kindly called a new classicism, and produced a mammoth slice of imitation David Lean. Considering that this film was produced by Lean's prior collaborator by Sam Spiegel, it’s tempting to think of Nicholas and Alexandra as Spiegel’s attempted revenge on former collaborator Lean for making Doctor Zhivago for Carlo Ponti. Speigel and Schaffner approached a touchy but widely familiar subject, encompassing the fall of the Romanovs and the ride of Bolshevist Communism in Russia, into a blockbuster epic. The result represents a definite turning point for that genre of prestigious cinema, eternally admired or derided depending on one's cultural stripes: the historical epic. Nicholas and Alexandra is balanced halfway between the romanticised, pictorial rhapsodies of Lean, Wyler, Von Sternberg and others, and the more modern, domesticated historical portraiture found in the likes of Gandhi (1982), The Young Victoria (2009), or The Iron Lady (2011), films that focus squarely on individuals around whom history pivots in dryly realistic studies.

That’s a fancy way of saying that there’s a lot of talking in Nicholas and Alexandra, which, in spite of encompassing one of history’s great slaughters and most important revolutions, rests its focus squarely on its titular characters, whose political missteps are viewed as part and parcel with their psychological faults. Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) is beset by a fixated desire to live up to his father’s supposed power and quality in keeping Russia from enter the modern world, continually emphasised by his mother (Irene Worth). He and his wife, the German-born Alexandra (Janet Suzman), are in the first half of the film alternately shrill and neurotic, and then loving and appreciative. Their qualities as individuals and as a couple are distorted and submerged by their inadequacy as politicians and public persons. Nicholas’s eyes turn bright and glassy with fanatical yet peevish assertion when he’s trying to prove himself an effective ruler. Alexandra caves in immediately to hysteria whenever her son Alexei’s (Roderic Noble) congenital haemophilia rears its head: the collision of duty and care is particularly excruciating when both parents have to maintain a stoic façade whilst farewelling soldiers for the front lines of WW1, having just received word that Alexei’s having a potentially fatal attack.

Nicholas and Alexandra does render its title duo sympathetic, but James Goldman’s script is keenest in noting the way their personal qualities translate into bad government. Where the ferocity of the royal family’s individual members in Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1968) made for ugly relationships and robust empire-building, here the essential lack of imagination, flexibility, cunning, and wisdom conspire to render Nicholas and Alexandra as living jokes, finally caged alive by the remnants of their grandeur on a series of ever-shrinking stages. The scene of Nicholas’s return to his wife, after being forcibly dethroned in the February Revolution, is a splendid piece of pathetic acting from Jayston and a grimly unique kind of climax, where this potentate is reduced to sobbing like a little boy afraid of a maternal slapping. Here all the unfairness of arbitrary hereditary rule, both to ruler and the ruled, seems to fall like a weight on his body. It’s only later, when he’s been divested of all power, that Nicholas comes into his own as a noble friend to those loyal to him, and a skilled diplomat, and finally as a kind of accidental poet.

This intelligible character portrait of the titular duo anchors a film that’s uncertain what approach to take in portraying a fraught historical epoch. Nicholas and Alexandra belongs to a run of wayward epics of its era that fragmented under the pressure of tackling too large a subject, and trying to sell serious historiography in bestseller terms. In spite of the scope of production, most of the film is flatly conversational, even stagy, and there’s no conceptual nimbleness to the drama. Early on, Schaffner and Goldman set up a potentially fruitful dialectic structure in which scenes of the current Tsar are juxtaposed with portrayals of the Bolsheviks – Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), Stalin (James Hazeldine), Mme Krupskaya (Vivian Pickles) – whose initial, low-rent revolutionary plans seem doomed to subsist in smelly little boarding houses and ill-attended meetings. There’s a dash of humour in Stalin pathetically intoucing himself to Lenin and apologising for not being able to vote for him in a committee election, and pathos in Lenin’s prickly relationship with Krupskaya, whom he patronises but also confesses his anxiety over his wasted potential to. Unfortunately, this counterpointing is undeveloped. The film later on settles for blandly iconic Soviet propaganda images of Lenin arriving in Moscow and giving victory speeches. Even less successful, although nobly attempted, are attempts at a broader social portraiture, with vignettes of factory worker Petya (John Shrapnel) and his wife Sonya (Diana Quick) following priest Gapon (Julian Glover) in a march on the Tsar’s palace in the heady climate of 1905, only to be cut down in a volley by overzealous soldiers. Swiftly glimpsed portrayals of factory squalor suggest less the grind of oppressive poverty than the clueless perspective of a Hollywood approximation of it, dirty people doing dirty, unspecific tasks.

Schaffner’s appropriations of marble and crystal ballrooms, majestic snowy landscapes and grand steppe vistas, shot by Lean’s great cinematographer Freddie Young, don’t count for much because they’re generally just window dressing, and his filmmaking had becalmed into the largely stodgy competence that Schaffner would bring to the rest of his output. The scope of the narrative is colossal, and it’s almost unavoidable to note that Nicholas, Alexander, and their whelps are practically the least interesting part of this story, which proceeds in disjointed, diorama-like quality until the last third. Nonetheless, Schaffner squeezes some flavourful moments here and there: an officer shooting himself after sending his men to the front line; Nicholas’s chief advisor Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) near-tearfully warning of apocalypse as the only logical outcome of the Great War that’s just commenced thanks to Nicholas and his cousin Wilhelm II’s posturing; Rasputin (Tom Baker), after confessing his human frailty to Alexandra, nonetheless summoning the words of a true seer in a shadow-drenched church, communicating the illusion of his being a raft of faith in a sea of fear; Nicholas’ soldiers shouting a salute to him from within a fog-choked forest, standing in for all the ghostly remnants of Russian military catastrophe. Baker brightens up the diffuse, tonally uncertain first half of the film considerably with his self-dramatising Rasputin, with his bundling of greedy, guilty sensuality and spellbinding belief in his own blessedness. Perhaps inevitably for a film made in 1971, Schaffner and Goldman are altogether more indulgent of Rasputin as a kind of countercultural swami – dig his orgy with a batch of porn-movie Russian peasant lasses in a hay cart to the shock of a religious old mamma - who invites destruction for his naked contempt for propriety and disdain for the Russian establishment he sees as straitjacketing the true mission of the Holy Tsar.

His assassination makes for a strange sequence, his killers Prince Yusupov and Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (Martin Potter and Richard Warwick) portrayed as queeny libertines who bring out the pansexual beast in Rasputin in dressing up a musician in drag to dance before him. Rasputin, in drunken hilarity, tries to snare this prey before realising he’s been poisoned through the chocolates he’s been scarfing down. Other efforts to explore sexuality are equally clumsy, even more so later when it tries to explore the increasingly forlorn situation of the princesses – Olga (Ania Marson), Tatiana (Lynne Frederick), Marie (Candace Glendenning), and Anastasia (Fiona Fullerton) – whom, cheated of their usual surrounds and expectations, come of age surrounded by lumpen soldiers who make rude come-ons, and Tatiana makes a clumsy gambit of her own. The film’s on more solid ground in the increasingly angry, sullen behaviour of Alexei and his resentment of his father who signed away his kingdom, and Nicholas’s efforts to maintain a bond with him.

With a film sporting a cast as awe-inspiring as this one, there’s almost always someone catching the eye. Virtually every part, no matter how minor, seems to be filled by an class actor, some there for star value – Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave – and others who were just starting out on long careers, like Cox, Shrapnel, and Ian Holm, as the severe and unforgiving but reliably dutiful Yakovlev, a Bolshevik entrusted to get the Romanovs back to Moscow but who runs afoul of a politicking faction. John McEnery is strong as Kerensky, the ill-fated intermediate voice of democracy. Whilst the remainder of the film misses Rasputin’s inherent colour and Baker’s performance after his murder, nonetheless it actually improves as it goes on. The somewhat specious, splashy portrayal of pre-Revolution high life and statesmanship, full of celebrity cameos and frustrating time jumps, deepens and emboldens in entering the final phases of the Romanovs’ lives, once they're forced out of Moscow. This is particularly true in the very last half-hour, slowing into real time menace as the Romanovs half-knowingly approach their end in a drab cellar, their firing squad led by an old man (Alan Webb) who has no idea any longer what constitutes right and wrong.

There’s potency in this tale about the total dissolution of all social and ethical institutions when all have been found wanting, that the film only realises in flashes, as in these scenes, which benefit from a docudrama immediacy, drawing out the proto-Kafka horror of infinite space, embodied by the Russian landscape, being swapped for the intimate cruelty of humankind as played out by petty bureaucrats. The attempt to find solace in suggesting the Romanovs most truly became themselves just before dying is sentimentally appealing, if a bit gauche. Nicholas and Alexander would have been a much better movie by being less middle of the road. It should have either remained tightly focused on the psyches of its main characters, or sprawled out in pop-art illustrative fashion a la Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), although there is the faintest dash of this in scenes in which Nicholas farewells his soldiers, and Schaffner cuts to each national leader of the Great War’s combatant nations, all of them fading into monochrome, iconic irrelevance. As it is, it’s the archetypal movie fit for watching in high school history class. Yes, I did once. As cinema, it’s not satisfying, but it’s still engrossing.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

This Island Earth (1955)

Yes, it’s the film that inspired this blog’s title, so it’s about time I got around to reviewing This Island Earth, all the more so considering that I had not seen it since a single viewing in my early teens. Based on a novel by Mormon pulp writer Raymond F. Jones, This Island Earth was another production by William Alland for Universal Studios after his success with the likes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and It Came From Outer Space (1953), and it represented an obvious leap in ambition and scale, shot in Technicolor and sporting special effects that were, at the time, groundbreaking, and which remain beautiful and fascinating, if often very dated. The makers of Forbidden Planet (1956) reputedly borrowed a print from Universal to model some of their own work on, and the result is one of the most visually and thematically iconic works from the legendary sprawl of ‘50s sci-fi cinema.

The plot is hardly watertight, but it’s dense and clever, and revolves around an imaginative bluff, a geek’s delight, that would later be reworked by The Last Starfighter (1984), in which an Earthly hero completes a difficult task and discovers it was a test that places him contact with aliens, desperate for aid in an intergalactic war. The hero here is atomic research scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), who’s introduced reporting on his efforts to transmute common elements into fissionable material to journalists. This is a film from the days in which movie scientists were manly men who pulled jumpsuits on over their suits to fly private jets and spoke with bass-baritone voices. Strange phenomena begin proliferating around Cal, from a green ray that saves him from crashing his plane, to super-sophisticated pieces of technology arriving in the mail. When he and his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) put these pieces together, sent to them by an outfit calling themselves Ryberg Electronics, they produce a machine called an Interossiter, which proves to be, amongst other things, a kind of TV set, upon which appears a man calling himself Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

Exeter announces to Cal that he is head of a research group cherry-picking the best minds for the purposes of promoting world peace through science, and invites Cal to join, before the Interossiter then self-destructs. Cal, ignoring Wilson’s pleading, boards a remotely-steered aircraft to the group’s headquarters, a spacious mansion in some uncertain tract of rural California. There, he’s greeted by Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), a scientist he remembers having a romantic tryst with years before at a symposium, but who denies knowing him. The mansion’s international selection of savants prove to be largely, equally cagey. Exeter plays the avuncular host, but he and his other employees all share strange physical traits of unnaturally high foreheads and white hair and brows, and a mood of oppressive suspicion seems to hang over the house. Cal convinces Ruth and colleague Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) to trust him, and learns that other employees have been subjected to mind-altering procedures. Exeter and the other white-brows are aliens: they are soon ordered to return to their home planet Metaluna with Cal and Ruth to finish up their experiments, and to destroy the rest of the installation. Cal, Ruth, and Steve attempt to escape. Steve is killed, and the other two beamed aboard Exeter’s colossal spaceship.

This Island Earth’s cleverly delayed revelations means the part everyone's waiting for commences an hour into an 86 minute running time: the voyage to, and adventures on, Metaluna. That planet is under siege by an aggressive race called the Zygons, who live on a planet that was once a comet, and, determined to wipe out the Metalunans, bombard that world constantly with asteroids. Having used up all their supplies of uranium to maintain a repelling shield, the Metalunans face complete destruction unless Cal and Ruth can finally make good on their neo-alchemic experiments. The screenplay, written by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan working with Jones’ material, is essayed on a reasonably elevated conceptual level, with Exeter a humanist in the most expansive sense of the word, conflicted with the somewhat cruel expedience that his fellow Metalunans have internalised as necessity, but plays along with in knowing his planet is facing doom. Exeter offsets his coldly practical commandant, The Monitor (Douglas Stewart), who proposes moving Metalunan society in entirety to Earth, and Exeter objects to draining the minds of the Earth scientists and wreaking havoc, no matter how urgent the purpose. Exeter isn’t above using intimidation to get what he wants, but he is nonetheless a conscientious being who finally dedicates himself to getting his human charges back to Earth even when all else is lost. Exeter's an unusually complex creation, then, especially by the broad standards of the era's genre cinema.

The canny story point that provides the narrative's initial thrust, that tantalising technological handbook arriving in the mail, evokes the very underpinnings of sci-fi fandom itself. So often in those days such fandom was built around the notion that portals to world-expanding, even transcendent, happenings and creations might indeed be regularly posted to you, and required only receptive intelligence and a sense of adventure to fully grasp. Meacham’s insatiable curiosity, like that of the audience, who have come for a ride, is whetted by hints of the unimaginably advanced and alien, and taken through stages to whole new levels of awareness: as the prosaic Wilson shouts in panic at Cal to leave the pilotless airplane, Cal never seems to consider doing as he says, because whatever fear is inside him is subordinate to his desire to understand the enigma. And indeed, having been anointed by passing the test, like a super-modern equivalent of the oldest variety of mythic hero, how could Cal turn back? The collective of scientists put at the service of winning a war with technological breakthroughs carries an unavoidable resemblance to the Manhattan Project, and the war of the Metalunans and the Zygons can therefore be read as a version of WW2, although Cold War overtones are inevitable. The images of the Zygons’ spaceships steering a relentless stream of fiery meteorites evokes a bleak, cosmic-scaled Blitz. But it’s not, unlike the raw Red menace that infuses George Pal’s adaptation of War of the Worlds (1953), a simple us-vs-them tale. The title’s suggestively poetic perspective on human existence resonates only after glimpsing the suitably nightmarish landscape of Metaluna. Pocked with craters, riddled with exploding meteorites, the once-glorious cities built beneath the planet’s brittle surface now ghostly in their depopulation and besieged disintegration, Metaluna’s a vision of a civilisation in freefall, and echoing throughout is a cautionary tale for an Earth blindly stumbling on in the early Atomic Age, threatened with its own Cold Wars, and also by the deterioration of humane concern and reasonable communality. Metalunan society, as conveyed by Exeter’s violence-relishing assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) and the Monitor, has virtually degenerated into a joyless totalitarianism, and is relying on a race of grotesque mutants to perform its slave work.

We’re left to assume the Zygons, who remain unseen and are portrayed only through their ruthless pummelling of Metaluna and, according to Exeter, their disinterest in any form of negotiation, are even worse. The sole representative of the Metalunan mutants (pronounced, as in Invaders From Mars, in the amusingly retrograde styling “mew-taunt”) enters in the last fifteen minutes, as a bodyguard assigned to ensure that Exeter does as he’s told and subjects his human charges to the brain drain: they defy the creature, and battle it briefly in making their escape, after it’s been terribly wounded by falling debris. Alland retained this element of creature feature exploitation which had proven lucrative, and it’s a damn good bug-eyed monster with an impressive suit filled out by Eddie Parker, and the notion of having it manage to stow away on Exeter’s ship and terrorise the humans on their trip home, anticipates the final twist of Aliens (1986). And yet, in spite of its being the centrepiece of all the film’s advertising to this day – there it is, all over the DVD cover – the part it plays in the actual story is minimal, and it only manages some rather paltry terrorising of Domergue before succumbing to wounds and changes in atmospheric pressure. He brings a bit of action to a journey that in all other respects plays as a kind of elegiac travelogue, defined by the vision of the two humans and their tour guide Exeter watching his planet die in a terrible conflagration, and the film again grazes poetry as Exeter tries to take some comfort in the notion that his son, glowing white-hot under the cascade of asteroids, is becoming a sun that will light other planets.

This Island Earth is hampered by the usual limitations of films in this genre from the era: a wooden cast, an overly-compressed storyline to fit a regulation running time, and flat direction by Joseph M. Newman, a jobbing director who mostly handled Westerns and the odd film noir piece, who betrayed a minor sense of style. Universal was reputedly displeased by Newman’s work and brought in Jack Arnold to handle some sequences, which may partly explain why the framing and camera angles become more dramatic, and the editing more assured, as it proceeds. Clifford L. Stine’s strong photography, on one of the last films shot in classic three-strip technicolour, bathes in the saturated colours associated with old Amazing Stories covers. Interpersonal scenes in the middle third, when the film should be hitting its stride as an eerie mystery charged with threat, are stodgy and fall prey to the dreariness of the cardboard Reason and Domergue, who more than ever comes across like a particularly witless Ava Gardner clone. Morrow, at least, acquits himself fairly well, evoking some pathos and grace in Exeter. There’s a lot of potential in the story left unexplored by This Island Earth, which sprints for the exit just when it’s really getting interesting, and it’s finally more frustrating than some other works of the period that made sure to only bite off what they could chew. But it stands alongside Forbidden Planet and a handful of others amongst the most intelligent and inquisitive of Hollywood’s first sci-fi craze.