Tag Archives: england

Chaucer Redux

Six centuries elided by a single cut

FYI: I’m now a writer at the brand new site Movie Mezzanine, and I’ve started an annals-of-film-history column there called “Looking Back.” The first movie under discussion? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), which deals sensitively with love and land and locating yourself in history. You can read about it here.

Had I more time, I would’ve delved into a few other aspects of the film. (It’s so rich and digressive; I’ll be revisiting it for years hence.) For example: Eric Portman’s performance as local authority Colpeper, which demonstrates much of the same ambiguous, low-key villainy that Portman brought to Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel a few years earlier. He creates a fascinating character in Colpeper and seriously complicates the film’s relationship with England’s distant past.

Further points of interest: the film’s visual style, which makes special use of both the undulating landscape and the faces of its stars shot in mesmerizing close-up. And then the ending, in which a soldier from London gets to play some “Toccata and Fugue” on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral and feel music, religion, and war converge along his fingertips. It’s an unconventional climax, but a powerful one, which I suppose could double as a description of the whole film.

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Mummy Dearest

A lot of horror movies require you to dig for subtext. Not so with mummy movies, however! In something like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959), the monster is a walking mass of anti-colonial rage, his significance lying right on the textual surface. This is a paranoid fantasy grown out of imperialist guilt—a “Return of the Oppressed,” to paraphrase Robin Wood. And the mummy here is an Egyptian variation on the golem, a weapon of revenge acting on behalf of an ethnic Other.

The plot of The Mummy is generated, beat for beat, by the same formula as Universal’s Karloff-starring Mummy, or miscellaneous creature features made between the two, or even slasher movies of the ’70s and on. A family of genteel archaeologists violates a tomb; a sinister Egyptian tracks them back to England; and then they’re murdered one by one. First the patriarch, who’s already mad from the sight of the reanimated, shuffling mummy. Then his brother, strangled to death at the family’s estate. And finally the son, played by Peter Cushing, who proves troublesome. He’s our “final boy,” you see.

I enjoy Cushing as a horror hero because he’s so unconventional. Hatchet-faced with a receding hairline, he always looks a little skeletal and cerebral; nothing red-blooded about him. In The Mummy, he even gets a limp as a result of his father’s tomb-violating zeal, compounding this impression of frailty. He’s mutilated by England’s decadence just as he represents its future. He’s a pale contrast to Mehemet Bay, the mummy’s fez-clad puppetmaster, with whom he argues archaeological ethics. The latter is played by George Pastell, who’s actually from Cyprus, but swarthy enough to be Egyptian by Hammer standards.

This “swarthy enough” mindset pervades The Mummy’s casting, which colonizes Egyptian identity on a metatextual level. The mummy himself is Christopher Lee, who’s British to the core but spends most of his screen time plastered with bandages. (Lee would go on to portray another ethnic villain, Fu Manchu, in the mid-’60s.) And Cushing’s wife is the white-as-snow Yvonne Furneaux, yet she turns out to be a dead ringer for Ananka, the ancient object of the mummy’s forbidden love. It’s racial sleight of hand, encompassing this “Egypt vs. England” tale entirely within the sphere of whiteness.

In the end, of course, Egypt is defeated. The wife is used as bait—a “beauty killed the beast” tactic familiar from King Kong and films of its ilk—resulting in Bey’s death at the mummy’s hands, then the mummy’s re-death via police ammunition. His battered body tumbles to the bottom of a rural bog, the ideal resting place for a monster that might need to be resurrected should a sequel roll around. This resolution morally validates Cushing, his family, and their actions. It insists on the legitimacy of their cultural theft, since 1) they’ve reaped knowledge and 2) Bey’s revenge has been so disproportionately violent. No need to dig: this is as semiotically explicit as horror gets. “Hail Britannia,” indeed.

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One Hour Mark: Kind Hearts and Coronets

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a deliciously black, happily morbid comedy from England’s Ealing Studios. Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, who schemes to kill off all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family standing between him and his rightful inheritance. Alec Guinness plays every one of the D’Ascoynes, flawlessly imitating eight different varieties of blue-blooded pomposity – from the long-winded clergyman down to the august banker who unwittingly employs his would-be murderer. In the middle of the film, as Mazzini’s systematically hacking apart the D’Ascoyne family tree, we’re treated to a series of homicidal vignettes as three aristocrats in a row shuffle off this mortal coil… and that’s where this image comes in.

The Guinness guise pictured above is that of General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, whom Mazzini sends an explosive pot of caviar, considering it a fittingly bombastic finale for a lifelong soldier. The General embodies the spirit of Victorian imperialism, as he gloats tediously about his part in the Boer War: “I pretended to be deceived by the feint and sent our horse to meet it. At that moment, the concealed enemy emerged from behind the kopje…” etc., etc., all in the same raspy monotone. Even his last words are filled with unthinking ethnocentrism, as he refers to caviar as the “one thing the Russkies do really well.” He’s boring and self-absorbed, and as with most of the D’Ascoynes, his death evokes a chuckle instead of a tear – especially since he goes up in an absurd puff of smoke right out of Roadrunner and Coyote.

This whole scene is surrounded by Price’s impeccably dry voiceover narration, as he details his methods and underscores the little ironies of his refined killing spree. The contrast between the witty, industrious Mazzini and the stuffy old warhorse he’s hunting makes his crime seem all the more justified; after all, he’s only leveling the playing field. His murders are like a controlled burn in a forest, getting rid of the decrepit trees that have outstayed their welcome so that new life can grow in its place. While Mazzini rapidly advances through the social hierarchy, the General stays rooted in his chair, shifting only to dig into the caviar. He’s the proverbial sitting duck, an easy target for both Mazzini and the film itself.

Both the General and the club around him look so stately and sessile, so grounded in revered British traditions, that they ought to be mounted in a museum. Mazzini says nothing about the General’s surroundings, but he doesn’t need to, as the film’s set design says it all. The ritzy decor, obsequious waiters, and clusters of well-dressed old men are all hallmarks of the gentlemen’s clubs popular in Victorian England – establishments with class- and usually gender-restricted clientele. If it’s not obvious already, Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t just about the killing off a single family, but about the slow death of an entire social system – a change which began around the turn of the 20th century, when the film is set, and is continuing even today.

This frame contains a caricature of social class and a historical moment, rendered comical through Guinness’s narcissistic monologue and silly-looking bald cap. Just like the General, Kind Hearts and Coronets is part of a long British tradition, one that runs from Punch to Monty Python and beyond: that of scathing satire. For beneath its veneer of sly dark comedy, it’s really a movie about violent sociopolitical revolution, and Louis Mazzini is really a lovable, self-motivated terrorist. It’s a funnier, transatlantic version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. And it couldn’t have happened without the understated genius of Alec Guinness.

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The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh

From its first scene, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a film of extreme highs and extreme lows, often in very close proximity. With surprising swiftness, its characters travel from a wish-fulfillment shopping spree to a run-in with red-eyed zombies, and from a bucolic reverie to the loss of one of their own. Although it’s nearly two hours long, the film never really lets up, but that doesn’t stop it from including a few crucial character-building moments. As in much of Boyle’s work, this is humanity under the worst possible duress. (See: heroin addiction, poverty, being trapped under a boulder.) But it also retains a dark sense of humor and a sincere interest in human relationships as it explores life in England’s, nearly a month after its population is decimated by a zombie epidemic called the Rage virus.

The film follows a hardy group of survivors: Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Jim, who spent the titular period of time in a coma, is just as clueless as the audience, but quickly learns about the situation under Selena’s tutelage. After they meet Frank and Hannah, they reluctantly agree to drive toward Manchester, per the request of a mysterious radio message. Along the way, they gradually form a surrogate family – a notion literalized by the bittersweet image of four wild, uninfected horses running around a field. Emotional shorthand like this threatens to become cloying, but the actors are so good that they efface the screenplay’s rough patches. As important as the special effects and postapocalyptic environment may be, this is a film built on strong performances.

Alas, this also makes 28 Days Later an incredibly nerve-wracking film. The main characters are all so identifiable and lovable that it afflicts me with anxiety every time they step outside. Boyle does a good job of making the constant danger very palpable. Even though some zombie purists assert that the infected aren’t zombies, they fucking are, and their speed – scrambling and loping toward whatever or whoever they can destroy – perfectly suits this movie’s purposes. The tunnel scene, for example, is one of the movie’s most effective because of the zombies’ madly feral dash over the heaps of garbage; it drives home the humans’ complete vulnerability. So many have died already, including all the characters’ loved ones, that there’s no doubt about whether this is a life or death situation.

This unyielding suspense and emotional attachment combine to make an intelligent, self-aware rollercoaster of a movie. They also enable the film to makes its most profound statements. This is, after all, a film about surviving the most dire crisis imaginable – the end of civilization as we know it. Each character must determine his or her own priorities. The film doesn’t harp on this, but lets it evolve out of who the characters are: Jim, the newcomer, still holds vestiges of old world values like family and love; Selena, the jaded survivalist, both teaches and learns from him; Frank, selfless and gregarious, wants what’s best for the group (and especially his daughter); Hannah suffers from severe, ongoing PTSD and wants people around her to depend upon. Over the course of the film, they learn the price of having each other; they also come to enjoy simple, sensory pleasures – like, for example, raisins.

For these reasons, I find the film both thrilling and moving. I enjoy it in the same cathartic way that some people enjoy movies based on Nicholas Sparks books. Except 28 Days Later is much, much better. It’s also full of searing, sometimes prescient political commentary, whether about the government’s handling of the epidemic and its aftermath, or about the military compound where the film ends up in its third act. The treatment of Major West and his men, while still very dark, is slightly comedic; as played by Christopher Eccleston, West is a frazzled leader making promises he can’t keep and exercising his authority just to make sure he still has it.

The men, meanwhile, prove that even when civilization collapses, rape culture remains. Although only a few of the men are especially boorish and malicious, their self-aggrandizing machismo turns out to be more contagious than the Rage virus, and their behavior toward their guests is as much of a statement about the military mindset that the film needs to make. I’m consistently impressed by how well the film weaves together its tense, nonstop action and its many well-developed subtexts. It’s one of the most successful, insightful postapocalyptic films made of late and it still has time for one zombie attack set-piece after another.

Some other things I like about 28 Days Later: it’s integration of high-angle, surveillance-style cinematography with conventional shot/reverse shot patterns; its eclectic but never overbearing score; how it draws on Romero’s Living Dead movies and Matheson’s I Am Legend (as well as its film adaptations), but still marks out its own unique territory while saying “We are the real monsters” with more subtlety than Romero ever has; the fruitful invocation of haunted house movies during its climax; and, of course, the beautiful Cillian Murphy.

This film just preys so well on my fears and my loves. I can’t help but be strongly affected by it. As Jim wanders around an empty London, his surroundings reveal the panic that once consumed them; this is an apocalypse that feels believably lived-in. Boyle applies a certain strange realism to his zombie apocalypse, and maybe that’s what makes it so resonant. It’s a distinctly 21st century vision of horror. But it still hangs onto a little hope, billowing in the breeze. I’ll close on an optimistic note with a gratuitous picture of the beautiful Cillian Murphy.


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An Invisible Man Could Rule the World!

[Note: This is just a whiff of the horror awesomeness that’s going to consume this blog as Halloween gets closer. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you!]

I recently revisited a less-appreciated member of the Universal horror canon: James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). Based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, the film tracks the invisible exploits of Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who slowly turns from disgruntled scientist to rampaging, psychotic mass murderer. That’s basically all there is to the story, too, and it’s pretty much a one-man show – or should I say, a one-voice show, since Rains’ snarling, cackling, bodyless performance steals the whole movie. His intensity, coupled with Whale’s very British brand of black comedy, make this a damn enjoyable 70 minutes.

This movie’s first act takes place at the Lion’s Head, a small inn located in the wintry countryside. There, a gauze-wrapped Griffin tries to set up an improvised laboratory and develop an antidote for his condition. But alas, he must reckon with small-minded townsfolk… including the shrillest of all small-minded townsfolk, the innkeeper’s wife as played by Una O’Connor. O’Connor would later star in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and in both films, she’s a hyperactive, thick-brogued scream queen. She’s bitchy, nosy, gossipy, inane, infuriating, and gives a great performance. You’d have to be a great actress to play such a deeply intolerable character.

With her as their matriarch, the denizens of the Lion’s Head form a tight-knit community of fools – usually inebriated, easily frightened, and suspicious of strangers. When Griffin becomes physically abusive toward the innkeeper and his wife, a gang of the pub’s patrons and a local constable charge up to his room, only for him to remove his goggles and bandages and reveal his true face. This prompts one of the film’s great lines, from the incredulous constable: ” ‘E’s all eaten away!

The movie’s big joke is that we’re solidly on Griffin’s side. He’s the lone, rugged intellectual face to face with a mob of drunken yokels; of course we want him to win out. But then he moves in with his old coworker Dr. Kemp and starts going on long, megalomaniacal rants, and it becomes clear that Whale is playing with us (in the best possible sense). Just as in Bride of Frankenstein, where the gloriously evil Dr. Pretorious is the most compelling character, Griffin attracts our interest through just through his abundant charisma. Whale’s horror movies are gleefully amoral, and this is a great example: even if Griffin is a monstrous, deranged psychopath, that’s no reason he can’t also be our favorite character.

Speaking of “gleefully amoral,” one of the reasons we enjoy Griffin’s reign of terror is because he’s having so much fun. While tricking dozens of police officers, he manages to steal a pair of pants and skips off down the road (pictured above), singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May…” (Later, he robs a bank to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”) This is leagues away from film noir images of scowling, pessimistic career criminals; in Whale’s world, crime does pay, at least in terms of raw joy.

In the end, sure, Griffin insists that he “meddled in things which man must leave alone,” but this moral is savagely undercut by all of the film’s delightfully perverse moments earlier on. Sure, The Invisible Man has a token love story between Griffin and Flora, played by a none-too-convincing Gloria Stuart, but it stays mostly in the background. The real story here is the passionate affair between Griffin and his own limitless power. These two lovers are separated by death in the end, but we get plenty of steamy love scenes in the meantime – like when Griffin convinces Kemp that he’s always watching. This is genuinely terrifying: Griffin is more or less a one-man panopticon.

Overall, The Invisible Man is a somewhat weaker film than Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House; it lacks Bride‘s ultra-snappy script or House‘s unbeatable ensemble. What it does have, however, is Rains’ voiceover, which reminds me of Lionel Stander’s in Blast of Silence with its relentless aggression. His words are like daggers, and when he threatens violence – against the townsfolk, Kemp, or the entire world – he means it. Even while he’s sleeping, he maintains his single-handed grip of terror on the whole countryside.

That’s what makes this a horror classic: Rains’ performance as Griffin is fierce, alive, and overflowing with energy, yet also dangerous and truly frightening. In short, he’s exactly what a monster should be. Consumed by obsession and madness, he’s exactly the kind of extraordinary man who could alter the course of history. Final note: The Invisible Man was released in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany…

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The Wicker Man: Sex, Songs, and Summerisle

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like crops after a human sacrifice.]


Last night, Ashley and I watched Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) together for the second time. It’s a fascinatingly dense movie, one that begs to be rewatched, brimming over with conflicts: between the insular culture of Summerisle (a fictional island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland) and the outside world; between puritanical repression and sexual liberation; between superstitious tradition and scientific modernity; and between poor, misguided Sgt. Neil Howie and the pagans he runs up against.

The Wicker Man is such a strange, unconventional horror film. It starts out as a rural mystery, when Sgt. Howie comes by plane to Summerisle to search for a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. And, unsurprisingly, the film pulls out the old “all is not as it seems” card – but the trope is deployed in such a creative way that the viewer’s never really on solid ground. The inhabitants of Summerisle are like a society beholden to trickster gods, refusing to give Sgt. Howie (and, in turn, the viewer) any clues except those which are methodically parceled out: a little girl’s story about a rabbit, a doctor’s cause of death, a gravestone. But the whole mystery is like a conspiracy of red herrings, in which every citizen of the island has a part to play.

This investigation is complicated by the unreliability of Sgt. Howie himself, a troubled outsider who turns to his faith in Christ for answers. As played by the late Edward Woodward, Howie is easily disturbed by the behaviors he witnesses on Summerisle, and spends much of the film standing at the edge of the frame, staring in horror at the heathen rites being celebrated. He comes with the authority of England’s law (making him “king-like” in the pagans’ eyes), yet finds that Summerisle doesn’t play by his rules. He only has a badge, but they have deeper, older magic.

Even when he’s not actively fighting the islanders’ traditions, Howie stands out in contrast to his surroundings, and this keeps the conflict always visually on the surface. In his black uniform, he makes a bad fit with the rolling green hills and crashing waves, while the pagans are constantly bedecked in smiles and bright, springtime outfits – often reds and yellows. They’re fully in communion with their island, and Howie, as a foreign pathogen, must inevitably be wiped out.

But the film is beautifully, endlessly ambivalent about whose side is right. The islanders are presented as cheerful, earthy, musical people, fully content in their way of life, with Howie as a sour interloper. However, several cracks appear in their façade, suggesting underlying problems with their lifestyle. For example, their very reason for bringing Howie to the island is based in the failure of their crops the previous year, and the film’s ending leaves the question open: will Lord Summerisle be vindicated the following year, or was the island really not meant to bear fruit?

The islanders also embrace a number of irrational, violent traditions, frequently inviting comparison to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The entire third act is devoted to these increasingly bizarre rites – the animal masks, the pentagram formed by the chopping swords, and finally, the live sacrifice within the title edifice. There’s no real reasoning behind them other than the sheer authority of Lord Summerisle and his ancient pagan beliefs. Christopher Lee is great here; his usual urbane villainy (see Dracula, Scaramanga, etc.) is coupled with an easygoing love of life and sincere desire to help his people.

His charisma and immorality are all the more frightening because they’re not motivated by simple evil, but rather by political necessity and self-preservation. I think this is The Wicker Man‘s triumph: it manages to express multiple nuanced arguments rather than providing the audience with a right and a wrong. It shows us a sexually frozen man always on his guard (reminiscent for me of Batman in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as he comes face to face with people enjoying themselves in ways he can’t understand, and at the same time gives us hints as to why we should fear for his life.

It’s a great and blood-chilling moment toward the end when Howie realizes that it isn’t Rowan Morrison who’s in danger at all, and I think this captures the film’s narrative well. It isn’t about the islanders endangering each other’s lives; they act as one. It is about Howie himself, his internal and external struggles, all of which work together to deliver him into Lord Summerisle’s hand. He is the individuality to their conformity; he is the moral guardian to their libertines. In the end, the values and traditions of Summerisle show their teeth, and consume Sgt. Howie within their eeriest and darkest rite, incorporating his ashes into the cycle of death and rebirth.


The Wicker Man is an interesting little gem of a movie. If it weren’t for the fact that most people going into the film expect something of a horrifying nature, you wouldn’t really know what to expect from the get-go. It’s one part mystery, one part horror, two parts musical and just a tiny bit of dark comedy thrown in there for good measure. I’ve seen this movie about four times now and I’m left with a different impression of it each time. With this viewing I found myself taking note quite often of the parallels between Sgt. Howie’s ramrod-straight, religious attitude and the citizens of Summerisle’s free-spirited, phallic-symbol loving, orgies-in-the-field (yeah, there are totally orgies in the field) Paganism.

From the very beginning these differences are one of the main driving forces of the film and I found myself thinking about how off-putting Howie’s behavior is. It makes him kind of inaccessible as a protagonist. Unless you are also a staunch, strict religious person, you’re probably not going to relate to his disapproving, judgmental looks, his tut-tutting of these apparently happy, care-free people, and his unwavering belief that HIS God is THE God and these heathens are wholly sinful and wrong. It’s an interesting trick the movie plays on the viewer; you don’t root for Howie or really want him to come out triumphant because it seems like all the threats he perceives are completely in his head and the product of his own fears and intolerance.

But there is still this underlying sense of unease, just below the surface of the film. You know these people are strange, you can sense they’re hiding something from Howie but is he truly in danger? It isn’t until you get more than halfway into the movie that you begin to suspect that, hmmm, maybe these people ARE really fucked up (in a totally dangerous way) and maybe Sgt. Howie IS in peril.

It isn’t until the very end, for me anyway, when Howie is faced with the titular figure, faced with his own mortality that my heart starts to pound for him and I feel sorry for him and want him to escape and come out triumphant. It’s an incredibly powerful scene; Howie begins to scream out to his Christian God and you feel his terror cut through you. And to the very end, I was noting the parallels between the two faiths: as the effigy burns Howie prays and sings out to Christ as the citizens of Summerisle sing about the coming of summer.

And therein lies something that, if the movie were without it, it would not work as well. The music. This movie is weirdly part musical and it just adds to the ethereal weirdness of the island. Sgt. Howie looks on in disdainful confusion and disgust as the citizens sing lewd songs about the Landlord’s Daughter and as the young boys tug (or jerk) strategically placed ribbons while circling a maypole and learning the importance of fertility during the Maypole Song. Oddly enough, these songs don’t seem random or out of place; it fits so perfectly with the otherworldly strangeness that is Summerisle that it only makes sense that these people like to break out into song.

And the soundtrack, which was entirely composed by Paul Giovanni, is a huge part of the different moods and atmospheres of the film. While the playful, suggestive lyrics and tunes of the aforementioned songs create an air of festivity and liveliness the slower, throbbing, earthier melodies of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song give portions of the film a deep, strange sensuality: they’re inviting you, tempting you, just like they’re tempting Sgt. Howie, to come deeper into this world of carefree lust and spiritual sexuality.

And speaking of which: Willow. Oh, Willow, be still my heart. Sucker that I am for a beautiful girl, I love the character of Willow. Played with a gentle sensuality and purposeful, knowing innocence by Britt Ekland, she’s a soft, luscious but dangerous aspect of the film. We first see her as the friendly, soft-spoken, object of lust for the inn patrons, the landlord’s daughter of the song, dancing around and bringing dinner to Sgt. Howie.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear, as with all the shady citizens of Summerisle, that there’s more to this salacious siren than originally thought. During a climactic (in more ways than one) scene, Willow sings her song, inviting Howie and writhing sensually around her room, pounding the doors and walls and touching and stroking the many phallic shaped objects in her room.

It soon becomes clear that this strumpet is just like the rest of the citizens of Summerisle: hiding something. She has an agenda, her every move and word have a purpose and it’s all tightly woven into the fabric of the all-encompassing tapestry of the plot. Everything that is said and done by these islanders, from the moment Howie’s plane touches down and even before that, is carefully calculated and purposeful. He was brought here for a very specific purpose: a “willing, king-like, virgin fool” is needed for sacrifice and it’s all so airtight by the end of the film that you are just as stricken by it as Howie is. In so many other movies, with a plot device or requirement that insanely specific it would seem overreaching and ridiculous; but the citizens of Summerisle live their lives by ancient tradition. They put toads in the children’s mouths to cure sore throats. This seems perfectly normal as far as their traditions go. It just happens to be chillingly homicidal.

As Andreas and I were watching last night we talked a lot about how, despite the crazy rituals involved in this Pagan faith, is it any more or less crazily demanding than any other religion? At the core of this film, along with a lot of other themes and ideas, is the idea of faith. What faith and belief makes people do. There are constant clashes of faith between Howie and the inhabitants of Summerisle and neither side will back down from their beliefs, even when it leads to murder. And even the act of murder and death are two completely different things when look at through these two faiths. To Howie and the viewers, he is being murdered. To the islanders, they’re just trying to save their crops. Howie will not die; he will be transmuted into their successful crops.


So that’s The Wicker Man, a film of bottomless complexity which entangles eroticism, religious tradition, man’s relationship to the earth, and utter terror. It’s worth noting that the director, Robin Hardy, has only directed one other film, and has a follow-up to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree, due out next year. Will it compare in any way? I hope we get a chance to find out. (There was also a 2006 remake, but we don’t like to talk about that.) Till then, we’ll go on pondering the fate of Sgt. Howie and the motives of the islanders, reaping a bountiful harvest of entertainment from this horror masterpiece.

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My Favorite Movies: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A title that acknowledges England/Candy's royal history and modernized present

Now, to conclude my totally unintentional string of WWII-related posts, here’s the second installment of my series about my favorite movies. This is an underrecognized film by an underrated duo: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). (Viewable here, 163 minutes long.) I guess it’s not too surprising that it’s a relatively unheard-of film. It’s very distinctly British and, to an extent, pretty topical and specific, made to comment on the progress of the Allies’ war on Nazi Germany. But on another level, it’s a beautiful, universal film about the effect of historical events on individual lives and relationships, and about maintaining personal honor amidst of national dishonor. It recognizes human nature as repetitive and unchanging from decade to decade, yet also singles the Nazism out as a special case – “the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain.” It’s these many sides of this great film that I want to examine.

David Low's boorish, hypocritical Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp, first of all, is not the film’s main character. He was a satirical cartoon character created by David Low in the 1930s, an exaggerated representation of the jingoistic old English army officer. The film, meanwhile, centers around Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (who goes by a number of other names and ranks throughout the film), a Blimp-like figure who is given a life and dynamic personality of his own. This genesis of the central character starts to show, I think, the film’s intent, and one of the reasons why its production was opposed by Churchill: in the midst of a worldwide struggle between good and evil, when one-dimensional political cartoons were the ideological currency in America, England, and Germany, it dared to take a cartoon and turn him into a human being, and dared to do the same with a German, of all people.

Colonel Blimp‘s plot is fairly epic, covering 3 hours and 40 years, and earning every second with its humane, sympathetic storytelling. It begins in 1943, as a group of young Home Guard soldiers decide to make their war games “like the real thing” by taking the elite old officers, resting in a Turkish bath, hostage 6 hours before the exercise was set to begin. The leader of the young men, Spud, is knocked into the water by the incensed Wynne-Candy (who is, at this juncture, intimidatingly walrus-like, identical to the Blimp caricature), who begins a memorable tirade against Spud’s youthful pride:

You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was – when I was as young as you are – forty years ago…

At this point, the movie segues (without even so much as a cut) into 1903 at the very same bath, where the Major-General becomes the young Clive “Sugar” Candy, no mustache and a full head of hair, on leave from the Boer War. This initiates the film’s chronologically circular structure, told mostly in flashback, through which it’s able to connect three wars, along with England’s (and Candy’s) role in each of them. The story essentially involves Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (of whom Candy at first says, “nobody could invent a name like that”), and three different women who come into their lives. All three are played by the very pretty, redheaded Deborah Kerr, whom Michael Powell described as “both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.”

Deborah Kerr, a work of art in Technicolor's marvelous pallette

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, who play Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff respectively, are the fire and ice, the enemies-turned-friends who keep the movie going, but it’s Kerr who’s the glue that holds it all together. She fills in the blank spaces in their lives (she’s married to each of them during much of the film’s temporal gaps) and is the locus of desire that both unintentionally brings them together in the first place and seals their bond of friendship. In Colonel Blimp, Kerr is a fiery woman in three eras and three wars, with her final role as Wynne-Candy’s driver, Angela “Johnny” Cannon, marking a change in women’s positions during the present war [WWII]. Kerr may be better-known for singing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I think she ought to be recognized for her triple role here; she’s the active force that sets just about every stage of the plot in motion, directly or indirectly, in war or peacetime.

Amidst the film’s cyclical plot are some great scenes, too, observing the backs and forths of international relations and their effects on human lives. There’s the duel between Clive and Theo that causes their friendship, set on a wintry morning in a gymnasium in Berlin; the camera pans away just as the fighting begins and lets us see the results from Ms. Hunter’s (Kerr) point of view. There are the montages illustrating Candy’s activities between wars by mounting one trophy after another on the walls of his home, exotic animals whose origins trace out a map of British colonial possessions in Africa and India. There is the desolate no-man’s-landscape of Flanders at the tail end of World War I, where Candy meets Scottish and American soldiers, in addition to a crafty South African officer named Van Zijl. He ominously tells a group of German POWs, “I assure you that I have means to get what I want,” an early example of the film’s interest in fair vs. unfair combat.

As Powell & Pressburger train their camera on England in the first half of the 20th century, they’re able to show one interesting character after another, each reacting differently to the difficulties history has thrust upon them. It’s hard to do justice to a story that wide and deep – it covers so much, yet never feels like it’s hurried or touching too briefly on any one time period. And the whole time the viewer’s receiving this crash course in the aftermath of English imperialism, they are also treated to the lush Technicolor reds and greens of the London surroundings that turn to oranges and yellows as Clive and Theo reach the autumns of their lives.

Roger Livesey gives a monumental performance as Clive Wynne-Candy

It’s impressive that a movie so much about the causes and effects of war can also say so much about the ebbs and tides of normal life – about youth, aging, and all the in-betweens. I think that’s largely because war – and the consequent destruction – necessitates rebuilding, which is what the characters spend much of the film doing. Rebuilding houses, friendships, memories, lives. The title mentions the “death” of Colonel Blimp, and I think this can be interpreted a number of ways; although Candy himself doesn’t die at the end, it’s the death of what he represents and the ideals to which he clings, the death of British military supremacy, the death of the Old Guard, and the death of that cartoonish blowhard Blimp. The tapestry that begins and ends the film has a motto that’s a play on an old Latin phrase: “Sic transit gloria Candy.” Thus passes the glory of Candy. It’s an epitaph for the old colonel (or Major-General, or whatever) whose old world has given way to a new one.

I think I’ve done a little bit of justice to Colonel Blimp‘s mixture of emotion, artistry, and grandeur. Once you get swept into the story – which, unlike many similarly epic stories, never degenerates into overly melodramatic plot twists and unearned sentiment – you find yourself won over by its enchanting characters and, by the time they’ve aged several decades, they’ve become old friends. Despite its deep roots in British colonialism and 1940s debates about fair play in warfare, it remains accessible (and, you’d think, very relevant in the light of current politics). I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk more about the careers of Powell & Pressburger, but please read for yourself; they were incredible but underappreciated filmmakers. Wikipedia quotes David Mamet as describing Colonel Blimp as his idea of perfection, and he has a point. With its personal, bittersweet narrative running through a whole colorful world of multinational, multidimensional characters, addressing the private and public costs of war, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favorite movies.

Clive and Theo meet during a duel framed with beauty and humor

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