Reviewing the Rocky Franchise

I’ve always liked the original Rocky film but something more interesting than the film itself is the story of how it came to be made. In the mid-seventies Sylvester Stallone was a bit part actor with few acting credits to his name. One day in 1975 he watched the Ali v Chuck Wepner fight in which Wepner lost but managed to stay 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone, inspired by the bout, wrote a screenplay about a washed-up fighter called Rocky who manages to stay the distance with the world champion. He passed the screenplay to his agents who took it to various producers. The screenplay was good and many producers were interested but Stallone attached one small condition to the sale, that he himself had to play the part of Rocky.

The producers who finally picked up the screenplay were Winkler-Chartoff productions. They had a contract with United Artists but UA still wanted a big name star in the title role. Burt Reynolds and James Caan were suggested but Stallone hung on and continued to insist that he played Rocky. I have always thought that Stallone was offered a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky but according to an article I read which quoted Stallone himself, the offer went up to $340,000 and he still said no. Eventually the producers gave in and Sylvester Stallone received just $35,000 for acting and writing the screenplay plus a percentage of the profits. United Artists had a major production in the pipeline at the time, New York, New York, a big budget musical and they felt that the profits from that film would cover any losses on Rocky. In fact, the musical was a flop and those losses were covered by the success of Rocky.

The basic plot of Rocky is that World Champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers and based loosely on Muhammed Ali, is let down after planning a title bout to be held during the US Bicentennial celebrations. His opponent backs out and no other contender is available. Creed decides to rescue the fight by selecting an unknown boxer for the hugely publicised event. He chooses Rocky Balboa, a part time boxer and debt collector. The problem is, Creed thinks it will just be a demonstration match but Rocky thinks he can win.

The film was a low budget production but is still a great looking film. It was one of the first films to be shot with a Steadicam, a revolutionary camera mounting which absorbs movement. It was used in the fight scenes and the scene in which Rocky runs through the market in Philadelphia. In a sequence filmed at a skating rink, the producers had no money for any extras so they changed the script. Instead of skating with extras, Rocky and his girl Adrian bribe the cleaning staff to let them in when the rink has closed and is empty.

Joe Frazier makes a cameo appearance in the film and in fact some aspects of his life were used on the film as part of Rocky’s training regimen, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching the meat carcass in a freezer.

Rocky was released in 1976 and grossed over $5 million in the first weekend of its national release and a later box office of 225 million dollars worldwide. The film was nominated for various awards and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone’s pay packet has increased with each subsequent instalment of the film franchise but even today he still isn’t happy that the producers, rather than Stallone himself, own the rights to the Rocky character.

Verdict: 10/10

Rocky II

Given the huge success of the original there was really no doubt there would be a sequel. The film starts just where the last one left off except in the original the two fighters agree that there will not be a rematch. In this sequel, Apollo Creed does a quick reversal and is immediately on at Rocky about a rematch. Rocky is not sure what to do with his new found celebrity or with his money. He buys a house and a new car. He tries his hand at TV advertising but when that fails he sinks deeper into debt and begins to consider fighting again. His manager played again by Burgess Meredith is against the idea but when Apollo ups his campaign to get Rocky to fight and publicly insults Rocky, he finally comes on board. Adrian isn’t keen on the idea and Rocky trains in a lacklustre fashion until she gives him her blessing.

The title bout begins and at the end the two fighters knock each other down together but it is Rocky who gets up to claim the win.

Stallone asked to direct the film and when John G Avildsen, the director of the original film was unavailable, he got his chance.

I’ve seen this film before and always thought that in a way it was just a remake of the original. I watched it again for this blog and rather enjoyed it.

Verdict: 7/1

Rocky III

Rocky is doing well as the heavyweight world champion. He is settled with Adrian and has a son. He takes on various contenders but is constantly hassled by Clubber Lang, played by Mr T, for a title shot. Rocky agrees to meet Clubber in the ring but his manager Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith, is not so keen. On the night of the match Mickey dies of a heart attack and Rocky loses to Clubber. Apollo Creed decides to help Rocky and takes over his training for the rematch. After a tough match he wins back his title and the film finishes with Rocky and Apollo getting together in the ring for a friendly and private bout.

Stallone wrote the screenplay and directed the film and the theme song, Eye of the Tiger won an academy award.

I had not seen this before but watched it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Verdict: 7/10

Rocky IV

Can’t say I was totally impressed with this film. Apollo Creed decides to make his comeback with a fight against Russian Boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. Creed is badly beaten by the Russian and dies from his injuries. Rocky agrees to fight Drago in Russia and takes a predictable win. It was again written and directed by Stallone and he and Lundgren traded real punches in the filming which ended up with Stallone in intensive care. Stallone’s future wife Brigitte Nielson played Drago’s wife, Ludmilla. Bill Conti who wrote the musical score for all the other Rocky films was absent from this one and instead Vince DiCola produced the disappointing music.

In 2021 Stallone released a new version of the film and the re-edited and re-released film was titled Rocky Vs Drago. The new version is only slightly longer but apparently was meant to add more depth to the relationship between Rocky and Apollo Creed as well as cutting some sillier elements like the robot Rocky gives to Paulie as a gift. A review I read in the Guardian felt that Stallone only marginally succeeded.

Verdict 4/10

Rocky V

This is probably the low point in the franchise. Original director John G Avildsen returned to the director’s chair and Stallone intended it to be the last in the Rocky franchise but it’s possible that because it was badly received, he went on to make Rocky Balboa.

Rocky returns from Russia but retires from boxing due to an injury. He then finds that his brother-in-law Paulie has given power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant who has then gone on to squander Rocky’s fortune. Rocky and his wife have to sell their home to pay their debts but Rocky finds purpose in training a young fighter. The relationship later sours and the two engage in a street fight which Rocky wins.

I have to admit that this is one Rocky film that has eluded me so far. Over on Rotten Tomatoes the review went like this: “Rocky V’s attempts to recapture the original’s working-class grit are as transparently phony as each of the thuddingly obvious plot developments in a misguided instalment that sent the franchise flailing into long term limbo.”

Verdict: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film only a 29% approval rating.

Rocky Balboa

I have two of the Rocky films on DVD. One is the original Rocky and the other is this one, Rocky Balboa. It’s a really thoughtful entry into the Rocky franchise. Rocky has retired. His wife has died and he has lost a lot of his money. His income comes from a small Italian restaurant in which many of the patrons come not just for Italian food but also to meet the former heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Balboa.

The current champion Mason ‘the line’ Dixon has been criticised for fighting easy opponents. To get some positive publicity, he decides to enter into a computer fight with Rocky. It’s a fight reminiscent of the encounter between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali in the 1970’s. At the time Marciano and Ali were the sport’s only two unbeaten champions. They were filmed sparring for various rounds and the result decided by probability formulas entered into a computer. Two different outcomes were filmed, the version shown in the UK showed Ali winning which my father was not happy about as he loved boxing and was a particular fan of Rocky Marciano.

In the film Rocky is judged to have won the computer fight and so decides to renew his boxing licence. Mason, not happy about being beaten, challenges Rocky to an exhibition fight which both men want to win. Mason emerges as the winner but Rocky doesn’t seem to mind. His day is over and he receives a standing ovation from the crowd.

This was probably the very best entry into the Rocky series. Rather than just boxing, the film looks at Rocky himself as he gets older, mourns the loss of his wife, and worries about his relationship with his son. He revisits many of the locations in the original Rocky film including his old house and the pet store where he met his wife. The only problem I had with the film was that the actor playing Mason Dixon didn’t look much like a heavyweight boxer to me. Surprise, surprise, then when I found out that actor Antonio Tarver was in fact a former light heavyweight champion! Ah, not a proper heavyweight then.

Rocky Balboa was the last in the Rocky series although a spin off series began in 2015 with Creed in which Rocky mentors boxer Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed. Although Stallone apparently contributed to the story, he did not write or direct either this or the following films. He isn’t happy about the producers owning the rights to characters he created either and publicly tweeted his unhappiness about a reported spin off film about Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

In a lot of ways, the Rocky films parallel Stallone’s own life. He turned down big money offers to let others play what was the role of a lifetime, took it on himself and was propelled to film stardom.


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Making the YouTube Video

One of my friends asked me about my videos the other day. He wanted to know if they were easy to make and how much I planned them in advance. Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t plan anything in advance but I thought it might be interesting to show readers just how I put together a video.

The Idea/Shooting

I did a video a while ago as part of a beta testing programme I was asked to take part in. The testing was for a new update over on Animoto.com which is an online video editing site. The new addition was the facility to add a voice recording to a video which I had actually advocated quite a few times on their Facebook forum page. The video I decided to make stemmed from a blog post about writing poetry and it was called Idea, Inspiration and Effort. Those three things were what I thought was required to produce a poem and to be fair they could be applied to anything, a poem, an essay, a blog post, a novel or indeed, a video.

Everything of course starts with an idea. What shall I write about or what can I make a video about? For me I tend to shoot all sorts of video and then only later start to think about how I can put it together and use it in a finished product. For the video mentioned above over on Animoto I chose a template from their fairly wide range and then it was just a matter of adding in the stock photos or video and then the graphics. Animoto provides stock photos which I do use regularly but if possible, I always try to use photos I have taken myself. For instance, I needed a sunset shot for this video and I knew that I had a shot of a sunset taken in Greece on the island of Kalymnos so I uploaded that.

Of course, for a video like that, not much actual filming was required but normally, filming is the first step in any video. One way to prepare for a shoot is to make story boards. They are used extensively in the cinema and I’ve seen documentaries showing wonderful story boards from films like Citizen Kane to Aliens. They are simply drawings that look like comic strips showing the visual look of each different scene. Good for films using actors but not much use for documentaries or short films, well at least, not in my opinion. I tend to film first and then plan later how to use my recorded video. Others might think story boards a great help.

Reviewing the footage.

A short video like the one above is pretty easy but for my most recent video, a compilation of GoPro video shot mostly through the windscreen of my motorhome, well that was a little harder. I had a rough idea what I wanted so the next step was just to review all my footage. That involved hours and hours of going through a lot of video, a great deal of which was not very inspiring. Many times, I had left my GoPro running when I should have shut it down. Other times I pressed record at some wonderful area of French countryside, only to find that the resulting video wasn’t so wonderful.

A GoPro Hero similar to mine.

The Rough Cut

After reviewing everything, I dropped all the better shots into my video editor and the result was a video lasting well over an hour. My big mistake on a lot of our French trips is not shooting much additional video.  I may have recorded us arriving at a spectacular lake but then I hadn’t taken the camera and shot around the lake. We’d take a trek around a lovely French village and again I didn’t shoot anything in the village. However, having visited France so many times I went back over all my older video looking for interesting things.

In 2020 we parked by the river Seine one day and I had filmed the ferry going across to the other side and a huge ship chugging serenely past. I had not used that footage in previous videos so I added that into the editor. On a number of occasions, I’ve tried to shoot things that motorhomers have to deal with as routine, things like emptying the toilet and the waste water and topping up the drinking water and so on, so I added a number of clips showing all those processes.

In Rouen a few years ago we were following the directions from the Google lady on Google maps when we found ourselves heading into a tunnel which I realised we weren’t going to fit under. Luckily there was an escape road and we were able to exit but when we passed the area again this year, I recorded us travelling past and so I was able to talk about the experience.

The Final Cut

Less is more has always been my video adage so I trimmed out more and more video until I was left with some short story blocks or chapters: Travelling through the channel tunnel, heading on south through France with a quick look at where we stopped in 2020 by the Seine. Going through Rouen and avoiding the low tunnel. Various camping sites. Maintaining the motorhome and emptying the waste. A final stop and a barbecue and then returning to home via the ferry.

Voice Over

The next step was to put together the narration. Sometimes I write a narration and then tweak the video to fit the text. On this occasion I decided to do something I’d done before which was to jot down a few notes and then just narrate the voice-over as I watched the video. I actually did it quite a few times. The first and second versions had a lot of ums and ahs but by the third time I finally felt I had something reasonable. My voice-over was more confident than the first two tries and by then I pretty much knew what to say without my notes.

Sound Effects

Next I add the sound effects. Now you might think there wouldn’t be much need for sound effects on a video like this, however there were a couple. On a sequence where I showed the outdoor laundrettes which abound outside supermarkets in France, I had combined some still shots with video so I added some washing machine sounds to cover that and on another sequence, I had slowed down a wobbly shot of a microlight flying overhead. The soundtrack was distorted at the slow speed so I added the sound of a light aircraft which was similar to the sound of the microlight.

Microlight

Where do I get the sound effects? Well Liz bought me one of those sound effect CDs a few years ago but sometimes I head for a site called Zapsplat to download some free sounds.

Just to finish I think it’s important to watch the final product from beginning to end and just look for things that could be tidied up. I added a sequence showing an antique telephone during a bit on the voice-over where I talk about telephones. There were still some superfluous scenes shot through the windscreen which were either boring or too long so I trimmed those down.

Titles and Credits

The final thing is to add the titles and credits. Now being an old-fashioned film maker, I’ve always liked good intros on films. These days in the world of YouTube and TikTok, those long title sequences are not recommended. While I’m trying to get my video started with a few titles and introductions, the viewer has already clicked on to another video so these days the advice is to make those titles and credits short and sweet.

What sort of video editor do I use?

Well I actually like the professional version of the Microsoft Windows Video Editor. It’s pretty simple to use and I always make my rough cut with it. If I want to play with the soundtrack I then take the video over to Power Director where you can do some more complex edits.

Uploading to Social Media

Once you have made a video you want people to see it so it’s only natural to upload to the internet. YouTube is the obvious choice. How do you get people to watch it though? Tricky question and to be fair, I don’t really know the answer. I upload my videos and link them to various other sites. I have quite a few pages on this site here at WordPress where I showcase my videos or use them directly within a post. I also link them to Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and other places that I feel are appropriate. For instance there is a Manchester community on Reddit so I’ll link my Manchester themed videos there. I link my poetry videos to either the Reddit poetry community or to my Writeoutloud poetry page. Over on Facebook there is an amateur video page where video producers showcase their work and chat about it.

One of my big mistakes is uploading to YouTube too early. Once I’ve finished a project, I’ll continue to fiddle with it and start to wish I had uploaded version 7 rather than version 1. A good video site though less popular than YouTube is Vimeo and the good thing about their site is that it’s possible to replace your video with an updated version without losing your stats and comments. Such a pity that feature isn’t possible on YouTube.

Just as I finished this post, I clicked on a video that came up in my YouTube feed. It was about Ridley Scott and the making of Alien. Scott did something special with Alien, he took what could have been a mediocre monster movie and made it into something special. He brought some great designers and a strong cast into the project, made his case to the producers for a bigger budget and ended up with an outstanding film. Preparation and design was the key to that film and preparation and design are important even in small projects like yours, mine and a thousand others you will see on Youtube.

What will your next video project be?


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Reviewing the Mission Impossible Franchise

It was a cold afternoon in Manchester and I mumbled something to myself about the supposed heatwave and zipped my jacket up to my neck. At the left luggage office I took out the key that had been given to me earlier and when I opened the compartment I found a small package inside. I took the package and walked the short distance to the square. I sat down on the hard wooden bench and opened it up. Inside was a small tape player and a set of earphones. I put on the earphones and pressed play. There was a short burst of static and then a voice spoke.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Higgins. In the 1970’s a television show called Mission Impossible was produced that became a minor cult TV classic. Many years later the franchise was revived with a series of feature films starring Tom Cruise. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to review the TV series and the subsequent films, look at the background to the films, try to understand why they have been successful and put together a blog post revealing your findings. The blog post must be ready for publication by Saturday at 10am.

This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.’

I put down the earphones and placed them and the tape player back in the package, moments later the package disintegrated and I dropped the remains into a rubbish bin and walked away.

The TV series 1966 to 1973

The TV show was created by producer Bruce Geller and concerned a team of special agents known as the Impossible Missions Force. They are a US government agency which takes on hostile foreign governments, South American dictatorships and criminal organisations.

In the first series the team is led by Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill but he was replaced for season 2 by Peter Graves in the part of Jim Phelps. Other regular team members were Leonard Nimoy, Martin Laudau and his wife Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Lesley Anne Warren. Each played a team member with a particular skill, for instance Laudau and Nimoy played agents with a talent for impersonation and disguise, Greg Morris played an electronics expert and so on.

Mission Impossible ran for 7 seasons and was cancelled because, according to Wikipedia, the producers at Paramount found they could make more money by syndicating the existing series rather than making new ones.

A revival series was made in the 1980’s also starring Peter Graves. To save money the series was not filmed in Hollywood but in Australia but it only lasted two seasons and was largely unsuccessful.

A great feature of the series was the opening title sequence which involved a match being struck and then lighting a fuse shown over quick clips of the upcoming episode to the sound of the iconic theme tune written by Lalo Schifrin. Next would be Jim Phelps listening to his tape recorded instructions which after being played would then self-destruct. Phelps would then look through his agents’ files complete with photos and choose who he wanted for the mission. Sometimes a guest star would play one of the agents who would be introduced by Jim checking out his dossier. A team briefing would then take place and the mission would get under way.

The IMF used a great deal of gadgets to accomplish their missions, secret listening devices and other electronic hardware as well as incredible masks and make up to impersonate people. One particular episode that I remember was when the team had to retrieve some stolen gold from a South American dictator’s safe. They did it by drilling a small hole in the safe, heating it until the gold melted and ran out down the small hole then a little gadget sprayed the interior of the empty safe to cover the hole. Mission Impossible was staple viewing in our household in the late 1960’s.

Mission Impossible 1996

Paramount Studios had plans to make a movie version of the series but the plans never seemed to come to fruition until Tom Cruise expressed an interest. He had been a fan of the TV series and hoped to make the film version the first project for his own production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions. The project began with Sydney Pollack as director but Cruise later decided he wanted Brian De Palma. De Palma designed most of the action sequences in the film and the final script was written around these. It just so happens that recently Channel 4 in the UK decided to run all the Mission Impossible films on consecutive nights so that came in pretty handy to refresh my memory on these films.

I enjoyed Mission Impossible much more on this recent viewing than when I had first seen it. The film uses the fabulous TV theme and opens in a similar way to the TV series.

Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt with John Voight playing Jim Phelps. Hunt is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge, is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me.

I read recently that Peter Graves was asked to play Phelps in the film but declined after seeing his character was the traitor. Other stars from the TV series weren’t happy either.

Mission Impossible II 2000

This second instalment of the franchise was directed by John Woo. It’s about a biological weapon called Chimera. Rogue agent Sean Ambrose steals the virus from its inventor by impersonating Ethan Hunt. He destroys the aircraft on which the inventor is travelling and parachutes to safety. Hunt was played once again by Tom Cruise and his mission is to regain the virus. The opening sequence sees Cruise doing some daring rock climbing which the studio wasn’t happy about. Cruise didn’t have a safety net but did apparently wear a harness. I didn’t like the heavy metal style version of the classic theme and as a matter of fact, I lost interest in the film early on.

Mission Impossible III 2006

This third instalment was directed by JJ Abrams and for the first time the writers decided to show a little of the background to the Ethan Hunt character. He has retired from the IMF and has become a trainer for new agents but is asked to take on a new mission. He is about to get married but his fiancée knows nothing of his espionage work. The IMF team kidnap villain Owen Davian who escapes but decides to take revenge on Ethan. The film is filled with high powered action sequences and although a little implausible, I kind of liked it.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol 2011

The IMF are tasked to stop a man only known as ‘Cobalt’ who is trying to initiate a war between the USA and Russia. Tom Cruise as Ethan, infiltrates a Moscow prison to get to a man who has links to Cobalt. Things go wrong and the IMF is closed down by the US government when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin. The IMF team however stay on the hunt for Cobalt and follow him to various parts of the world including Dubai, where Tom Cruise has to climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Cruise does all his own stunts but for a long time I just assumed that all the stuff on the outside of the Khalifa was done in a studio with a green screen and the background digitally inserted. Nope, Cruise actually swung on hidden cables outside the skyscraper. Why he should choose to risk his life in that fashion is beyond me but there it is. A good film full of action and adventure with numerous shootings and explosions.

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation 2015

This next instalment of Mission Impossible is pretty similar to the previous one. The CIA director (Alex Baldwin) asks a government committee to close down the IMF and incorporate them into the CIA which they decide to do. Ethan Hunt escapes from a criminal organisation known as the Syndicate with the help of British double agent Ilse Faust. Various exciting adventures ensue including a highly dangerous motorcycle chase and a deep underwater dive without oxygen. The IMF manage to capture the head of the Syndicate in the end. A government committee decide it would be best to reform the IMF. It’s all a little fantastic but not bad for a Saturday night on TV with a couple of beers and a pizza.

Mission Impossible Fallout 2018

After a week of watching the Mission Impossible films I’m sorry to say I missed this one which is a pity because according to the reviews it’s the best in the series. Still, sometimes it’s important to move one’s lazy behind off the couch, switch off the TV and go out and enjoy oneself. Pity there weren’t a few Mission Impossible questions in the pub quiz that night. After all this research I think I might have done pretty well.

Update

It just so happened that my brother has Fallout on DVD so he brought it round and we gave it a watch. The plot is something about plutonium and atomic bombs and the IMF guys have to swap the captured head of the Syndicate for the plutonium. The plutonium gets put into 2 atomic bombs which cannot be defused but after some highly implausible action-packed chases including a helicopter chase with both helicopters crashing, rolling down a cliff and being suspended on the edge, things finally get sorted. I reckon this would have been a good one to watch in the cinema.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to reboot a successful TV series whether it’s for the small screen or the big one but the producers of the Mission Impossible films have actually done a pretty good job. The films do have something of a link to the old TV series. They have different characters and different actors but the films have kept that opening element from the TV show with the match lighting the fuse.  They have also kept that fabulous theme tune. Then again, could they have really made Mission Impossible without the Mission Impossible theme? I don’t think so.

I did read that some of the TV actors from the original series weren’t happy with the films. Greg Morris apparently walked out of a screening when it was revealed that Jim Phelps was the traitor which was exactly why Peter Graves, the original Jim Phelps declined to reprise his old role as I mentioned earlier.

Personally, with the exception of MI2 I’ve enjoyed all the films and I look forward to the next instalment in the franchise which I believe has already been filmed.

Please step away from this blog post. It will self-destruct in 5 seconds . . .


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10 Great War Films (Part 2)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go. As this post went on a bit I published part 1 last week so now here’s part 2.

Angels One Five

Angels One Five is another WWII film this time concerning the Royal Air Force. John Gregson plays a new pilot who is assigned to ‘Pimpernel’ squadron at a small airfield in the south of England. When he touches down he crashes and damages his replacement aircraft, not making a great impression on his new colleagues. The film follows Gregson’s character, nicknamed ‘Septic’ as he begins work at the station, first in the control room and then as a novice pilot.

Parts of the film were shot at RAF Uxbridge where a wartime operations room was located. Jack Hawkins and Michael Dennison also star in the film which shows life in the Royal Air Force in the dark days of 1940 during the battle of Britain.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory was a 1957 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was set in the First World War and starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. General Broulard of the general staff orders his army to attack a German position known as the Anthill. He commands General Mireau to organise the attack. Mireau says the task is impossible but changes his mind when offered a promotion. The attack predictably fails and some of the troops refuse to attack when they see their colleagues in the first wave mown down. The enraged General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men but the artillery commander refuses.

Afterwards the general decides to have 100 men court martialled for cowardice but is later persuaded to have the number reduced to three. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men but the trial turns out to be a farce.

The Dambusters

This is one of those films that I have always loved in spite of its sometimes amateur special effects. The original Star Trek movie has been in the news lately as it has been re released with updated special effects and I often think it would be a great idea for some older films to be updated in that way too. Anyway, the Dambusters is another classic WWII film. It starts with the inventor Barnes Wallis played by Michael Redgrave who is working on an idea to breech the Ruhr dams in Germany thus disrupting the German manufacturing base in the Ruhr Valley. He works constantly in a water testing tank refining his ideas for a bouncing bomb. After a difficult process he gets his idea accepted by Bomber Command and a new squadron, 633 squadron is formed to take on the mission. Its leader is the famous Guy Gibson played by Richard Todd. Gibson and his team take on a difficult and dangerous task. The bombs must be dropped from low level at a specific height and specific distance from the dam. I’ve often felt this to be a wonderful film that not only shows the dangers of war and combat but also shows the whole process from beginning to end of the design and inception of a new wartime project. The only disappointing aspect is those poor special effects.

Platoon

OK, that’s enough of WWII, time to move on. Platoon was a film written and directed by Oliver Stone based on his own experiences in the Vietnam war. Vietnam was a different kind of war to WWII. The soldiers were younger and many were disillusioned about being in Vietnam in the first place. Charlie Sheen stars as a new recruit arriving in Vietnam and he soon learns that his life is worth less than the fellow soldiers. They have put the time in, they have fought the Vietcong and so if anyone deserves to go home safe and sound, it is them, not him.

The platoon is led by a young and inexperienced officer but the two real leaders are two company sergeants, Barnes and Elias played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris Taylor, respects both men but sees Barnes as someone who is a little dangerous. In an incident at a village Barnes shoots a Vietnamese woman dead while interrogating the villagers for information. Elias arrives and breaks things up and Barnes later finds he might be the subject of an investigation into the incident. During a fire fight with the Vietcong, Barnes shoots Elias dead in order to prevent him speaking up and later Taylor shoots a wounded Barnes.

Platoon is a powerful film that won many awards including four Oscars including best picture and best director.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July was another film by director Oliver Stone and the second in his Vietnam trilogy. It tells the story of Ron Kovic who was wounded in Vietnam and left paralysed and wheelchair bound. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as Kovic, showing him go from a believer in the war to the exact opposite, someone who campaigns for an end to the killing in Vietnam. He is invalided back to the USA where the poor medical care and the state of the veterans’ hospital is graphically portrayed. Kovic goes to Dulce Villa, a haven in Mexico for wounded veterans where he spends a lot of time drinking and perhaps getting the anger out of his system. Later he joins an anti-war group and the film finishes with Ron about to address the Democratic National Convention although I thought that a better ending might have been to show him actually making his speech. Even so, Oliver Stone has produced a powerful film which gave Tom Cruise his first nomination for Best Actor and another director’s Oscar for Stone himself.

So that’s my personal Ten Best War Films. If you missed Part One last week, click here to read it. What were your favourite war movies?


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10 Great War Films (Part 1)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go! As this post went on a bit I’ve split it in two and I’ll post Part 2 next week.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape was based on an actual event, a real life mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp in WWII. The film though wasn’t completely true to life, in fact I don’t think any American POWs were in the camp although Steve McQueen and James Garner played major roles. I also don’t think that any escaping POW’s tried to escape Germany on a motorcycle but hey, The Great Escape is one of those easy-going feel-good action-adventure films that is one of the most well-loved films ever made. For many years it was a staple of UK Christmas TV viewing and whether it is completely factual or not it is a great film. Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and many others play the British officers. Attenborough plays Roger Bartlett who has just been released by the Gestapo after being recaptured and interrogated in relation to another escape attempt. He now plans a mass escape from the camp and organises the digging of tunnels, fake identity papers, maps and clothing. After the escape fifty officers were executed by the Nazis although of course, Steve McQueen lived to fight another day.

The Colditz Story

The Colditz Story is another prisoner of war escape film also based on a true story. In WWII the Germans rounded up a bunch of the most prolific escapers and put them all together in an escape proof castle named Colditz. John Mills plays a British officer who is tasked with co ordinating escapes with various other groups of captives, French, Polish, Dutch and various others as previous escape attempts were failing due to a sort of free for all escaping culture. Various escaping officers are elected and the prisoners work together towards breaking out from the castle. Mills eventually escapes by using an idea suggested by a fellow soldier. It’s a simple idea involving dressing up as German officers. Not very original you might think but the officers plan to be leaving the Officers’ club which they hope will make them appear more natural. The chief British officer decides the plan is doomed to failure as the man who thought of it was a very tall officer who he thinks would be immediately recognised by the camp guards. I won’t tell you what happens but Colditz is a great British picture and well worth watching.

The Wooden Horse.

The Wooden Horse is similar to the two films above. It is based on a book which in turn was a true story, actually written by one of the escapees from a WWII prisoner of war camp. In fact, if I remember rightly, the escape was from the same camp as the Great Escape Stalag Luft III. One of the big problems of digging a tunnel in a POW camp was the distance that needed to be covered. There was quite a distance from the camp huts to the perimeter, then there was an area of no mans land before the outside world. Two escapers, both captured airmen, hit on an idea. They decide to make a vaulting horse and lead it out close to the camp fence. Inside are concealed two men who dig a tunnel while their comrades exercised above. This meant that only a relatively short tunnel was required. The film covers all the aspects of camp life, the boredom, the petty arguments with fellow prisoners and the eventual escape. The film stars Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson as the escapees.

The Cruel Sea

It’s time to move on from POW camps and escaping and to take a look at the war at sea. The Cruel Sea is a classic WWII film based on the book by Nicholas Monsarrat. Jack Hawkins is the commander of the escort vessel Compass Rose. The film follows the story of the ship from its handover in the shipyard to the navy all the way through to its final demise at sea. The crew are new to naval warfare but bind together through various incidents at sea guarding convoys in the north Atlantic. The outstanding cast are all stalwarts of 1940s and 50s British cinema, names like Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker and Virginia McKenna.

The Compass Rose is eventually sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic, many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposal hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of an unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them. The film continues with the next vessel Jack Hawkins is charged with commanding until the war ends. Colditz and the Great Escape are pretty light hearted films compared to this one which tends to be grittier and more realistic in its portrayal of the war.

Sink The Bismarck

Continuing with the war at sea, this film follows the hunt for the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy again in WWII. It focuses on the Admiralty’s control centre as they attempt to track down the German battleship before it wreaks further havoc with the convoys that brought vital supplies to Britain. Kenneth Moore plays captain Shepard, the chief of operations, as he and his team attempt to find the Bismarck so British destroyers can attack and destroy the enemy. The film is perhaps a little different to other war films in that a great deal of the action focusses on the Admiralty control room showing the work of the unsung back room experts as they collate information and sightings and relay it to the ships under their command.

Don’t forget to check back next week for part 2 of this post.


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Three Oscar Winners

The Academy Awards are the premier awards for artistic and technical expertise in the motion picture industry. The awards are given annually to mark various categories of cinema excellence. The award statuettes are known as Oscars and were first awarded in 1929 at a ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The very first film to be voted as Best Picture was Wings, a first world war silent film starring Clara Bow, Charles Roger and Richard Arlen. In my DVD collection I have quite a few Oscar winners but here I’d like to look closer at three in particular. Two fairly recent films and one absolute classic.

The Shape of Water

Now, there are those who seem to think I only ever look at black and white classic movies. Not so, I like modern films too and just to prove it I picked up The Shape of Water not long ago for a few pounds on Ebay. You may remember that the film won the Oscar for Best Film at the 2018 awards and it looked pretty interesting in the various clips I have seen. Everything I had heard about the film was positive so I decided to search the internet for the DVD version. The first warning sign was the extensive availability of DVDs of the film on Ebay and the second was the rather low prices those DVDs were fetching. Anyway, I got my copy and watched it and how this film won an Oscar I really do not know.

Yes it is well acted. The photography was excellent although everything is presented in a sort of greenish hue that the director perhaps feels enshrouded late fifties and early sixties America. However the content just didn’t do it for me. It’s about a young mute woman cleaner in a top secret government installation who falls in love with a strange creature, half man, half fish, that is held captive there. She and her father rescue the fish man and take him back to their apartment high over a cinema and install the creature in the bath.

The Guardian said this about the film: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, (at the Oscars) the story of a young woman’s love for a captured sea creature — with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight.’

Don’t believe a word of it, the fact is The Shape of Water is a dismal weird film that completely failed to engage me and my copy will soon be available once again on Ebay. It was so bad it even made me hunger for one of Roger Moore’s dreadful Bond Films.

 

Nomadland

Now that I’ve retired I’ve often thought about spending more time in my motorhome and it’s only Liz’s recent hip operation that has prevented us from travelling over to France for some exploring. Could I live full time in a motorhome though? I’m not so sure. Everything is fine in the summer but I doubt if I could cope with the cold of the winter. Of course, we could always drive south towards somewhere a little warmer, even perhaps our beloved Lanzarote but van life isn’t, I suspect, as romantic as it sounds. Nomadland is a film that addresses this subject. A woman loses her job when the US Gypsum plant closes down in her town. Her husband has died so she decides to buy a van and go in search of work. She works for a while at an Amazon packing centre and when that job ends she goes off to Arizona where she heard fellow nomads will be meeting.

She makes new friends among the nomad community and has to overcome various problems, mainly issue with her van. At the end of the film she returns to her home town where all her possessions are in storage and finally sells them all before going back on the road again. After the first thirty minutes or so the film seemed like an actual documentary with real people rather than actors, so much so I had to pick up the DVD box and double check. It’s a slow film with little dialogue but even so it is original and realistic and examines the lives of a new breed of Americans, nomads who live in vans and spend their lives on the move, settling down where there is work and moving on when the work runs out. A flat tyre can be not just an inconvenience but a disaster as well as other problems which for us are merely distractions. Washing and showering for instance, not so easy when you have to consider whether there is enough water in the tank, where to do the laundry and so on. When a major van repair is needed the heroine of the film has to leave the van -her home- at a garage and check into a hotel while it is repaired.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. It’s good and well worth watching but whether it’s worthy of an Oscar I’m not so sure.

Silence of the Lambs

After watching the above two Oscar winners on DVD I fancied something a little different. The very first horror film to win an Oscar was Silence of the Lambs. It’s a gruesome film in many ways following the FBI as they try to track down a serial killer who has just abducted the daughter of a US senator. The killer known as Buffalo Bill, imprisons his victims then kills and skins them. (Told you it was gruesome!) To try and get a lead on the killer the FBI send trainee agent Clarice Starling to interview the incarcerated murderer and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector to see if he can give any insight into the murders, a new perspective that might help the FBI investigation.

Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster plays agent Starling. She wants to work in the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and Lector, chillingly played by Hopkins, finds her interesting. He seems willing to give information about Buffalo Bill but in return he wants information about Clarice herself. He initiates a quid pro quo, he gives her information and observations about Bill and in return she must reveals snippets of information about herself, her background and her life.

Clarice becomes a pawn when Jack Crawford, the head of behavioural science, makes a fake offer to Lector. They promise that Lector will be moved to a secure unit on an island with a view of nature and wildlife in return for more information. The head of the secure unit where Lector is currently held, Dr Chiltern makes a rival offer which Lector accepts but passes on fake information about Buffalo Bill.

Clarice meets Lector again and presses Lector for the real information but Lector wants only to hear about her life, in particular when she was orphaned and terrified when lambs were slaughtered on the farm where she was staying. Lector tells her that all the relevant information to find the killer is in the case file which he has been allowed to read.

Later, FBI agents approach the suspected home of Buffalo Bill. At the same time Clarice is following a lead based on some advice from Lector. The two situations are presented in alternate clips. The FBI ring the bell of Bill’s supposed home. Clarice rings the bell of her suspect. When the FBI burst in and the house is empty, Jack Crawford, and we the viewers, realise that Starling has stumbled on the real Buffalo Bill.

Much of the content of the film is terrifying but at the same time, it is a compelling film and comes together in an exciting climax.

The film spawned numerous sequels. Hopkins reprised his role as Lector twice but Jodie Foster declined to play Clarice again blaming scheduling conflicts. Clarice was played by Julianne Moore in the follow up film, Hannibal.

Silence of The Lambs won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathon Demme) Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

Do you have a favourite Oscar winning film?


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The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the 60s TV show the Time Tunnel. I used to love that show when I was about 12 years old but watching it these days it isn’t quite as good as I remember. If the time tunnel was real and I could sneak inside and send myself back in time the place I’d like to go would probably be the early days on cinema in Hollywood.

Back then when the cinema was new and the job of film director was something that didn’t require a degree, I reckon I might have been in with a chance of getting to direct a film. These days I have to content myself with being an amateur video maker. Anyway, I may not be a director but I can certainly write about film directors if nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin

I’m going to start off with Chaplin because he was one of the very first to give actual direction to a motion picture. Charlie came to Hollywood after a career in Fred Karno’s musical halls in England. Karno was a successful impresario and producer and when his productions became successful, he decided to export them and sent various troupes on tours of the USA. On one of those tours Chaplin was spotted by slapstick film maker Mack Sennet and Chaplin began to appear in early Hollywood comedy shows. In those days there were no scripts. The actors and directors threw a few ideas about and then the cameras began to roll. The short films were made quickly and then sent off for distribution across the USA and even the world.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films, he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essanay because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever thought of Chaplin as a genius but he was clearly one of the first to realise a film needed a structure and that comedy films didn’t need to be gag after gag after gag. They needed a story, the audience needed to sympathise with the characters and so on. Whatever you think of Charlie Chaplin, his contribution to the film world was immense.

Billy Wilder

My favourite Billy Wilder story goes like this: In his later years he wanted, as usual, to make a movie. He approached a studio and was invited in to make his pitch, as they call it in the movie world. The executive who met with Billy was a young man. He said to Billy, “I’m not familiar with your work could you tell me about it?”

Wilder replied, “of course, after you!”

Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria. He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin but left when the Nazi party began their rise to power. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood where many artists and film makers fled to escape the Nazis. Wilder wrote numerous screenplays with his co-writer Charles Brackett and in 1942 made his directing debut with The Major and the Minor.

A big hit for wilder was the film Double Indemnity. Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and the film was nominated for 7 academy awards as well as becoming a classic of film noir.

By far my favourite Wilder film though was Sunset Boulevard. The film follows William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis who is down on his luck and is about to have his car repossessed. To escape the repo men, Holden drives into what he thinks is a deserted house on Sunset Boulevard. To his surprise he finds reclusive film star Gloria Swanson living there. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent era who is planning her return to the screen.

Norma engages Joe to edit a script she has written herself and Joe soon finds himself seduced by the affection and money she lavishes on him. Some of Swanson’s own silent films are used within the production and one of her old directors, Erich Von Stroheim plays the part of her butler and former husband. The final scene of Joe floating dead in Norma’s pool took was a difficult shot to film. Wilder eventually did it by putting a mirror in the bottom of the pool.

Wilder died in 2002. He is buried in Los Angeles and on his grave is inscribed. ‘Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then, nobody’s perfect’, a reference to the final line in Some Like It Hot.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences.

He followed up with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. In Wall Street Stone first developed a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

George Stevens

George Stevens made many memorable films and I’ve including him in this handful of directors because if I was a director, I reckon I’d make my films the way George did. George directed the classic western Shane starring Alan Ladd. Shane is one of the great film westerns and one that tried to show the west as it really was. Stevens also directed Giant, James Dean’s last film. Giant is about Bick Benedict, a Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson and Dean plays Jett Rink, a surly ranch hand who is fired by Benedict. Benedict’s sister however, has a soft spot for Jett and when she is unexpectedly killed in a fall from a horse, we find that she has gifted a small piece of land to Jett. Bick wants to keep the ranch together and offers Jett a large sum of money for the property but he declines and goes on to strike oil on the land. Stevens filmed his actors with many cameras and liked to shoot everything he could then sit back and work his way through the resulting footage and slowly figure out how to edit it together, which is pretty much what I do with my short amateur YouTube videos.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a British director who began in the days of silent films and came to be known as the master of suspense. Blackmail made in 1929 was the first British Talkie and 10 years later producer David O Selznick lured him to Hollywood where he made many films that are now regarded as classics, films like North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Birds and Pyscho. Hitchcock might also be seen as one of the first celebrity directors. He became popular because of his habit of appearing, however briefly in all of his films, sitting on a bus for instance, just missing the bus in another. He also became well known by introducing his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

There are some directors who have tried to make films that show events the way the human eye sees things. Roberto Rossellini was one. Another surprisingly was Hitchcock himself.

In 1948 he made the film The Rope. It was an unusual film in many ways, especially for Hitchcock. The length of a film magazine back then was ten minutes so Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in a series of 10 minute takes each take morphing smoothly into the next one. The set was built with moveable walls which were able to be moved swiftly out of the way by the prop men to accommodate the very large film camera of the time as it moved about the set.

Making a film without the usual cuts and edits would create a viewer experience more akin to the way a human being sees things, or so Hitchcock thought. My personal view is that we see things with our mind more than the eye. The human eye is constantly scanning the scene before us and these scans are used by the mind to put together an image for us. Some of that image will be up to date, especially whatever it is we are concentrating on. Other elements, things in our peripheral vision for instance may be seconds out of date because that element of the image we are seeing was scanned seconds or even minutes ago. That’s my theory anyway. For me the director who films in the way the human eye sees things is Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

I’ve written plenty about Woody before so I won’t go on about him here too long. The great thing about Woody’s films is that they don’t follow the usual film school format of close up, medium shot and wide shot. Woody usually makes a one or two camera set up with few if any close ups and that’s it. In one shot in Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine is talking to someone, it might have been Mia Farrow but I can’t remember off the top of my head and the Mia character goes into the bedroom but continues to talk with Caine. Michael expected there to be a second set up filming Mia in the bedroom but there wasn’t. He asked Woody why not and Woody answered why do we need to see the other person in the bedroom? We can hear their voice that’s all we need. If the character was hiding a gun in their purse or pocket or something pursuant to the plot then we need to see that but otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about Woody’s films, their economical use of film and the lack of multiple set ups.

Those then are my handful of film directors. Who are your favourites?


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A Series of Random Classic Film Connections

Back in the 1960’s I was a big fan of the Apollo moon missions and on UK TV one of the presenters was James Burke. Burke also did a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode that stands out in my memory was one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. I thought that in today’s blog, I’d try and do something similar but relating to film so here are five fascinating connections.

Casablanca.

Casablanca is one of my very favourite films, in fact a while back, I did an entire blog post dedicated to the film. Humphrey Bogart starred as Rick who runs a popular café in the city of Casablanca. Set in the 1940’s during the second world war, refugees are everywhere, fleeing from the Nazi menace. Certain letters of transit have disappeared guaranteeing the owner free travel out of occupied lands to freedom and various people want them, in particular freedom fighter Victor Lazlo and his wife Lisa played by Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman.

The Chief of Police, Captain Louis Renault, is out to stop them and perhaps even out to make a little money for himself on the side. The film was made in 1942 entirely at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood apart from one scene at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. The film won the Oscar for best picture, best adapted screenplay and also one for best director for Michael Curtiz. The film has grown in popularity ever since and always ranks highly in any list of the greatest ever films.

Captain Louis Renault was played by Claude Rains. Rains was a British actor who became one of the screen’s great character actors. He died in 1967 but one of his last films was Lawrence of Arabia, made in 1962.

Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence is another great classic of the cinema. Filmed in 70mm and directed by David Lean, the films tells the story of TE Lawrence played by Peter O’Toole and like Casablanca it is a classic of the cinema. The film was made in 1962 on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.

There are numerous stars in the film as well as Claude Rains but the one I want to highlight is Alec Guinness. Guinness made his film debut in another David Lean film Great Expectations made in 1946. In 1955 Guinness was in Hollywood having been nominated for an Oscar. One night he went out and was struggling to find a table in a restaurant. At one establishment where he was turned away a young man came after him and asked him to join him for a meal. That man was James Dean. Dean insisted on showing Alec his new Porsche Spyder and when he saw the car Guinness was apparently overcome by a strange feeling and told Dean never to drive the car and that if he did, he would be dead by the following week. Guinness was not someone who regularly made predictions of the future and was probably as taken aback by this feeling as Dean was.

A week later, Dean was driving the Porsche to a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car crash.

Giant

James Dean had just finished the movie Giant only weeks before his death. Giant starred Rock Hudson as Texas rancher Bick Benedict with Dean playing the third lead of Jett Rink. Rink is a no good cowboy who works for Bick Benedict. Bick and Jett don’t get on well but Luz, Bick’s sister has a soft spot for Jett and re-employs him after Bick has fired him. Later, Jett Rink inherits a small piece of land after the death of Luz. He goes on to find oil on the land and becomes a millionaire. The film’s other lead star was Elizabeth Taylor. She plays Leslie who marries Bick Benedict.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in 1932 and began her career as a child actress in the 1940’s. She was one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars and was married eight times including twice to Richard Burton. Her second husband was Mike Todd. He was an entrepreneur and producer who decided to try his hand at film production. His company developed the Todd AO Process, a widescreen film process that was based on Cinerama, a technique that used three projectors. He was sadly killed in a plane crash after completing Around the World in 80 Days, a film that showcased the process.

Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 days was a film version of the novel by Jules Verne. David Niven starred as Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman who takes part in a bet at the London Reform Club, in which he wagers that he can successfully circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. The film was shot in 70mm using the Todd AO process mentioned above. The film starred numerous celebrities in small parts and was filmed all over the world.

David Niven was perfect for the role as Phileas Fogg. He was an English actor and former army officer who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s. He worked as an extra and was one of the few people who went from extra to film stardom. He was put under contract by Sam Goldwyn.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In 1936 Niven starred with close friend Errol Flynn in the Hollywood film version of The Charge of The Light Brigade, transferred by Warner Brothers from the Crimea to India. Flynn and Olivia De Havilland were the main stars and Niven writes about the production in his wonderful book, Bring On The Empty Horses.

The book was named after a phrase uttered by the director to begin a scene calling for a number of riderless horses. The director was none other than Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, which makes our film connections complete.


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The Essential Englishman (Part 2)

I published a post quite a while back called The Essential Englishman. I say a while back but now that I’ve looked, it was 2017. Anyway, as a working-class council house boy I’ve always envied those well-dressed gentlemen who look impeccable and talk ‘proper’, dropping witty comments here and there with apparent ease. I wrote about six Englishmen who all rather impressed me either themselves or in the characters they played on screen so I thought it might be time to look at some more candidates.

Roger Moore.

I’ve always liked the debonair Roger Moore. Many people think he was good as James Bond 007 but sorry Roger, I wasn’t impressed. His other famous character did impress me; Simon Templar alias the Saint. The Saint was based on the books by Leslie Charteris about an adventurer called Simon Templar. Templar seems to have no job but owns a smart London flat, drives a white Volvo with the registration plate ST1 and sets about helping damsels in distress and solving various crimes. The police, in particular Templar’s nemesis, Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard view Templar as a criminal and are determined to put him behind bars.

Moore had always wanted to film the Saint and in fact bought into the latter part of the series becoming a co producer. Most of the clothes worn in the series were Roger’s own clothes too showing how keen Roger was about the way he looked. Later, when the series ended, Moore co-starred with Tony Curtis in the Persuaders, another action series, although the Persuaders was filmed all over the world whilst the Saint, despite all the various locations portrayed in the series, was filmed almost entirely at Elstree studios in the UK.

One of the best elements of the series was the pre-title sequence where Moore turns to talk to the camera. In later episodes there is a voice over instead but someone usually recognises the famous Simon Templar. Cue an animated halo appearing over Roger’s head which he looks up at just before the title sequence begins.

Moore played James Bond in seven feature films. The last one was A View to a Kill in 1985. He died from cancer in 2017.

Ronald Colman

Colman was born in 1891 and became a well-known amateur actor in his native Surrey. He joined the army when the first world war began. He was seriously injured at the battle of Messines in 1914 and was invalided out. When his wartime wounds healed, he resumed his acting career and eventually graduated to films. In the USA he became a famous silent film star but it was not until the talkies began that he could use his best asset, his wonderful voice. According to Wikipedia, he mirrored the stereotypical English gentleman and he went on to great success in the golden age of Hollywood. He appeared in many famous films like The Prisoner of Zenda and two of my personal favourites, Lost Horizon and Random Harvest.

Colman died in 1958 aged 67.

Wilfrid Hyde-White

Hyde-White was born in 1903 and trained at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He once famously said that at RADA he learned two things; ’One, I couldn’t act and two, it didn’t matter.’

He became almost a fixture of many British films of the 1950’s and in fact his film credits are almost too numerous to mention. He appeared in some of my favourite films such as The Third Man, Last Holiday, The Browning Version, My Fair Lady and many others. In Hollywood he appeared with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love. In later life he also appeared in many US television series including two episodes of Columbo. Hyde-White was apparently in trouble with the inland revenue and was declared bankrupt in 1979. He died a few days prior to his 88th birthday and his body was flown back to the UK for burial.

Kenneth More

More epitomised the English officer gentleman in many films, most notably with his portrayal of Douglas Bader in the film Reach for the Sky. He played an officer aboard the Titanic in A Night to Remember and a naval officer in Sink The Bismark.

He was under contract to the Rank organisation but was dropped by Rank after swearing and heckling their managing director at a BAFTA award ceremony.

In later life he had further success on TV playing the part of Jolyon Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga and later the title role in Father Brown. He died in 1982.

Terry-Thomas

Thomas was a comedy actor who found fame in many British radio shows and films of the 50s and 60s. He typically played an upper-class rogue or bounder and his distinctive upper-class accent is fondly remembered by many, including me. According to Wikipedia in 1921 he began to develop his distinctive, well-spoken voice, thinking that “using good speech automatically suggested that you were well-educated and made people look up to you”. He apparently was impressed by Douglas Fairbanks so much so that he began to imitate Fairbanks’ debonair dress sense.

Thomas played a similar character in most of his films and was a great success in films like Carlton-Browne of the FO, I’m All Right Jack and School for Scoundrels. He appeared in a number of Hollywood films such as How to Murder Your Wife in which he played the genteel English butler to comic strip author Jack Lemmon. He is probably best remembered for his portrayal of the scheming rotter in Those Magnificent men in Their Flying Machines. Thomas died in sad circumstances in 1990 after suffering with Parkinson’s disease and spending most of his fortune on medical bills

C Aubrey Smith

C Aubrey Smith is perhaps an unfamiliar name on this list to anyone who is not a fan of classic films. Smith was born in 1848 and became a stage actor only after retiring from an early career as a cricketer. He appeared in some early British films but went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he carved out a career playing an English officer and gentleman. He was Colonel Zapt in the Prisoner of Zenda and played another colonel in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In Hollywood he was the acknowledged leader of the British contingent and in 1932 founded the Hollywood Cricket Club. Other film stars considered to be “members” of his select social group were David Niven, Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Leslie Howard.

Smith died in 1948 aged 85.

Hugh Grant

There are others I could possibly mention here, stars like Christopher Lee, Dirk Bogarde, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Price and Jack Hawkins but perhaps it’s time to look at some more modern actors. Hugh Grant has played the essential Englishman in a number of film roles starting with his part in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the 1994 British comedy written by Richard Curtis. Four Weddings is a direct successor to the Ealing comedies of the 1950s and 60s and Grant’s persona is in the same way, a successor to Ronald Colman, David Niven and many others of the same ilk.

I’ve always thought that Four Weddings was one of the best British comedy films ever, only marred by the constant use of the ‘f’ word. I was happy to hear that American audiences agreed with me and in the US version, the word ‘bugger’ was substituted.

Hugh Grant was born in 1960 and is still working in film and TV. He recently starred with Nicole Kidman in the TV mini series The Undoing.


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The Old, the New, Covid and 2022

My first post of 2022 was just a review of 2021 so this one is really my first proper 2022 post. I was due to be working on New Year’s Eve but that scourge of our modern times, Covid 19, stepped in and I had to call in sick.

Covid.

Both Liz and I had been suffering with bad colds and hers was getting worse with a bad headache and a loss of taste and smell. We did Covid tests and Liz was positive. My test was negative which was a surprise but then I haven’t had the headache or the loss of taste. I’m not sure when Liz was exposed to Covid, after all we haven’t been out much lately apart from some last minute shopping and a visit to quiz night at a local pub, the Lord Derby. Anyway, we were of course condemned to a minimum seven day lockdown so that meant no work on New Year’s Eve and no going out either.

We lit the fire, got the red wine on the hearth and settled down while we waited for our curry takeaway to be delivered.

The New.

Just lately I’ve been watching a whole lot of TV. Some of it new and some of it old. I mentioned a few weeks ago about watching And Just Like That, a new series of Sex and the City. Happily, it wasn’t on some subscription TV channel but on normal TV so I was able to watch it. I gave it another try the other day but I wasn’t impressed. Carrie had some hip surgery and Miranda got involved with a lesbian comedian. All pretty routine stuff for modern New Yorkers I suppose but it really wasn’t for me. Another new series was the latest four part JFK documentary by director Oliver Stone. I’ve been interested in the JFK assassination since I was a child and although I didn’t quite expect any new revelations in this new documentary series, I was surprised to find there were.

The so called magic bullet was given a severe bashing by various experts and so was the actual provenance of the bullet. The chain of evidence regarding the bullet was shown to be completely compromised as various new records released by the JFK Assassinations Records Review Board were shown to be either false or incorrect by the hard work of various investigators. The ARRB came into effect after the outcry from Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK and the documentary was fascinating but a little disjointed as instead of covering each issue in full, the films returned to the same subjects again in later episodes. Apart from that it was very convincing despite the poor review I read in the Guardian recently.

The Old.

There were the usual films shown over the Christmas period. Many films like Ghost for instance look pretty modern but it was technology that betrayed how old they were.

In Ghost banker Patrick Swayze was using one of those old computers with green text while Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the film You’ve Got Mail were still using dial up to get online and pick up their email messages. You’ve Got Mail was released in 1998 and Ghost in1990 making it 32 years old this year, would you believe it! Another film I saw that was also dated by technology was The Net with Sandra Bullock. The Net was a thriller about a computer programmer who gets involved in a conspiracy by a computer security company to mine and manipulate information. Made in 1995, dial up internet and green text were evident and there must have been many young people watching and wondering what exactly a floppy disc was.

Making Bread.

One thing that I really love and could never give up is bread. Yes, some may say it’s fattening and full of calories but it’s a food that has nurtured mankind for many centuries and anyone who tries to keep me away from a ham salad on granary is risking their life. When a bread shortage began to rear its ugly head here in Liz’s kitchen a state of panic began to mount. We were self-isolating so I couldn’t go to the shops, what could be done?

The obvious answer was to bring down my bread maker from the dusty shelf where it had lain for the past god knows how many years and to wipe it down and crank it up. I suppose I’ve had that bread maker for about twenty years. Once I got pretty interested in bread making. I had a few recipe books, I bought flour and yeast and started baking. I had a number of disasters along the way but eventually I managed to make some reasonable bread. Then, some new gadget caught my interest and the bread maker was left on the shelf. Why on earth did I stop making bread when I love it so much?

A quick search in the cupboard produced some flour and some packets of yeast and it was time to start up my bread maker once again. The thing is, making bread takes time. First the machine has to mix the ingredients then the mixture has to prove and rise. Then it gets another mix and finally the gizmo starts to bake. I waited patiently looking forward to warm fresh bread and then, many hours later when a huge rock hard inedible blob emerged I finally remembered why the bread maker had been lying on the shelf for so long.

More Old.

The Net was by no means a great film but Ghost was. I remember seeing it at the cinema back in the 1990s and it was one of those word-of-mouth films where the word was, this is a pretty good film, make sure you watch it. Patrick Swayze plays Sam Wheat, a banker who gets murdered. When his spirit is about to be pulled upward into the next world he looks back towards his girlfriend Demi Moore who is shattered and cradling his dead body and Sam realises it is not time for him to go yet. The ghostly Swayze later finds that his killer is stalking Demi. Frustrated and not knowing what to do, Sam wanders New York and finds a medium played by Whoopi Goldberg with whom he can communicate. Whoopi tells Demi about the stalker and Sam’s best friend Carl goes to find out what is happening. Sam is shocked to see that the murderer and stalker is actually acting on the orders of Carl. Maybe Ghost is a little too sentimental in parts but what the heck, I’ve always enjoyed it.

More New.

One new film (well new to me anyway) I did watch was The Time of Their Lives. It was a 2017 film starring Joan Collins and Pauline Collins. It was on in the background while I was tapping away on my laptop. I didn’t catch much of the beginning but Joan Collins is a faded movie star living in a home who decides to go to the funeral of her film director ex-lover in the hope of somehow breaking back into the film business. The funeral is in France and she somehow persuades Pauline Collins to go with her on the trip so it becomes a sort of French road trip. Over in France they meet an Italian artist played by Franco Nero, the one time spaghetti western star. Joan Collins is wonderful in the part of the former film star and I ended up putting my laptop down and giving the film my full attention. Very enjoyable it was too.

2022.

Most years I make the same New Year resolutions. They usually go something like this; finish my new book. Finish my latest screenplay. Write more poetry. Make better videos. This year I decided not to make any resolutions. I thought why not make 2022 a pressure free year? After all, I never make good on any of those resolutions anyway.

Have a great 2022 and by the way, did you make any resolutions?


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