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Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:¬† to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’ ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.

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Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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Watching Japanese tokusatsu movies, you almost instantly get a sense that these are films made in accordance with a very different cultural and artistic sensibility: non-naturalistic, stylised, more concerned with visual appearance than absolute realism. You see a few of these films and decide you’ve managed to get your head around this – you watch Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and start to relax, feeling you’ve got the basics down. This may not in fact be the case – sure, you may have become acclimatised to the Godzilla series, but this is a distinct set of films with its own tropes and conventions; it is not the beginning and end of wacky Japanese genre cinema.

Which brings us to a film like Dogora (aka Dagora the Space Monster and Giant Space Monster Dogora), directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda, of course, is synonymous with the Godzilla series, and the rest of Toho’s A-team is also in the building for this film: it is produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the script is by Shinichi Sekizawa, the music is by Akira Ifukube, and the special effects are by Eiji Tsuburaya. The crew were being worked pretty hard in 1964, starting the year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, moving on to this film, and concluding with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. It is startling to consider that the period when these films were basically being made on a production line also marks the time of some of Toho’s greatest successes in the genre.

Should we include Dogora in this group, though? Well, the most obvious thing about it is that there is a distinct whiff of Hamlet without the prince going on here, in that it looks and sounds almost exactly like a Godzilla movie, even including many of the same repertory cast members, but there is never even a glimpse of a man in a suit. This is the first way in which the film marks out its own rather peculiar territory.

Events get underway at the ‘Electric Wave Laboratory’, where scientists are overseeing orbital satellites. But then the instruments begin to register strange blobby shapes in the path of one of the satellites. Cue credits and a slow zoom from orbit down into urban Tokyo. Are we about to see some more scientists? Or perhaps a tenacious reporter?

No, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this film with a gang of very unconvincing jewel thieves, some of whom have highly eccentric wardrobe preferences (one guy spends the whole film in a white suit with a black bowler hat). We find the gangsters attempting to break into a bank vault while the female member of their gang keeps watch outside in the car. She is played by Akiko Wakabayashi, best known to western audiences for her role in You Only Live Twice, and as breathtakingly beautiful in this film as usual. No wonder the local cops are so easily fobbed off. But then something else grabs their attention – a drunken salariman floats past, with no visible means of support. Shortly afterwards, the gangsters around the vault also find themselves having seemingly gravity-related issues and drifting off the floor.

In the midst of all this chaos some diamonds disappear from the bank, part of a string of diamond robberies taking place around the world. On the case is Inspector Komai (Yasuke Natsuki), who in addition to chasing the gangsters finds his time also taken up talking to expert crystallographer Dr Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and chasing around after Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), a foreign diamond broker who also seems to be mixed up in all this. There is a lot of chasing about between the cops and robbers, to be honest, including a fair number of double-crosses and various characters not proving to be whom they initially claimed.

Meanwhile, other weird events continue, most of them concerning unlikely objects being drawn up into the sky: coal-heaps, trucks, factory chimneys, and so on, all to the bemusement of whatever cops or scientists happen to be in the vicinity at the time. Someone eventually has a brainwave and figures out the connection: all of this mysterious levitation is somehow connected to carbon – coal and diamonds, most obviously, but also other things associated with them. Komai comes up with his own theory as to why all this is going on – ‘I’m not one to jump to conclusions,’ he says, ‘but I think a giant space monster could be responsible for this.’

Naturally, this being a tokusatsu movie, he is correct, and soon enough Dogora itself materialises in the skies over Japan, pseudopods trailing menacingly downwards as it guzzles all the carbon in sight. Apparent it is the result of floating space cells being exposed to radioactivity (just for a change). Cue the usual scenes of the JSDF opening up with their full arsenal at the monster and it having no effect whatsoever, while scientists and their other associates stand around looking concerned.

Now, the danger when writing about Dogora is that you focus too much on all the stuff with the giant floating monster and the wacky pseudo-science, as this is the most immediately striking and outlandish element of the film. You would expect Honda and his team to do the same thing, after all. But no. The really weird thing about Dogora is the way in which all the material about the monster is essentially shuffled into the background while the film maintains a firm focus on the frantic convolutions of the cops and robbers plot about the Japanese police and the gang of diamond thieves. It is almost as if the creative team of the movie were determined to do their thriller runaround and only included the scenes with the levitation and the tentacles under duress.

It can’t really have been this way, though, for if nothing else the effects show no trace of being the work of people who don’t really care about their craft – the special effects in Dogora are amongst the best of any Toho film from the 1960s. Now, the fact the film doesn’t include any suitamation probably helps, as far as a modern audience is concerned, but the model-work, cel animation and optical effects are all excellent, even when the subject matter is as weird as it often gets here.

It certainly helps to keep the film engaging even when the plotting with the gangsters and cops becomes a bit, well, corny (perhaps I should say ‘even more corny’). But Shinichi Sekizawa’s script deploys his usual cheerful inventiveness and wit, which helps here too. That said, by the time of the climax everyone involved seems to be off their medication – the scientists cook up a plan to petrify or crystallise Dogora using wasp venom fired from tanks (no-one seems to have thought that petrifying a giant monster while it’s floating over your country might just lead to some collateral damage), while the cops and robbers have a gunfight that turns into a dynamite-throwing contest. Just another day in Japan, I guess.

Dogora is such a weird movie that it’s actually quite hard to compare it to anything else – the reliable monster-rasslin’ pleasures of the Godzilla series are not quite there – but it’s colourful and good-natured and knows not to out-stay its welcome. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like oddball Japanese movies, oddball sci-fi, and weird stuff in general it’s a fairly safe bet for an entertaining hour and a half.

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I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas¬† and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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