Posts Tagged ‘epic’

The Avengers‘ slight tendency in its fifth year to occasionally resemble Adam West’s Batman – garish colour palette, knowingness, daftness – reaches possibly its apotheosis in Epic, written by Brian Clemens. This episode is very, very silly. At the same time, it is also extremely clever: unfortunately, the latter is less obvious than the former. It opens with faded silent film director Z. Z. von Schnurk (Kenneth J Warren, fourth of four appearances) auditioning an actor for the (non-speaking) role of Steed in his forthcoming production, alongside his cronies, ageing movie stars Stewart Kirby (Peter Wyngarde, second of two) and Danita Syn (Isa Miranda). He decides to test the man’s suitability to play Steed’s corpse, by putting a bullet in him. The man gasps as he crumples: ‘Ah-ah, remember: non-speaking,’ comes the admonition.

The plot, such as it is, concerns von Schnurk’s plan to make a comeback with a new film, the like of which has never been seen before: The Death of Emma Peel. To this end Emma is lured into a fake taxicab and gassed into oblivion. She awakes to find herself in a perfect replica of her own flat (another moment anticipating The Prisoner) – the reason the replica is so perfect, of course, is that the set for the set duplicating her flat is the same set as her flat (I hope you’re sticking with me on this). The camera pulls back to reveal the sound-stage on which the set has been built, and all the paraphernalia of film-making around it. The episode repeats the gag almost at once – earlier, we saw the street outside Mrs Peel’s house, and it too has been replicated as a set (the ‘real’ street and the set are, of course, the same one).

The rest of the episode never quite follows up on the notion of blurring the line between the ‘reality’ of the story and that of the movie Mrs Peel is unwittingly appearing in to the same extent, but it has its moments: von Schnurk comments on and deconstructs the story as it unfolds – ‘Now we must open the story out,’ he declares, following a series of scenes with Emma exploring the various sets in the film studio, and preceding a section shot on location. At one point the trio of miscreants sit back and watch some of the footage which is already in the can – and it has already had the familiar Avengers incidental music dubbed onto it. Steed himself makes his entry into the action by impersonating the man hired to be his double.

As you may have guessed, this looks rather like another episode made when Patrick Macnee had some holiday booked: it’s very much an Emma story except at the beginning and the end. Whether this or the fourth season’s The House That Jack Built pushes the format further is an interesting question, as they are both rather more surreal than the typical stories around them: quite apart from jokey pastiches of classic Hollywood genres, with Wyngarde and Miranda both playing multiple roles, there’s a fairly trippy sequence with Emma in a graveyard, surrounded by dozens of gravestones all bearing her name. In the end it all resolves through the usual slightly preposterous fistfight, though a point should probably be knocked off for the fact that Mrs Peel spends it tied to a conveyor belt, headed for a circular saw, leaving Steed to deal with von Schnurk. ‘Cut. Print,’ he whispers as he slumps to the floor. A very funny, very engaging episode, but I suspect it pushes The Avengers‘ non-naturalistic tendencies about as far as they will go.

The next episode, apart from its intro and tag scenes (which are surreal to the point of being jarringly odd), is much more down to earth. This is The Superlative Seven, also by Clemens, which features one of the series’ most impressive casts – though this hardly disguises the fact it’s another semi-remake of a third series episode, Dressed to Kill, with some Agatha Christie added to the mix.

Oddly-accented hippie psycho Jessel (Donald Sutherland) is trying to get a representative of a foreign power (John Hollis, whose face you may know if not his name – third of four, either way) to invest in his patented turn-people-into-superhuman-killers programme. His potential sponsor insists on a series of tests…

Which results in Steed being invited to a fancy dress party, to be held on a plane. Mrs Peel wonders if he shouldn’t be investigating a string of killings where the victims were all boxers or wrestlers (we are invited to assume this is the result of Jessel testing his assassins), but Steed goes to the party anyway, in a rather magnificent uniform and hat.

There he finds the other guests: a gunfighter (Charlotte Rampling), a martial arts expert (Brian Blessed, second of two appearances), a swordsman, a big game hunter, a matador and the world’s strongest man (who’s unconvincingly camp). The plane takes off, they inevitably realise they’ve all been lured here for their special personal skills, and thus the plot proper is launched.

They end up on Jessel’s private island (largely a studio set) where the story threatens to turn into Ten Little Indians – one of the seven guests is a product of Jessel’s training system, and has been tasked with killing off the other six. It’s a decent set-up, though hardly spanking new even back in 1967, but the episode has taken so long to get to this point that the actual cat-and-mouse stuff with the characters wondering who the killer is, while being picked off one by one, is really rushed through.

In the end the casting helps it work, more than making up for the absence (mostly) of Diana Rigg, whose turn it is to be on holiday this week. The episode seems to acknowledge the fact that the casting director has played a blinder by making the climactic sequence a confrontation between Sutherland and Rampling, while the regulars literally stand around in the background.

It is a little odd to meet an episode like this one now and then, where it is pertinent to the plot that Steed and Emma, for all their bon viveuring and badinage, are apparently capable of taking on trained assassins in hand-to-hand combat and winning without breaking a sweat, but so it goes. Much more straightforward (and ‘straight’) than Epic, but perhaps not quite as entertaining.

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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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