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Posts Tagged ‘John Gielgud’

‘Life… is full of surprises,’ declaims the sideshow owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) as part of his spiel, near the beginning of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s a darkly funny, knowing moment, very much of a piece with the strange conspiracy that the movie enters into. The whole point of the film is that the title character is a hideously deformed man, from whose presence ladies and those of a nervous disposition flee, distraught. This is what it’s about, and that’s a rather high-stakes proposition for a film to be based around.

Because, initially at least, the film is in the same position as the sideshow barker, promising to show us something truly exceptional in return for a few pennies, while we are in the same position as the people queuing up in the film, wondering if it can really be as bad as all that. Quite properly, we have to pay to get in (or we would have done, back in 1980): while the title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), does appear on the poster, he has a bag over his head that merely suggests the extremity of his condition.

I think this is essential to understanding The Elephant Man as a film. It opens with a dream sequence in which Merrick’s mother (Phoebe Nicholls or Lydia Lisle, depending on whether she’s a photo or live action) is mugged by a herd of elephants. This is about as stylish and weird as one would expect from a Lynch movie, and – along with Freddie Francis’ luminous black and white cinematography – it goes a long way to establishing the fairy tale ambience which permeates much of the movie.

Following this, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious young surgeon Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, not quite a bright young thing, but not the substantial figure he has since become, either), who is prowling the backstreets of London, seemingly in search of Bytes’ show. When the police shut Bytes down and move him on, on the grounds that the Elephant Man is an affront to public decency, Treves pays one of your actual Victorian urchins to track the show down again. Eventually he manages to arrange a private viewing for himself – but one to which the viewer is not privy, as the camera cuts away to Treves’ dumbstruck, wide-eyed face: tears run from his eyes at the mere sight of Merrick.

It’s a neat way of communicating the extent of Merrick’s condition while still preserving the mystery of what he looks like, but you do get a sense of the film milking it a bit:  Treves arranges to display Merrick to his colleagues, and we are still not allowed a good look at him; even after he is severely beaten by Bytes and is taken to Treves’ hospital for treatment, we are still waiting for the money shot. And then a young nurse (Lesley Dunlop) is required to go up to Merrick’s top-floor room, alone, and take him his dinner…

It plays out, in short, like a horror or monster movie: you can’t show the beast too early, there is a certain grammar and pacing involved that you ignore at your peril. And while The Elephant Man handles this convention as well as one would expect, given Lynch’s facility with genre movie tropes, it is strikingly at odds with the tone that the rest of the film works hard to achieve.

Central to the film, from this point on at least, is the idea that beneath the truly horrible deformities, Merrick is a gentle, decent, almost saintly man, infinitely more sinned against than sinning. Virtually everyone who meets him is moved to tears by just what a nice guy he is. Who is the real monster here? is the somewhat trite question the film is asking, although there is also a slightly sharper subplot about whether Treves is truly any less of an exploiter of Merrick than Bytes was.

I mean, this is a very good looking film with fine performances from an array of terrific English actors: apart from Hopkins, Hurt and Jones, it features John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Anne Bancroft. (There are a couple of oddities in the cast list, too: Dexter Fletcher, who these days is a rather successful director of bio-pics himself, appears as an urchin, while in a small role is the actor Frederick Treves, the great-nephew of the character Hopkins is actually playing.) As noted, it looks good, too. But I do find it to be terribly sentimental and manipulative, especially considering the abrupt switch from the horror mode it executes.

And it’s not just sentimental, it’s a bit slow, too – or at least, there’s not much of a plot to the film, once Merrick is installed in the hospital. In order to provide anything approaching a conventional dramatic structure, they have to contrive a subplot where Bytes reappears and drags Merrick off to Belgium, from where he has to escape and make his way back to London. From here we are off into a particularly sickly-sweet climax, accompanied by soaring classical music and the quoting of poetry.

As a piece of entertainment I suppose it passes the time very decently, the first time or two at least, but the more you become familiar with the reality of this story, the more questionable much of this film becomes: it’s largely based on Treves’ book about Merrick. The two men were supposedly close friends, but the weird thing is that Treves got Merrick’s name wrong: in reality his first name was Joseph, not John. And yet John Merrick is the name by which Merrick is now widely known. The rest of the film is up to the same standard of biographical fidelity, omitting all kinds of facts that don’t suit the film’s simplistic thesis. Merrick was not born deformed – his condition grew progressively worse throughout his life (exactly what his condition was remains a contentious issue). Perhaps most importantly, it’s not as if he was effectively sold into slavery, as the film suggests – joining the sideshow was Merrick’s own idea.

Well, as we have had cause to note in the past, it’s not at all unusual for historically-based movies to take the odd liberties in the interests of a good story. The question here is whether the story is good enough to justify departing quite so radically from the facts. For all the skill which has gone into the making of The Elephant Man, I’m not sure it is – as noted, it is trite and simplistic, and the keenness with which it adopts horror movie tropes in its opening act makes one really doubt its sincerity, too. An interesting movie, and worth seeing for the cinematography and acting, but not as substantial as its reputation would suggest.

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I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don’t turn up on TV a lot. There’s a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed ‘so bad it’s good’ type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn’t as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott’s 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.

I think I must have read James Hilton’s hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it’s the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I’m most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there’s gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway’s own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…

(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they’re not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said ‘Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.’ Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)

Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).

Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?

Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that’s very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn’t really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can’t imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.

What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I’m not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that’s basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It’s a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can’t sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can’t dance worth a damn, either: the film’s big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.

As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of ‘The World is a Circle’ or ‘Question Me an Answer’ and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best not to watch Lost Horizon without a defibrillator on standby.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don’t really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn’t feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.

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