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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Sellers’

My taste in movies is broader than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean I expect all of them to be good. I find it is important to bear in mind that, no matter how talented or discriminating someone is, the chances are they have participated in at least one piece of complete garbage in the course of their careers: successful movie actors just have a much higher hit rate than most. I am reminded of something Michael Caine said, about how one needed to make sure only one film in five was a genuine stinker – Caine’s legendary willingness to appear in virtually anything may have constituted an attempt to stack the odds in his favour.

Much as I have attempted to impress this principle on others, it has not always taken. It would have been in the late summer of 2005 that my father approached me and enquired if I would be recording a showing of Joe McGrath’s 1969 film The Magic Christian, due on TV that evening. I had not planned to; reviews in the TV listings were unenthusiastic and it didn’t look like my kind of thing, let alone his. Nevertheless, he asked if I would tape it for him. I agreed, but asked why: ‘it’s got lots of good people in it,’ was his response. This I cannot argue with: the film’s most distinguishing feature is an astonishing cast list, starting with Peter Sellers and going on to include Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Hattie Jacques, John le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, along with many other well-known faces, some of them playing themselves. That the film does not seem to recognise the value of its assets, and fritters them away rather, is thematically appropriate but still bad film-making.

(NB: staring at the poster for three minutes will mean you probably have a longer exposure to Raquel Welch than her entire actual screen-time in the movie. Caveat emptor.)

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, who at the start of the film decides to make up for his childless state by adopting an heir: he chooses a tramp from one of London’s parks, played by Ringo Starr (there have been suggestions the part was actually written for John Lennon, and you can imagine him in it). The duo set out to perpetrate a series of insanely lavish practical jokes puncturing the pomposity of the society they see around them and exposing the venality of the great and the good. As Sellers’ character puts it at one point, ‘Grand’s the name, money’s my game – would you like to play?’

What follows is an almost entirely plotless series of skits and sketches, most of which concern the Grands bribing people to sabotage various aspects of mainstream society. They pay the actor Laurence Harvey to do a striptease in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, pay one of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams to ram their opponents and wreck the contest, get someone to enter a black panther (farcically disguised as a dog) at Crufts, and so on. Eventually the Grands set out on a cruise to New York on the liner The Magic Christian, where all manner of strange events start to occur – but is all as it seems? (Hint: no it isn’t, but by this point you will have stopped caring anyway.)

Apart from Sellers and Starr, most of those big names in the cast list turn up for only one or two scenes, and it is a general rule of thumb that the less time they have on screen, the better they come across, as the script for this movie is so slapdash and lousy that hardly any of them can do much with this material. I suppose this excuses most of them, with the possible exception of John Cleese and Graham Chapman: they wrote an earlier version of the script (later replaced by one written by McGrath and Terry Southern, author of the source novel), but the only scenes from this which survived are the ones they appear in – so in a very real sense they are the authors of their own misfortunes here. (This clearly left its mark on Cleese and Chapman: an episode of Monty Python made a couple of years later features an insane, incompetent Scottish film director, and the stage directions in the script drily make clear that he ‘in no way resembles J. McGrath.’)

Some of the more lavishly silly sequences in The Magic Christian do kind of anticipate Python at its most absurd – there’s a bit where Grand goes partridge hunting using an ack-ack gun and a flame-thrower – but the film has a kind of laboriousness about it that takes away most of the fun; much of the humour also comes across as rather problematic, too (many jokes seem racist, sexist, or homophobic).

This is because it seems to be battering away at a supposedly subversive message about how money-obsessed the great and the good of society are. (This is possibly not the most dazzlingly original insight in the annals of British satire.) One has to remember the film was made at the end of the 1960s and does embody, awkwardly, something of the hippy ideal of not being materialist or acquisitive. However, if this film was a person, it would be Sid James dragged up as a hippy at the end of Carry On Camping – the costume is just about right, and he’s saying some of the right words, but it is plainly a disguise and a deeply unconvincing one. It feels more like a hippy exploitation film than a genuine attempt to make a satire embodying the philosophy of the counter-culture – even if it is, it is hopelessly naive and unsubtle.

There is the odd mildly amusing moment scattered through the film – the scene where Roman Polanski encounters a rather unexpected cabaret singer is perhaps the closest it gets to being laugh-out-loud funny – and I suppose Peter Sellers deserves some kind of credit for delivering a solid comic performance that does as much as anything to hold the film together. But even so, this is one sixties artefact which has not aged well, mainly because it was never any good at the time. Paul Merton once went on TV to defend The Magic Christian, suggesting it has a reputation as a bad movie because it has been smeared by various establishment film critics offended by its all-purpose irreverence. Paul, I hate to contradict you, but I have to disagree: The Magic Christian‘s reputation as a bad movie stems mainly from the fact it is a bad movie.

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table.¬†almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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