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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Duvall’

We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasence) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasence’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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For a nation which supposedly possesses a classless society, the United States of America often does a good job of looking otherwise. There may not be the delineation of society into a stratified series of groups, defined by their economic and educational status, but one frequently gets a definite sense of certain institutions and regions looking down on others – for a relatively young nation, the States often seem to have a definite mad on for age and tradition.

This occurred to me while watching Sidney Lumet’s celebrated 1976 movie Network, which is an example of one medium commenting on the values and workings of another – not entirely unlike The Post, currently enjoying its own moment of acclaim. However, where The Post is a paean to noble journalism, Network is a scabrous satire – but nonetheless astonishingly prescient for all of that.

The key character is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a long-serving news broadcaster whose ratings have fallen to the point where he is fired by the network (a deadpan opening monologue recounts the high and low points of Beale’s life, all framed in terms of his TV ratings). Approaching old age, and with his marriage a casualty of his career, Beale feels he has nothing to live for and announces live on air that in a week’s time he will commit suicide on television. Naturally, the producers terminate the broadcast and see that Beale receives support.

Network bosses, amongst them Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), are initially minded to fire Beale on the spot, but when a second live appearance – supposedly an apology, which turns into another scatological rant – draws big viewing figures, they reconsider. Plans have been afoot to downsize the news division of the network, simply because it runs at a considerable loss, but rising young programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees an opportunity here to give the news a bit more glamour and entertainment value, to the horrified disbelief of traditional news editor Max Schumacher (William Holden).

Despite showing every signs of being in the midst of some kind of psychiatric breakdown, Beale is given his own show where he vents his spleen about the modern world. His repeated cries of ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ connect with an audience for whom the oil crisis, Vietnam, and Watergate (to name but three) are still a recent memory, and he becomes a kind of folk hero as ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’. The network executives are delighted, but do they fully understand the forces they have unleashed?

Almost no-one gets everything right when they try to predict the future, but in criticising what he saw as the state of television at the time, Paddy Chayefsky managed to be almost eerily accurate in suggesting the way that TV news in particular would develop over the following years. There’s a general point about ratings-hungry TV executives being totally bereft of any kind of moral compass or principle, happy to put on anything that gets a good score – ‘gutter depravity,’ in Schumacher’s words – but also some more specific things. The movie predicts the rise of reality TV – one subplot concerns an attempt to mount a TV series, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, based on the doings of a far-left terrorist group, with members of the group involved in the production – and there is, of course, the film’s depiction of how a possibly-unhinged rabble-rousing populist TV star achieves remarkable power and influence in the nation. No one actually mentions ‘fake news’, but you would not be surprised if they did.

The film starts off looking like a sardonic comedy-drama, and it’s only as it progresses that its wilder elements begin to appear, so gradually that they initially seem like throwaway jokes. Many of its biggest laughs come from its most outrageous moments – there’s a scene where the network lawyers sit down with members of the Communist terror group to work out the contract for the new show, and a snarling revolutionary insists on getting her share of the residual fees, while by the end of the film, the network executives are casually and calmly conspiring to organise an assassination in order to solve their ratings problems.

Despite all this, the characters remain well-drawn and well-performed – the film never quite loses sight of the nature of Schumacher’s affair with Christensen, or the effect it has on his wife. Perhaps this is one reason why the film won three of the big four acting Oscars – Finch’s bravura performance in particular obviously deserved recognition, but I must confess to being a little surprised that Beatrice Straight (playing Holden’s wife) won Best Supporting Actress for a performance where she’s barely on screen for five minutes. The cast is strong throughout; this is yet another film featuring a minor appearance by a (fairly) young Lance Henriksen, who sometimes seems to have been hanging around the set of every noteworthy film of the 70s.

On the other hand, writer Chayefsky sometimes seems to have been as fond of a rant as Howard Beale, and in the closing stages of the film it sometimes feels like everyone gets a chance to deliver an impassioned and largely uninterrupted monologue about their personal beliefs. Beale rants about the death of democracy, the network owner speechifies about the deep truths of market economics, Schumacher rails against the moral vacuum at the heart of the TV medium…

Is it true to say that when Hollywood makes a film about newspapers, it generally depicts the men and women who work on them as generally upstanding and heroic figures, but when it does one about TV, it is much less inclined to be complimentary? It certainly feels that way. Perhaps it is just the case of cinema looking up to an elder medium (print) and looking down on a younger one (the tyranny of the cathode ray tube). You can argue about whether that’s entirely justified or not, but the fact remains that Network is an entertaining and well-argued polemic that history has proven to be on the money about many of its claims.

 

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You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 25th 2004:

[Originally following a review of Touching the Void.]

From one film with a cold mountain in it, to another which is a bit like Cold Mountain. You can tell a lot about a film from the audience it attracts – Touching The Void had a lot of rough-hewn, imposing types in waxy jackets in the theatre, clearly people more used to abseiling down the Cairngorms than checking out Affleck’s latest. And the audience for Kevin Costner’s Open Range had a lot of older people in it, people who I suspect only normally go to the multiplex on senior citizen’s afternoon (free tea and biscuits).

The only reason I can think for Open Range‘s appeal to the elder generation is simply that it’s a Western – The Genre That Refuses To Die. It’s a fairly old-fashioned Western, too, a bit of a throwback to the genre’s pre-Kurosawa-and-Leone heyday, when the films were about more than just cynicism and death.

This is the story of Boss (Robert Duvall) and Charlie (Costner himself), two itinerant cowboys who wander those rolling prairies driving their livestock wherever they choose, assisted by a couple of sidekicks who you just know are in for a rough time. And so it proves, as a chance sortie into the nearest town lands one of the sidekicks in jail and draws our heroes to the attention of evil Oirish cattle-baron Baxter (Michael Gambon, who’s actually not in the film very much at all). It’s soon obvious that Baxter wants to put Boss and Charlie permanently out of business – but being the kind of men they are, he’s going to have a fight on his hands…

This is a very Kevin Costner kind of film in all sorts of ways. For one thing, the Western is a genre he’s returned to over and over again thoughout his career, and for another – well, put it this way, I’m prepared to bet that no-one’s ever come out of a Costner-directed movie and said ‘You know, that was pretty good, but it was too short’. Open Range has an extremely thin story to sustain a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie, especially considering there’s very little action, but Costner pulls it off rather impressively.

This he manages to do by concentrating on character and mood, with rather enjoyable results. Admittedly the only beneficiaries of this are Boss, Charlie, and Sue (Annette Bening), a townswoman they befriend – Gambon and his lackeys remain cardboard cutouts – but the two men at least are in every scene, making it a worthwhile concentration. The film treats them rather equivocally – they’re not above pistol-whipping, back-shooting and glassing anyone who gets in their way, but on the other hand when their dog gets shot they are both nearly reduced to tears (an unintended moment of bathos). To be honest, they’re both examples of the kind of idealised rugged individualist that NRA members across the midwest have posters of pinned to their fallout-shelter walls, and as such should be at least alarming and at worst openly offensive to anyone else. But Duvall and Costner are both quietly charismatic performers and raise the characters well beyond the level of stereotype.

It’s clear that Costner laments the loss of the Western as a mainstay of Hollywood cinema, and Open Range does its best to remind the audience of what it’s missing – the broad canvas, the elegantly simple morality, the iconography and the imagery. The film looks beautiful, but unfortunately it’s such an archetypal story that it comes across as rather old-fashioned. There’s a Josey Wales-ish subplot about Charlie trying to come to terms with his past as a killer, and the bizarre accent of one of the cattlehands may be a stab at historical realism (either that or a homage to Horst Bucholz’s German-accented Mexican in The Magnificent Seven) but apart from that this could have been made in 1954. The action is quite well staged and not nastily graphic, but like everything else it does drag on a little bit longer than it needs to.

In the end how much you’ll like Open Range probably depends on how much you like old-school pre-Eastwood Westerns. It’s a film about manhood, and friendship, and sticking to your principles and doing the right thing by those around you. It should be incredibly hokey and embarrassing, and it is a bit, but performances, direction, and cinematography combine to make it very satisfyingly reminiscent of the cinema of a less cynical age. I liked it a lot.

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