Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/ Adventure - Blake Lucas ""

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Underrated Action/ Adventure - Blake Lucas

Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. Some of his writing on cinema may be found in the anthologies The Western ReaderThe Film Comedy Reader and The Science Fiction Film Reader, in Defining Moments in Movies (The Little Black Book: Movies in U.K. and Australia), and in The Film Journal and Undercurrent online, as well as in over 100 individual essays on films, filmmakers, film history and film theory in Magill's Survey of Cinema (English-Language, Silent and Foreign Language) and Magill's Cinema Annuals, and in a monograph on John Ford translated into French (“Vers le nouveau monde”) for a 1995 retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival. Formerly a regular film critic for the LA Reader before that weekly closed.

He will be heard in audio commentary with director Monte Hellman and fellow film historian Bill Krohn on the upcoming Criterion release of the 1966 Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND.
In thinking of action/adventure movies that are not underrated and also very much deserve their popularity, my mind first goes to some movies of the 1960s that remain deeply loved, not only by their original audiences but also those who came to them later.  The supreme example is THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), sustained for a length of almost three hours, and another great example is ZULU (1964); these movies are plenty exciting but what makes them more so is that plenty of time is given to a strong narrative buildup that gets the viewer deeply invested in the characters (the dream ensemble cast of ESCAPE is again an ideal example of how and why this works) so that when the action finally comes, it is so much more absorbing—the final hour of ESCAPE, with director John Sturgescrosscutting among the various escapees with an almost musical rhythmic sense, is, in terms of energy and drive, representative of something profound in what movies are all about.  Later action/adventure movies can have this too, even if a modernist touch makes them somewhat more abstract—so, for example, SORCERER (1977, and a movie which may have deserved to be cited as underrated here at the time of its immediate release and in its first years afterward) has now come into its own as the classic it always deserved to be; here, too, like Sturges and like CyEndfield in ZULU, William Friedkin, who always rightly judged this his best film, was not afraid to take a little time with separate introductions in different parts of the world for the main characters and to set a tone with just a touch of thoughtfulness to what this story is all about, so that the main action when it comes is not only visceral but morepowerful for the internal drama behind it.   It is for this reason, mindful that so many contemporary action/adventure movies have redefined the genre as completely testosterone-driven—with spectacular bursts of action right away (and a high body count usually going with this), and that this seems to have been (understandably perhaps) the main emphasis in the choices on most of the other lists, that I found myself going back to five movies a touch more on the reflective side, and more romantic as well, in the way these kinds of movies so often used to be.

THE EXILE (1947; Max Ophuls) - A project nurtured by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who both wrote the screenplay and produced, as well as starring as exiled English king Charles Stuart, this was the first of four great American movies byOphuls (always billed in his American films as “Opuls”) after five years waiting to catch a break.  It remains the least known of the four and that’s to be regretted because this is as elegant, satisfying and beautifully made a costume adventure as there is.  The younger Fairbanks is perhaps still in the shadow of his famous father but for me was no less talented an actor; he had charm and presence and could hold his own in swashbuckling--evident in his famous role in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and in other movies too, of which this one, which brings out his sensitive side as well as his ease with physical action, is one of those in which he is most endearing.  Ophuls, along with his mastery of staging in long takes and elaborate camera movement, was most of all a tender romantic though one beyond sentimentality, and that shows here in the affecting love story between Fairbanks and Paule Croset, but he is also just fine with the action scenes—and the final duel between Fairbanks and Henry Daniell in a Dutch windmill is one of the great moments of screen swordplay ever.  All this, and a swooningly beautiful score by Frank Skinner too.

WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948; Edward Ludwig) – As this blend of maritime adventure and South Seas melodrama begins, Captain Ralls (John Wayne) is a forbidding protagonist but the beautifully interwoven backstory later revealed in flashback deepens the story with a touch of tragedy as relationships with his love (Gail Russell) and enemy (Luther Adler) are brought into an eventful present and come to a haunting end.  Wayne had just started producing at the time and though not officially one of his productions, this was plainly his project, reuniting him with the fragile, beautiful Russell after ANGEL AND THE BADMAN and giving him the kind of darker, more complex hero that he sometimes liked to play and always did with the same consummate gifts evident in more characteristic roles.  I first saw this movie when I was pretty young, and was surprised by it.  Movies being what they are, it is actually more worthy of Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS than any of the movies based on that novel and even could be argued to have a touch of Conrad in the way its narrative so richly and unexpectedly plays out.  And yet, it is also happy to be a matinee picture, with the kinds of scenes, incidents and ambiance one expects in these exotic dreamscapes.  It has kept its hold on me, and I don’t know of a finer example of what I would call “Republic poetry.”  Talk about the last laugh--that once humble, little respected if not openly derided studio shows us something about cinema that seems more beautiful and true with every passing year.

THE PURPLE PLAIN (1954; Robert Parrish) – Set in Burma late in World War II (and given this, unexpectedly filmed in rich Technicolor hues), this initially meditative and then compellingly physical drama focuses on a pilot (Gregory Peck) who takes every mission, courting his own death after the sudden, traumatic loss earlier in the war of his bride.  After meeting and spending time with a beautiful young Burmese woman (Win Min Than), something positive is awakened in him, but it is then that he is directly confronted with his death wish when his plane crashes in perilous terrain far from home and he and two comrades, one wounded and the other losing his mental balance, must try to survive and make their way back.  A simple story, elegantly scripted by Eric Ambler, it presents Peck in the kind of role he did best—an apparently strong and confident man beset by deep inner conflict—the kind of role he generally played for his best and most frequent director, Henry King, and he is no less superb here under the direction of the still underrated Robert Parrish.  The movie shares with Parrish’s other masterpiece THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (1959) a protagonist emerging from a spiritual crisis within an eventful journey and deciding what he wants his life, if it goes on, to be in renewal.  The American Parrish is a director who never really found a home, taking assignments as they came wherever they came (this is properly a British film), but in so many ways, the themes and his treatment of them in these two works recur in so many others of his as well, and to moving effect.

MOONFLEET (1955; Fritz Lang) – One of the supreme masters of cinema, Lang could find his personal voice in any genre but his body of work--from his earliest German films to his American ones and then the final German ones-- has three main lines: the crime film, linked later to his anti-Nazi thrillers and postwar film noir; more intimate melodramas of passion, in which some crime would often play in; and finally, his most imaginative world, which could take in matinee adventure as well as the loftiest realms of mythology in DIE NIBELUNGEN.  These lines resonate against each other with many affinities at once aesthetic and thematic, and it would be a mistake to find the last (which includes his Westerns as well as MOONFLEET), somehow more escapist and less profoundly expressive of him than the others.  The eighteenth century English coast on which MOONFLEET is set is perceived through the eyes of a boy (Jon Whiteley)—one of several things which does mark it off in a significant way among Lang movies, as the adult world and the complexity of its moralities, terrors and romance areexperienced somewhat differently here, at once more distanced but also, paradoxically, intensely emotional, and with this comes fresh vision of Lang’s evolved philosophical perspective about fate and character.  At the heart of a story filled with hidden places and false appearances and in which the man to whom the boy’s dead mother sends him as guardian (Stewart Granger) enjoys a reputation of respectability but is also a smuggler, it is the unexpected way the relationship of boy and man finally plays out that makes this one of the most supremely affecting of all costume adventures.  Its also one of the most effectively individual in its imaginative sets and color scheme, has one of the most sweeping and gorgeous scores of Miklos Rozsa, and benefits from a complex characterization given to the charismatic Granger, the 1950s star who could best play every mood of period romance with equal measures of flair and conviction.

THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976; Valerio Zurlini)  The last and greatest of eight features by Zurlini--one of the most brilliant Italian directors even if still little seen and appreciated—adapts a famous novel by Dino Buzzati set almost entirely at a remote outpost, the imagined FortBastiani on the edge of a mysterious, forbidding frontier, where soldiers spend days, years, lives waiting for a never-seen enemy, the fearsome Tartars, to come out of their eponymous desert.  At the center is Drogo (Jacques Perrin), who comes there as a young man along with fellow lieutenant Simeon (Helmut Griem), and around them the other characters who weave through the narrative are played by an impressive who’s who of modern European cinema (Vittorio Gassman, Philippe NoiretGiulianoGemma, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Laurent Terzieff, Jean-Louis TrintignantMax Von Sydow).  Although it may seem at times the men are giving their lives to what may be only an abstraction of danger, almost a kind of nothingness, their grappling with fear and honor, and the tangible realities of illness and death, make for a narrative that, however long and deliberate in its pace, is never less than thoroughly taut, tense and compelling.

The five films I have chosen are all ones I have loved since first viewing, but none more than this one—though it was of course much later that I first encountered it—and it is my main motivation for wanting to contribute here.  Because I believe that IL DESERTO DEI TARTARI is not simply an underrated action/adventure movie but the apotheosis ofaction/adventure movies.  How much action does it have?  The answer may be surprising, but without revealing how it ends, I will say of how that ending actually plays that it isas thrilling and heart pounding as I have experienced in all my years of movie going.  And if, unlike my other four choices—all falling firmly into classicism for all their individual character—this is a thoroughly modernist work, it is no less elegant a genre piece, stylizing its imposing locations, rich colors and striking sounds with the same passion with which it pursues concerns that are not only existential but arguably metaphysical.  If the modern cinema sometimes lets down those of us who love classical cinema, so often it is simply because there was a road not taken.  This time, gloriously, it was.  


Jerry E said...

A fine choice of films here, Blake. I always love reading the depth and eloquence of your writing and am drawn in, as always, by your sheer enthusiasm and love of film.

I read Faulkner's novel "MOONFLEET" in my teens and loved it. The film has a more romantic touch, which is only to be expected, but I love it too. I am so pleased to see your own appreciation of the under-rated Stewart Granger, not least by himself.

Over all my years of watching films, and I have been recording what I see for the past 50 years, I do not appear to have ever seen "THE EXILE". Your review makes this a "must" to obtain somehow. I have seen Henry Daniell's fine swordplay at work elsewhere, in the wonderful "THE SEA HAWK" most likely.

An inspired list of films.

Anonymous said...

A list that's rather typical of you, Blake. There are the picks that had me nodding and thinking how I half expected them, the Lang and Parrish titles, and then the couple from left field - The Exile and The Desert of the Tartars. The latter two are new to me and I hope to see them one day.
Ophuls was a very classy director - I love his two noir pictures, The Reckless Moment and Caught - and I too have enjoyed Fairbanks Jr in those films of his I've seen.


john k said...

A year or so ago while in London I saw a private screening
of THE EXILE projected onto a friend's living room wall.
I had never heard of the film and he gave the audience
that night the choice of THE EXILE or Allan Dwan's SUEZ.
Myself,and the entire audience really enjoyed the film.
Ophuls'direction and the creative photography
at times,to me, was almost like watching a 3D film in 2D
if that makes any sense at all.There just seemed to be so
many layers to the visuals.
Never seen THE PURPLE PLAIN but I understand that it's
just been or is due to be released in Germany on DVD.
Oddly enough I watched the Blu-Ray of THE WONDERFUL
COUNTRY last night Iv'e always avoided watching the horror
that appears on UK TV (in fact I now refuse to watch any
vintage film on UK TV unless something really rare surfaces which is hardly ever the case)
I am now of the opinion it's best to wait for certain
films until a definitive version surfaces.
Have not seen THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY since I caught up with
it at the cinema back in the Sixties;needless to say it
was well worth the wait especially in stunning hi-def.
DESERT OF THE TARTARS sounds most interesting very intriguing cast!
At any rate Blake it's great to hear from you again and I
have certainly missed your informed comments on the various blogs.

Laura said...

I'm coming late to the party but wanted to be sure to join in to express how much I enjoyed reading this. I just reread it, after having also read it the day it was posted, and am certainly looking forward to these films, none of which I've seen. I do have three of the titles on hand and just need to make time for them (story of my life!). I'm struck by how many favorite actors are in the films Blake selected -- Fairbanks Jr., Wayne, Russell, Granger, Sanders -- all top favorites of mine so I feel even more sure I will enjoy these films.

Thanks, Blake, for such an interesting piece and wonderful recommendations!

Best wishes,

Blake Lucas said...

Thanks all for your comments about this piece.

This is UNDERRATED Action/Adventure--by its nature that means to me that most folks are not going to have yet seen at least some of the movies and maybe all of them. That means people who have been going to lots of movies for years as all of you have, and when I read your lists I also get on to movies that I haven't seen and am glad to know about.

I especially didn't expect people to have seen THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS. I believe few have seen it. I count myself quite lucky that my first two viewings were on the big screen (special one time showings, the second in a Zurlini retrospective), especially because the most spectacular image in the film, part of the thrilling ending I was at pains not to give away, almost cries out for it. But knowing the movie, I do enjoy it on DVD and now find I'm lucky to have bought it quickly. It's apparently out of print and the price to get it is
now prohibitive.

Sad to say, I don't believe THE EXILE is on DVD at all. I don't know why unless it is a rights issue--Fairbanks himself once said something to that effect but it was also clear he would help resolve it if he could; alas, he is not around to do that now. I know that Laura recorded this on TCM when I did (the last time I saw it and never looked better); it looked pristine, so a good DVD could be made.

The other three movies are DVD available at easy prices if I've piqued anyone's interest who hasn't seen one of those.

Laura, I was keenly aware that my choices included actors (Fairbanks, Sanders, Wayne) who had been in the movies you chose, and also that you too are a Granger fan and earlier chose Wayne/Russell in their other movie ANGEL AND THE BADMAN for your underrated Westerns. And of course, that Jerry also took up in a big way for Granger in his own action/adventure choices.

Laura said...

Hi again Blake,

That's a great point that by its nature some of us were unlikely to have seen many of these films!

I think it also says something about the amazing viewing options we have in this era that I have had some of these movies with top favorite actors sitting on my shelves for at least a year (and in the case of WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, much longer), and yet I still haven't watched them! Sometimes picking "what to watch next" is both the hardest and most wonderful decision to make!

Since THE EXILE was distributed by Universal I wonder if there is ever any chance it will come out from the TCM Vault in something like a "Rarities" collection. We can only hope.

Really glad to see the love here for Stewart Granger who for some reason does not always receive his due. I could easily have included his GUN GLORY on a list of Underrated Westerns, I like that film a lot.

Best wishes,