I’ve been having trouble recently getting invested in some of the films I’ve been watching. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Some nights I want a movie that doesn’t require much in the way of thought, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Or I choose badly. On the one hand, I want to watch as widely as possible; on the other, sometimes some of the films I’m drawn to can be a bit of a slog. A couple here were not very good, despite the names attached to them. Another was a straightforward melodrama but happened to be about a subject that interested me, so I liked it. And one was the latest film by a favourite director. In other words, the usual mixed bag…
How the West was Won, John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall (1962, USA). I’ve known of this film for many years. Who hasn’t? It’s one of those Western titles you see mentioned everywhere, even if no one you know seems to have actually watched it. I last came across a mention of it in reference to McLintock! (see here), so when I found it on Amazon Prime, I decided to give it a go. And now I have watched it. And it is… epic. In other words, it has pretty much everyone in it. Unfortunately, it’s also the bullshit narrative the US likes to believe about its invasion of the North American continent – and it’s pretty much an invasion by most definitions of the term. The movie opens with Karl Malden and his family travelling west to settle in the wide open lands in that area. They bump into fur trapper Jimmy Stewart, who falls for one of Malden’s daughters. But the trip doesn’t go as planned, and some of the family die while rafting on a river. The film follows the remainder of the family over a couple of generations as they head west and infiltrate the capitalist infrastructure which has implanted itself in the new territories. One of Malden’s daughters, Debbie Reynolds, marries a gambler, played by Gregory Peck, who turns his talents to investment, and so becomes a serial millionaire. This only happens after she’s spent time as a showgirl. Then there’s George Peppard, who joins the US Army with dreams of glory, inadvertently saves the lives of Generals Grant and Sherman, but returns home to discover his mother has died. How the West was Won pretty much features everyone, and part of the fun of watching it is identifying the stars (Jimmy Stewart’s wig is especially bad). But as narratives of colonisation of the West go, it’s pretty much up there with history textbooks that claim the US single-handedly fought and won WWII. This is not a film to be used to teach kids their heritage. Not unless it’s one of those US schools where the teacher is licensed for concealed carry and the students get an AR-15 on graduation. But the US prefers the Hollywood version of its history because, of course, it makes them out to be hardy pioneers instead of brutal conquerors… Cinematically, the film has its moments, but to be honest you’d have to be pretty incompetent to make Monument Valley look boring, and none of the directors attached to this film could be accused of that. There are better western films, even ones with a somewhat tenuous link to actual history, such as Shane or Rio Bravo, but which have better cinematography or make more of a meal of the scenery. How the West was Won feels like a textbook for a specific, and long since discredited, view of US history. It’s a well-made film, and it looks quite lovely in places. But it’s a piece of historical hokum and should be watched with that in mind.
Spacewalker, Dmitry Kiselev (2017, Russia). I had this on my rental list, but then went and bought it by accident. Like you do. Fortunately, I remembered to remove it from my rental list. The Russians have produced a number of films in recent years about their space programme – Gagarin: First in Space (see here), Salyut-7 (see here), and now Spacewalker, this last about Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965, another Space Race first by the USSR. For all that the US likes to trumpet its space achievements, the USSR beat its hands down until Apollo. And even now, US astronauts have to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the ISS because there is no human-rated US spacecraft currently in service. Ahem. Spacewalker opens with a MiG-15 being flown by Leonov in trouble with its jet engine on fire – and it was nice to watch a film in which a MiG-15 was played by an actual MiG-15 (although I suspect it was mostly CGI) – and because he’s a complete nutter, he goes into a steep dive to put out the fire, manages to pull out in time, and lands the aircraft. So he’s not a natural fit for the Soviet cosmonaut programme when they start, but he has his champions and is recruited. When he’s picked for the first spacewalk, he trains with Belyayev, but Belyayev breaks his leg during a parachute jump. Leonov campaigns hard for Belyayev to be kept as mission commander, and succeeds. The mission is depicted pretty much as it happened. Leonov had no troubled making the spacewalk, but experienced real trouble getting back into the Voskhod spacecraft. It’s all presented with the same degree of verimilitude of the aforementioned films. It’s like Gravity has opened some sort of floodgate. And I for one welcome these films, with their convincing depictions of actual real space exploration history, and if it’s Russian self-aggrandising instead of American, so what? It’s real history and it’s fascinating. And okay, I do love me some Soviet sf films, and these are are not Soviet although they cover Soviet history. But they’re accomplished pieces of work and the equal of, if not better than, anything Hollywood has produced. Worth seeing.
Such Good Friends, Otto Preminger (1971, USA). I’ve been working my way through Preminger’s oeuvre, and three of his later films were released recently on Blu-ray in a collection in the US but unavailable here. And since I have a multi-region Blu-ray player… Of course, now I own them, they’ll probably be released in the UK… and cost less. Although maybe not. A lot of classic movies newly-released on sell-through in the US don’t get UK releases, and Preminger is better-known for his 1940s and 1950s noir films than he is his late 1960s / early 1970s melodramas and comedies. And having now seen the three films in this collection, I can understand why. Such Good Friends is based on a novel by Lois Gould. In it, a successful children’s author goes into hospital for a minor operation, but the doctors bungle it, and bungle every subsequent attempt to fix the medical problems they’ve caused. The film did not start well. The main character, player by Dyan Cannon, goes to a publishing party with her husband, and Burgess Meredith, playing a famous author, is present; and for some reason, she imagines him naked, which Preminger actually shows on film. And then the plot goes into its litany of hospital fuck-ups and… It’s a well-made film but not an especially good one. For a start, it’s a comedy but it’s not at all funny. It’s based on a novel by Lois Gould, and after watching the film I went and did some drunk ebaying and bought the book. I have done this before – watched a a bad adaptation of a novel, and gone and bought the novel. I have no real interest in reading Gould’s book, but now I have a copy I probably will. It did at least sound better than the film. We shall see.
Spies Kill Silently, Mario Caiano (1966, Italy). Released under the titles Le spie uccidono in silenzio and Los espías matan en silencio, this was an Italian-Spanish thriller set in… the Lebanon. I watched it because I visited Beirut during the early 1970s, and I wanted to see if I’d remembered anything of the city. I hadn’t. I now wish I could not remember anything of this film. The daughter of prominent scientist is mysteriously murdered in a hotel swimming pool in Beirut. An American agent is called in to investigate the case, because there have been a series of unexplained deaths of notable scientists. It’s all a plot, of course, by one particular scientist, to take over the world. This involves brainwashing people to do his bidding, so his assassins can be literally anyone. The secret agent goes undercover, with an antidote to the brainwashing serum, but the scientist spots this and really brainwashes him. Which was a bit of a twist to the formula. But it all comes right in the end. And I was probably too young to form any lasting memories of Beirut when I visited to the city, so nothing in the film struck a chord. And it was a pretty crap film as well.
Hurry Sundown, Otto Preminger (1967, USA). Preminger apparently bought the rights to the novel from which this was adapted before it was even published. For $100,000. Later, quizzed on how much he’d paid, and perhaps embarrassed at how poorly the film had been received, Preminger replied to a reporter’s “how much did it cost?” with “seven ninety-five”. This was taken to mean $795,000. Preminger had actually meant the book’s cover price, $7.95. The story is set in 1946 Georgia. A share cropper has just returned from fighting, and discovers that his cousin has been buying up land as part of a development deal. There are only two unsold parcels of land left standing in his way – the ex-GI’s, and that of another ex-GI… who happens to be black. This was during the days of segregation and all the white people in the film – with the exception of the white ex-GI and his family – are horribly racist. Worse, however, the film was made in 1967, in Lousiana due to union reasons, and the members of the production were shot at, and the swimming pool of the motel where they were staying was bombed. Because the cast and crew were integrated. I mean, a film set in 1946 about segegration made 21 years later is the target of hate cimes. That’s beyond irony. That’s the US. Fucking racists. The book, Hurry Sundown, did not prove to be the mega-bestseller Preminger had hoped, although it was certainly epic at 1,046 pages. It now appears to be long out of print. And the film didn’t do very well either. I’m not surprised. It’s not a good film. Michael Caine plays the cousin, a Southern entrpreneur, and he’s not a good fit for the part; Jane Fonda plays his wife. John Phillip Law, who looked great but didn’t have much in the way of acting chops, plays the ex-GI, and Faye Dunaway his wife (and she reportedly hated working with Preminger). Diahann Carroll plays the local teacher who stands up for the black ex-GI (played by Robert Hooks, who was apparently in Star Trek 3) , and she’s always worth watching. But for a late 1960s movie, none of this works, and it all feels like a story that has nothing new to say about the US’s appalling record on race relations. It was not successful, and justifiably so. Fortunately, I was not so drunk watching it that I ebayed a first edition copy of the 1,046 page novel on which it was based…
Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke (2015, China). Jia is perhaps the most celebrated of the Sixth Generation of directors from China, and with good reason. Which is not to say the othe directors are bad. They are in fact very good. But Jia is especially good. And Mountains May Depart is his latest film, again starring his wife, Zhao Tao. The film is split into three sections. The first is set in 1999, and it’s familiar territory for Jia – a mix of documentary and drama, in which the lines between the two are blurred. The film opens in 1999 with a love triangle. Zhao is love with a coalminer. but marries an entrpreneur as China embraces capitalism. They have a son, named Dollar. The second section is set in 2014. The two are separated and Dollar visits Zhao and she tries to get him to recognise her as his mother, and not her ex-husband’s new wife. The final section is set in 2025, in Australia. Dollar is now a university student, and his father is bitter and collects guns. I’ve seen comments comparing Mountains May Depart to Sirk, but I can’t see it. When I think of Sirk, I think of films packaged as women’s pictures but which cleverly subvert and critique women’s role in society (not all of Sirk’s films, obviously). Jia’s film is more a critique of Chinese society and its response to capitalism, and, in the final section explicitly, to the Chinese diaspora. True, the central character is a woman, Zhao, and her life provides the focus of Jia’s commentary. Not all of it worked for me. There weren’t enough Australian accents in the section set in Australia for a start (they mostly sounded American). The middle section is probably the best of the the three, with Zhao trying to make sense of what her life has become. Like Jia’s other films, it has that semi-documentary feel – a difficult trick to pull off in the 2025 section, which is probably why it doesn’t quite gel for me. On balance, I think some of Jia’s earlier films are better, although he remains a favourite director. Which is not to say Mountains May Depart is a bad film – it’s a bloody good film, but it’s not Jia’s best.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896