Monday, July 21, 2014

The Shoes of the Fisherman

Michael Anderson's The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) was an instant fossil: terrible in its day, even worse forty-six years later. Long, sonorous and boring, it mixes the worst elements of religious epics and topical dramas.

Soviet Premier Kamenev (Laurence Olivier) releases Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) from a Siberian gulag. Exiled to the Vatican, Kiril becomes a Cardinal and after the Pope's (John Gielgud) demise, a reluctant pontiff. Kiril struggles in his new office, passing censure on skeptical Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) and negotiating between the USSR and China. When Chairman Peng (Burt Kwouk) rebuffs Kiril's overtures, he takes drastic action to avert conflict.

Based on Morris West's novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman miscalculates on every level. John Patrick and James Kennaway's script is an indigestible loaf of exposition and declarative dialogue. Priests and premiers alike windily describe back stories, motivations and plot developments. Shoes has Kiril recount his harrowing prison experience, rather than showing it; kindly Kamenev shows no trace of the brutal commissar who tormented our hero. For slower viewers, American journalist George Faber (David Janssen) narrates the conclave like a football game.

Besides its leaden dramatics, Shoes completely lacks scale. Evidently, we're supposed to find Father Telemond's musings as momentous as nuclear Armageddon. The Sino-Soviet split's backgrounded until the last half-hour, despite motivating Kiril's release from prison. For that matter, Shoes doesn't even consider how the United States might react to Kiril's detente initiative. Instead, Anderson devotes an unconscionable amount of time to Faber's romantic entanglements and Kiril visiting Rome incognito.

That leaves our monumentally dull hero. Religious leaders make good protagonists when they're conflicted, flawed or at least charismatic. But Kiril is shamelessly immaculate: soft-spoken, humble and principled, solving the world's problems comes easily to him. He's briefly anguished over Telemond's persecution, until the theologian graciously forgives him. The Cardinals' opposition to his peace plan is only a momentary speed bump. What a guy, ending the Cold War by day and paying nocturnal visits to the sick and needy. Kiril makes John Paul II look like Pius XII.
Anthony Quinn can't be faulted; he plays Kiril as written. Unusually subdued, Quinn invests key scenes with emotion, anguish and understated doubt. But for all his skill, he can't overcome a script which makes Kiril too pure to be believable and too boring to be likeable. Quinn's simply filling space, anchoring the movie without any chance of saving it.

Among the impressive cast, Oskar Werner brings vitality to his role, while Leo McKern's conflicted Cardinal salvages a few scenes. Others aren't so lucky. David Janssen shuffles listlessly between exposition, wife Barbara Jefford and mistress Rosemary Dexter. Laurence Olivier woodenly approximates a Russian accent; John Gielgud spends more time as a corpse than Pope; Burt Kwouk's fanatical Chairman barely registers. Vittorio De Sica, Frank Finlay, Isa Miranda and Niall MacGinnis languish in walk-on parts.

With story and characterization DOA, Shoes plays its dubious trump card. Anderson recreates Vatican splendor through intricate sets, Roman location shooting and copious stock footage. Along with the detailed recreations of Papal ceremonies, it provides aesthetic interest. But neither aureate sets or pompous Alex North music can redeem Anderson's pedestrian direction. What use is spectacle in a movie that's all talk - and boring talk, at that?

Aside from Richard Nixon, 1960s viewers avoided The Shoes of the Fisherman like the plague. Indeed it's so dense, humorless and wrongheaded it's impossible to imagine what audience the filmmakers envisioned. Shoes fails as religious drama, political thriller and entertainment: a steaming load of papal bull.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

RIP James Garner

We'll finish out this weekend acknowledging the death of screen legend James Garner. One of cinema's most affable leading men, Garner starred in innumerable classic movies: Sayonara, The Children's Hour, The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily and Hour of the Gun, to name but a few. He's probably better-known for his TV appearances, including the much-loved Maverick and The Rockford Files - for Groggy's money, one of the best detective shows around.

Witness for the Prosecution

Billy Wilder directed Witness for the Prosecution (1957) before turning to his late-career comedies. Working off an Agatha Christie play, Wilder delivers a solid courtroom drama with characteristic wit and a flawless cast.

Barrister Sir Wilfrid Robats (Charles Laughton) is discouraged from taking "strenuous" criminal cases after a heart attack. Yet he can't resist defending Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), accused of murdering a middle-aged benefactress (Norma Varden). The evidence seems stacked against Vole, with the prosecution calling Leonard's wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) as a surprise witness. Then an anonymous informant gives Sir Wilfrid evidence that demolishes Christine's credibility... or does it?

Witness for the Prosecution cleverly plays against expected genre tropes. Leonard has evidence and motive weighing against his seeming earnestness. And Christine's untrustworthiness gradually piles up, from her experience as an actress to revelations about a past marriage. For all Sir Wilfrid's legal wrangling, he's reduced to a pompous pawn. Agatha Christie's surprise witnesses and last-minute revelations make more dramatic than legal sense, yet Witness is so absorbing we don't mind logical holes.

Wilder's craftsmanship is peerless, from his straightforward direction to the screenplay. He sprinkles in sparkling dialogue, while folding in digressive episodes like Vole's meeting Christine in postwar Germany. Between trial scenes, Wilder gets great mileage out of Sir Wilfrid's quirks and health concerns; he flashes Vole with a monocle to unnerve him, while bickering with a nurse (Elsa Lanchester) over cigars and lift chairs. Many Wilder films fall down in the last act, but Witness's final twist is a genuine shocker.

Charles Laughton dominates Witness with acerbic intelligence and exasperated wit. He sparkles both in heavy courtroom scenes and light banter with Elsa Lanchester's fussy nurse. Marlene Dietrich puts her sensual hauteur to great use; her icy dignity clashes with Christine's unreliability. Tyrone Power mixes seedy charm and exaggerated anguish. Una O'Connor (The Informer) has a standout role as an unreliable witness. Wilder casts distinguished players like John Williams (Sabrina), Henry Daniell (The Sea Hawk) and Torin Thatcher (Mutiny on the Bounty) in minor roles.

Witness for the Prosecution brilliantly sends up expectations. We anticipated a straightforward legal procedural, until Wilder pulls the rug out from under us. For those tired of standard courtroom dramas, Witness is a delectable treat.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: The Siege (1969, Russell Braddon)

Braddon, Russell. The Siege: The Full, Horrifying Account of the Kut Disaster. New York: Viking Press, 1970. Originally published 1969. 352 pp.

Some wars are so ill-conceived and badly-waged that even when successful, they seem a colossal waste. The Crimean War fascinates me for this reason: whatever Russia and Turkey's territorial disputes, Britain and France's intervention is inexplicable, exacerbated by their commanders' military idiocy. The First World War, celebrating its centennial this year, is even worse. The airy rhetoric about freedom belies that it was an old-fashioned imperial struggle, no nobler than the Crimea. Of all the misbegotten slaughters generated by that conflict, Britain's invasion of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) seems singularly pointless.

Russell Braddon's The Siege depicts the campaign's most infamous debacle: the siege and surrender of General Townshend's 6th Indian Division at Kut. This sorry tale of military and political incompetence, resulting in the death or capture of 43,000 Anglo-Indian troops by Nureddin Bey and Halil Bey's Turkish Sixth Army, proved Britain's greatest humiliation of the First World War. Braddon eschews dispassionate analysis, lamenting the British and Indian soldiers whose "fate was decided for them by idiots" (10). In spite (or because) of this, it's one of the best books ever written about military incompetence.

Britain's involvement in Mesopotamia mixed inertia and ambition. Given its interest in the Persian Gulf and Ottoman Turkey's hostilities, the initial movements weren't uncalled for. Indian troops captured the oil fields around Basra in fall 1914. This action resulted in few casualties and secured vital resources for the British military, enhanced by exploratory probes up the Tigris River. But these easy victories encouraged Indian officials to dream bigger: Viceroy Beauchamp even envisioned Mesopotamia as a potential colony.

By fall of 1915, General John Nixon was planning an offensive towards Baghdad. In retrospect, the campaign's strategic justification seems dubious: the Turks were too weak to counterattack, British resources already stretched thin. Yet Mesopotamia then seemed the only campaign with any potential. The Western Front was bloody stalemate; Winston Churchill's Gallipoli gambit degenerated into disaster; Russia was retreating, Serbia overrun and Italy bloodily repulsed. "Nowhere, in any of the Allied theaters of war, was there glimmer of hope: except, perhaps at Baghdad" (82). There was also the lingering prejudice that "Asiatic" Turks couldn't stand against Anglo-Saxon manhood.
Gunners on a Tigris River barge.
Enter Major General Charles Townshend. Descended from Field Marshal George Townshend, Wolfe's second-in-command at Quebec, Townshend was a gallant soldier but a ceaseless climber. He served with distinction in the Sudan, taking part in both the Gordon Relief Expedition and later Kitchener's Omdurman Campaign. However, he was best-known for defending the Northwest Frontier post at Chitral in 1895 against a two-month siege. This small but dramatic victory won him a Victoria Cross and an audience with the Queen.

The attendant fame fed Townshend's already healthy ego. He became aide to Redvers Buller, commander-in-chief in the Boer War, serving in various staff positions. At the outbreak of World War I, Townshend languished in Egypt. "Chitral Charlie" incessantly badgered superiors for high command, styling himself an expert on military strategy. "Restless, ruthless, highly professional and loyal only to his own relentlessly driving ambitions" in Braddon's words (30), Townshend finally won appointment to the 6th Indian Division.

Townshend revealed his true character after Nixon proposed an initial, limited advance on Ctesiphon. Privately Townshend expressed doubts, even writing General Archibald Murray of the Imperial General Staff a letter attacking Nixon's unclear goals and insufficient manpower. "All of these ofensive operations in secondary theaters are dreadful errors in strategy," he wrote, "In violation of all the great fundamental principles of war." Braddon notes that "his military judgment... would prove to have been flawless" (61).
Charles Townshend.
When Nixon consulted Townshend, the latter raised none of these objections. Indeed, he even suggested "he would almost certainly pursue the enemy" to Baghdad (65). In fairness, the initial idea wasn't Townshend's, and in essence he only followed orders. Yet there's no question that his ambition fanned Nixon's imagination. He privately mused: "Who knows that I shall not eventually become Governor of Mesopotamia?" (27) So in September 1915 Townshend's 6th Division began their advance, 13,000 strong against Turkish forces three times as large.

The campaign started well. Using a makeshift fleet of barges and river steamers dubbed "Townshend's regatta" (44), the General navigated the treacherous Tigress and Mesopotamian swamplands. He bested the Turks in several battles, though often more by luck more than skill: at Es Sinn, a brigade became lost deploying and accidentally ended up in the Turkish rear! Finally at Ctesiphon Townshend's luck ran out, suffering heavy casualties in a Pyrrhic victory. By late December Townshend fell back on the fly-blown, filthy village of Kut el Amara, where Nureddin soon encircled him.

The 147 day siege (the longest in British history) proved a horrific ordeal for 6th Division. Drawing on firsthand accounts from surviving soldiers, Braddon recounts their plight in graphic detail. Plagued by dysentery and typhus, besieged by lice and sand flies, harassed by hostile locals, Turkish shellfire proved their least nagging worry. After several months the men resorted to meals of horse heads, dogs and dry grass. Medical supplies proved inadequate, the men suffering as "their bowels and stomachs disintegrat[ed] into green slime... chang[ing] from lean men into leathery skeletons" (260). It makes for painful reading.
Indian troops in action at Kut.
These long-suffering soldiers were ill-served by their commander. Townshend, so energetic and decisive a few months prior, froze under duress. His communications with Nixon brimmed with panicked miscalculations of supplies (saying, for instance, he had a month's worth of food when he really had four) and veiled accusations of indifference. Yet a hastily-organized relief force - ironically led by General Fenton Aylmer, Townshend's savior at Chitral - suffered 20,000 casualties trying to rescue Townshend. In extremis, Nixon even tried bribing Halil Pasha for the garrison's relief. A young intelligence captain, T.E. Lawrence, took part in this affair.

While Aylmer's troops fought to relieve him, Townshend made no efforts to break out or aid his benefactor. Incredibly, Townshend forbid even sorties, reasoning that "sorties out... inevitably involve a withdraw in: and too many withdraws sap morale" (142). His only leadership came through increasingly pompous and delusional communiques, which confused as often as they inspired. Khalil foiled attempts to resupply Townshend by air and river. Nixon replaced Aylmer with General George Gorringe, and the slaughter continued.

Finally, on April 29th, 1915 Townshend surrendered. Despite his declaration to "go into captivity with my troops" (335) the General enjoyed comfortable confinement, hobnobbing with Turkish officials and even becoming an ad hoc diplomat at war's end. His soldiers weren't so lucky, enduring a forced march through Mesopotamia, then worse. Some labored on the Baghdad-Berlin Railway; others languished in prison camps, where they endured to floggings, rapes, summary murder and general ill-treatment. Meanwhile, the Indian government censored all mention of Kut, even as exchanged prisoners began trickling home and Parliament investigated misconduct.
British troops on their way to captivity.
Braddon recounts this disaster in angry, venomous prose. A former POW himself (recounted in The Naked Island), Braddon makes no effort to hide his contempt for Townshend and his superiors, nor his sympathy for the rankers suffering at their hands. He describes with contemptuous relish how British officers dined on plum cake and champagne while their soldiers ate moldy biscuits and brackish water, or Townshend and staff shipping sporting equipment alongside military supplies. "No one questioned, then, the validity of the social hierarchy" (86) which placed officer comforts above soldier necessities.

It's true, as recent historians like N.S. Nash (Chitral Charlie) and Charles Townshend (Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia) argue, that General Townshend merely executed India's ill-advised policies and Nixon's boneheaded strategy. His tactical ability and physical courage on the road to Kut are commendable. His changing clothes during battle, presumably included by Braddon to demonstrate Townshend's foolishness, could be interpreted as coolness under fire. It's certainly unfair to blame Townshend for his treatment in captivity. And it's notable that the soldiers Braddon interviewed almost to a man "believe[d] [Townshend] to be a brilliant leader and a splendid man" (9).

But Townshend made the decision to stand at Kut, a town of marginal importance and limited defensibility. He was responsible for his hysterical telegrams that panicked Nixon and Aylmer into ill-advised rescue attempts. He remained inert while Aylmer's men died trying to relieve him. Finally, anyone declaring himself a genius equal to Belisarius, Bonaparte and Clausewitz en route to catastrophe invites derision. Anyone more concerned with accession to a peerage than his men deserves limited sympathy. And any General asking his starving soldiers to "give a little sympathy to me" (209) is indefensible.
British troops entering Baghdad, March 1917
Under new management, British troops finally captured Baghdad in March 1917. General Stanley Maude achieved this with 50,000 troops, nearly quadruple Townshend's numbers. Yet the war didn't end: Halil's Turks fought a bloody rearguard action until November 1918, a month after Turkey's surrender. Britain's new colony exploded into full-blown rebellion in 1920, foreign conquest driving the country's sectarian difficulties to the fore. Needless to say, we're still dealing with the fall-out of this ill-judged campaign.

Similar articles:

From the Jaws of Victory - Charles M. Fair
The Reason Why - Cecil Woodham-Smith

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hud

Martin Ritt's greatest work is Hud (1963), less modern Western than Texas chamber drama. Certainly it's one of Paul Newman's best roles, warping his charming persona into something hateful. But Newman's buoyed by a flawless script and brilliant supporting cast, resulting in one of the '60s great dramas.

Based on a Larry McMurtry novel, Hud focuses on the Bannons, a Texas ranching clan. Homer (Melvyn Douglas) is the proud patriarch who's outlived his time; Hud (Paul Newman), Homer's wayward son obsessed with booze, broads and brawling. Their testy relationship comes to a head when their cattle catch foot-and-mouth disease, threatening the Bannons' livelihood. Teenaged Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), Hud's nephew, grows torn between the two father-figures. And Alma (Patrica Neal), Homer's feisty housemaid, becomes the subject of Hud's unwanted attentions.

Hud turns the cowboy hero into a modern-day monster. Cast adrift in the 20th Century, his admirable traits prove decidedly unappealing. He expends his toughness not on useful work but fights and boozing. He parades married women on his arms and thinks it okay to assault one who dares resist him. Hud's rants against government interference are self-serving hooey: he wants to loose the infected cattle, knowing full well they'd infect other herds. His machismo is aimless destruction, his self-reliance narcissism.

Paul Newman's natural charisma makes Hud compelling, which only highlights his nastier side. Newman specialized in charming antiheroes but his appeal's skin-deep. Whatever personal baggage he carries (his guilt about his brother) Hud has no principles, happy to drag others into the abyss. Newman bores down on the character's unpleasant, using his flashing eyes and roguish smile to mask a soulless brute.
Yet Hud's far from a one-man show: Ritt and writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. give the supporting cast room to shine. Homer's code sounds honorable, yet his age and poor decision making can't make it stick. It's not Hud's irresponsibility but Homer's own errors (buying cheap Mexican cattle) which doom his ranch. Lonnie's more reactive, emulating Hud's reckless actions and Homer's moral posturing. Alma's the most sympathetic: damaged from a bad marriage, she hides mistrust behind a flinty exterior.

Melvyn Douglas gives a stellar turn, rough, weathered and weary - far removed from his matinee idol days. Douglas provides subdued anger and melancholy, whether chewing out Hud or watching his herd destroyed. Patricia Neal matches him with earthy humor, brittle strength and cracked vulnerability. Even Brandon De Wilde (Shane) fares well, making Lonnie callow yet redeemable.

Rittthrows these outcasts into a harrowing depiction of decaying Americana. James Wong Howe's black-and-white photography makes the Texas range beautiful but foreboding, its town a sweaty collection of seedy dives. Ritt truly captures desperate small-town boredom, alleviated by folksy frivolity like a Kiwanis meeting or Saturday night dust-ups. Or by destruction: the movie's key set piece comes when Homer's ranchers execute dozens of infected cattle. No starker metaphor for the American Dream's destruction can be found.

For all its cynicism, Hud offers some hope. Lonnie ultimately rejects his uncle's wild ways, leaving Hud wandering the winds like a modern Ethan Edwards. For all Ritt's pessimism, tragedy isn't a foregone conclusion. Society's only doomed if it accepts Hud as a role model.