Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wind and the Lion

"You are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours." - The Raisuli (Sean Connery)

John Milius's The Wind and the Lion is a truly wonderful film, and one I have a great deal of affection for. This film embodies everything I love about movies: great action scenes, an intriguing story (based VERY loosely on historical fact) and setting, well-drawn characters, and a wonderful sense of intelligence both cynical and insightful. When one is in the right mood, a movie like this just hits the spot.

In 1904, Morocco is holding a tenuous grip on its sovereignty as the European powers of Britain, France, Germany and Spain are seeking to exert influence and muscle on one of Africa's last uncolonized regions. While the country's inept Sultan (Marc Zuber) and crooked Bashaw (Vladek Sheybal) are more than happy to do business with the Europeans, the Raisuli (Sean Connery), a Berber chieftain and outlaw, has other plans. He kidnaps American expatriate Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen) and her children from Tangier in order to embarrass the Sultan and exact tribute. American President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Keith) seizes upon the incident and uses it as fodder for his re-election bid, though he finds himself fascinated by Raisuli - as is Eden, who slowly falls in love with the dashing brigand. Meanwhile, various American, European and Moroccan diplomats negotiate and scheme over the situation, leading to the landing of US Marines in Tangier and a showdown involving the Raisuli, the Marines, the German army and the Moroccan government.

More than any other film, The Wind and the Lion allows John Milius's talents the fullest rein. While a celebrated screenwriter (Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now), his directoral efforts are widely dismissed, and in many cases rightfully so - whatever their merits, it's hard to argue Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn are masterpieces. Certainly Milius is an intriguing figure, an odd mixture of dichotomies: a right-wing gun-nut who gained reknown as a surfer, an ardent patriot fascinated with the military who is suspicious of authority and cynical of American foreign policy. Also at play in his works are a sense of childish anarchism mixed with macho posturing, with an insightful intelligence mixed in as well. Most of his directorial works struggle to balance the three, resulting in entertaining but frustratingly uneven films. The Wind and the Lion is the one movie where Milius gets just the right balance, and despite some flaws in its story construction, it fires on all cylinders as a work of entertainment, and as a thoughtful statement on imperialism, American foreign policy and masculinity.

The movie's biggest triumph is its comparison of Roosevelt and Raisuli as two sides of the same coin. Both characters embody the virile, rugged masculinity that Milius admires. Both men are honorable, chivalrous, brave, uncompromising and strong (physically and mentally) men of the old school, out of place in a world riddled by greed, corruption, avarice and self-interested pragmatism - and moreover, they know it. Both men are obsessed with weapons, extremely proud, undermined by those around them (the Raisuli is betrayed and imprisoned by his brother, the Bashaw, while Roosevelt's cabinet and staff scheme literally behind his back to secure the support of corporate special interests) - but despite their shortcomings, both men possess honor and self-awareness that their unscrupulous peers lack. The film is Hemmingway-esque in its mediation on the decline of masculinity, undermined by crooked politicians and greed, and makes its point compellingly with two beautifully drawn protagonists.

Milius also shows an intelligent view of American foreign policy and adventurism, shaped by a curious mixture of cynicism and romanticism. One of the movie's key scenes is a conference of American diplomats and military leaders debating how to rescue the Perdicarises, resulting in the gung-ho Captain Jerome (Steve Kanaly) cheerily recommending "military intervention!" as the clear-cut solution to the problem. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz would no doubt smile approvingly as these men raise their glasses in toast to "a world at war." It's hard to watch this scene without laughing; it's deliberately comic, but strikes a chord. And yet, the actual execution of this plan - as the Marines march in orderly file through Tangier, gunning down the Bashaw's bodyguard without warning and cheerily running up the Stars and Stripes - is depicted in such a straight-forward manner that it's impossible to tell whether Milius is being serious or not. Certainly the tone is the same as before, but it's obvious Milius wants us to celebrate the Marines as heroes rather than invaders introducing their own brand of imperialism. Guessing, however, is part of the fun.

More measured, but no less pertinent, than these overtly satirical sequences is Roosevelt's wonderful monologue, where he muses over a freshly killed grizzly bear about the spirit and nature of America. His monologue about American loneliness and exceptionalism - "The world will never love us... For we have too much audacity!" - is one of the most intelligent things ever written for a film on the subject, succinctly stating the view of a young nation just emerging as a world power, completely different from the decadent, decaying empires of the Old World, replacing their power-hungry self-indulgence with hopeful idealism (even if subverted to an extent by greed and corruption). This is echoed by the beautifully conceived intro to Roosevelt, as he poses for a photograph with his hand on a globe, literally projecting America's newfound power over Morocco. This scene is considered, thoughtful, and succinct, neither jingoism nor crass mockery. Noam Chomsky might take issue with such an assessment, but its simple truth reverberates throughout the entire film.

Though the peripheral scenes involving American Ambassadors Gummere (Geoffrey Lewis) and Dreighton (Darrell Fetty) negotiating for Perdicarises' release may detract from the flow of the story, they serve an important purpose in a complex, realistic and still pertinent portrayal of the Middle East. With the imperial powers of America and Europe viewing Morocco as merely another foreign land to conquer and exploit, Moroccans are caught in the middle. While their crooked, greedy and selfish leaders are happy to cooperate with foreign benefactors, men like Raisuli will not accept this. Even in 1975, it was extremely bold for Milius to portray the Raisuli - a man unquestionably a terrorist - with legitimate grievances against his government and foreign interlopers, and a hero at that. That this fits in so well with Milius's gung-ho endorsement of military adventurism is a testament to Milius's skill as a writer; he's able to have it both ways without seeming foolish or hypocritical.

All this political content is interesting, but what of the film as entertainment? Fortunately, the movie succeeds first and foremost as a fine adventure film, wonderfully contained within its 119 minutes. The movie embraces its Boy's Own roots by having William Perdicaris (Simon Harrison), Eden's young son, as a central character; the movie is essentially seen through his eyes, which certainly helps explain the film's coloring. The relationship between Eden and Raisuli is enjoyable and well-developed, although it never quite makes the turn into outright romance; but the scenes of our two protagonists bantering like refugees from His Girl Friday provide lots of fun dialogue as they play with the Raisuli's archaic aphorisms.

The film works wonderfully for about 85 minutes of its run time; the pacing is crisp and fast, the action scenes thrilling and brilliantly shot, and even the dialogue scenes fly by (thanks in no small part to Milius's witty, sharp-tongued and endlessly quotable screenplay). However, the film struggles to the climax - we have a lot of long and draggy dialogue scenes involving the Raisuli, as the final battle is awkwardly set-up, and we're a bit disappointed as Eden and Raisuli's relationship doesn't advance the logical step to romance. More awkward still is how the battle is set into motion - Eden and her children drawing guns on Jerome's Marines and essentially forcing them to rescue the Raisuli. It's an extremely awkward and silly moment, no matter how you look at it; fortunately, though, the film redeems this misstep with its wonderful final battle and poignant finale.

On a technical level, the film is marvelous. Milius handles the big action scenes - the Raisuli's raid on the Perdicaris residence, his rescue of Eden from a band of sleazy bandits, the final battle between the German, Moroccan and American armies, and most notably, the awe-inspiring march of Jerome's Marines through the streets of Tangier - with skill and aplomb, marshalling extras with the ability of David Lean for a fraction of the cost. (More than once I've heard this film referred to as a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and The Wild Bunch; I could not think of a better analogy). Billy Williams' cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the stark beauty of the Almerian desert and giving full breadth to the film's big action scenes. And lest we forget Jerry Goldsmith's score - rousing, evocative and beautifully romantic, it adds immeasuribly to the experience.

The film's protagonists are all wonderfully portrayed. Sean Connery is at his charismatic best; if you can overlook his trademark Scottish brogue, he's perfectly cast as the Raisuli, playing it with his customary charisma, humor and virility. Brian Keith is even more impressive as Roosevelt, giving an intelligent, layered portrayal of the President as not only the ultimate tough guy, but a thoughtful man who knows his own image and nourishes it carefully. Candice Bergen is perfectly cast, her classical beauty and stiff acting style perfectly suited for the tough-as-nails, Katharine Hepburn-esque tomboy Eden. The supporting cast is more uneven - while fine character actors like John Huston, Vladek Sheybal and Roy Jenson are given little to do, there are nice turns by Geoffrey Lewis as the gruff, cynical American ambassador and a handsome pre-Dallas Steve Kanaly as the improbably gung-ho Marine Captain.

The Wind and the Lion is simply an amazing film. I hope you'll excuse the length of this post, and giving my love of this film full rein. Suffice it to say, I adore this movie, and it's one I'm happy to revisit again and again.

Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation


David Spalding said...

Well done. Most friends don't understand me when I say that TWATL is a classic, complex epic in the same class as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWA. Thanks for raising awareness of this underrated classic.

Groggy Dundee said...

Yeah it's definitely underrated and overlooked, though people who do see it generally love it. You'd think with its constant rotation on TCM it would be better-known.