The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
By 1965, the year this film was released, American International Pictures had enjoyed considerable success mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe for a series of films starring Vincent Price (and Ray Milland, once) and directed by Roger Corman. The streak began with Corman’s low-budget but lavish looking adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher and continued with The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. These films represented something new and relatively risky for AIP, then a studio that specialized in making cheap, fast black and white double features. Corman, inspired by the work that was happening at England’s Hammer Studio, convinced AIP to let him shoot in color, a single film, with a bigger budget (though still tiny) and longer shooting schedule (though still incredibly fast). The resulting film, The Fall of the House of Usher, did big time box office for AIP, is considered one of the all-time great horror films, and convinced AIP of a couple things. First, that color films with more money put into them were a worthwhile investment, especially when someone as good as Corman at turning out expensive looking results for pennies was on board. Second, that they should tack Edgar Allan Poe’s name onto everything and plumb his works mercilessly.
Although all the films in the first AIP Poe cycle were good, and most of them were great, several of them had very little to do with the Poe poem or short story from which they took their name. The Raven, for example, uses the Poe poem for its opening scene, with Price being plagued by a mysterious raven. But as soon as the raven starts wisecracking in Peter Lorre’s voice, you can guess that the Poe material is out the window. The Pit and the Pendulum takes the Poe source material and extends it with a number of subplots original to the screenplay or snatched piecemeal from other sources. And in the case of The Haunted Palace — one of the very best films in the Poe cycle — it wasn’t based on Poe at all. It was actually based on The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. But AIP felt that audiences wouldn’t know who the hell Lovecraft was. Distributors agreed. And so, despite Corman’s protests, it became an Edgar Allan Poe movie.
Dubious connections to the source material not withstanding, all of the films were very good (well, I’m not that fond of Tales of Terror, but that’s because I don’t care for anthology films), thanks to the line-up they enjoyed: Corman as director, Price (and Milland once) as star, and Richard Matheson as the screenwriter (most of the time). Matheson was to AIP horror what Jimmy Sangster was to Hammer horror: consistently wonderful. In 1965, AIP decided to stretch Poe’s connection even further, tapping one of his short tales called The City in the Sea as a source for War Gods of the Deep. But other than having Price read some of the story for the opening credits, War Gods of the Deep has very little to do with Poe. AIP would take a similar approach during it’s second round of Poe horror films, with The Witchfinder General being retitled Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm — a title justified by having Price read some of the original poem before the film launched off into a plot that has pretty much nothing to do with the poem or Poe. In that case, however, the movie was good.
In the case of War Gods of the Deep, the results were…not as impressive. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Although Roger Corman wasn’t directing, AIp assigned Jacques Tourneur to the film. Tourneur is perhaps best known as the director of such films as Night of the Demon and the Val Lewton produced films Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. All of them are considered classics, and deservedly so. On top of that, he directed one of the all time great noir films, 1947′s Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum. And then there was the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler epic The Flame and the Arrow. By the 1960s, however, Tourneur’s best years were perhaps behind him, and he found himself working in television and at AIP, first as director of the Poe-esque Comedy of Terrors which features one of my all-time favorite idiotically hilarious scenes (when awful opera singing causes Vincent Price’s undertaker top hat to pop off wit a “boop!” sound effect), and then as director on War Gods of the Deep.
And while the film isn’t written by Richard Matheson (most famous for being the author who penned I Am Legend, the book that inspired everything from Night of the Living Dead to Last Man on Earth to The Asylum’s I Am Omega), AIP did get Charles Bennett, who was no slouch in the screenwriting department. Among his sundry credits are the very first filmed version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the black and white version made as part of the Climax! television series, where James Bond goes by Jimmy and was played by Barry Nelson. Bennett also wrote plenty of classic scripts, including work for Hitchcock (Sabotage, Secret Agent, and Foreign Correspondent), the adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines, and Tourneur’s own Night of the Demon.
He was also frequently tapped by producer Irwin Allen both for movie (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and television (Land of the Giants, the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series) scripts. Of course, there are a few turkeys in his resume, including the epic misfires The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen’s attempt to tell in sweeping epic fashion the complete history of mankind, from caveman times to the present and starring pretty much every B lister and has-been ever, from the past their prime Marx Brothers to Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Heddy Lamar, and of course, Vincent Price as Ol’ Mr. Scratch) and Cecil B. DeMille’s sweeping and often dull tale of piracy and romance on the 19th Century Georgia coast, Reap the Wild Wind. On the other hand, that’s the movie where Bennett was smart enough to write a scene where John Wayne battles a giant squid, so that counts for something. Still, that’s a basically solid resume, especially for this type of film.
Despite the presence of Vincent Price and the shaky Poe tie-in, War Gods of the Deep isn’t considered part of the Poe cycle, not so much because it wasn’t directed by Corman, but more because it plays out less like a gothic horror film and more like the Clif Notes version of a Jules Verne fantasy adventure film. Of course, Disney had already made pretty much the be-all and end-all Jules Verne fantasy adventure film in 1954 with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Anything else was going to pale in comparison to a film that had the benefit of Disney’s vast financial resources and Kirk Douglas shaking his bon-bon while singing sea chanties and wearing a jaunty little cap. But that never stopped AIP, or anyone else for that matter. And so, in 1965, Tourneur, Bennett, Price, and AIP took us under the ocean for what we all hoped would be a really cool adventure film.
And things start off well enough. Beautiful Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Pajama Party) is minding her own business in her castle by the coast bedroom when, all of a sudden, she is attacked and kidnapped by a hideous gillman who looks like that dude who helped Lando fly the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Perturbed by the kidnapping of his beloved by this uppity haddock, square-jawed hero Ben Harris (reliable Tab Hunter) and his nebbish, ferret-faced sidekick Harold Tufnell-Jones (Disney live-action film regular David Tomilson) follow in leisurely pursuit. And for some reason, Tufnell-Jones (presumably an ancestor of legendary heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnell) insists on bring along his trusty pet: a chicken in a basket. Why exactly, this guy goes everywhere with a chicken is a mystery. Why he is a bachelor, of course, is not. Tufnell-Jones and his chicken are there to provide frequent comic relief. Guess how many times you will laugh at their shenanigans!
Ben and the chicken lover soon find themselves in a maze of sub-aquatic (but never the less dry) caves inhabited by a population of long-lived men ruled over by the mad Captain Hugh (Vincent Price). It seems that Price and his men were once smugglers and, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon this network of sub-aquatic caves leading to the remnants of a city constructed by a highly advanced civilization. By the time Price arrived, however, the society was centuries into decline, the secrets of their technology being lost and the former inhabitants being reduced to nothing more than animalistic gillmen. Price and company made themselves at home amid the decaying remains of the city under the sea, and something about the air down there and the lack of exposure to UV light has resulted in them living for hundreds of years.
Price commands the gillmen, for they consider him their god for one reason or another (no problem — I sort of consider him a god as well) and he had them kidnap Jill for the usual reason: she is the exact spitting image of the captain’s long dead true love. When our heroes arrive to rescue her, they promptly get captured but stave off execution by pretending to be geologists who can help Price out with the big problem: the volcano. Everyone spends some time stalking around the cave-palace, which like pretty much every undersea kingdom in the history of movies about undersea kingdoms, is threatened by a nearby underwater volcano that is going to erupt any moment now. Eventually, Ben, Jill, and their comic relief load are forced to don unwieldy Victorian-style scuba gear (which, for some reason, demands gigantic helmets into which you can fit a man’s head and his accompanying chicken) and flee for their lives with Hugh and his murderous followers in hot pursuit.
And by hot pursuit, I mean…well, let me explain this in detail. You see, everyone is underwater. When you are in water, you swim. It’s really the best way to get around. That’s why all fish do it. That’s why pretty much everyone does it except for those sprinters who practice by trying to run underwater. That established, we then move on to the fact that watching people swim in movies is usually boring. The pitfalls of scuba scenes in cinema are well documented. So how could you take a scene — scuba diving underwater — that could be really boring even if properly done, and ensure that it’s even more boring than you could possibly imagine? Well, instead of swimming, the people could be walking underwater. Yes, indeed. War Gods of the Deep is one of the only movies that thought what people really wanted to see was a foot chase on the floor of the ocean, with people flopping about awkwardly and moving incredibly slowly. But that’s not really enough, you also have to make the scene go on for like ten minutes, and pad it out with dialog-free close-ups of Tufnell-Jones and his chicken looking around.
Now keep in mind that I have a pretty big tolerance for underwater scenes, owing largely to my fascination with what Cousteau referred to as “the silent world” and my love of diving. So trust me when I tell you that this underwater foot chase scene is one of the most horribly boring scenes I’ve ever seen. They try to spice things up by having guys shoot crossbows from time to time, but since no one ever actually gets hit, that never pays off. And every now and then, some of the gillmen swim up and mess around with Ben and the crew, presumably confused by the fact that these humans are walking underwater instead of swimming (thus the ability of the gillmen to swim circles around them). Despite the fact tat the gillmen can swim, breathe underwater, and aren’t weighed down by cumbersome iron helmets, they aren’t very effective at attacking our slowly fleeing heroes. You can pretty much defeat them by swatting at them in that slow-motion way that occurs when you are underwater. It’s a tremendous relief when everyone resurfaces inside some weird temple. The volcano explodes, a giant hand falls on Vincent Price, and a singularly terrifying moment occurs when the heroes put their scuba gear back on. Dear God, no! Please! No more scenes of people awkwardly walking around underwater! This time, however, we’re in luck, because the good guys crawl out of the water and the movie ends.
I’m not sure what went wrong. Good director, good screenwriter, a good cast. I mean, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure, but he’s fine in this role, even though a lot of people pick on his performance. He’s a one-note character, but so is everyone else. And Hunter proves adept at singing the note “stiff straight man.” Susan Hart is vapid and has nothing to do, but she does that nothing well. There’s no chemistry at all between her and Hunter, and once again, as I did with Arabian Adventure, I can’t help but think that this movie would have been greatly improved if our lovers were played by Doug McClure and Caroline Munro. But Hunter and hart are acceptable. Heck, even comic relief guy is unfunny but relatively inoffensive and easy to ignore. To some degree, the blame for this misfire falls on the producer, Louis Heyward, who insisted on monkeying with the script endlessly and much to Tourneur’s annoyance. But AIP sided with Heyward in the conflict, and his changes remained despite the protests of Tourneur, Vincent Price (who had great respect for Tourneur and very little respect for Heyward), and original screenwriter Bennett. But that can only go so far in explaining things — the nail in the coffin of an already flawed work, as it were.
And you know, if I’m replacing cast members, we might as well get rid of David Tomlinson and replace him with Terry-Thomas.
Maybe the whole thing played out better on paper, and no realized how boring it was going to be when actually committed to film. Actually, let me alter that. This movie really isn’t terrible up until the underwater foot chase. It’s no classic of fantasy adventure cinema, but it’s harmless enough. But the underwater footage deep sixes the rest of the movie, which just isn’t buoyant enough to stay afloat with the dead albatross of the underwater foot chase around it’s neck. Is that enough seafarin’ allusions for ya? Then let’s stop beating that dead seahorse and move on to some of the film’s other problems. First and foremost is, and I never thought I’d say this, Vincent Price’s performance. We’ve seen Price play it cool and reserved before to great effect, but the decision for him to play mad Cap’n Hugh with Fall of the Hous eof Usher style reserve was, in my opinion, a tremendous mistake. This movie could have survived its dreadful underwater chase scene if Price had been hamming it up and playing Hugh as crazy and nutty as the script alludes to him being.
Instead, Price’s Hugh comes off as dull. The script is too thin to lend the character a sense of gravity, so there’s no real emotional reaction to him. He’s a villain you hate, or love to hate, or relish, or grow to sympathize with. He merely exists on film for a duration of time, and then a big stone hand falls on him. I mean, this is a mad sea captain living in an undersea city that looks like a crumbling Victorian castle and commanding an army of mutant gillmen while giving speeches about the end of the world. Why on earth would anyone think to play that character with quiet reserve? Vincent Price is, as I think I’ve written before, one of my favorite actors. Quite possibly, he’s my most favorite actor. He never gives less than 100%, and he doesn’t give less than 100% here. But the character is so boring, and Price plays it so straight, that War Gods of the Deep becomes perhaps the only film in which Price is upstaged by a irritating guy with a chicken in a basket.
Speaking of the chicken — what the hell was that about? It’s not like the chicken ever does anything wacky, or like it jumps out and pecks Price on the foot or something. It is simply carried around for the entire movie, having no point at all. Even within the realm of unfunny comic relief, surely no one thinks the mere presence of a chicken is hilarious. A monkey, sure. But a chicken? I don’t get it. This was apparently one of Louis Heyward’s most important contributions t the script, and it’s obvious why everyone else involved with the film thought the guy was a jack-ass. It’s just another way to pad out a really threadbare script. It seems like Bennett got a great concept but quickly wrote himself into a corner, possibly because of budgetary constraints — but I’m not going to buy that considering how many exciting and imaginative films were done with as little or even less money.
Not being able to come up with anything for anyone to do, the movie falls back on repetitive dialog scenes in which Vincent Price explains to us that the glowing,pulsating volcano is a threat (because we wouldn’t have figured it out after the first warning) or in which Tab Hunter and the guy with the chicken ask other people if they remember how to get to the surface. The sudden presence of a beautiful woman who is to be the sole property of the captain amid an undersea kingdom populated entirely by men lends itself to potential conflict, but that’s never bothered with. Or the use of the dim-witted gillmen as thugs and sacrificial lambs who perhaps begin to resent the captain’s manipulation of them? But no, it never goes in that direction either. Like the characters in the movie, it just sort of half-heartedly wanders around the same caverns over and over, until the volcano finally erupts.
Still, as dull as this film turns out to be, there are some redeeming qualities. Well, there’s one. The sets are really nice. And the gillmen are kind of cool looking, even if they end up having very little to do. Tourneur — accustomed to working in black and white and employing shadows to great effect — turns out to be equally adept at manipulating th candy colored Technicolor hues. Although War Gods of the Deep isn’t a good film to watch, it’s a great film to look at. Tourneur’s direction coupled with cinematography by Stephen Dade is gorgeous to behold. And as with the sets, War Gods of the Deep has excellent costumes and the look of a much more expensive production than it actually was.
But that’s precious little to go on, especially when you could be spending your time with far superior aquatic adventures, like the aforementioned Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Japanese film Atragon (from which this film steals some scenes, incidentally). This is also a sad film to end up being the last in Tourneur’s career. If only a giant squid had attacked the city or something, but no. That would have been something interesting, and this film is committed to making sure nothing interesting happens. It’s all, as I said, a tremendous disappointment given the talented cast and crew assembled. But it’s one misstep after another, making War Gods of the Deep the extremely rare crappy fantasy film I actually can’t recommend. Well, maybe watch it once…but just once.
Release Year: 1965 | Country: United States and England | Starring: Vincent Price, David Tomlinson, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, John Le Mesurier, Harry Oscar, Derek Newark, Roy Patrick | Writer: Charles Bennett, Louis Heyward | Director: Jacques Tourneur | Cinematographer: Stephen Dade | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: George Willoughby | Alternate Titles: City Under the Sea
Kaala Sona is another example of the Basmati — or “Curry” — Western, that Bollywood take on the Western that seems to draw more on the European model than the American for its inspiration. Of course, the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay, released at roughly the same time, is considered the gold standard of that genre, and Kaala Sona follows along much the same pattern. Like Sholay, for instance, it’s a Western in feel rather than period, setting its action in the present day while taking advantage of some of the still relatively untamed regions lying within India’s borders. Such an approach allows both films to highlight a favorite Bollywood theme: the urbanized ne’er-do-well who, in being called upon to defend a rural community from a destructive outside force, has his soul awakened to the simple and essential virtues embodied by that community. (In more recent films, that urbanized ne’er-do-well tends to be, more specifically, a Westernized product of the Diaspora, but same idea.)
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
Their first, and easily their best known sci-fi outings, if for no other reason than the association they have with one of the biggest sci-fi cult hits of all time, are their two Doctor Who films starring Peter Cushing as the mysterious time-traveler. At the time, the television series was still shot in black and white. Amicus looked toward two of the very best story arcs from the first Doctor’s series (William Hartnell’s stories The Daleks and The Daleks’ Invasion of Earth), and redid them, only with a bigger budget and in eye-popping color. Although the movies were rehashes with some departures from the series (Peter Cushing, for example, actually refers to himself as “Doctor Who” and with no hint of being an alien — which, while out-of-step for the series as we know it, was still in line with the series at the time), they were hits for Amicus. The appeal of seeing Doctor Who in color and starring one of England’s most beloved actors was a huge draw.
Amicus dabbled in sci-fi on and off in the ensuing years, with generally good results (They Came From Beyond Space), and one or two clunkers (The Deadly Bees). When the British film industry tanked at the beginning of the 1970s, small studios like Amicus were hit particularly hard. Hammer collapsed entirely, despite making some of their best horror films during the early years of that decade. Amicus limped on, however, producing some genuinely interesting films, like the bizarre and enjoyable mash-up of horror, science fiction, and Eurospy films that was Scream and Scream Again. As the decade wore on, the belt-tightening became more and more extreme. Looking for a way to keep their craft afloat, Amicus decided to put their faith in a series of science fiction/fantasy adventure films based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It didn’t work, for a number of reasons, even though the films proved relatively popular with kids and remain nostalgic favorites for people like me.
The first of these films was The Land that Time Forgot, not to be confused with The Land Before Time. Both feature dinosaurs, but only one features a shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl dangling from absurdly visible wires.
When I was a kid, The Land That Time Forgot played pretty regularly on television. Although I know I saw it in the theaters (it was distributed in America by AIP, whose infusion of cash as co-producers was the only thing that enabled Amicus to get these final films finished), my memories are of watching it on television, and fairly frequently at that. These days, now that I have progressed from being a five year old with the mentality of an eight year old, to being a forty-year old with the mentality of…well, a nine year old if we are generous, I can see just how threadbare the productions really were. It didn’t matter to me then, of course, and it didn’t matter to most kids despite the fact that so many people try to project the sophistication of their adult life onto their childhood. “Even as a kid, I could tell these films were cheap,” they claim, and it’s almost never true. Most children view films differently than adults. When a film is cheap and boring, the cheapness doesn’t really register (what do you have, at age six or seven, to even judge cheapness by) and the boring parts wash over you like water off a duck’s back. You tune out when it gets boring, and all you remember afterward are the cool parts. Thus, even really crummy movies can seem relatively enjoyable, because you don’t remember the dull bits; all you remember is the shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl. Oh sure, I know some of you watched these movies with the keen eye of a wizened critic even at age six, and you turned your nose up at how juvenile they were even when you were juvenile. Well, I hope you had fun watching Kramer versus Kramer as a child, while the rest of us were watching dinosaurs fighting a submarine while Doug McClure punched cavemen in the face. I’m sure your childhood was much better off for your refined sense of cinematic value when you were in first grade.
I, of course, was hopelessly lowbrow and common as a child. As an adult, as you know by know, I am equally hopeless and lowbrow. While that means that I am still pleased by loads of cheap juvenile crap while being bored by indie films in which quirky dysfunctional families learn to accept one another, it also means that I also get to enjoy most of my filmgoing experiences, shrugging off most films with an, “Ehh, that was all right.” It keeps me happy and keeps the blood pressure low, even if it deprives me of any claim to righteous fury over how base and moronic most entertainment has become. I’ve made my peace with this, and I’m happier rolling with the punches and genuinely enjoying films than I am getting upset about something as silly as a movie. Which means than even though I can see how floppy the rubber dinosaurs are, and even though I can see the wires on the pterodactyl, and even though I can tell the caveman in its mouth is a wind-up action doll, I still really enjoy The Land That Time Forgot.
The year is 1916 or 1917. The United States has yet to enter into World War I, which has yet to be named World War I, but we are more visible in our support of the Allied cause. In turn, Germany has announced the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare. At the start of the war, Germany operated its much feared u-boat fleet under certain restrictions in regard to the rules of good sportsmanship during a war. They would not, for example, attack civilian vessels, limiting themselves to torpedoing identifiable military ships belonging to their enemies (mostly England). As the war in Western Europe ground to a stalemate, Germany began to revise their u-boat strategy, first attacking any ships belonging to their enemies, and then any ships belonging to anyone they though might be helping their enemies (thus bringing American ships under fire). And then, finally, they pretty much started torpedoing anything that wasn’t German. The policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was one of the major tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war (though it wasn’t the coup de grace — that being a telegram from Germany pitching a plan to bring Mexico into the war on the side of the Germans). The Germans maintained that most of the so-called civilian ships they attacked were carrying weapons and supplies to the beleaguered Brits, who were deviously smuggling equipment from American suppliers aboard such civilian craft.
The Land that Time Forgot picks up its story during this time of expanding u-boat warfare. German submarine captain Von Schoenvorts has just finished torpedoing a ship of the type described above: civilian but suspected of containing smuggled supplies. Despite the job being well done, and although he believes in the German cause, Von Schoenvorts is in no mood to celebrate killing civilians. He’d be even less celebratory if he knew one of the civilians who survived was American entrepreneur Doug McClure, here playing a guy named Bowen Tyler, but he’s pretty much just Doug McClure. Isn’t he always? And aren’t we always thankful for it? McClure is adrift now, along with the one other survivor who, lucky for McClure, happens to be lovely and female (Susan Penhaligon), and lucky for the script, also happens to be a scientist. I think she’s a biologist, but really, she seems to be one of those classic movie style scientists who knows a lot about everything. Thanks to my sister, herself a biologist, I have met many other scientists and many other biologists, and they always seem to be very specialized in what they do. My sister, for example, can tell you pretty much everything you need to know about various types of bats and blind cave fish, but I think if you dropped a caveman off in her lab and asked her about him, she’d have little more to say than what could be gleaned from watching Encino Man, which is that cavemen love to party and swing from things. But Susan Penhaligon’s Lisa Clayton is as comfortable finding her way around a protozoa as she is a caveman, a diplodicus, or Doug McClure. She’s also handy with geography, and she probably knows a few things about botany. But not mechanical stuff. That’s for the guys, and luckily, Doug McClure happens to be the son of a guy who designs submarines. But it is the early 20th Century, so perhaps science was still more generalized, like how centuries before, Sir Isaac Newton could be good at calculus, physics, and poking metal rods into his own eye sockets to see how deformation of the eyeball affected seeing.
When it happens that a few other survivors float by, all of them British sailors, and our merry band happens to find the U-boat that torpedoed them, the gang is well-suited for a hostile take-over. So begins a cat-and-mouse battle between the Germans and Brits plus Doug McClure, with each side trying to either out-muscle or out-sneak the other side to get the upper hand and win/lose control of the submarine. Now you might be wondering whether you’re watching a movie about Doug McClure fighting dinosaurs or a WWI era submarine adventure. And indeed, the first half of this film concerns itself primarily with Great War U-boat shenanigans. However, I never really found these proceedings to be dull, as not only do I like WWI stuff, but I also like the glimpses into the characters — specifically von Schoenvorts (himself an amateur naturalist). When the move/counter-move mini-war on the sub results in the ship ending up off the coast of Antarctica, very low on fuel and with no hope of reaching a supply ship or port, the two sides form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to figure out how the hell to get themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten into. A large cave from which pours forth warm, fresh water, seems the best possible alternative, because when in doubt, why not take your submarine into a completely uncharted cave. But they do, and despite some close scrapes, they safely navigate through and into…
An amazing tropical prehistoric wonderland!
Previously, we looked at the Doug McClure fantasy adventure film At the Earth’s Core, from the same production company and director, and reflected briefly on the history of hollow earth theories that inspired the various “world within the world” adventures stories like Pellucidar, the series upon which the film was based. This time around, we’re tackling a theory that had a very similar evolution from scientific theory to discredited crackpot theory to fodder for pulp sci-fi and adventure writers. And once again, tracing the origins of such beliefs takes us far back in time. As with the caves and earthquakes, fissures and sinkholes, that most likely let primitive man to conceptualize a world below the surface of the earth, so too can we assume that the birth of the idea of the arctic as a place of magic comes from it being an equally impenetrable and difficult to understand region. In the days before performance fleece and Russian ice breakers, the remote, freezing north must have been nearly as impenetrable as the depths of the oceans. But men ventured there, from time to time, and when they did, who knows what things they beheld — augmented, of course, by the old timey storytellers’ penchant for bullshit.
Early accounts of Greek thinkers theorized that, because the northern stars didn’t seem to rotate around the earth in the same fashion as other stars, that they must be above an equally unusual land. Although polar exploration was likely out of the question, the Arctic circle itself was within reach of ancient man, provided he brought enough furs and mukluks. But the Greeks simply made up their own stories about this curious place to the north, beneath the Arktos constellations. They “theorized” — perhaps with the aid of Dionysus — that this land existed above the north wind, and thus was pleasant in climate if you survived the curtain of murderous cold that surrounded it. The land was, furthermore, once populated by advanced beings known as the Hyperboreans who, being lucky enough to live in such an awesome world, were basically gods. However, the toil of a perfect existence eventually wore them down, and out of boredom, the Hyperboreans drowned themselves.
In 330 B.C., someone actually did bother to set out for these mysterious northern lands. Greek astronomer Pytheus purportedly sailed north of the British Isles and discovered there a land he dubbed Thule, where during the Summer Solstice the sun did not set. Pytheas attempted to continue his harsh northward trek, but the ship was turned back by an impenetrable wall of what he referred to as “sea lungs.” Fantastic at the time, we can today understand the basic truths behind Pytheas’ accounts. Thule could be any of the lands north of Britain: The Shetlands, the coasts of assorted Scandanavian countries. Non-setting suns in these regions at certain times of the year are understood and accounted for. And sea lungs are, more than likely, massive icebergs and floes.
Long after Pytheas journey to the north, more and more stories began to filter down, often from early British and Norse sailors. These stories, given the average ancient sailor’s taste for embellishment, became increasingly fanciful. Aside from the ancient Greek idea of a lush tropical paradise beyond the curtain of cold, these early explorers added pygmies and various monsters to the mix. In the late 1500s, England mounted official expeditions to the region, largely in hopes of laying claim to it as part of the empire. It was even claimed that King Arthur, the quasi-mythical father of what was then modern England, mounted expeditions to the arctic regions. The early Elizabethan efforts, while both brave and groundbreaking, did little to advance the cause of the northernmost world being within England’s sphere of influence. It turns out that the chief problem with exploring the Arctic is that most of the people who try it die of starvation and exposure, provided they aren’t frozen or drowned when their ships hits an iceberg. Or they simply go mad when they find their ships iced in and unable to free themselves. Despite all that, it was during this era that England established tenuous toeholds in places as far north as the Baffin Islands.
Exploration picked up again in the 1800s. This time it was ignited by stories of a navigable “northwest passage,” a sailing route clear of ice than would allow ships to sail over the top of the world, thus saving untold months that had to be spent sailing around the giant continents that got in the way of easy cruising between, say, England and India. This time, they weren’t just shooting for the arctic regions; they were aiming for the very Pole itself. Not surprisingly, a science fiction writer beat them to it. Although little of it made it into subsequent — and more familiar — film versions, Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, is concerned at least partially with an ill-fated arctic expedition, the captain of which seems bitterly and ironically disappointed that there isn’t any mystical tropical paradise to greet them at journey’s end. There is, instead, only more and harsher cold. It is on this expedition that they encounter another ill-fated arctic traveler, Victor Von Frankenstein, traveling with his now infamous creature. While most film versions of the story concern themselves purely with the creation of the monster in Frankenstein’s Jacob’s Ladder-strewn laboratory, and the eventual destruction of the creature by torch-wielding peasants storming the castle, the book actually ends with the creature escaping toward the North Pole, presumably going there to die.
Exploiting the fervor over dramatic leaps in exploring the world during the 1800s and relying on the old myths and legends, the science fiction and pulp writers of the era began cranking out a number of stories about the discovery of strange lands at the top and bottom of the world. Most of these fell within the realm of what we can today classify as “lost worlds” literature. As the remote corners of the earth became less remote, new discoveries of ancient civilizations were happening with stunning rapidity. Most dramatic among these was the excavation of ancient Egyptian sites, but similar excavations and scientific expeditions were taking place everywhere from the heart of the Amazon Jungle to the steppes of Mongolia. Scientists were having a field day, and so too were the writers of fantastic fiction. In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe entered into the game with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a fictionalized account of a man’s incredible adventure at the South Pole and of the mysterious creatures he encountered. Incredibly, the story was thought for a time to be a work of non-fiction.
When explorers finally did penetrate the top of the world, thus dispelling any myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth, it did little to dispel myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth. H.P. Lovecraft wrote a pseudo-sequel to Poe’s work, entitled At the Mountain of Madness, which proffers the hole into which Pym fell into lead to a land populated by his now famous shoggoths. A group of German mystics founded something called the Thule Society in 1912, combining the more or less believable accounts of Pyhtean’s voyage north with the more fantastical old belief in the Hyperboreans, then layering on top of that a healthy dose of master race B.S. and anti-Semitism. According to the Thule Society, Thule wasn’t just a name for some existing northern land before such places had names known to Greeks. It was, in fact, an actual island, one populated by the super-advanced Hyperboreans who, like the Atlanteans (and the Muu-ians, and the Lemorians, and presumably the Seatopians), perished when their island paradise sank into the sea. However, a few Hyperboreans escaped and became the German race, condemned to live out their lives on the European mainland amid all the Jews and other inferior races who wore pants and stuff, instead of the silver lame mini-tunics with golden shoulder pads and tiaras, which is what I assume all super-advanced inhabitants of lost continents wore. The Thule Society eventually went on to be a Nazi farm team, and no one in the Thule Society’s Nazi wing ever addressed the fact that while the Jews may have been inferior, at least their continent never sank into the sea.
You would think that something as daft and racist as the Thule Society would have finally put the “mystic arctic” theories to rest. But then, you’d be underestimating the strong desire of people to believe really ridiculous shit. In fact, post World War II, theories about secret paradises above the Arctic Circle enjoyed a resurgence, with the claim now added that the North Pole was a base for UFOs piloted not by space aliens with an affinity for anally probing Midwestern farmers, but by Nazis who had escaped after Word War II and rediscovered ancient Hyperborean technology, allowing them to build experimental flying saucers to be used when the Fourth Reich rose up and conquered the world. Once again, pulp writers had a field day. These days, despite the fact that commercial flights pass over it and young women ski across it, and rich people drink champagne and go there on giant Russian ships to look at polar bears, conspiracy theories about secret UFO bases, gateways to the hollow earth, and lush tropical paradises at the North Pole still enjoy a surprising degree of popularity, with all the evidence to the contrary dismissed as “a government cover-up.” Such theories were lent further fuel when, in 2004, researchers began digging up fossil evidence that at some point (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years ago) the Arctic enjoyed a subtropical climate. That this would have been long before the dawn of man is of little consequence, the Hyperboreans of course being a totally different race. Unfortunately, arctic researchers have turned up little more than the fossilized remnants of plants. To date, they have found no ray guns, UFOs, or silver lame mini-tunics — that they’ve told us about.
Amid all of this (1922, to be exact), Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story The Land that Time Forgot. And many years later, a nearly bankrupt Amicus Productions sent Doug McClure to the fantastic tropical lost world of Caprona, where he and the combined German and British crew soon discover the land is positively crawling with dinosaurs — and dinosaurs from various epochs. They also discover cavemen who, like the dinosaurs, seem to be in varied states of evolutionary advancement. Through her incredible ability to interpret caveman grunts and chest slapping, as well as her ability to look through a microscope with von Schoenvorts, Lisa is able to divine the mysteries of Caprona. It seems that evolution in this lost world occurs not over a period of millennia, but within the span of a single lifetime, with great evolutionary leaps being taken as part of a mysterious metamorphosis. The further south one travels, the more advanced the humans become. While Lisa and von Schoenvorts are fascinated by this biological phenomenon, and while Doug McClure seems happy to pal around with a caveman and shoot dinosaurs, most of the sailors on both sides are keen to get the hell out of Caprona so they can stop being eaten by dinosaurs and return to the safety and luxury of World War One. When they discover crude oil, they discover the means of their escape. However, like all lost worlds, this one is menaced by a restless volcano that could blow at any minute.
As with Kevin Connor’s other adventures based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land that Time Forgot is low-budget and crammed with tons of really awful special effects. In 1925, Harry Hoyt and Marion Fairfax’s silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World became the first “lost world” movie, and it was said at the time that the special effects work of Willis O’Brien (who would later go on to do the effects for the original King Kong) were so good that audiences would be completely fooled into thinking the film was a documentary with actual footage of living dinosaurs. I don’t know how many people did believe the dinosaurs were real, but it’s safe to say that the effects in 1925 were far better than the effects we see in 1975. The effects in The Land that Time Forgot aren’t quite as bad as, say, Mighty Gorga, but they are pretty bad.
On the other hand, they are also colorful and hypnotic. As a kid, I was fascinated by them and not phased by how shoddy they were. As an adult, I still think they are fun. Plus, what the movie lacks in quality it more than makes up for in quantity. Once the u-boat arrives in Caprona, all vestiges of the rather serious World War One maritime adventure vanish, and the dinosaur and caveman attacks come more or less non-stop. As McClure and his buddies venture further and further south, the evolutionary mysteries of the lost world become even more puzzling. So do the geographical mysteries, because although it is assumed that they have hiked days away from the lake that is their base, everyone seems to be able to jog back to the submarine within a matter of minutes.
The cast, comprised mostly of professional British stalwarts, is solid. McClure turns in his usual performance, but that’s really all I ever want from him. Yet again, he’s a regular Joe who runs up against the fantastic and deals with it mostly by punching it in the face. Some people don’t care for McClure’s style. I’m not among those people, but even if I was, I’d have to admit that his final “we are so fucked” expression as he watched the submarine disappear is incredible. Connor’s direction is, also, about the same as always, meaning that he correctly positions the camera and shoots his scenes, but never adds very much character to the film. I sort of prefer that style of direction to the overbearingly tricky “look at me and how clever I am” style of self-indulgent direction we see today. Connor recognizes that his movie is colorful and full of crude rubber dinosaur, and you don’t add much to the formula by zooming the camera around and doing lots of crazy editing.
Although I’m sure this film benefits in some degree from my own nostalgia regarding it, the end result is the same. I really like it. It’s one of those rainy Saturday afternoon matinee films that seeks to do little more than entertain you. Aside from plenty of fun dinosaur and caveman adventure, The Land that Time Forgot offers up really one of the most downbeat and apocalyptic endings of any movie aimed at kids. As McClure tries to rescue Lisa from a band of slightly more advanced cavemen (naturally they kidnapped her), the volcano erupts (also naturally). As they struggle to make it back to the submarine, the truce between the Germans and the Brits finally starts to break down. Von Schoenvorts, the sentimentalist, wants to wait for McClure and Lisa. His first mate, a realist, wants to leave before it’s too late. In the end, no one wins, as pretty much everyone guns down everyone else, and the cave collapses, crushing the submarine and the few in it who were still alive. McClure and Lisa are stranded in Caprona, with nothing to do except follow the land’s mysteries ever further south, until at last they reach what is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world. There, they toss a message in a bottle into the raging Antarctic seas, hoping against all hope that someone, someday, will find it, believe it, and come rescue them.
And unfortunately, someone did.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Doug McClure, John McEnery, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Barron, Anthony Ainley, Godfrey James, Bobby Parr, Declan Mulholland, Colin Farrell, Ben Howard, Roy Holder | Writer: James Cawthorn, Michael Moorcock | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: Douglas Gamley
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”
A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.
By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.
In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.
American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.
In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.
It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.
Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?
None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.
Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.
For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.
Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.
Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.
I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.
That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.
But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.
Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.
So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.
So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I find the Philippines’ Tagalog language pop cinema of the 1960s strikingly similar to Turkish pulp cinema of the same period. The products of both are comparably rough hewn and action oriented and, by necessity of their staggering volume, bear the hallmarks of being churned out at a very brisk pace. Both are also brimming with fanciful costumed heroes, many of which are lifted directly from Western pop culture sources with little or no concern for matters of copyright. Of course, the Filipino’s have their own rich comic book history to draw from, and the decade would also see numerous screen adaptations of homegrown superheroes such as Captain Barbell, Lastikman, and Mars Ravelo’s Wonder Woman inspired Darna, but audiences at the time were just as likely to be treated to fare along the lines of Batman Fights Dracula or Zoom, Zoom, Superman!
Filipino cinema had not always been that way, however. In fact, the previous decade had been what is now considered a golden age for the country’s film industry, dominated by a quartet of major studios known as “The Big Four”, who turned out relatively lavish prestige productions built around their respective stables of glamorous stars. Financial troubles and the resulting defection of contracted talent started to take their toll on those studios toward the end of the fifties, and by the mid sixties Sampaguita Productions was the last of the Big Four left standing.
And the landscape that Sampaguita found itself a part of was a markedly changed one, made up of dozens of scrappy independent production companies seeking to turn a quick profit by grinding out hastily produced imitations of whatever international product Filipino audiences were paying to see at the moment. This translated primarily into countless indigenous interpretations of the James Bond and Eurospy films (resulting, among others things, in the phenomenally successful and long running Tony Falcon: Agent X-44 series), Spaghetti Westerns. and, of course, the ubiquitous Batman television series and the numerous European costumed capers inspired by it. In this sense, Sampaguita’s 1966 production James Batman can be seen as one of the studio’s efforts to go with the dollar-chasing flow of this new industry environment.
Another tendency in Filipino cinema that is at play in James Batman — one that, in fact, can still be seen in the industry’s current cinematic output — is a fondness for broad, Mad Magazine-style lampoons of Western pop culture products. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to see this as reflecting some ambivalence on the part of the Filipino people regarding the inescapable cultural influence of their former occupiers, but, whatever the case, the result was that, alongside more earnest efforts such as the Agent X-44 films, Pinoy filmmakers were producing an equal number of spoofs along the lines of James Bone, which starred the emaciated comedian Palito as a skeletal superspy.
This particular trend was a boon to one performer born Rodolfo Vera Quizon, who, under the name Dolphy, would go on to become the most beloved screen comedian in the history of Pinoy cinema (such was his popularity at the time of making James Batman that he had recently had the gig of warming up the crowd for The Beatles during the mop-topped ones’ ultimately disastrous visit to the islands). After initially rising to fame in the fifties in a series of cross-dressing roles (sure-fire comedic gold in the macho culture of the Philippines), Dolphy had, by the mid-sixties, reinvented himself somewhat in a series of secret agent spoofs such as Dr. Yes, Dolpinger, Genghis Bond: Agent 1-2-3 (all 1965) and Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (1966). Dolphy didn’t limit himself to parodying the spy genre, and also lampooned comic characters such as Tarzan and Captain Barbell during this period — and for James Batman combined the two with a dual performance as comedic versions of both James Bond and Batman.
What makes James Batman such a strange animal — aside from the obvious — is that, in parodying the James Bond films of the mid sixties and the Adam West Batman television series, it’s spoofing two things that are already spoofs themselves. On top of that, the film, in addition to delivering lots of very broad slapstick comedy, also strives to function as a proper action film, and as such features quite a lot of fairly soberly staged fight sequences and action set pieces. In fact, by the time we reach the final act, most of the comic antics have been dispensed with, and James Batman plays out its remaining length as a fairly straightforward action melodrama. The result is that the movie gets to have it both ways by presenting Batman and James Bond, as the objects of parody, as cowardly and preening, while still having them go on to perform the daring heroic feats that the audience expected of them.
James Batman‘s action starts at what is apparently some kind of congress of Asian nations, at which a Fu Manchu-like emissary of the criminal organization CLAW shows up to make extortion demands and threaten nuclear annihilation upon those who would not comply. What was most striking to me about this scene was the CLAW emissary’s sidekick, who was played by a very elderly man who looked both disoriented and confused throughout, leading me to speculate that someone’s grandfather had been put to work during furlough from the rest home. Anyway, the combined nations decide that the threat from CLAW is so great that the services of both Batman and James Bond are required. An actually kind of funny scene follows in which the movie’s distinctly childish and self-regarding versions of both Batman and Bond, who are obviously none too fond of one another, sit before the committee and argue why each of them should be given the job exclusively — an argument that quickly devolves into each of them shouting “pick me!” at the delegates.
One of the perks of the job for Batman is that it will increase his proximity to the chairman’s beautiful young daughter, Shirley. Unfortunately, while Shirley is crazy about Batman (exemplified by a shot of her gazing dreamy-eyed at a magazine that confusingly features a photo of Batman and Robin as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward), she has no time for Batman’s alter ego, Dolpho, despite the insistence of her controlling older sister Delia that Dolpho, with his many millions, is a prime catch. Meanwhile, the members of CLAW — which include a cloaked figure called Drago, an especially tall and roided-up interpretation of The Penguin, a guy with a spiked ball for a hand, and a masked female called The Black Rose who is clearly derived from the character in Chor Yuen’s Cantonese film of the same name — have learned that Bond, Batman and “Rubin” are on the case, and determine to eliminate them before they interfere with their plans.
In addition to former Sampaguita contract player Dolphy, the cast of James Batman serves as something of a showcase for Sampaguita’s house talent at the time. Boy Alano, who plays Rubin, began his acting career at the age of ten, when he co-starred in the 1951 film Roberta, a smash hit that helped rescue the studio from bankruptcy following a fire that consumed a large part of its property. Bella Flores, who plays Delia, had portrayed the female heavy in that same film, and her performance was so iconic that it pretty much doomed her to the type of bad girl roles we see her essaying here. Finally, Shirley Moreno, who plays “Shirley”, was a recent discovery whom Sampaguita head Dr. Jose Perez had that year included in a promotional launch of the studio’s new faces dubbed “Stars 66″. Despite the Spanish surname, the fair-skinned, conspicuously Anglo-looking Moreno serves as a perfect example of the Caucasian standard of feminine beauty that dominated in the Pinoy film industry at the time — and still does to some extent today.
With its simple set-up out of the way, James Batman proceeds along a trajectory not unsimilar to that of most spy films of its era, trotting out a succession of action set pieces based around the villain’s serial attempts to pick off our heroes. Only, in this case, those set pieces are punctuated by gag scenes in which, to give a few examples, Batman gets pantsed and produces condiments from his utility belt, and James Bond gets bitten on his bare ass by a rubber centipede. Alano’s portrayal of Rubin as somewhat of a cretin also provides the opportunity for some Three Stooges-style rough stuff, since Dolphy/Batman is frequently driven to violence by his idiocy. Elsewhere, the level of the movie’s humor can best be summed up by the phrase “boobies… hee hee”.
For the most part, Dolphy’s scripted dialog is painfully unfunny, but what struck me as I watched James Batman is how he comes across as being a genuinely funny guy despite that. This is conveyed mostly through what appear to be throwaway bits of physical improv — such as when, as Batman, he follows a pre-crime-fighting snack by casually wiping his hands on Rubin’s cape — and by a genuinely quirky repertoire of mannerisms and physical gestures that make the most of his spindly frame and boney, thin-lipped countenance. I think that what really works for Dolphy is his somewhat sadsack, sour-faced demeanor, an aspect that not only serves to distance him from the goofy obviousness of the humor he’s perpetrating, but also provides a contrast to the type of desperate, googly-eyed antics so often seen in cinematic comic relief characters from this period.
As mentioned before, Dolphy’s portrayals of Bond and Batman veer toward the comically vain and juvenile — an exercise in broad-stroke subversion that’s aided by some equally unsubtle costuming choices. These include Batman/Dolphy’s baggy long johns-based costume that continually slips to his knees, and which is adorned with a chest emblem that looks like a female silhouette better suited for a semi’s mud flaps. Bond/Dolphy, for his part, is decked out in a stunning plaid three-piece suit with matching Trilby, an ensemble that is really shown to best advantage during a makeout scene that takes place on an identically patterned couch. (Though, to be honest, whether this outfit was actually intended to look ridiculous, or was instead someone’s actual idea of high style was unclear to me.) Interestingly, despite being the only character to receive a satirical rechristening, “Rubin” gets to wear a costume that is entirely faithful to that of his inspiration.
Predictably, James Batman looks like it was made for about a dollar, but that doesn’t mean that efforts weren’t made to make it look as good as possible under the circumstances. Director Artemio Marquez and cinematographer Amaury Agra imbue the film throughout with fluid camera work and imaginative, comic book-influenced compositions, and the many action sequences are generally well staged and shot. Furthermore, the black and white photography serves to some extent to mask the heavy cardboard and construction paper content of the sets, and elements such as the modified Cadillac that serves as the Batmobile actually don’t look too bad as long as the camera doesn’t dwell on them for too long. Spicing things up further are some interesting location choices, including the operational processing plant in which the climactic battle scene is staged, which looks like it must have presented some very real hazards for the actors involved.
James Batman comes to a dramatic head when the CLAW gang, in accordance with their supervillain mandate, kidnap Shirley and abscond with her to their secret headquarters. Bond, Batman and Rubin are close behind, of course, and, with the aid of two undercover agents working within the organization, lay siege to the compound, all the while dodging the deadly cartoon rays shooting from the giant lady fingers that ornament Drago’s throne room. All leads to a dramatic reveal of the real brains behind the organization and, ultimately, some stock footage explosions. It’s a climax that offers the type of crossover thrills that only a flagrant disregard for international copyrights can guaranty — and if you’re the type of fanboy for whom a fight between James Bond (or, at least, a malnourished-looking, Pacific Islander version of same) and The Penguin represents sheer nirvana, it should seal the deal on whether or not you are going to begin the long grey market search for a murky dub of the film.
Personally — and much to my surprise, given my expectations going in — I’m going to come down reservedly on the pro side of the James Batman argument. This is due in part to the fact that, given that the majority of Filipino films from its era have been lost, it is one of the few remaining examples of films of its type. But I also have to say that, despite it being every bit as stupid as I expected it to be, it was still entertaining, and proceeded at a fast enough clip that none of its potential irritants were with me long enough to do much damage. Points are also in order, I feel, for the fact that its humor, no matter how juvenile, really does have a subversive component to it; the underdog lover in me just has to feel a little warm and fuzzy about inhabitants of a downtrodden island nation like the Philippines so gleefully thumbing their noses at institutionalized symbols of Western might like James Bond and Batman. That in doing so they manage to make the voraciously plundering pulp cinema of Turkey seem reverent by comparison is even more impressive. Plus, you know, boobies… hee hee.
What with my recent cinematic diet consisting mostly of overheated Bollywood masala movies and plagiarism-filled Thai man-in-suit monster sagas, I’ve gotten well past the point where it’s time to mix things up a bit. And what better respite than to watch some attractive French people screwing and languorously declaiming about the futility of it all? Granted, that isn’t an entirely accurate description of Slogan; For one, the attractive person in that scenario is Jane Birkin, who is British, while the French one is Serge Gainsbourg, who once famously summed up his position on ugliness by saying that he preferred it to beauty because it endured. Still, there’s no hint of either Amitabh Bachchan, Turkish people in ill-fitting superhero costumes, or latex creatures of any kind within miles of this picture, which is all that I’m really asking for.
Much has been said about Serge Gainsbourg in his roles as songwriting genius, pop music provocateur, archetypal seedy Frenchman, and guy who told Whitney Houston he wanted to do her on national television, but very little has been said about his career as a support player in European B movies. How could this be? After all, long before he made his mark on the French pop scene in the mid-sixties, Gainsbourg had paid the bills by both scoring and appearing in a string of films, a number of which were well within the purview of a site like Teleport City. These included a pair of Italian director Gianfranco Parolini’s Brad Harris Samson films, which were made before both Parolini and Harris moved on to the Kommissar X series. Both these and the earlier peplum Revolt of the Slaves put Gainsbourg’s somewhat ferret-y looks to good use, playing up the more sinister aspects of his physical demeanor in a series of juicy villain roles. Gainsbourg would also contribute to the Eurospy genre with his appearance in one of the Roger Hanin “Tiger” films (which he also scored), Carre de Dames pour Un As.
Of course, by the time of starring in Slogan in 1969, Gainsbourg had become an established figure in the French pop music scene, having written hit songs for such stars as France Gall, Francoise Hardy, Petula Clark and Brigitte Bardot, as well as making a dent in the charts on his own with solo recordings of classics like “Qui est In Qui est Out”. As such, Slogan, unlike those earlier meal-tickets, shows all the signs of having been built around Gainsbourg’s by this time well established persona. As a result we get the extravagantly dissolute 40 year old pop maverick Serge Gainsbourg starring as extravagantly dissolute 40 year old advertising maverick Serge Faberge, who embarks upon an ill-fated affair with Evelyne, an 18 year old British model played by then 22 year old British actress Jane Birkin. Slogan, in fact, plays out very much like one of Gainsbourg’s songs from the period: Sexy and stylish on the surface and loaded with sly pop culture references, but at its heart a melancholy rumination on mortality and loss.
However, whatever the intentions behind Slogan might have been at the time, when watching the film today, they tend to get overshadowed by events that we now know were taking place behind the scenes: namely that Birkin and Gainsbourg were making a love connection that would result in one of pop’s most iconic romances. Birkin was still a relative newcomer at the time, having made her initial splash in 1966 with Antonioni’s Blow-up, a film in which she appeared only briefly but also very nakedly. Long-limbed, lank-haired and coltish, with an ethereal blue-eyed gaze, Birkin so embodied a certain aspect of the late 60s aesthetic that some of her early films seemed to use her as more of a design element than an actress. As legend has it, Birkin, curious about her aloof costar, finagled a dinner invitation which lead to a long night of clubbing in Paris — including stops at a transvestite bar and a club where American bluesman Joe Turner was playing — that ended with the hard drinking Gainsbourg passing out in his hotel room.
As inauspicious as it may sound, that night would mark the beginning of a passionate love affair that, over the course of its twelve year duration, would not only produce two children (the actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg being one of them) but also provide the spark for a number of dazzling pop artifacts. As an initial volley, the newly formed Birkin/Gainsbourg union announced their love to the world with what would become one of Gainsbourg’s biggest and most notorious international hits, the duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”). Gainsbourg had originally recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but Bardot had begged him not to release it for fear that the track might jeopardize her marriage. The final version, which featured Birkin very convincingly feigning orgasm while Gainsbourg mutter/crooned phrases such as “Physical love is a dead end”, would go on to directly influence Donna Summer’s disco breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” and cement Gainsbourg’s undying reputation as the dirty old man of French pop.
Obviously one of the more fruitful muse/mentor relationships of its type, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s affair would also serve as the impetus for, among other things, Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson and his directing debut, a 1976 feature also titled Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus that starred Birkin in the lead role. The pair would also continue to star together on screen, even returning to Serge’s Eurotrash cinema roots for Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye — a film that, despite having a title that’s as giallo as all get-out, was in reality just an underwhelming gothic thriller.
So knowing all of this today, it’s difficult to watch Slogan without losing sight of its tale of an ill-advised affair between two shallow and self-absorbed characters for all of the romantic sparks, both actual and perceived, that we see flying between its stars. And, while Slogan is far from a terrible film on its own merits, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it distracts us from just how insufferably annoying those characters are. Gainsbourg’s Serge Faberge is a work-obsessed, habitual womanizer in the throes of a midlife crisis gone nuclear who, being also a married man with a baby on the way, employs all of the deceptions, both of himself and others, that such a combination of traits requires. Birkin’s Evelyne, on the other hand, is insecure, needy and destructively impulsive, and, when she’s not simply seducing the camera with her very Birkin-ness, prone to sulking and shrill tantrums made even less tolerable by a French accent that’s clangy even to a non-speaker.
Despite whatever flaws can be found in Gainsbourg and Birkin’s performances, it cannot be said that they aren’t courageous or lacking in vanity. This is especially true in Gainsbourg’s case, as the age difference between Faberge and Evelyne (and by extension between he and Birkin) and its implications are far from glossed over, and in fact are repeatedly highlighted as a symptom of Faberge’s benighted struggle with his impending mortality. Gainsbourg doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his character, which is remarkable, given that the chain-smoking, coolly detached exterior that this frightened and confused man hides behind is so nearly indistinguishable from his own public persona. As a result, those scenes in which Gainsbourg/Faberge morosely obsesses over his growing paunch, or sheepishly tells his pregnant wife lies that you can tell he’s desperately trying to believe himself, are more than a little uncomfortable to watch, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to Gainsbourg’s integrity as a performer.
At Slogan‘s outset, Faberge meets the young Evelyne by chance while in Venice to accept an advertising award — an occasion which he has already used as an opportunity for a pre-arranged extramarital tryst with another young model. At first, all is laughing strolls and romantic montages set to a fantastically lush and swirling Gainsbourg score, but soon Evelyne, either too naive or too self involved to truly take Faberge’s measure, wants more. Not surprisingly, Faberge is put off by her sudden demands for commitment. You’d expect that he’d be happy to be rid of her at this point, but when Evelyne runs back to England and announces plans to marry the fiancé she previously ditched for Faberge, Faberge follows and brings her back to Paris. At this time, as at others, it seems that Faberge is continuing the relationship more out of obstinacy than anything else, wanting to prove to his wife, his friends and, most importantly, himself that it’s one based on authentic, deep feelings rather than merely his own desperate clinging to youth.
Faberge eventually separates from his wife and moves into an apartment with Evelyne, where, after a brief honeymoon period, the lovers’ bickering begins to escalate. Meanwhile, Faberge has won a lucrative advertising contract with Shell Oil (about as naked a symbol of brute American capital as you could place within this context) and, despite his announced intention to begin work on a “real movie”, his subsequent preoccupation with the campaign drives a further wedge between them. Finally, with a year come and gone, Serge and Evelyne return to Venice for another award ceremony, only to encounter that natural enemy of cradle-robbing old men everywhere: studly young Italian boys.
Throughout Slogan there are scenes of Faberge meeting with his colleagues and clients in which the advertising industry’s — and, by extension, the culture at large’s — obsession with youth is given ample play (“The youngsters will buy it” is a constantly heard refrain). And this wouldn’t be a sixties film if there weren’t some none-too-subtle ironic juxtapositions of televised war and disaster footage for all of that to play out against. In this context, the adman serves as an especially insidious representation of the establishment, as his goal is to decode the language of youth in order to exploit if for his own commercial gain. Given that, it’s possible that Serge’s humiliation at the hands of youth is meant as some type of poetic justice. But positioning Serge Gainsbourg as “The Man” simply doesn’t work here because, well… he’s Serge Gainsbourg. Regardless of how old — or ugly — he is, the man is just too cool to stand in for the calcified values of his generation.
This is another aspect of Slogan that may be undermined by the obvious romantic chemistry between its stars. The age difference, because it is explicitly acknowledged up front, actually becomes less of a problem, especially since Gainsbourg, gnomic, jug-eared and clean shaven as he is (it was reportedly Birkin who encouraged the perpetual three-day stubble), has enough of the mischievous boy about him to make the connection between the two seem credible. Finally, the film (which, by the way, includes among its three writers Melvin Van Peebles!) can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to punish the character Faberge or celebrate the icon Gainsbourg. All of those combined self-inflicted losses that we might expect to leave Faberge reeling at the film’s conclusion instead appear to have left him unchanged, and as the credits roll, he’s slyly chatting up a new sweet young thing, much as we might expect Gainsbourg’s more id-driven alter ego, Gainsbarre, to do. Then again, this might be another one of those disservices done to Slogan by hindsight, as, at this point, its impossible to look at Birkin and Gainsbourg and see anything but Birkin and Gainsbourg, and hence impossible to see Slogan at all clearly as the film that it was initially intended to be.
To the extent that it concerns people who are obsessed with surfaces, Slogan is also a movie about things, and, as such, it contains enough dome-topped, modular and polychromatic plastic appliances and fixtures to fuel a retro-fetishist’s fever dreams for years to come. Faberge’s office and the apartment he shares with Evelyne in particular look like they could have been inhabited by characters from Gerry Anderson’s UFO. Both director Pierre Grimblat and cinematographer Claude Beusoleil do a nice job of contrasting these sterile modern surfaces with the timeworn beauty of Venice featured in those scenes at the films opening and close, accentuating on one hand the sense of tragic romance at the film’s core and, on the other, its depiction of the manufactured distances that people place between one another.
While many of Slogan‘s no doubt modest intentions may have become obscured by the imposing backward reaching shadows cast by its stars and their legacies, it still provides an illuminating snapshot of one particular aspect of its cultural moment. By that I refer to the collective mid-life crisis that, as the sixties crept into the seventies, seemed to effect an entire generation of middle-aged and middle-class adults who, finding themselves abandoned outright by the youth obsessed commercial culture of their time, began to embrace a sort of neutered version of the hippy counterculture, free of all the utopian idealism and leftist political rhetoric, but with all of its hedonism and obsession with self-actualization intact, leading to some of the most stomach turning excesses of 1970s “adult” culture. This way lay wife-swapping fondue parties, porno chic, EST and Mike Brady’s perm, and I believe that, after Serge Gainsbourg, we wouldn’t see a man in his forties adopt a remotely swinging persona without looking like a complete dork until the arrival on the scene of George Clooney many years later. So savor the moment, people.
If you are interested in good music, sixties European style, attractive people, sexy romance, or just really enjoy watching people smoking cigarettes, there are so many reasons to see Slogan that for me to evaluate it as a film using the conventional standards seems completely beside the point. While it’s certainly an engaging and stylish little movie, there’s little doubt that it would even be available for our consideration today if not for its two stars and the particular place that it holds in their legend. As such, it comes to us more as an artifact of a specific time and place than as something to be experienced on its own terms. Fortunately, that time and place is — to me, at least — a particularly magical one, making Slogan a worthy object of fascination regardless of how successful it might have been in achieving its goals.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: France | Starring: Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Andrea Parisy, Daniel Gelin, Henri-Jacques Huet, Juliet Berto, Pierre Doris, Marie-Christine Boulard, Gilles Millinaire, James Mitchell, Kate Barry | Writers: Francis Girod, Pierre Grimblat, Melvin Van Peebles | Director: Pierre Grimblat | Cinematographer: Claude Beausoleil | Music: Serge Gainsbourg | Producer: Francis Girod
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
Burroughs wrote seven books in total, one of which is actually a cross-over adventure with Burrough’s most famous creation, Tarzan. And in 1976, a guy named Eric Holmes, with the blessings of the Burroughs estate, wrote a brand new Pellucidar adventure. He did it again in 1980, though that time he seems to have forgotten to get permission, and the publishing of the book was blocked by the Burroughs estate until 1993. I’ve always thought Burroughs’ writing seemed to be fairly well geared toward adaptation into film. But for some reason, almost every adaptation of his work ends up being either so different that it hardly even relates to the source material (the Tarzan movies) or is just ends up being a colossal failure. At the Earth’s Core, an attempt to adapt the first of the Pellucidar novels, falls into the latter category.
Well, it falls into the latter category for the greater portion of humanity. I however, and probably not surprisingly, happen to enjoy the film. I don’t love it, but I am certainly charmed by its offbeat tone, its astoundingly inept special effects, its plot that manages to be both incredibly streamlined and meandering at the same time, and most of all, its game performances from a trio of genre stalwarts who give it their all despite the fact that they must know this movie is, to steal a description from Douglas Adams, a load of dingo’s kidneys.
Peter Cushing stars as bumbling doctor Abner Perry, a turn of the century (that’d be the turn of the 20th century, whippersnappers) inventor who has built himself a gigantic drill he intends to use…well, it seems like he mostly intends to goof off with it by boring through a mountain on a bet. But one assumes that there are more visionary applications for the world’s most amazing drilling car. Accompanying Perry on the trip through the mountain is American financier and all-around lovable man of action, Doug McClure. Well, technically, his name is David Innes, but when has Doug McClure ever been anyone but Doug McClure? Sound of mind, able of body, good-looking in that “lovable lug” sort of way, and just as capable of piloting a magnificent drill-o-kabob as he is punching a caveman in the face. In short, if you are doing anything — from drilling to the center of the earth to exploring a lost world populated by rubber dinosaurs — McClure was the man you wanted along for the ride. And it’s a good thing Perry brings Innes along, because it doesn’t take long for the drill to prove too effective, sending the unlucky duo tearing through the earth’s crust and into Pellucidar, a fantastical kingdom that exists within the hollow earth.
Hollow Earth theories have been around for…heck, how long? Probably for as long as there have been theories about the Earth. Considering the incredible depths of some of the world’s caves, and the often bizarre creatures one sometimes sees issuing forth from their mouths, it’s not hard to understand how pre-historic — end even more recent — man would have conceived of some source for these creatures, some hitherto unseen world deep below the surface of the known world. In a time before caving technology, lights, and Iron Moles, even the largest of caves was an impenetrable, black abyss, and the surface of the earth itself could be no more than scratched by man. But at times, it would open up in earthquakes, spewing forth smoke and lava (and, presumably, monsters) and swallowing people whole. As such, the center of the earth becomes the location of countless mythological underworlds, from the Greek Hades to the Christian Hell.
As a movement, however, the hollow earth theories really gained steam in the early 1800s, when a cat named John Symmes Jr. put forth the notion that the Earth consisted of a crust 800 miles thick, with massive openings at either pole. Beyond the crust exists a habitable inner surface, with the core of the earth actually acting as a sun. Symmes intended to mount an expedition to one of the poles to prove his theory, but nothing ever came of it. Another expedition was planned by a newspaper editor and explorer named J.N. Reynolds, who actually managed to visit Antarctica, though not the pole itself. When, later in the 1800s, people started actually making it to the poles, the theory that there were openings into the hollow earth, hundreds and hundreds of miles wide, didn’t quite pan out. But history is full of beliefs that continue to find adherents long after pretty much every piece of evidence collected has disproven them, with the mantra of “cover up” always being a convenient defense against, “We went to the North Pole and there was no giant hole leading to a world that exists inside the earth.” Dismissed by actual science, hollow earth theories found new purchase among the pulp writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. As each subsequent writer took a crack at this world-within-a-world concept, the claims regarding what was actually inside a hollow Earth became more fantastic.
Famed science fiction pioneer Jules Verne probably did more to sensationalize and spread the hollow earth gospel than any crackpot scientist or explorer when he published A Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864. Several years prior, in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe used hollow earth theories as the basis for his story , The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. And even before that, in 1825, Faddei Bulgarin wrote Improbable Tall-Tale, or Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which he wove a description of three concentric layered societies existing within our planet. And in 1914, with the publishing of At the Earth’s Core, Burroughs seized on the hollow earth idea and used it as the basis for his series of involved and detailed adventure novels.
Despite setbacks in the scientific realm, hollow earth theories did not remain the sole purview of the science fiction authors. They enjoyed and, in fact, continue to enjoy sudden flare-ups in popularity from time to time, fueled by the fact that even the deepest hole in the world isn’t very deep. The Russians initiated the Kola Superdeep Borehole in 1962, an attempt to reach the point in the earth’s composition where the crust meets the mantle — the “Moho” as it’s known. After twenty-five years of drilling, the project was terminated after reaching a depth of 7.5 miles — about 1.7 miles short of the goal. But even so, it’d take a lean and hungry man to drop down the hole and see what was to be seen, as it’s only nine inches wide (Peter Cushing might have fit). Picking up where the Russians left off, and spearheaded by Japan, the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) seeks a similar goal but made the task easier by starting on the ocean floor, building upon work done by the Deep Sea Drilling Project and the Ocean Drilling Program.
A similar scientific expedition was attempted, I think, in the early 1980s, when me and my buddy Robby decided we were going to dig the deepest hole ever. We hiked way out into the woods down by this caves and began our glorious attempt. I think we got about a foot down before we hit bedrock. Shortly thereafter we all saw Red Dawn, and convinced that nuclear annihilation was unavoidable but that we would somehow survive, along with the girls on whom we had crushes, we revived the hole project with the intent of turning it into a nuclear fallout shelter. It never got any deeper, but we made it wider, covered it with a warped piece of plywood, and stocked it with important supplies, like a pocket knife, a canteen full of water (that had been in the canteen for probably two years), and some Star Crunches. The war with the Russians didn’t come, of course. Well, not yet. When it does, I’m sure the shelter will still be there, ready to protect us so that we might emerge from the rubble and build society anew, preferably as a society involving well-groomed cavegirls.
The IODP, incidentally, employs the services of one of the largest research ships ever built — nicknamed Godzilla Maru. There are, obviously, untold secrets yet waiting to be discovered. Psychic pterodactyls ruthlessly oppressing a race of stone age humans may not be among these secrets, but they make for better movies and adventure novels than if we’d had a movie in which Doug McClure extracted core samples from the Kola Borehole and discovered interesting things about the rate at which the temperature increases as one drills through the crust. Yes, fascinating from a scientific standpoint, but more fascinating than Caroline Munro in a tiny loin cloth?
Psychic pterodactyls actually aren’t that far off from what some modern-day proponents of hollow earth theory claim exists within the crust of our planet. Some think that it is the realm of ascended spiritual masters; others say it’s where UFOs come from. Atlaneans live there. Some even claim that at the end of WWII, Hitler and the remaining members of the Reich escaped to the hollow earth. Last I heard, the entrance to the hollow earth realm — which someone decided to name Agartha, since it needs a suitably cornball new age name — was at Mount Shasta in California. But this could have been updated to Nepal, Tibet, or some other suitably mystical location. I believe according so leading scientific researches, the only way to get there is to astrally project. And although hollow earth theories have persisted for centuries, it is perhaps no big shock to learn that the most ridiculous and new agey “facts” sprung up fully formed in the late 1960s.
Back in Pellucidar, however, Innes and Perry have their own troubles to contend with. It turns out that this realm within the earth is populated by all manner of poorly realized prehistoric creatures. As soon as Perry and Innes venture forth from the Iron Mole, they are attacked by dinosaur-like monsters that make the dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot seem amazingly lifelike. These creatures are realized by having a man in a monster suit stomp around a jungle set in slow motion, while McClure and Cushing sort of hunch over and dart back and forth for what seems like an eternity. Soon, the two begin to unravel the mysteries of the society that exists in this strange land. The Mahars are a race of psychic pterodactyl looking things, and they rule over a race of stone age humans, including one scantily-clad Caroline Munro as Princess Dia. When they handed out princessing duty, Dia got the short end of the stick, being appointed princess of a race of slaves. Keeping the cavemen in line is a third race of pig-faced thugs.
Needless to say, when a couple of Victorian-era bad-asses from the surface come to Pellucidar, armed with an umbrella and cigars, there’s gonna be a whole lot of whoop-ass and Doug McClure getting the puffy sleeves ripped off his Dr. Frankenstein shirt. Innes and Perry are captured and forced to join the slave march, during which Innes commits a social gaffe that causes him to get on the wrong side of Dia. But you know things are going to work out for them. Until they do, Innes is going to spend his days escaping and punching stuff, and Perry is going to try to unravel the mysteries of the Mahar’s power over Pellucidar. And then there’s going to be a big revolution. Well, as big as Amicus can ever afford to mount. And probably, a volcano or something will erupt.
At the Earth’s Core was released in 1976. The next year, Star Wars was released. If ever there was a crystal clear illustration of the quantum leap forward in special effects technology that film represented, this was it. At the Earth’s Core is dirt cheap, albeit in a fun and imaginative way. The monsters are man-in-a-suit effects that wouldn’t have passed muster in even the cheapest Japanese Ultraman series. Hell, even 1970s Doctor Who probably felt a little bit embarrassed to see what At the Earth’s Core had to offer. And yet, it’s precisely because they fail so spectacularly that the effects succeed. Coupled with a really weird score by Michael Vickers (who also wrote the ultra-funky theme song for Dracula A.D. 1972), the sets and monster suits lend the movie a completely phantasmagoric atmosphere. At the core (ha ha), it’s really a very simple movie, and one we’ve seen countless times (b-movie stars run around in cave sets until something blows up), but it takes on a completely bizarre, hallucinogenic mood that lends the film far more power to engross than it might otherwise have had. In other words, a movie this bad needs to be this bad. If it had been competent, it would have been dull beyond the point of enduring.
But because it fails in such a charming, weird way, it becomes much more than it would otherwise have been. Burroughs’ original novel was a sprawling epic, and there was no way Amicus was going to be able to bankroll such a story. However, this movie strips it down to its core (ha ha) while still managing to reach far beyond its means. This is, of course, sort of the defining aspect of director Kevin Conner’s filmography. He populates his films with tons of special effects that would have been considered crude if they’d been a movie released ten years earlier. Amicus was the perfect home for him. They were the cheap version of Hammer, and if you know how cheap most Hammer films were, that’s really saying something. The big difference was that the boys at Hammer knew how to work within their limitations without looking like they were working within limitations. Amicus aims for the special effects stars and comes back with a paper mache pterodactyl.
Aside from the charmingly inept special effects, At the Earth’s Core has a few other things going for it. By this point, it should be pretty obvious that I’m a fan of b-movie and television staple Doug McClure. He gives the exact same performance here that he did in his previous Amicus outing (The Land that Time Forgot) for the same director. I can’t claim that there’s anything special about McClure’s performances. He’s just this dude, and when crazy fantastical shit starts happening, he deals with it. He has charisma without trying. And he makes a good pairing with Peter Cushing, who turns in a believable if somewhat irritating performance as the proverbial absent-minded professor. Perry is somewhere between Will Hartnell era Doctor Who and Grandpa Simpson, with a dash of the Doctor Who character as played by Cushing himself in the two technicolor feature film adaptations produced by Amicus. It can get on the nerves a bit, to be honest, but Cushing does get the films’ two best moments: he takes on a dinosaur whilst armed with nothing but his crazy old professor umbrella, and when the Mahars are trying to use their psychic powers on him, he gets to proudly proclaim, “You cannot mesmerize me. I’m British!” If that’s not the greatest movie line ever, it’s only because Cushing also gets to say, “Monsters? We’re British, you know!” in Horror Express.
And then there’s Caroline Munro.
OK, yeah. You’re right. She doesn’t really have much to do in this film other than slink around in a furry micro-bikini while coated in a thin sheen of perspiration, but oh is she ever good at it. Who wouldn’t punch out Jubal the Ugly One to win her affections? Caroline represents everything that was good and right with starlets in the 60s and 70s. Yes, she brings the sex appeal, but she also brings an affable warmth and agreeability to the proceedings. There’s no hint that she feels this material is beneath her (and Munro could certainly perform at a much greater level than demanded of her in this film), no need to sneer or seem above it all. She’s in it and having fun, and there’s nothing about her that doesn’t make her the easiest girl in the world with whom to fall in love. Or whatever emotion governs a reaction to gorgeous cavewoman princesses with killer smiles.
Paired with the really weird LSD atmosphere of the movie, the cast makes At the Earth’s Core a treat despite its many impossible-to-ignore faults. Many times, I’ve been able to dismiss a film’s short-comings and justify my adoration of it by spinning some yarn about how I saw the movie as a young boy, and blah blah blah. Not so with this one, though. I first saw At the Earth’s Core when I was in college. Realizing that I was witnessing something completely weird, I threw a tape into my VCR and recorded about 70% of the film. It became one of the most cherished gifts I ever gave my stoner buddy Ken (the other cherished gift was Young Taoism Fighter). But I can’t even play the “dude, I was so wasted” card, because I was stone cold sober at the time. Granted, I hadn’t slept in like three days, and I’m pretty sure this was during the time when I was doing an experiment that involved eating Taco Bell for breakfast every morning after not sleeping. Whatever the case, At the Earth’s Core succeeds for me when it just as easily might have failed, thanks largely to the freaky feel and an able cast. Sometimes, you just like a bad movie.
Well, most of the time, if you are me.
Release Year: 1976 | Country: United States, England | Starring: Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro, Cy Grant, Godfrey James, Sean Lynch, Keith Barron, Helen Gill, Anthony Verner, Robert Gillespie, Michael Crane, Bobby Parr | Screenplay: Milton Subotsky | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Mike Vickers
When watching one of the Insee Daeng movies — or any other existing example of popular Thai cinema from the 1960s — it’s possible to see a separate story being told in the countless pops, skips and scratches that riddle the severely weathered and damaged available prints, much as you might see a story in the lines etched in an aged human face. And that story, depending on how you look at it, can be either a sad one or a happy one. On the one hand, those wounds and blemishes speak of a unique part of world popular cinema that is on the verge of being lost to history — the ragged condition of each surviving film testifying to the many, many more that have ceased to exist entirely. On the other, as with a child’s threadbare teddy bear, that conspicuous wear and tear serves as evidence of just how much these movies have been loved and enjoyed by their intended audience, thread over and over again through projectors — be they in urban cinemas or makeshift outdoor screenings in small villages — until there was little left of them to thread; in short, loved by their audience to the extent that today they have been virtually devoured.
The filter of age and decay that one necessarily has to watch these films through can also, from a particular vantage point (mine, for example), provide them with an additional layer of beauty and mystique on top of the already strange and distinctive visual experience they provide. After all, in an age when engineered distress and decay are a standard part of the image-maker’s palette, it’s conceivable that someone would actually make something that looked like this intentionally (and, in the case of Grindhouse, to some extent already has). Adding to this illusion of intentionality is the manner in which most of these films are presented today on disc; to compensate for many of them being filmed without sound — with dialog and sound effects to be provided by live actors in the theaters where they were shown — the VCD versions of the films include an audio track with actors reading the dialog along with the movie. The result is a sound track — complete with anachronistic 1980s music — that progresses smoothly over the jumping and skittering image we see on screen, accounting for every beat created by the missing frames.
As you might have gathered from the above, there is a lot that makes these older Thai films less than accessible to Western viewers. In addition to their far from pristine condition, there is the jarring experience of watching them with the provided audio tracks — really more a form of dramatic narration than dubbing, since little attempt is made to match lip movement, or to create the kind of aural ambience that would suggest the voices were actually coming from the people on screen. Furthermore, because these are very low budget films, they often depend a lot on long scenes of verbal exposition to move their action forward, which makes negotiating their sometimes convoluted plots without the aid of subtitles near impossible.
Still, there is a vibrancy and energy to these films that makes them worth sampling. If for no other reason, they should be seen for their unique look, one that is singular in world cinema: a retina-busting suffusion of burst color, which was the result of the inexpensive 16mm color reversal film stock commonly used at the time (and which, because it yielded no negative, was another reason for the lack of clean prints today). With all of the high-contrast, over-saturated hues on display, constantly shouting for attention, even scenes in which nothing is happening give the appearance of being on the verge of jumping from the screen. Considering all of these factors, I think it’s best to approach these films with a goal of immersion rather than comprehension — aided, of course, by an ample dose of your favorite intoxicant.
Since I suppose it’s possible that there are people who don’t enjoy partaking of inebriants and watching weird movies that they don’t understand (though, if there are, I don’t want to know them), it’s a good thing that there exists the PAL region DVD release of Insee Thong, aka The Golden Eagle, the final film in the Insee Daeng — or Red Eagle — series from 1970. Not only does the DVD feature English subtitles, but there is also a subsequently-added Thai language dub track that includes Foleys and sound effects in addition to synchronized dialogue (though the mostly disco-fied music still manages to be conspicuously ahead of period). The condition of the print, however, is still pretty dire — but, as I’ve indicated above, that’s really part of the whole experience.
The character of The Red Eagle was created by popular Thai novelist Sek Dusit in 1954. In a series of books that lasted into the sixties, the author chronicled the adventures of Rome Ritthikrai, a seeming ne’er-do-well who, under the cover of night, would don a red, eagle-shaped mask to take on the forces of organized crime and international communism. Masked vigilante heroes of this type were a common feature of the pulp crime novels that became popular in Thailand during the postwar years, but, of all of them, The Red Eagle proved to be the most enduring. That the character is still fondly remembered today may in large part be due — as much as to the character itself — to the fact that, when it came time for the Red Eagle to make the transition to the big screen, the man chosen to portray him was Mitr Chaibancha, inarguably the biggest star of 1960s Thai cinema.
A man of humble origins who made the transition from boxer to film actor in the late fifties, Chaibancha at his peak was in such demand that, during the years of his box office reign, he starred in nearly a third of all of the films produced in the country (though other estimates put it closer to half), making literally hundreds of films by the time of his premature death in 1970. While this prolific output made the prospect of him being cast as The Red Eagle a near statistical certainty, Chaibancha, though by necessity capable of carrying off a variety of roles, had a reputation as an action hero that made him an obvious choice. Making his debut as the masked hero in the late fifties, Chaibancha would return to the part again and again, fronting a series of films that extended through the decades’ end. In the process he would forge an identification between star and role that survives among his public to this day.
As portrayed on-screen by Chaibancha (and perhaps as also portrayed in the novels, though I haven’t had the opportunity to read them), The Red Eagle, despite his somewhat super-heroic appearance, doesn’t appear to be blessed with any exceptional powers, or even to possess much more than the average amount of strength or agility. In fact, most of his exploits seem to simply require a penchant for breaking and entering into the homes or offices of his chosen prey, tip-toeing around in the shadows, stopping to seduce whatever convenient female he comes across in the process, and then blasting his way out with his trusty sidearms once detected (which seems to happen in most cases). In this sense, he bears a family resemblance to that staple of popular narrative the world over, the masked bandit with a conscience, specifically of the sleek, cat burglar variety we see in Asian films like Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose and The Lizard, and — though in a decidedly more amoral guise — in European pop culture in the form of characters like Diabolik and Kriminal. True to that model, The Red Eagle, though a patriotic hero, works in opposition to the law, and must often evade capture by the police in the course of his self-appointed mission to protect Thailand from nefarious interests.
Though there are certainly many precedents for The Red Eagle, where Chaibancha really stakes out some unique territory in costumed hero lore is in his portrayal of The Red Eagle’s alter ego, Rome. Taking the idea of the effete society boy turned masked avenger to an absurd extreme, Chaibancha plays Rome as, not just a hard drinking playboy, but a hopeless lush, a grown man who drinks like a suicidal frat boy and ends most evenings getting hurled face-first from one or other of Bangkok’s most posh nightspots. As he presents himself to the public, there’s nothing the least bit suave or charming about Rome. At the beginning of the 1968 film Jao Insee, for instance, we watch the pathetic spectacle of Rome careening haphazardly from table to table, hand cupped over mouth, as well-heeled nightclub patrons duck and weave to avoid the projectile spray that appears to be impending. Of course, it’s all an act; and it’s a good one. No one would ever suspect this sad, gin-soaked creature of being The Red Eagle, even if he told them that he was — which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Rome, in a drunken stupor, to do.
Always on hand at the end of Rome’s latest feigned bender, standing by patiently to help pour him into her waiting car, is his faithful girlfriend, Oy, whose back-watching duties extend to Rome’s activities as The Red Eagle. Oy is played by the beautiful Petchara Chaowarat, an actress who was paired with Chaibancha in well over a hundred pictures. Their track record of hit films together made them one of Thai cinema’s iconic screen duos. As portrayed by Chaowarat, Oy has a substantial role in The Red Eagle’s adventures, not only assisting him in strategizing his next move — and helping him make his getaway when it goes awry — but also on occasion fighting at his side. In Jao Insee, one of the films in the series that precedes Insee Thong, she even becomes a masked avenger in her own right to help the Eagle capture a particularly elusive villain.
It’s unclear the extent to which Oy is aware of the philandering that’s involved in the Eagle’s nightly crime fighting duties, but it’s hard to believe that she’s completely ignorant of it. In 1963′s Awasan Insee Daeng, for instance, it’s left to Oy to breach the villain’s hideout and rescue a trio of captive beauties, each of whom the Eagle has romanced — for ostensibly strategic purposes — at one point or other in the course of the film. If she is indeed aware of it, it’s difficult to say whether her apparent blasé attitude toward the fact is indicative of Thai sexual politics at the time or simply a symptom of Rome and Oy having a particularly progressive relationship.
In Insee Thong, the final film in the series — and the first to be both directed and produced by Chaibancha — Rome and Oy find themselves in a unique situation (though not so unique to anyone familiar with Mexican lucha films). An impostor is posing as The Red Eagle to pull off a string of assassinations. Though Rome has promised Oy that he will give up his crime fighting activities and settle down, he finds this insult to his reputation too much to bear, and so decides to don the eagle mask one last time. Following a logic that is perhaps unique to Rome, he also decides that, until the Eagle’s name is cleared, he will need to operate under a new guise, that of The Golden Eagle. This fools no one, of course (The Golden Eagle’s costume is identical to that of The Red Eagle, only gold), least of all the police, and soon Rome finds his search for the real killers hampered by the diligent efforts of police captain Chart, a dedicated and longtime believer in the Eagle’s inherent rotten-ness.
The real force behind the assassinations is the Red Bamboo Gang, a shadowy organization with ties to Red China whose ultimate goal is the communist takeover of Thailand. While gang member Poowanant goes about murdering the gang’s political enemies under the fake Red Eagle guise, their leader, Bakin, sets about extorting money from the country’s wealthy businessmen by using an even more unconventional means. Bakin, we are told, learned hypnotism from “the same place as Rasputin”, and the real key to his power is that he can not only hypnotize others, but also “himself” and “his soul”. The result of this, in the first case, is him somehow being able to physically split himself in three — which, we are further told, makes him immortal — and, in the second case, being able to project his image via a red crystal Buddha statue that is given anonymously to all those who fail to meet his blackmail demands. The unvarying result of these poor souls seeing Bakin’s fearsome visage emanating from the seemingly innocuous gift is death by heart attack.
By means of his usual nocturnal incursions, strong-arm tactics, and tactical dalliances (which this time include the bedding of a gang higher-up’s comely niece), The Golden Eagle eventually susses out the gang’s plan. After discovering the whereabouts of Bakin’s Island headquarters, he notifies the authorities, thus setting in motion a climactic set piece that — judging from this film, Awasan Insee Daeng and Jao Insee — appears to be something of a Red Eagle standby: a hyper-violent and chaotic Bondian assault on the villain’s compound in which the Eagle, Oy and armies of armed-for-bear policemen run around firing at will at the evildoers’ colorfully outfitted foot soldiers, be they retreating or advancing. As this mini D-Day rages on the beach outside, the Eagle slips into the compound to stage his final confrontation with Bakin and his seemingly unstoppable commie voodoo.
Sprinkled throughout the machinations of Insee Thong‘s plot is a liberal amount of broad humor, as if we needed further cluing in that we shouldn’t be taking all of this too seriously. This consists of the usual crowd-pandering comic relief in the form of bungling policemen and officials, as well as Rome’s recurring drunken pratfalls, and also (we now know, thanks to the subtitles) lots of lowbrow jokes. It seems that Rome is not only a drunk, but also a bit of a potty mouth; In an early scene he tries to dissuade a friend from opening a possibly booby-trapped gift by telling him “It might have dog shit in it.” Also in evidence is that confusing brand of casual homophobia one comes across from time to time in Asian cinema, the kind that expresses hostility toward homosexuals while at the same time seeming to acknowledge them as a common and normal part of everyday life. Still, as groan-inducing as this all may be, Insee Thong has so much on its narrative plate that it never sets its feet in one place long enough for any of these missteps to completely trip it up.
Insee Thong‘s final scene sees The Red Eagle vindicated and suited up in all his restored glory. Triumphant over evil once more, he grabs hold of a rope ladder hanging from a waiting helicopter and is carried out across the sea and toward the horizon. The scene was shot in one long take without a stunt double. Mitr Chaibancha, unable to hold on as the helicopter started out over the ocean, lost his grasp on the ladder and fell hundreds of feet to the beach below. Originally the footage of this fatal fall was included in Insee Thong, but has since been replaced with a freeze frame accompanied by text describing the circumstances of Chaibancha’s death. A permanent shrine, featuring a statue of Chaibancha and numerous photographs from his films, was erected at the site of his fall and is still visited by his fans today. His death is further commemorated in one of the strangest DVD extras I’ve had the opportunity to witness, a documentary short entitled “The Cremation of Mitr Chaibancha”, in which attendant’s are shown holding Chaibancha’s corpse up to the temple windows so that the throngs of fans gathered outside can have a final look at him. As unpleasant as this may be for some to watch, it goes a lot farther than any mere words can to communicate the intensity of feeling that Chaibancha inspired in his public.
When the circumstances of a film’s creation are as tragic and momentous as those of Insee Thong, it’s tempting to reserve for it nothing but respectful praise. Still, it must be said that Insee Thong, while highly entertaining, is no great film — and it’s not too difficult to assess the flaws in its construction that account for that. There’s the aforementioned over-abundance of grating humor, for instance, as well as the fact that Chaibancha obviously isn’t in as near fighting trim as he was in previous outings. But to judge the film by those shortcomings would be unfair, because the charms that would mitigate them — all of those things that are wonderful about Insee Thong — are less easy to fully appraise. For, even with a forgiving attitude, its difficult for the film’s ragged condition not to provide some obstacles to its full appreciation — especially in those moments when it becomes obvious that there are substantial parts of Insee Thong missing. More than once, major plot developments (such as the death of a main character) are referred to in the past tense without having occurred on screen. In addition to this, the color in the existing print is considerably washed-out, making it possible for us only to imagine just how head-spinning its array of lurid tones might have been had we been able to see them in all their glory. Regardless of all of these concerns, however, the film is an important one that should be seen by anyone with an interest in Thai cinema. And for those who are simply curious, the hint of greater thrills it provides just might be enough to inspire further exploration.
In the years since Mitr Chaibancha’s death, The Red Eagle has continued to stake out a place in Thailand’s popular culture. The late nineties saw broadcast of a Red Eagle television series (notable to martial arts fans for featuring a young Tony Jaa as the lead’s stunt double) and, most recently, director Wisit Sasanatieng announced plans to bring the character back to the big screen. This last bit of news is a happy one for all concerned. Sasanatieng’s mind-blowing 2001 feature Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone) was widely — and justly — praised for its audacious visual style, but many in the West missed the fact that that style — popping with high-contrast, saturated colors — was a direct result of Fah Talai Jone being one long, passionate love letter to the very Thai cinema of the sixties of which Insee Daeng was a product. This deep affection, along with Sasanatieng’s international stature, puts him in a unique position to update this iconic Thai hero while at the same time introducing new audiences to the joys of that strange and vibrant corner of world cinema past from which he sprang.
And broader awareness of those earlier films could only be a good thing, right? After all, it could perhaps even lead to release on DVD of the other surviving films in the Red Eagle series — which is the type of thing that I’m generally in favor of. But I have to say that, in comparing Insee Thong to those earlier films, I found that the latter film was made somewhat less enjoyable for me by being made more comprehensible. After all, without those subtitles, I wouldn’t have known that it didn’t really make sense, and so would have remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that it was incomplete. Better just to pop in one of those unsubtitled VCDs of the earlier films and get lost in the colorful nonsense of it all. That to me is pure cinema, after all. And pure cinema is what these movies are all about.
Watching Feroz Khan and Vinod Khanna in Qurbani, you might conclude that their characters are simply too confident in their rugged masculinity to have any qualms about being overtly demonstrative in their affections for one another. However, if you consider that it’s the knee-weakeningly gorgeous Zeenat Aman, the alleged love interest of both men, who’s being wholly ignored while they engage in all their tender hugging, shoulder rubbing and cheek tugging, you might be lead to another conclusion altogether. Of course, men in Bollywood movies are famously free in their capacity for brotherly PDA. That the tendency seems to stand out in especially stark relief in this case is most likely due to the musky, grease-stained backdrop of balls-out, testosterone-bleeding action mayhem that Qurbani provides for it to play out against. In other words, Qurbani is one of those action movies that just goes that extra distance to confirm what a lot of us already thought these movies were all about in the first place.