Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
This is one of those movies that, upon completion, I can’t wait to sit down and write a review of. And then, when I do sit down, all I can do is stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen as I wrack my brain mercilessly for some way to encompass in words the absolutely bonkers display of sheer lunacy I’ve just watched. This often happens to me when attempting to write about especially weird kungfu films, because as fans of kungfu films know, nothing — and that includes Alexandro Jodorowski movies — is quite as weird as a really weird kungfu film. With Jodorowski, one can at least ask oneself “what the hell was this director thinking?” then engage in all sorts of research and philosophical debate pertaining to the meaning of his films. Yes, they are excessively weird, but they are not undecipherable. With enough thought, you can attain some degree of understanding as to his purpose and message.
Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
While many fans of B-movie and cult film tend to center their discussion of Franco on his horror and sexploitation (though one could argue that all his films fall into this latter category) output, I tend to be more familiar with his action and espionage films– and keep in mind that, when discussing Jess Franco, the term “action” is used in an extremely loose fashion by which “action” can be defined as people sitting in a nightclub watching a psychedelic performance art striptease, or it can mean two people standing silently and staring at a rug for a spell. But the reason I like looking at Franco’s non-horror films is that, within the realm of horror, and certainly within the more narrowly defined realm of European horror, there is already a lot of incompetence and weirdness and a tendency to abandon logic.
It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.
Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.
Things in the Japanese film industry were chugging along during the 1960s. The gradual erosion of restrictive post-war regulation of the Japanese film industry by occupying American forces (samurai and yakuza flicks were banned, as was just about anything that would “inspire the Japanese spirit”) meant that writers and directors were coming out of a long creative hibernation and finally getting to flex their brains again. Inoshiro Honda and Toho Studios were cranking out a steady stream of highly enjoyable fantasy, science fiction, and monster movies built on the foundation of the enduring success of Godzilla. Akira Kurosawa was making movies that no one would watch until Americans started discovering them in the 1970s. Takakura Ken and Akira Takarada were burning up screens as Japan’s two biggest matinee idols. Japan had yet to befoul the world by making M.D. Geist. All in all, not a bad time to be a film fan.
Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.
Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.
House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.
Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.
House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.
On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.
What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?
While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.
As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.
I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.
The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.
I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.
Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”
The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.
The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.
Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.
Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.
Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.
Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.
Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.
House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.
Teleport City is, by and large, a cult film site. It would seem, upon first impression, that a film like Captain Blood, or many of the old films that I regularly watch, would be ill at home here. After all, they are classics. Does anyone need one more person telling you Captain Blood is great? Or that any of these old films are great? I mean, everyone already knows that, right? It’s common knowledge, and everyone has seen these films a thousand times. Well, while that may have been true at some point, it hardly holds up well today. In fact, even many of the best-known films of the 50s and earlier have, in today’s pop cinema landscape, been so completely forgotten that they have achieved a level of obscurity that rivals that of any of the other cult films we might be prone to discussing. This they accomplish despite being widely available, widely discussed in the past, and cherished by the handful of people who still bother with old black and white films.
But for many people, and through no real fault of their own (it’s hard to seek out and watch something if no one tells you it exists), these films might as well be as mysterious and esoteric as a Filipino superhero film in which a woman in a silver space bikini fights a vampire. The sources to which these people (and by “these people,” I mean those who are roughly my age or younger) — often do not mention old films, and so they become forgotten relics despite their merits and the best efforts of Turner Classic Movies (also known as the cable channel most in need of going HD). Additionally, older films have the reputation of being crude and overly talky, full of antiquated melodrama, weird acting styles, crummy special effects, and endless scenes of well-dressed people sitting around in living rooms doing nothing at all. Where this impression of older films come from, I am not entirely certain, because anyone who takes the time to dig a little deeper into cinema’s past has discovered that action, adventure, and intrigue were staples of the film industry of the 30s and 40s just as much as they are today, and in many cases, the action, adventure, and stuntwork on display in black and whites from bygone eras surpasses anything that is done today, hamstrung as we are by an over-reliance on CGI and insurance-related litigation.
I am confident that the type of people who seek out the movies regularly discussed on Teleport City are the same people who are open to (if not already actively engaged in) exploring older films and understanding that most of the conceptions people have about them are wrong. And so, a film like Captain Blood, or Gunga Din, or any of the old noir and Poverty Row thrillers we’ll be getting to in due time, actually fit in at Teleport City every bit as well as the films of Jess Franco or Antonio Margheriti. Turning up amazing and forgotten films doesn’t always require you to travel to Manila and spend a month digging through the crates out back of a grimy video rental store. Sometimes, all you have to do is skip the “Midnight Movies” section of wherever you go to rent or purchase films, and walk (or click) over to the “Classics” section.
Which brings us, with a shorter digression than usual, to Captain Blood. I watched a lot of black and white adventure films when I was a kid. There was no cable television where I lived, and there were no VCRs, so you were left with whatever they played on regular television (which, back then, went off the air around one in the morning and wasn’t filled with nothing but Everybody Loves Raymond reruns), and that often meant watching black and white films, most likely because the rights to them could be had for cheap, and they were likely to be acceptable for television broadcast without the need for much editing. So I developed a taste for them, because really, that’s all we had save for the Godzilla films on the weekend. However, through some cruel twist of fate, I never saw any old pirate movies. I saw plenty of other types of adventure films, and I’m pretty sure I saw Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick at least once a week, but if I saw any of the old swashbuckling pirate films, I don’t remember them — and given my bizarre propensity for remembering weird things like that, it seems unlikely that I would have sat through an Errol Flynn pirate movie and not remembered it.
Ahhh, Errol Flynn. Allow me, if you will, to indulge for a moment one of my gentlemanly crushes — or admiration, if flirtations with homosexuality make you uncomfortable for some reason (and if they do, you need to grow a little more backbone). I have never shied away from such things and see no reason to do so. My taste in men falls primarily along the traditional lines of masculinity as defined in the 30s and 40s my matinee idols like Errol Flynn and Clarke Gable. Bogart and Mitchum. Cary Grant, of course. And wiry little Fred Astaire for his amazing power to look amazing in clothes no man should be able to pull off. Even with today’s leading men — a talent pool largely devoid of any real charisma or air of rugged masculinity — I gravitate toward the few men who radiate that old-school air (which smells of mentholated shaving cream and woody musk): Clooney, Denzel, drunken Russell Crowe, and lately Josh Brolin. And this guy at the climbing wall at my gym.
But few and far between are the lads who cut such a shape as the men of the 30s and 40s. They knew how to dress, they knew how to throw a punch, they knew how to drink, and they knew how to handle the ladies except for Bette Davis, who no one could handle nor should much want to. Of these men, I was early on familiar with the films of Bogart and Gable, Grant and of course Mitchum — who was and remains still my Grandpa Harley’s favorite actor and role model in life (photos of my grandfather as a young man are striking in their likeness). But while I knew Flynn by name, I knew practically nothing about his films and had never seen one until much later in my life. Ah well, so much the better. It’s always nice to know something is waiting just over the horizon, yet to be discovered. Since then, I’ve worked hard to improve my familiarity with Flynn, his tumultuous life, and his films. And now you, dear reader, get to be the recipient of my hard-earned knowledge, so long as “hard-earned” means “I read a book.”
Flynn’s career as a leading man began with Captain Blood. Before this movie, he had a couple small roles but had done very little that would make people sit up and take notice. 1935 was a big year for filmmaking, and a number of my favorite big-budget (for the time) adventure films come from that year — Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clarke Gable, Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades, among other films. Additionally, 1935 saw the release of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which I have not seen but am keen to do so, as it stars Gary Cooper and deals with one of my sundry pet obsessions — that being the portrayal in Western cinema of Raj-era India (and from a time when India was still a British colony). Somewhere amid that parade of bright lights and star power, Warner Brothers decided to release a pirate film by a director no one knew and starring two leads no one had ever heard of. Pirate movies were difficult enough as it was. During the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks was able to buckle his swashes all over the place, but with the introduction of sound, production of seafaring fare became problematic, as the technology and technique was not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with all the creaking, cracking, and crashing that comes with filming on a ship and on the ocean.
This resulted in swashbucklers that were less about the swashing of buckles (or is the buckling of swashes) and more about guys sitting around inside their cabin — which could be conveniently created on a studio sound stage. Captain Blood, as Warner’s film was to be called, was to be an attempt to return to the more action-oriented style of Fairbanks, troubles with sound recording on the high seas be damned. But there were other problems facing the production. The first actor to whom Warner offered the role of Captain Blood turned it down, as did the second. That left them flailing, somewhat, until finally they settled on taking a chance on one of their bit players, a Tasmanian by the name of Errol Flynn. Playing opposite him as the lead female was another newcomer, Olivia de Havilland. Unknown starlets were one thing and hardly uncommon. They could easily be made into overnight sensations by pairing them with an established leading man. But now, Captain Blood was saddled with two newcomers, and on top of that, it was being directed by Michael Curtiz, a man whose experience lay almost entirely in the early, silent days of filmmaking and who was hardly a name to contend with spectacle-makers like Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille. I’m not sure what Warner Brothers’ expectations for the film’s performance were at the time, but it’d be hard to argue that it was anything but an underdog and that Warner was taking a gamble when they bet their million dollars on this unproven cast.
Captain Blood tells the story of righteous Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn), who finds himself on the wrong end of King James’ temper during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was previously known as James Scott and more previously still as James Croft, the illegitimate son of King Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth was a title created specifically for him, presumably to keep him out of the hair of other contenders for the throne. It didn’t work. When Charles died and James II, Monmouth’s uncle, was crowned King of England, Monmouth — who had a long and distinguished military career — felt severely slighted. He had himself crowned king in exile (he was, at the time, living in the Dutch provinces), and in 1685 launched a revolt meant to bring down James II and the Catholic-influenced reign. The rebellion, like many rebellions, started off strong, but when people started dying, the rebellion went the way of so many others. People deserted Monmouth en masse, and before too long, his rebellion was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoore.
Monmouth himself was captured, tried, and executed. It is during this battle that our hero Peter Blood — himself no fan of James II but also of the opinion that the Duke of Monmouth was going to be just as rotten — is asked to save the life of a wounded man. Blood, having no committed political leaning, relies instead on his sacred oath as a doctor, which compels him to help those he can. When King James’ men bust in and find him, they aren’t as keen on the Hippocratic Oath as Blood, and he soon finds himself in prison and on trial for treason. Brought before a judge whose only interest is in sending men to the gallows, the future looks bleak for the well-meaning and eloquent doctor, until King James is convinced that, aside from being hugely unpopular with the people, his gory orgy of retribution and hanging is a waste of manpower that would be better used as slaves in the colonies of the New World. So it is that Blood finds himself spared from the noose but shipped off toward a fate often considered far worse. Incidentally, my own ancestors from Scotland followed pretty close behind him, getting themselves in a spot of trouble in 1689 and finding themselves shipped off to some place called America — or so the family legend goes. Family legend also includes my grandfather beheading Adolf Hitler, so read into that what you will.
In Jamaica, Blood continues to be uppity and proud and smart, a trait that immediately rubs local plantation Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) the wrong way. However, Bishop’s niece Arabella (de Havilland) takes a liking to Blood and purchases him for ten pounds, only to discover that he is hardly thankful to her, as slavery is still slavery. Blood finds himself in considerably better standing than his fellow slaves when his skills as a doctor are put to use healing the governor, who suffers from a painful bout o’ gout. Still as he is a man of honor and a natural-born leader, he does everything he can to protect his boys and irritate Bishop, who is infuriated that Blood’s role as doctor to the governor allows hims to get away with so much. Blood eventually hatches an escape plan, though he runs into a snag when a Spanish warship attacks the city. In the ensuing chaos, Blood leads the slaves first to freedom, then across the bay, where they board the Spanish warship while its proper owners are busy looting the town. Possessed now of their freedom and a fine ship, but not a home, Blood drafts a series of Buccaneers’ Articles, and so begins their lives as pirates.
Watching Flynn in this role, it’s hard to believe this is his first time as a leading man. He handles the role with astounding proficiency. It is impossibly not to cheer for Captain Blood, and the script provides Flynn ample opportunity to deliver stirring speeches about freedom and tyranny, punctuated by scenes of guys firing muskets and cannons and swinging from the rigging of giant sailing ships. Flynn handles his stirring speeches with the same aplomb as he does the action scenes. He is the very definition of roguish charm, and he is assisted by a series of perfect foils, which include the thoroughly loathsome Colonel Bishop and the shifty French pirate Levasseur (played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone). Although it happened somewhat by chance, it seems that, in the end, Captain Blood was constructed purely to turn Errol Flynn into the dashing, swashbuckling heartthrob he became. Recognizing the chance that has fallen into his lap, Flynn does not disappoint.
Although Flynn is the center of attention, Olivia de Havilland fares well to, The script by Casey Robinson grants her a stronger character than was usual for the time, while still keeping her as a believable member of the female sex during the late 1600s — as opposed to modern tendencies to create strong women by flying in the face of history and filling themselves with scantily-clad, often skinny warrior-women who are, for some reason, all proficient at Chinese style swordplay and martial arts. Arabelle may not take part in the swashbuckling, but when it comes to nerve and intelligence, she is nearly the match of Blood and very much the superior of Colonel Bishop. She had Flynn strike up an easy chemistry that makes the romantic portion of the film believable. There’s no question why a woman would fall in love with Blood, and there’s very little mystery behind Blood’s attraction to Arabella. The two young stars were paired in subsequent films, and rumors persisted that the two of them were romantically involved off-screen as well, though de Havilland has always denied this, citing Flynn’s status as a married man — which is sort of a novel defense, knowing what we know about Flynn and his voracious appetite for drinking and womanizing.
These appetites would plague him throughout his life, culminating in a statutory rape charge he was eventually found not guilty of — though even a Flynn fan like me has to question the accuracy of the outcome given that, later in his life, Flynn was courting a fifteen-year-old. But for the most part, Flynn’s off-screen dalliances and poor judgment did little to tarnish his popularity or his image as a noble hero. More damaging to his career was his failure to enlist in World War II (can you imagine a current leading man’s career being damaged on account of his failure to enlist?) while still playing war heroes on-screen. In fact, Flynn had enlisted — several times, and to every branch of the armed forces. Each time he was rejected on account of a series of health issues that included a weak heart (he suffered several heart attacks throughout his life), a bout with tuberculosis and malaria, and a permanently injured back. The film studio was unwilling to publicize Flynn’s reason for not serving, as they felt that it was better to keep a tight lid on the star’s growing health concerns. Thus, Flynn was left behind to make films like Objective Burma while the war was won by guys like Jimmy Stewart.
As I siad, the two newcomers are anchored by a solid supporting cast headed up by Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill. Both make for memorable villains, though Atwill’s merely rotten Bishop is left in the wake of Rathbone’s lamboyant French pirate. Although he’s only on-screen briefly, there’s no forgetting him. At the time, Rathbone was on the cusp of super-stardom. Having already eked out a comfortable career for himself as a supporting player, Rathbone would rocket to fame when he took on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Both Rathbone and Atwill are fondly remembered by horror fans for their work in that genre as well. Both of them play wonderfully off the fresh-faced and enthusiastic Flynn, and the duel between Rathbone and Flynn is one of the all-time greats.
Whatever his personal demons may have been, Captain Blood turned Flynn into a superstar, and the role defined the type of role he would play for most of his career just as it defined the swashbuckling hero. Flynn went on to star in more pirate films, including the wonderful Sea Hawk, as well as series of adventure films that includes The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Objective Burma, They Died With Their Boots On, and The Dawn Patrol, alongside his real-life friend David Niven. Other actors were quick to work within the persona created by Flynn, including Tyrone Power, who sometimes did it almost as well as Flynn. But almost means that, to this day, Flynn remains the very last word in swashbuckling heroes.
Director Micahel Curtiz fared much worse after this film. Although he went on to direct a number of the above-mentioned Errol Flynn swashbucklers, his career was all but killed when he took yet another huge gamble — this time casting an actor known almost entirely for playing b-grade heavies in crime films as a romantic lead. That actor was Humphrey Bogart, and the movie, which was released under the title Casablanca, is all but forgotten these days. In reality, of course, Curtiz did all right. He even made a habit of giving unproven actors a big break. Flynn, and then Bogart as a romantic lead. Later in his career, Curtiz was one of the few directors who was willing to give Elvis Presley a real role, that being King Creole, which is generally regarded by many as Elvis’ one truly great film and performance. Curtiz, having cut his teeth in silent era market of Europe, brings many of the sensibilities of those films into Captain Blood (and many subsequent films). Chief among these is his use of shadows and lighting, which is used to great effect many times throughout the film. Curtiz also solves the problem of shooting on location and around the ocean with a clever use of sets, location shooting, and convincing use of miniatures. Ship decks and cabins are sets, put into context with shots of actual ships on the ocean. The battles are staged in a similar fashion, and the sword fight between Blood and Levasseur is yet another combination of set and location.
Curtiz solution for the sound while shooting on a beach or aboard a ship is simple: he doesn’t use sound. Blood and Levasseur’s duel is shot without sound and on an actual beach, relying instead on the music by Erich Korngold to do the talking. When there is dialog, Curtiz switches to a series of convincing sets. He handles ship settings in the same way, restricting dialog to scenes that can be created on a set while scenes of actual ships are accompanied by Korngold’s orchestration and the foley artist’s ample cannon shots. The battles — and there are several good ones — also rely on miniature work mixed with actual ships, and are achieved with a remarkable degree of effectiveness. The final battle, in particular, in which Blood and his men take on a duo of French warships, is particularly exciting and well executed. There are several shots where I have no idea whether or not they’re using miniatures or actual ships.
I doubt anyone guessed Captain Blood would become the perfect storm of stars, director, music, and spirit that it did, but that’s usually how it happens. As far as swashbucklers and pirate movies go, you’d be hard pressed to find one better, and if you did, it would probably also star Errol Flynn. As far as my opinion goes, I hardly have much more to add. Although I was late in coming to this ad other Flynn films, I consider it one of the absolute best adventure films ever made, crammed to bursting with strong characters, great ship-to-ship battles, sword fights, and romance. The film proved to be a tremendous hit, nabbing an Oscar nominations for best picture (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was also nominated, but all fell before the might of The Mutiny on the Bounty) as well as sound direction. In addition, in 1935 you were still allowed to cast write-in votes, and as a result, Michael Curtiz found himself nominated for best directing honors, Casey Robinson for best screenplay, and Erich Korngold for his score. In a field that was very thick, this film full of and by unknowns didn’t do too bad.