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Brad Bird is the director of three classic animated films: The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007), as well as the blockbuster sequel The Incredibles 2 (2018). The Incredibles is a superhero film that also pays affectionate homage to the spy movies of the 1960s, especially classic Bond. I also classify The Incredibles as a classic of Right-wing cinema because it is explicitly anti-egalitarian and also promotes healthy family values.

Bob Parr is a Nordic bodybuilder who dons cape and mask to fight crime and save lives as the superhero Mr. Incredible. He’s enormously strong and virtually indestructible. His wife Helen is known to the public as the superheroine Elastigirl. Her body is infinitely flexible. She can elongate her limbs or flatten out like a parachute or sail. Their superpowers coincide with traditional masculine and feminine archetypes. He’s hard and brutal. She’s soft and flexible.

The Parrs, however, are forced to hang up their capes when the public turns against superheroes and demands that they be banned. They aren’t banned for being vigilantes, mind you. Instead, they keep getting sued: sued for damages inflicted when they battle supervillains, even sued for saving a suicidal man. A sensible society would indemnify superheroes from such lawsuits, for the greater good. But instead, they are forced to stop helping society. Of course this law does nothing to ban supervillains, whose activities would inevitably increase without opposition. Before you dismiss the whole premise as absurd, ask yourself how it differs from the “defund the police” movement in major American cities.

The Parrs settle down and have three kids, Violet, Dash, and the baby Jak Jak. Both Violet and Dash have superpowers like their folks. Bob has a boring and alienating job in an insurance company. He’s gotten fat. Helen is a stay-at-home mom. Bob and his black buddy Lucius, also known as the superhero Frozone, go out once a week and listen to a police scanner, hoping to relive the old times by battling evil.

Bob gets fired from the insurance company and approached by a mysterious defense contractor who needs a superhero to subdue a rogue battle robot, the Omnidroid. Bob handily defeats the Omnidroid and is happy to be a hero again. He begins working out and getting his edge back.

Unfortunately, Bob’s mysterious benefactor turns out to be a new supervillain who has been using superheroes as test subjects to refine the Omnidroid. Most of them have been killed in the process. Once the Omnidroid has been perfected, Syndrome plans to unleash it on Metroville, then come to the “rescue” as a new superhero who styles himself “Syndrome.” (The “hero syndrome” refers to a form of manipulative behavior in which a person creates a crisis and then comes to the rescue.)

Fortunately, the whole Parr family comes together to use their superpowers to defeat Syndrome and the Omnidroid. Hence Mr. Incredible, who used to work alone, becomes part of a team, the Incredibles.

The music, mid-century modern design, sets, and gadgets of The Incredibles teem with delightful homages to the spy films of the 1960s. An homage, of course, has to fall short of an outright rip-off. But major plot elements of The Incredibles strike me as an outright rip-off of Watchmen. In both stories, superheroes are forced into retirement, hanker for the old life, and return to it surreptitiously. In both stories, the villain does not have superpowers, but he uses technological enhancements to make himself powerful and is willing to share those enhancements with anyone who can pay. Both villains also create crises to achieve their ends. Both stories even share a gag with capes. Brad Bird, however, denies having read Watchmen, a statement that I find . . . incredible.

Not only are Bob and Helen archetypically masculine and feminine characters as superheroes, they also have a traditional family in which Bob works and Helen stays at home to raise their three children. To underscore just how “problematic” this all is from a feminist viewpoint, at the beginning of the film, we see an interview clip with Helen as Elastigirl: “Settle down? Are you kidding? I’m at the top of my game! I’m right up there with the big dogs! Girls, come on. Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so! I don’t think so.” I guess she just hadn’t met Mr. Incredible yet. And although we can credit the government with forcing Helen out of the superhero profession, there’s nothing stopping her from getting some other kind of job. Are we to conclude she just preferred being a mother?

The Incredibles is most famous, however, for its frankly anti-egalitarian sentiments, and rejection of equality is the dividing line between the Left and the Right. The government has demanded that superheroes stop using their superpowers and fit in with the rest of us. This means that young Dash Parr can’t join the track team, because he is super-fast:

Dash: You always say, “Do your best.” But you don’t really mean it. Why can’t I do the best that I can do?

Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we just gotta be like everybody else.

Dash: Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special.

Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.

Dash: Which is another way of saying no one is.

Bob is indignant that Dash’s elementary school now has a “graduation” ceremony for passing from the fourth to the fifth grades: “It’s psychotic. They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity but if someone is genuinely exceptional, then . . .”

Many viewers think that The Incredibles was influenced by Ayn Rand: first, because of the anti-egalitarian sentiments; second, because Ayn Rand herself makes an appearance in the movie as designer Edna Mode, who lives in a hypermodern house with monumental classical Greek décor and smokes cigarettes in a long holder. She’s absolutely hilarious and steals the whole show.

But this is a false inference. Ayn Rand is not the only anti-egalitarian thinker. Moreover, Edna Mode is not based on Ayn Rand but on Edith Head, the great Hollywood designer. (“Edna” is a contraction of “Edith Head,” and “Mode” is French for fashion.) Brad Bird admits that he read Rand when he was young but denies her influence on the film. However, he openly admits to modeling Mode on Head. Beyond all that, the movie’s philosophy isn’t particularly Randian.

The main conflict in the film is between those who are born with special gifts (including knowledge) and those who lack them. As Helen says to her daughter Violet: “You have more power than you realize. Don’t think. And don’t worry. If the time comes, you’ll know what to do. It’s in your blood.” The emphasis on heredity and instinct puts The Incredibles much closer to Nietzsche than Rand.

Ayn Rand, after all, denied that mankind has any inborn knowledge or skills. She was a firm believer in the blank slate, although with a special twist: she believed that the blank slate could inscribe itself, that “man is a being of self-made soul.” (Being one’s own cause [causa sui], is a metaphysical trait usually attributed to God, not man.)

If Rand believes that human beings are born blank slates, she is committed to the thesis that we are all born equal, i.e., blank. What, then, explains our differences? For Rand, it is will. Some people try harder than others. (Don’t ask why some people try harder than others, because the will is free.)

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948) is his greatest work and one of my all-time favorite films. The Red Shoes is a work of art about art. The central characters of The Red Shoes are ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (brilliantly played by Anton Walbrook), ballerina Victoria Page (acted and danced by Moira Shearer), and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring, who was much too old for the role and looks ridiculous smoking a cigarette but is otherwise adequate).

Page and Craster are young talents who are drawn into the creative vortex of Lermontov’s company, rise quickly to stardom, then fall in love with one another and fall out with Lermontov. A happy ending seems, however, to be in the offing until the screenwriter contrives a perversely tragic finale in which Vicky Page dies. Both Lermontov and Craster live on, but they are utterly destroyed as human beings.

The Red Shoes doesn’t just dance around its subject—focusing on personalities, the creative process, and backstage romance—it actually puts ballet on the screen, most spectacularly in the form of a 17-minute original ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Red Shoes,” with music by Brian Easdale, set design by Hein Heckroth, and choreography by the great Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine, who also dance in the ballet and play the roles of Ivan Boleslawsky and Grischa Ljubov in the film.

The core of The Red Shoes is the character of Boris Lermontov, loosely based on the great Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and unforgettably brought to life by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov is brilliant, charismatic, and utterly devoted to ballet, which he regards as his “religion.” He can be domineering, autocratic, brooding, and sometimes brutally frank. But his most outstanding traits are the elegant manners, sensitive diplomacy, and affectionate fatherliness with which he manages his team of highly-strung and egotistical artists.

A great deal of the charm of The Red Shoes is watching Lermontov’s creative family in action: Page, Craster, and Grischa as well as designer Sergei Ratov (played by the great German actor Albert Bassermann) and conductor Livingstone “Livy” Montague (played by Esmond Knight). Each day ends as one by one they bid him a fond “Goodnight, Boris.”

Two of the best scenes—where Craster rehearses an orchestra, correcting a wrong note in the process, and where he introduces his original music for The Red Shoes ballet—were actually based on episodes in the process of creating the movie itself.

The Red Shoes is about the relationship between art and life. Early in the film, they are likened to one another, because they are both compulsions:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.

Vicky: That’s my answer too.

But if art and life are both compulsions, then they can conflict with one another. Even in the best of circumstances, artistic excellence can only be achieved by dominating the body and its desires, sublimating some, suppressing others. As Lermontov puts it, artistic excellence can only be achieved by a “great agony of body and spirit.”

But beauty and excellence can easily become all-consuming obsessions that don’t just dominate life but destroy it, a danger represented by the red shoes. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Lermontov summarizes the story of The Red Shoes ballet to Craster, who will compose the music:

The ballet of The Red Shoes is from the fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well, and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.

Lermontov is practically in a state of rapture when he completes his synopsis.

“What happens in the end?” asks Craster.

“Oh, in the end, she dies,” says Lermontov, as if it were an afterthought.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale is more about sin and addiction to sensual pleasures, whereas in the film the red shoes represent the sacrifice of life to the obsessive pursuit of beauty.

Later in the film, after the successful debut of The Red Shoes ballet, Lermontov explains his ambitions for her career and offers Vicky a Mephistophelean choice:

Lermontov: I want to create, to make something big out of something little, to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question: What do you want from life? To live?

Vicky: To dance.

Near the end of the film, Lermontov comforts a heartbroken Vicky with the words, “Life is so unimportant”—unimportant compared to art, that is.

Part of life is love, marriage, and family. Lermontov is particularly dismissive of ballerinas who allow these considerations to interfere with their art. First, it leads him to dismiss his prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina):

I’m not interested in Boronskaja’s form anymore . . . nor in the form of any other prima ballerina who’s imbecile enough to get married. . . . She’s out, finished. You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.

(This episode seems to be based on Diaghilev’s decision to fire Vaslav Nijinsky when he got married.)

Lermontov then begins to groom Vicky to replace Boronskaja. When Lermontov learns that Vicky and Julian have fallen in love, he tries to break them up, driving Craster to quit on the assumption that Vicky will stay. But instead she leaves as well.

It is tempting to believe that Lermontov was acting out of sexual jealously. His body language with Vicky in one scene is quite intimate. Also, before he learns of Vicky’s relationship with Craster, he seems to wish to ask her on a date, although it may simply be to discuss business. Earlier in the film, Vicky thinks that Lermontov has invited her on a date, which she eagerly accepts, dressing up like a princess. But it turns out to be just a business meeting. Only when it becomes apparent that Lermontov is entirely focused on his work does she notice Craster. Craster accuses Lermontov of jealousy. He agrees, but says it is not sexual. He may be telling the truth. After all, there’s no hint of sexual interest in Boronskaja, yet he rejects her for getting married as well. It might indeed be just about his single-minded devotion to ballet.

In another brilliant, brooding scene, Lermontov comes to the realization that he has been a fool. (Note that Lermontov, always the impresario, adjusts the lighting, finds his mark, and assumes a pose before inviting people into a room.) Then Lermontov decides to approach Boronskaja, who is still happily married, and lure her back on stage. Boris has obviously concluded that art and life—in particular, married life—need not conflict. A year later, he manages to lure Vicky back on stage to dance The Red Shoes again.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Red Shoes, Michael Powell’s 1948 Technicolor feast about a ballet impresario played by the great Anton Walbrook and his ecstatic, obsessive, and ultimately destructive relationship with his art—and one artist in particular. So you can imagine how eagerly I sought out Powell’s first foray into Technicolor, 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, also starring Walbrook.

My interest was further sharpened when I read some of the critical notices. No less than Martin Scorsese praised Blimp as a masterpiece. Andrew Sarris called Blimp “England’s answer to Citizen Kane”—an over-praised movie, to be sure, but still intriguing. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker said Blimp “may be the greatest English film ever made,” which is high praise indeed when one considers that Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean were in the running. Empire magazine ranked Blimp #80 in its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, and it is #45 in the British Film Institute list of the Top 100 British Films.

I am sad to report, however, that Blimp is the worst “great” movie I have ever seen—worse even than Casablanca, which it displaced at the bottom of my ranking. To be clear, there are many films that are worse than Blimp, but they are seldom heaped with praise by directors and critics. Blimp is so bad, in fact, that I long hesitated to give it even a negative review, for two main reasons. First, I didn’t want to watch it again. Second, I don’t want to encourage anyone else to watch it, and negative reviews often have that perverse effect, because people wonder if it is “really that bad.” Well, it really is. Take my word for it. Blimp isn’t even entertainingly bad, like many midnight movies. But it is at least interestingly bad, hence this review.

The idea for the story of Blimp came from Powell’s previous film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). Then-editor David Lean thought a scene should be cut because it did not advance the plot, but he did remark that it contained the dramatic seed of a whole new film about the conflict between youth and old-age, specifically in a military setting.

This idea grew into the story of a British officer, Clive Wynne-Candy, who fought in three wars, fell in love three times with beautiful women all played by the same actress, and at the end of his career clashes with the younger generation, who could use his wisdom and experience, although they can also teach him a thing or two.

As an elevator pitch, it is intriguing idea for a serious film, with plenty of opportunity for dramatic conflict and romance centering on deep, archetypal symbolism: the adventure and horror of war, youth versus old age, the eternal feminine, and those intriguing threes.

Unfortunately, during the “development” process, Clive Wynne-Candy was amalgamated with the cartoon character of Colonel Blimp, created by David Low. Low’s Blimp is a dim-witted, jingoistic, reactionary blowhard who speaks in hilarious clichés, vacuities, and contradictions: “Gad sir! Mr. Lansbury is right. The League of Nations should insist on peace—except, of course, in the case of war.”

But Clive Wynne-Candy is neither a colonel nor named Blimp. Nor does he die, for that matter. And although his opinions are old-fashioned, he is neither stupid nor contemptible. Which makes the Blimp makeover seem rather dumb and dishonest: a cynical attempt to boost the movie by name-checking a rather different cartoon character. But the cynicism does not stop there.

Powell’s creative partner, screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who hated the Nazis—and apparently all Germans, whom he regarded as mere stand-ins for Nazis—and wished to put his talents to work stirring up and sustaining another World War.

Thus Powell and Pressburger teamed up to make a whole series of anti-Nazi or just anti-German propaganda films: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Blimp (1943), The Volunteer (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

According to Powell, Pressburger fancied himself the “British” answer to Dr. Goebbels. He also thought Blimp was his finest work. He was delusional on both counts, for Blimp is very clumsy propaganda, which is fortunate, because its intended message is pure evil.

The only thing “Blimpian” about Colonel Blimp is the script, which is bloated with undramatic flab, padding, and hot air, yielding a running time of nearly three hours. Of course, if the original story idea had been developed into a compelling drama, it could have run three hours with no complaints.

My hypothesis is that once the original idea—with its span of four decades, triple romance, and struggle between youth and experience—was fused with a cartoon buffoon, Pressburger felt relieved of the necessity of any serious dramatic character development or storytelling. Hence the characters become mere caricatures and the plot becomes as thin as a clothesline on which Pressburger strings his messages.

Usually, these messages are conveyed by a cast member making a speech, often looking straight into the camera. It is flat, undramatic, and often deadly dull. Since Pressburger was pretty much indifferent to what came between, the story is cluttered with pointless characters, childish and cutesy dialogue, scenes contrived merely for superficial color and charm, and bizarre, psychologically implausible changes of character.

For instance, the central relationship of the movie is the forty-year friendship of Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey, and Prussian officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf, played by Anton Walbrook. When they first meet in Berlin in 1902, they are fighting a duel with sabers because Clive has insulted the honor of the German military.

The preparations for the duel take up a great deal of screen time because Pressburger had developed a pedantic fixation on a Prussian dueling manual. But when the duel actually starts—at last, some action!—the camera cuts to the exterior of the building, which renders the rehearsal of the rules pointless and makes a complete mockery of the duel’s dramatic buildup, such as it is. It is practically a textbook example of an anticlimax. Amazingly, Scorsese praises this perverse stunt as brilliant and even imitated it in Raging Bull.

Clive’s love for three women of three different generations, all played by Deborah Kerr, could have been developed into a great romance. But Clive’s feelings for all three women are more narrated than shown. Indeed, I was completely taken by surprise when Clive announced his love for the first of them, Edith.

There is a bit more feeling in Clive’s relationship with the second woman, Barbara, whom he marries. But when she dies, we learn of it only from a newspaper clipping flashed on the screen. Would it have killed Pressburger to have actually written a scene?

When Clive’s loyal servant Murdoch dies in the blitz, we learn about it the same way. Why not just flash the whole script up and dispense with the cast entirely? Why treat these opportunities for drama and genuine feeling in such a cold and perfunctory way while cluttering up the script with pointless inanities?

Unfortunately for Pressburger, drama, characterization, and the rest are necessary to sell propaganda. Generally, the worse the propaganda, the better the story has to be. If Pressburger had been a better storyteller, the world would have been a much worse place.

So what was Pressburger’s message?

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Movies 

Yukio Mishima (1925–1970) was one of the giants of Japanese letters as well as an outspoken Right-wing nationalist. Mishima shocked the world on November 25, 1970, when he and members of his private militia, the Tatenokai or Shield Society, took hostage the commander of the Japan Self-Defense Force’s Ichigaya Camp. Mishima then delivered a speech to the assembled soldiers and press, exhorting the Japanese to turn away from American-imposed consumerism back to their traditional aristocratic culture, which prized honor above life and comfort. Then, to show that he really meant it, Mishima committed ritual suicide along with one of his followers, Masako Morita.

Mishima: The Last Debate, directed by Keisuke Toyoshima, focuses on an event that took place on May 13, 1969: Mishima’s debate with the radical student protest group, the All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee or Zenkyoto, which had mounted violent protests against the government, the educational system, and the American occupiers. Interestingly enough, Zenkyoto was anti-communist as well as anti-capitalist and anti-American. They drew more inspiration from phenomenology and existentialism than from Marxism.

Mishima despised Marxism and probably would not have debated communists. But Zenkyoto’s third positionist stance overlapped significantly with his own Right-wing nationalism. Thus he accepted the invitation to debate in the hope of winning over some of the students. This was not a Quixotic hope, given that the Shield Society consisted mostly of college students.

The debate took place in Lecture Hall 900 of the University of Tokyo in front of an audience of 1,000 including Mishima’s Tatenokai security detail. The event lasted two hours and was filmed by the broadcaster TBS. The footage was long thought lost. When it was rediscovered, it was given to Toyoshima to create a documentary, which runs for 1 hour, 51 minutes and incorporates 45 minutes of debate footage plus contemporary news footage of student unrest and recent interviews with debate participants and eyewitnesses, as well as academics and two prominent novelists. The novelists are Mishima’s friend Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun who was 97 years old at the time of the interview, and Keiichiro Hirano, an outspoken admirer of Mishima. The film is fundamentally respectful of Mishima and all other participants in the debate. The documentary premiered in Japan in late 2020, and only now has a version subtitled in English leaked onto the internet.

Mishima’s performance in the debate is masterful. Dressed in black polo and white slacks, he is conspicuously fitter and more stylish—and even more youthful—than the students, who are half his age but often look frumpy, slovenly, and defensive. Mishima is remarkably diplomatic and respectful in dealing with the students, even when they are rude and abrasive. He is relaxed throughout: smoking, laughing, and cracking jokes with the audience. He seeks to find common ground and then bring the students around to his way of thinking.

Mishima could win on charisma alone, but his arguments are even more impressive. He knows his phenomenology and existentialism better than the students yet keeps his remarks firmly grounded while his interlocutors often float away in abstractions. At the 29-minute mark, Mishima answers a question about the status of the “other” in his thought that is the high point of the film. He begins by saying that he hates Jean-Paul Sartre—probably because he was a communist—then explains Sartre’s phenomenology of the obscene as objectification in Being and Nothingness—bringing the house down with a joke about the Prime Minister—before arguing that non-objectifying relationships with others are fraught with the potential for enmity and violence, which of course give rise to the political. He states that when he wished to move away from a literature that merely objectified others, he had to choose an enemy, which for him is communism. It is a rather deft transition from abstract philosophy to concrete Rightist politics.

There’s a good deal of back and forth between Mishima and a hippy actor and director named Masahiko Akuta, who shows up with his infant daughter in his arms. Akuta is often quite muddle-headed and overly abstract. He frequently comes off as a phony. But Mishima patiently tries to interpret Akuta’s remarks and respond to them. Akuta is also quite rude at times, but Mishima never takes umbrage.

When Akuta brings his arguments down to earth, it is usually in the form of accusations premised on goofy cosmopolitan pieties. “You are nothing without Japan,” he asserts, to which Mishima replies by inventing the “yes” meme in 1969: “That’s me.” When Akuta accuses Mishima of being unable to transcend being Japanese, Mishima says, “That’s okay.” As Akuta waxes cosmopolitan, Mishima just responds, “Ah so,” holds out the microphone, and lets Akuta dig himself into a deeper hole.

Mishima defends his Japanese identity as simply a fact, as a destiny that cannot be avoided. His only choice in the matter is to own up to it or not. In Heidegger’s idiom, being Japanese is Mishima’s “thrownness,” and owning up to that fact is “authenticity.” By contrast, Akuta’s claim that one can transcend one’s nationality is inauthenticity: phoniness. We do not create our identities, nor can we recreate them, but try telling that to an actor. Mishima is quite comfortable with philosophical abstractions, but being a novelist, he is also masterful at making them concrete. At one point, he tells the audience that if they don’t know what it means to be Japanese, they need to go abroad for a spell.

Mishima makes frequent reference to the emperor, telling the students that he would have joined their movement if they had mentioned the emperor just once. At one point, he states that the students are wrong to think the emperor is “bourgeois.” The bourgeois ethos places life and comfort above all else, whereas the aristocratic ethos embodied by the emperor puts honor above life and comfort. Mishima recounts how the emperor presided over the graduation ceremony of his elite high school, remaining as rigid as a statue for three hours. Mishima wished to communicate that there is an aristocratic critique of bourgeois society from above, not just the Marxist critique from below.

The documentary ends with Mishima’s suicide, which includes actual footage from Mishima’s final speech plus the announcement that he and Morita had killed themselves. I did not know that this footage existed, and although it was brief, I found it surprisingly moving. I hope it will be the seed of its own documentary. Many of the soldiers who heard Mishima are alive today. I would like to know their thoughts after more than fifty years.

I was also quite amazed to see interviews with three members of the Shield Society, all of them in their 70s, as well as to learn that they still meet every November 25th to honor Mishima and Morita. As one would expect, they are a very dignified lot.

Several things are remarkable about Mishima’s debate. First, it is carried on at a very high level of abstraction, with remarkable earnestness. Today’s student radicals are inane and infantile by comparison. Second, Mishima’s performance is impressive in both substance and style. Third, it is astonishing that such a meeting took place at all, although in the 1960s, George Lincoln Rockwell was invited to speak on American university campuses. Such events would never happen in academia today. If they were scheduled in the first place, they would rapidly be shut down by angry mobs.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Japan, Mishima, Nationalism 

Not every Merchant-Ivory film is a visually lush period drama based on novels by prestigious writers like E. M. Forster and Henry James, but the most memorable ones are, including The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), and Howards End (1992). Another in this vein is The Remains of the Day (1993), based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

All these films were produced by Ismail Merchant, an Indian Muslim, and directed by his gay partner James Ivory, an American Protestant. With the exception of Maurice, they were adapted for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German Jew married to an Indian Parsi.

Yet for all the intersectional diversity points of their creators, there is something “problematic” about these films, for they feed on a deep nostalgia for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterized by overwhelming whiteness, patriarchy, sexual repression, and heteronormativity. Of course, all the characters struggle against this world in the name of an old-fashioned, white, and Eurocentric liberalism that is also problematic these days. But it is impossible to overlook that the world they are struggling against is far more attractive than the world they ended up making for us.

The archetypal Merchant-Ivory film appeals to pretty much the same people who love Downton Abbey: overwhelmingly white, predominantly female, disproportionately gay, and very liberal. The average Merchant-Ivory viewer loves to imagine himself or herself as rich, beautifully dressed, and at home in the most glamorous locales, all while being terribly oppressed but also enlightened and virtuous. It is a kind of porn for the NPR/BBC4 set: middle-aged, middlebrow, middle managers in our neoliberal Left-wing oligarchy. But race-conscious whites can also enjoy the nostalgia if they are willing to bracket out the propaganda.

Or, in the case of The Bostonians, they don’t have to, for through some strange twist of fate, this is one of the most anti-liberal, anti-feminist movies I have ever seen. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeve, Madeleine Potter, and Jessica Tandy, The Bostonians is based on Henry James’ 1886 novel of the same name, which is a satire of the Eastern Liberal Establishment circa 1875–76 set primarily in Boston but with forays to Cambridge, New York City, and Martha’s Vineyard—pretty much their same haunts today.

It is a world of bossy women and low-testosterone men. All the characters are either rich or the professionals, courtiers, and charlatans who feed off the rich. Mesmerism, spiritualism, homeopathy, and feminism are the current rages in their salons.

The Bostonians focuses on a circle of wealthy suffragettes. Now that blacks have been emancipated and the South put to the sword, feminism is the next great progressive crusade. The main suffragettes are the elderly Miss Birdseye (Jessica Tandy), a gentle soul who lives in a word of high-minded fancies; Mrs. Burrage (Nancy Marchand), a fabulously rich New Yorker with a son at Harvard who hosts radical salons at her Fifth Avenue mansion; and the fifty-something spinster Olive Chancellor, a lesbian and wild-eyed fanatic who is beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave.

The dramatic conflict of The Bostonians is between Olive and her distant cousin, Basil Ransom (Christopher Reeve), a Confederate veteran from Mississippi who now works as a lawyer in New York City.

Basil is a writer on topics like honor, virtue, and aristocracy. He is unapologetically conservative, even reactionary. When one of his essays was rejected for being “300 hundred years out of date,” he replied: “On the rights of minorities, I am 300 years out of date. But you see, I haven’t come too late. I have come too soon.” A man after my own heart.

Basil also rejects feminism. He thinks that “for public uses” women are entirely “inferior and second rate.” Instead, he thinks that women are best suited for the private realm of family life. He also mocks the feminist complaint that women are oppressed. Basil thinks women have enormous power as it is, and their desire for equal footing in public would in fact lead to the oppression of men by women. Which raises a question: If men could see this in the 1880s, how did we end up where we are today?

Olive and Basil’s main conflict is not, however, over political philosophy. Instead, they are fighting over a woman: Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter). Verena is the daughter of “Dr.” Tarrant, a spiritualist and Mesmeric healer who never gets too transported to forget to present his bill. Both Basil and Olive meet Verena at a suffragist meeting where she is rolled out by her father and “started up” with some parlor magic to deliver an impassioned oration for women’s equality. It is love at first sight for both cousins.

Olive wants to groom Verena, both as a feminist speaker and a lover. She basically buys Verena from her parents, handing her father a check for \$5,000 for the privilege of overseeing her “education” for a year, after which he can expect the same amount. In 1875, that amount was the equivalent of \$120,000 today, in a time when the cost of living was far lower. Today, parents hand over that amount to universities for the privilege of having their children seduced and ruined, ideologically and otherwise.

Verena’s education consists of readings, museum outings, and Olive’s wild-eyed orations about dedication and sacrifice for the liberation of humanity—in the lap of embarrassing luxury, to the fey strains of the Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude. Redgrave was really born for this role.

Basil tells Verena “I don’t think you mean what you preach.” Instead, he thinks that she simply has a “sweet nature” that makes her want to please the people around her: her father, Oliver, Miss Birdseye, etc. In short, Verena is exactly the kind of woman he wants for his wife: someone who will be devoted to pleasing him, which of course implies motherhood and child-rearing as well.

But can’t Verena “have it all”? No. Basil doesn’t want a wife who is famous for preaching dangerous nonsense. He wants her to give up politics altogether and devote herself entirely to private life. He asks, “Can’t I make you see how much more natural it is—not to say agreeable—to give yourself to a man, instead of to the movement of some morbid old maid?” Basil is also shrewd enough to know what Olive is after. They didn’t call lesbian cohabitation “Boston marriages” for nothing.

I’ll leave you to discover the twists and turns of Olive and Basil’s struggle over Verena for yourselves. But I should at least tell you that this movie does not follow the model of politically incorrect heroes (Archie Bunker, Tony Soprano) who “grow” over time. The Bostonians wouldn’t be remarkable unless our chivalrous Confederate hero won out in the end, without compromise, his character and principles entirely intact.

Henry James was known for extremely subtle studies of character and psychology. The movie does them justice. The tiniest gestures are revealing and often quite funny. For instance, during one of Dr. Tarrant’s mesmeric healing sessions, he breaks out of his prophetic voice twice to ask an unctuous a weasel of a reporter (Wallace Shawn), “Have you got that, Mr. Pardon?” Another great moment is when Mrs. Burrage tells Olive that she is devoted to the cause of “we poor women” as they are served tea in her sumptuous Fifth Avenue mansion.

Olive and Basil are polar opposites in character as well as in sex and politics.

 

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is not just a great film, it is a nearly perfect one. Even better, it was recognized as such from the start by virtually everyone. The critics lionized it and continue to include it on their “best” lists. The movie business showered it with prizes. Bridge won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director. Audiences made it the biggest film of 1957 and a perennial favorite ever since.

Bridge was Lean’s twelfth film and his first “epic,” which cast the die for the rest of his career. It was followed by Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), also classics. Then Lean ended his career with Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), which fail as films in part because their slighter stories were overwhelmed by Lean’s epic style of treatment, which had hardened into mannerisms.

Bridge might have shared the same fate because of its source material. Lean’s film adapts Pierre Boulle’s best-selling 1952 novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï. (Boulle is also famous for another novel that made it to the screen as Planet of the Apes.) The novel is set in Japanese-occupied Thailand during the Second World War. The Japanese are building a railroad to connect Bangkok with Rangoon using forced labor, both native civilians and British prisoners of war.

The British prisoners in a particular camp are tasked with building a bridge over the river Kwai. The main conflict is between the Japanese camp Commander Saito and British Lt. Colonel Nicholson. Saito demands that officers do manual labor. This being contrary to the military code, Nicholson refuses, and he and his officers are punished. Naturally, the construction project is plagued by sabotage. Saito eventually relents because he needs the cooperation of the British officers to finish the bridge on schedule.

Nicholson then marshals his men in order to build a better bridge than the Japanese could have done. Nicholson appeals to legalism, esprit de corps, and British chauvinism—but they all fall short of a case for enthusiastic collaborationism. The core of the novel is the absurdity of a man who collaborates with the enemy out of a misplaced sense of duty. It is not clear if Nicholson is supposed to be an imbecile or a madman, but he’s definitely something of a buffoon: a snob, a bore, a martinet, and ultimately a traitor.

Most Brits who read the novel found it to be offensive and rather tasteless: offensive, because it reads as a rather crude Gallic lampoon of the British national character, especially the British military; tasteless, because approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway, plus up to 100,000 of the local civilians; it is just not something to be treated lightly.

Lean followed Boulle’s plot fairly faithfully. The main departure—the destruction of the bridge at the end of the film—was approved by Boulle. Where Lean departed from Boulle is his treatment of the character of Nicholson. Lean turned Nicholson from a buffoon into a tragic hero worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. In Lean’s eyes, Nicholson stands for genuine virtues: patriotism, loyalty, duty, pride one’s his work, and obedience to law, authority, and moral principles. He wouldn’t be a tragic hero unless he had genuine virtues.

Nicholson’s “tragic flaw” is that he does not see that his virtues only really make sense when practiced among his own people, for their benefit. In the prison camp, however, these virtues are being exploited by a ruthless enemy who aims to destroy the Empire that Nicholson so loyally fought to preserve. There’s a lesson in this for white people today, since our openness to strangers, altruism, and moral idealism are being exploited by a system that is destroying us as well.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is masterful at exploring the fundamental distinction between aristocratic ethos that prizes honor above all else and the bourgeois ethos that prizes comfort, security, long life, and pleasure above all else.

G. W. F. Hegel famously claims that history begins with a battle to the death over honor, in which two men are willing to risk their lives for an idea. Prehistory is governed by the necessities of life. History is governed by ideas. If both men prize honor above life, and one is defeated, he will choose death before dishonor. But if the defeated party chooses life at the price of honor, he is revealed to be a very different kind of man who is reduced to the status of a slave, to toil for the victor.

This is exactly how Japanese Commander Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa) sees the matter. By surrendering, the British have lost their honor and have been reduced to slaves, including the officers, thus all must work. Saito will not spare the officers from the full measure of their disgrace because of a mere legalism that forbids imprisoned officers from doing manual labor, as if they were still gentlemen. To him, the Geneva Convention is nothing compared to the Japanese warrior code of bushido. The Japanese military felt superior to the British because the Japanese still committed suicide to avoid the dishonor of defeat, whereas the British, being a Christian nation, rejected suicide and used legalisms to preserve their honor even in defeat.

The dispute between Saito and Nicholson—brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guinness—becomes another struggle to the death over honor. Saito puts Nicholson in a metal box in the blazing sun to break his will, but he refuses to relent and do manual labor, even if it kills him. Unfortunately for Saito, the bridge is behind schedule, the Japanese engineer is incompetent, and the prisoners are at best sullen workers, at worst prone to malingering and sabotage.

If the bridge is not committed on schedule, Saito will be expected to commit suicide, a fate that he wishes to avoid. Thus Saito uses the anniversary of the Japanese victory over Russia as the occasion for a face-saving amnesty. Nicholson and his officers will not have to labor but will organize their men to complete the bridge on time. The roles have been reversed. Nicholson has chosen death over dishonor, and Saito has flinched, choosing dishonor over death. It is Nicholson’s high point. After that, his fall begins.

Nicholson’s quest to build a better bridge than the Japanese also makes sense in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Nicholson has beaten Saito on an essential point of honor. But he is still a prisoner, and his men are still slaves. However, Hegel describes as pathway by which the slave can restore his self-respect and humanity. The master rules over men, including slaves. The slave, however, can make himself a master over nature, which is what Nicholson and his men do by building the bridge, and doing it better than the Japanese could. Saito is shamed by this, and even though the bridge is completed on time, he still plans to kill himself.

But in a deeper sense, the Japanese have still won, because they got their bridge, which is an important strategic asset in their war against the British. Next stop: India.

Since both Saito and Nicholson are master types, albeit at times “temporarily embarrassed” master types, the film needs a well-developed slave type as a contrast. The American studio wanted a big American star to appeal to American ticket buyers. Enter William Holden as the American Commander Shears. (In the novel, Shears is British.) The Americans also wanted a love interest to appeal to chicks. Lean groaned, because war stories are guy stories. (Lean got his way on his next film, Lawrence of Arabia, in which there are no speaking roles for women.)

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

David Lean (1908–1991) directed sixteen movies, fully half of them classics, including three of the greatest films ever made: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and, greatest of them all, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lawrence of Arabia is repeatedly ranked as one of the finest films of all time, and when one compares it to such overpraised items as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, a strong case can be made for putting it at the very top of the list. I am hesitant to speak of “the greatest” anything, just because I have not seen everything. But when I think of some of my personal favorites—Vertigo, Network, Rashomon—I can’t honestly rank any of them higher than Lawrence of Arabia.

Everything about this film is epic: from its nearly four-hour running time and its 70-millimeter widescreen image with astonishing detail and depth of focus—to the magnificent settings in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain—to the music by Maurice Jarré—to the cast of thousands crowned by such stars as Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, and Claude Rains.

Lean had to go big, simply to do justice to the story. Lawrence of Arabia is about one of the most remarkable men of the last century, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) and his role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Based on Lawrence’s sprawling narrative of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago) and Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai) is a supremely masterful screen adaptation. The timeline is simplified and certain characters are amalgamated, both to save time and heighten dramatic conflicts, but the truth of the story is conveyed.

Like Lawrence’s book, the movie has several layers. First of all, it is a historical narrative. Second, it offers lessons in political philosophy. (The word “wisdom” in the title should have been a warning.) Lawrence was a nationalist, not an imperialist. To fight the Turks, he favored aiding Arab nationalists rather than spending British lives to conquer territory and resources in Mesopotamia. But, against Lawrence’s own intention, Seven Pillars also makes a case for empire, a case that Lean’s film clearly reinforces. Third, there is a strong element of Nietzschean self-mythologization: what Aleister Crowley calls “auto-hagiography” and the Arabs call “blasphemy.”

On the symbolic plane, Lawrence overthrows the three Abrahamic faiths by rejecting their doctrines and reversing or rewriting their central stories with himself as the hero. The movie takes this process further, both reflecting upon the process by which Lawrence became a legend and perfecting it: cinema as apotheosis. I want to focus on the latter two layers. Thus I will skip huge stretches of the story and leave those for you to discover on your own.

T.E. Lawrence was one of five illegitimate sons of an Anglo-Irish Baronet, Sir Thomas Chapman, and an English mother, Sarah Junner. Highly intelligent, Lawrence read history at Jesus College, Oxford from 1907 to 1910. From 1910 to 1914, he was an archaeologist in the Holy Land, working with such eminent figures as Leonard Woolley and Flinders Petrie. Woolley and Lawrence also gathered intelligence for the British in the Negev Desert in early 1914.

When the World War broke out, Lawrence enlisted. Fluent in French and Arabic and knowledgeable of Arab history and culture, he received a military intelligence post in Cairo. In June of 1916, when Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, Lawrence was sent to Arabia to gather intelligence. The rest is history.

The movie begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, at the age of 46. After a memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the crème of the British establishment, a priest asks if Lawrence “really belongs here,” which introduces the theme of Lawrence as an outsider. The first half of the movie can be seen as an affirmative answer to that question.

Then we flash back nearly twenty years to Lawrence in Cairo. From the start, Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence as slightly autistic and ambiguously gay. He also has a masochistic side. He likes to extinguish matches with his fingers. “The trick . . . is not to mind that it hurts.” It is a small exercise in self-overcoming, a hint of greater things to come.

Lawrence’s commander, General Murray, despises him as an overeducated misfit, but a civil servant Mr. Dryden (a composite character played by Claude Rains) values his intelligence and language skills. Dryden “borrows” Lawrence for an intelligence gathering mission to Arabia. He is to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the son of Sharif Hussein, and evaluate his leadership potential.

Lawrence tells Dryden that he thinks this mission will be “fun.” Dryden says that the only people who find the desert fun are Bedouin and gods. His unstated premise is that Lawrence is neither. Lawrence flatly declares, “No, it will be fun.” If Dryden is right, and Lawrence is not a Bedouin, that implies that Lawrence thinks of himself as a god. To underscore Lawrence’s funny idea of fun, he lights a match. But this time Lawrence blows the flame out.

Crossing the desert to find Faisal, Lawrence’s guide Tafas is killed by Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking at his well. You see, Tafas is from the wrong tribe. This prompts a bit of political philosophy delivered with autistic frankness that borders on the suicidal, given that it is spoken to a man holding a smoking gun: “As long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” A nation comes into being when tribes of the same people put aside petty differences and rivalries for a higher good. Throughout his adventures in Arabia, Lawrence’s dream of a rising Arab nation is stymied by tribal rivalries and blood feuds.

On autistic principle, Lawrence rejects Ali’s help in finding Faisal, preferring to risk it on his own.

When Lieutenant Lawrence reaches Faisal, he is ordered by his British military advisor, Colonel Brighton, to say nothing, observe, and report back to Dryden. But Lawrence is irrepressible. As an autist, when he has ideas, he can’t keep them to himself, which intrigues Faisal. Brighton counsels a strategic withdrawal to Yenbo, where the British can resupply him. Faisal wants the British fleet to take the port of Aqaba, but Brighton refuses. It is too well-defended. When Brighton leaves, Faisal bids Lawrence to stay. Faisal naturally fears the English have designs on Arabia, but he is forced to depend upon them: “We need the English or—what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence—we need a miracle.”

This prompts Lawrence to spend a night brooding in the desert. The next morning, Lawrence suggests to Ali that the Arabs should take Aqaba themselves. Aqaba’s guns point toward the sea, because an attack from the land was deemed unlikely. Ali points out that such an attack would require crossing the Nefud Desert, a waste that even the Bedouin avoid. Lawrence proposes crossing the Nefud with fifty men—all members of Ali’s tribe—then raising more troops from the Howeitat tribe on the other side. Ali agrees.

When Lawrence tells Prince Faisal that he is “going to work your miracle,” Faisal replies “Blasphemy is a bad beginning.” Lean films Lawrence’s nocturnal meditations like something more than just a brainstorming session. Now we know that it was a step toward apotheosis.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters, History • Tags: Hollywood, Middle East, Movies, World War I 

Over the years, I caught bits and pieces of John Milius’ 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian—starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the big lug himself—on cable TV. But I was never tempted to watch the whole film. I finally gave in when I started writing my series on Classics of Right-Wing Cinema, and friends urged me to add Conan to my list.

I admit that a film about Robert E. Howard’s iconic hero, with visuals borrowed from Frank Frazetta, starring the future California Governator, and directed by Right-wing Jew Milius sounds like a formula for a classic of Right-wing cinema, teeming with paleo-masculine heroics and illiberal political realism. After all, Milius wrote the script for Dirty Harry, which is a genuine paleo-masculine, anti-liberal classic of Right-wing cinema.

Sadly, though, Conan the Barbarian is nothing like Dirty Harry, but it is very much like its sequel, Magnum Force, also scripted by Milius, in which the character of Harry Callahan is systematically subverted in a decidedly anti-white and politically correct manner.

The Conan movie went through more than a decade of development hell before finally moving forward with Milius at the helm. Oliver Stone had apparently written a four-hour script set in a post-apocalyptic future. Milius discarded Stone’s script entirely, even though Stone and Milius share the final screenwriting credit. Instead of setting Conan in classical antiquity, Milius sets the story in the Dark Ages, borrowing elements from the Norse and the Mongols.

Howard’s Conan is a fearsome warrior, but he is also intelligent, witty, learned, and cunning. He can read and write. He is fluent in a number of languages. He can solve problems and crack codes. These traits set him apart in a world teeming with warriors, enabling him to become a king. In short, Howard’s Conan is no mere barbarian. Milius’ Conan is strong and cunning, but otherwise he is an oaf with very few lines. It is impossible to imagine this man becoming a king, because he really is just a barbarian.

But surely Milius used some of Howard’s 21 Conan stories? No, not really. He borrowed some names and events, but the plot is his invention. This is John Milius’ Conan, not Robert E. Howard’s, which is something of a cheat if you grew up liking Howard’s Conan. Ultimately, though, Milius’ Conan has to be judged on its own merits. So permit me some spoilers.

The story opens with Conan as a child. His father is a blacksmith who explains the “riddle of steel” to his young son. Later, Conan’s village is attacked by a marauding band. Actually, they look like a marauding heavy metal band: Spinal Tap, but with real axes. It is a bit much.

The band is led by Thulsa Doom, who is played by James Earl Jones. Jones, of course, was the voice of Darth Vader, so he was an iconic choice for a villain. But Jones is a black man, who is as absurdly out of place in Conan’s world as the llama we glimpse later on in the movie. Thulsa Doom has the power to hypnotize people, which he uses on Conan’s mother, who lowers her sword, allowing Thulsa to lop off her head.

The children of the village are marched off as slaves to toil in a mill, where eventually Conan grows up to be a giant, muscular brute played by Schwarzenegger. Then Conan is sold to another master, who makes a gladiator of him. Howard’s Conan was a free man from birth and would never have acquiesced to such treatment. Of course such an origin story could be compelling if Conan overcame it, for instance by gaining his freedom through strength and character. But no, at a certain point, his master just lets a highly profitable slave go. It makes no sense and adds nothing to Conan’s rather murky character and motivations.

Conan wanders a bit, finding a sword. Then he meets a witch, who seduces him. When she begins transforming into something unsavory, he simply tosses her into the fireplace and leaves. It is genuinely funny. At that point, I wondered if this film was trying to be camp, like Mike Hodges’ 1980 Flash Gordon, which was also produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

Conan then rescues Subotai, a thief who has been imprisoned by the witch. Played by Gerry Lopez, dubbed by a Japanese actor, and named after one of Genghis Khan’s generals, Subotai is our white hero’s non-white sidekick. Because those are the rules of Hollywood: no white hero can act without a non-white sidekick.

Conan wants revenge on Thusla Doom. The witch told him that Doom can be found in the city of Zamora, so Conan and Subotai set out for there. In Zamora, they meet Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a strong, independent female thief, because the rules of Hollywood also dictate that no white hero can be depicted without a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need him.

When Conan asks about Thulsa Doom’s snake standard, he is told of the towers of the cult of Set: “Two or three years ago, it was just another snake cult,” but now franchises are popping up in every city. At this point, I was wondering if Lorenzo Semple, Jr., of Flash Gordon and the Batman TV series had a hand in the script.

The three thieves sneak into the tower of Set, where they find one of Thulsa’s heavy metal band feeding nubile females to a giant serpent. They kill the serpent, steal some treasure, and go celebrate. Conan and Valeria become an item.

Suddenly, the trio are arrested and dragged before Osric, the king of Zamora, played by the great Max von Sydow. The fact that he played Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon reinforced the camp interpretation. But then Von Sydow does something quite unexpected. He takes a campy script and gives a riveting and passionate performance. His daughter has joined Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, and he wants to hire the thieves to bring her back.

Subotai and Valeria don’t wish to risk it. When Valeria gives her case for quitting while they are ahead, again it is well-acted and touching. It is the dramatic high-point of the film, which then lapses back into camp, spectacle, and mindless action. But for a few minutes, we get a sense of the great sword and sorcery movie Conan could have been if Milius had just played it straight, with sincerity rather than irony.

Conan wants revenge, so he heads to Thulsa Doom’s headquarters alone. Milius portrays the Doom cultists as degenerate, credulous flower children being exploited by ruthless sociopaths. Using an amusing ruse, Conan steals a priest’s costume but is caught. Doom makes a rather chilling speech about the relative powers of steel and flesh. By flesh, he really means the hypnotic power of his words over the minds of his followers, which he demonstrates by enticing one to leap to her death. This contrast between words and steel is central to the whole plot, but it also dictates a fundamental change in Conan’s character. Howard’s Conan was a master of steel (well, bronze) and words. Milius’ Conan is an inarticulate thug.

Doom orders Conan to be crucified on a tree, but Subotai rescues him. Then Subotai, Valeria, and another Asian sidekick, a wizard with an annoying voice named Akiro, use magic to bring Conan back from the brink of death. The wizard warns, however, that the magic will have a heavy toll. Valeria is willing to risk it. Akiro is played by an Asian, because a white hero cannot be aided by a wise white mentor, and Morgan Freeman was otherwise engaged. Those are the rules of Hollywood.

 

Michael Powell (1905–1990) is one of the tragic geniuses of film: a genius because he is one of the most visually dazzling directors in the history of cinema, tragic because he too often he wasted his talents on inferior scripts, most of them provided by his longtime collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee to whom Powell often gave co-director credit.

Powell worked his way up from a studio gofer to a leading director. Many of his journeyman efforts are lost. His career as a mature director begins in 1937 with The Edge of the World. With the exception of The Edge of the World and I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Powell spent his first ten years churning out anti-German, pro-cosmopolitan war propaganda, visually and technically dazzling but often quite silly: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Powell also directed a number of short propaganda films for the British government with titles like The Lion Has Wings (1939), An Airman’s Letter to His Mother (1941), and The Volunteer (1943).

Powell’s genius only flourished fully after the war, in such apolitical works as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), which is one of my favorite films. Aside from The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera of the same name, most of Powell’s films in the 1950s were mediocre. Then he produced one last masterpiece, Peeping Tom (1960), the story of a serial killer which was so shocking and distasteful that it pretty much destroyed his career.

Black Narcissus is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by [Margaret] Rumer Godden about a small group of Anglican nuns who set up a convent and school in Mopu, a princely state in the Himalayas. The local potentate, General Toda Rai, gives the sisters an abandoned palace, a former harem decorated with erotic art, perched on the edge of a dizzying precipice with a magnificent view of the Himalayas. Near them is a Hindu holy man, who turns out to be the former owner of the palace. Below them is a bewilderingly complex, violent, and superstitious society. Their only guide is Mr. Dean, an Englishman who manages a tea plantation for the General.

Black Narcissus seems, in part, to be about what can be called “the spirit of place,” understood in terms of landscape, culture, and even human structures. The nuns are all European women, and even though they have already spent some time in India, they seemed to have been relatively cloistered, whereas in Mopu, they are on their own, founding a new convent. Beyond that, the atmosphere in Mopu is particularly potent, bringing each member of the order to a crisis.

Sister Briony, known for her strength, becomes sick due to the high altitude. Sister Philippa, who was brought to tend the vegetable gardens, is overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and plants flowers instead. Sister Honey’s soft-heartedness leads her to give medicine to a fatally ill baby, against the advice of Mr. Dean, who knows that the locals will blame the sisters for the child’s death, which will endanger their mission and perhaps their lives.

The most dramatic crises, however, are those of Sister Clodagh, the young Sister Superior, and Sister Ruth, who is both highly neurotic and affected by the high altitude. Both Clodagh and Ruth are prideful women, which pits them against one another from the start. Beyond that, both women are stirred by the palace’s erotic history and décor, as well as the presence of a highly attractive bachelor, Mr. Dean, into an increasingly conscious sexual rivalry. Dean too, for his part, is clearly attracted to Sister Clodagh, although at first they both seem to hate each other. Dean is also dismissive of the Sisters’ Christian faith and mission. Toss in a budding romance between the General’s son, who is being tutored by the Sisters, and a nubile vixen of the lowest caste who lives at the convent, and you have a simmering cauldron of sexual tension that soon boils over, with disastrous results.

The story’s combination of aestheticism, eroticism, and riveting dramatic conflicts inspired some of Powell’s best work. From start to finish, Black Narcissus is visually ravishing, with tension and suspense mounting until the viewer feels, like Sister Ruth, that he is losing his mind. As the story unfolds, the production becomes increasingly stylized, from the stark simplicity and Vermeer-like light of the scenes before the nuns depart for Mopu, to the voluptuous colors and décor of the palace, to pure German Expressionist horror at the end. The music by Brian Easdale, who also composed the music for The Red Shoes, is some of his finest work. The cast is excellent, with outstanding performances by Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth.

Black Narcissus was filmed in Technicolor entirely on soundstages, except for some scenes in a London botanical garden, because of Powell’s desire to meticulously control light, color, and atmosphere. Some of the matte paintings look fake, but one is more forgiving when one realizes that practically everything else you took for real is fake as well.

Black Narcissus was released in 1947, when the British Empire was pulling out of India. In that context, a story about British nuns going mad because they are “out of place” in India was taken as anti-colonialist, anti-Imperialist propaganda. That may well have been Pressburger’s intent. As an ethnonationalist, I don’t have any problem with an anti-imperialist message. But I doubt it occurred to Powell, or to the original novelist, that Black Narcissus was about much more than sex.

The Legion of Decency in the US regarded Black Narcissus as anti-Christian and demanded a flashback to Sister Clodagh’s life before becoming a nun be removed. Clodagh came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. From childhood, she thought she would marry her sweetheart Con. When she discovered that he planned to go to America and leave her behind, she decided to take her destruction into her own hands and become a nun. She engineered an honorable defeat for herself.

I don’t see anything anti-Christian about acknowledging the fact that some people join religious orders out of disappointment with the world. Nor does it strike me as anti-Christian to acknowledge that celibacy often leaves a lot to be desired.

The deeper message of Black Narcissus is not about sex but about race. Mr. Dean did not lack opportunities for sex in Mopu. Nor were Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth shut away entirely from men before coming to Mopu. They were constantly surrounded by the natives, after all. What upset the plans of all three was not the presence of a member of the opposite sex, but of a member of the opposite sex of the same race.

Each time I watch Black Narcissus, I prize it more highly. I have avoided spoilers, because I want you to watch it too. But be sure to seek out Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, because there is now a pretender to the title. In 2020, a three-part British miniseries of Black Narcissus was run on BBC One and FX.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

The Searchers (1956) has been acclaimed not just as one of John Ford’s greatest films, and not just as one of the greatest Westerns, but as one of the greatest films of all time. This praise is all the more surprising given that The Searchers is a profoundly illiberal and even “racist” movie, which means that most fans esteem it grudgingly rather than unreservedly.

I think The Searchers is absurdly overrated, for it is far from flawless. But it is still a great work of art that plumbs deep themes and stirs deep feelings. It should be seen by everyone, even people who generally don’t watch movies. (Spoiler Alert: I am going to talk about the whole story, so bail out here if you want to see the film with fresh eyes.)

Although The Searchers is set in Texas in 1868, Ford’s treatment goes beyond the historical to the mythic and epic. The movie begins in a dark room. A door opens on a magnificent Monument Valley landscape. The silhouette of a woman appears in the doorway. As she steps forward, into the light, she moves from being two-dimensional to three. It is like watching a specter, a shade, taking on an embodied form. It has the feel of a creation myth.

But what is being created? The answer seems to be civilization, and it is a very different myth than the one told by liberal social contract theorists. The opening also suggests that the interior realm of family and domesticity is less real than the exterior world. It certainly proves to be more vulnerable and less harsh.

A rider approaches across the desert. This is a lawless land, where every stranger is regarded with apprehension. The wife is joined on the porch by her husband, then her daughters, then her son, all scanning anxiously. The figures are shot from a low angle. They move with dignity. They barely speak. The whole feel is monumental, epic.

As the rider comes closer, they recognize him as a long-lost member of the family: Ethan Edwards, played with searing charisma by John Wayne. After eight years of fighting, first with the Confederacy then as a mercenary for the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, the wanderer Ethan has come to the ranch of his brother Aaron, Aaron’s wife Martha, and their three children, Lucy, Ben, and Debbie.

Ethan clearly aims to stop fighting and make a home there. He gives his sabre to Ben and a Mexican medal to Debbie. He presents Aaron with a substantial amount of money to “pay his way.” But Ethan’s attempt to reenter society and enjoy the fruits of peace does not last a single day, for there’s trouble afoot.

The next morning, Ethan goes off with a group of Texas Rangers to recover the stolen cattle of a neighboring rancher, Lars Jorgenson. When they find the cattle slaughtered with Comanche lances, Ethan concludes that the cattle theft was a diversion to pull the men from the ranches, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The party splits up, riding to defend both the Jorgenson and Edwards ranches.

When Ethan arrives back at his brother’s ranch, he finds it in flames. Aaron, Ben, and Martha are dead. Lucy and Debbie have been abducted by Comanches. After a brief funeral, Ethan and a group of Rangers go in search of the girls.

After a battle with the Indians, the party splits in two. Most of them return home, while Ethan continues the search accompanied by Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an orphan who was adopted by the Edwards and considers the kidnapped girls his sisters. When Ethan finds Lucy dead, a distraught Brad charges into the Indian camp and is killed. The searchers are thus reduced to Ethan and Martin, so we need to pause a bit and examine both characters.

Who is Ethan Edwards? He is a warrior and a wanderer in wild spaces: the space between warring civilizations and the space between civilization and savagery. He lives in the state of nature, not civil society. In the state of nature, there is no overarching power to enforce the peace, so a man needs to know how to protect himself. Thus Ethan knows how to thread his way between hostile peoples, negotiate treaties with enemies, strike bargains with crooks, and deploy both trickery and violence in a fight. He knows Spanish, Comanche, and probably some other Indian tongues.

Ethan fought on the side of the Confederacy out of loyalty. (He won’t swear another oath to the Texas Rangers.) Once the Confederacy was defeated, he fought for the Emperor Maximilian for money. But war is a young man’s game. Ethan is getting too old for it. Thus, he wants to take his earnings and make a home for himself with his brother’s family in Texas.

Ethan is a dark character. He has done dark deeds. He fits “any number of warrants,” which doesn’t necessarily mean he is guilty of anything. But the local Rangers would rather be his friend than his enemy. On two occasions, the Ranger Captain Clayton chooses to ignore Ethan’s possible crimes because they need his help. They sense that Ethan is like them: a guardian of peace and family life, even though he has known precious little of them himself.

For instance, when a fight breaks out at a wedding at the Jorgenson home, Ethan shoos Mrs. Jorgenson inside because he doesn’t think a woman should see such things. When Ethan finds the bodies of Martha and Lucy, both of whom were presumably raped, he spares others the sight. He has peered into the abyss so that others don’t have to.

Ethan doesn’t wish to remain in the state of nature. But he understands that he may never see civil society. He may have to give his life so that others will see it. He may have to do things that render him unfit for civil society, so that others can enjoy it in innocence and peace.

At one point, Mrs. Jorgenson says, “A Texican’s nothin’ but a human man out on a limb . . . This year and next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be . . . Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come . . .”

Texas is a pagan land that demands human sacrifices before it becomes a decent place to live. This is why Ethan interrupts the Christian burial of his family to begin the search for the killers. Texas is not yet ready for such niceties. It needs more blood and bones, and Ethan is ready to lay down his own.

Ethan is a man in a hurry. The proximate reason for haste is that with each passing minute, the girls are closer to rape, torture, and death. The deeper cause is that he’s over the hill, so his time is short. Thus he’s rude and abrasive. He treats weakness with contempt. He is focused on action and has no time for social niceties. He is cold and ruthless, using Martin as bait to trap and kill the treacherous merchant Futterman. He is also increasingly savage. He shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian, because mutilated men “can’t enter the spirit land” but must “wander forever between the winds.” He scalps another Indian corpse for the same reason. He even slaughters buffalo simply to starve the Indians.

Ethan’s search for Debbie quickly takes on the quality of an obsession. He barely knew the girl. She was eight years old when he returned from eight years of wandering. But she is all that remains of his family, and he searches for her for five years, long after most men would have given up. He is Odysseus, who returns home for a day, then becomes Captain Ahab.

There’s a lot to dislike about Ethan Edwards, but he’s the only man who could have rescued Debbie. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford wants to confront liberals with the fact their civilization could not have been built without illiberal men and illiberal deeds.

 
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