Film Analysis

Screen Pilates: Stephen Russell

 

Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began in 2011 during Holy Week.    The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone, Barry Dennen, Hristov Shopov, Telly Savalas and Frank Thring may be read here, here, here, here  here and here.

Stephen Russell portrays Pilate in The Gospel of John (2003) which is a straight forward no frills presentation of the Gospel of John.  As in the Gospel of John Pilate is shown in the film as first curious about Jesus and then sympathetic to Jesus.  He attempts to save Jesus by giving the mob a choice between Jesus and the bandit Barabbas.  When that fails he presents Jesus after He has been beaten and utters the phrase Ecce Homo, Behold the Man. Continue reading

Red Badge of Courage

He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

I recently was watching The Red Badge of Courage, (1951) and I was struck yet again by what a forgotten masterpiece it is.  Filmed in stark black and white, the film has almost a documentary feel to it, as if a World War II era newsreel camera had magically transplanted itself to the Civil War.  The combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of Civil War combat, and the actors speak and act like Civil War soldiers and not like 1951 actors dressed up in Civil War costumes.

As one critic said at the time, watching the film is like watching a Matthew Brady photograph of the Civil War come to life.

It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War.  Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but.  From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off.    His mother died in 1941.  In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career.  By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts.  He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2.

Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II. Continue reading

Films While Waiting for the White Smoke

This is a joint post with commenter Dr. Peter Dans.  Pete has written a fine book which I will be reviewing, Christians in the Movies, A Century of Saints and Sinners, and he has given suggestions about films to watch while we are waiting to shout Habemus Papam.  Here are the films in Chronological order of the Pope depicted:

1.  Quo Vadis (1951)-The historical spectacle film to end historical spectacle films, it brings to the screen the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz of the persecution of Christians under Nero.  The film is a great work of Art with inspired performances by Peter Ustinov as Nero, Robert Taylor as the tough Roman legate Marcus Vinicius who finds himself, very much against his will, becoming a Christian from his love of the Christian Lygia, portrayed by Deborah Kerr, and Leo Genn, as Petronius, the uncle of Vinicius and Nero’s “arbiter of taste”, who wounds Nero to the core with the following suicide note:

To Nero, Emperor of Rome, Master of the World, Divine Pontiff. I know that my death will be a disappointment to you, since you wished to render me this service yourself. To be born in your reign is a miscalculation; but to die in it is a joy. I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive – the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero – murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you – do not mutilate the arts. Fare well, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius.

Peter in the movie is portrayed by Finlay Currie.  Here is the classic scene from the film that depicts Peter informed by Christ that He is going to Rome to be crucified a second time:

In the film he goes to the arena where the Christians are being murdered for the amusement of the crowds and cries out, “Here where Nero rules today, Christ shall rule forever!”  The film movingly depicts Peter’s martyrdom, crucified upside down since he had stated that he was not worthy to have the same death as Christ.

2.  Sign of the Pagan (1954) -Jack Palance, a great actor who was consistently underrated throughout his career, portrays Attila the Hun. Here we have depicted the meeting between Attila and Pope Leo the Great, portrayed by Leo Moroni, which convinces Attila to spare Rome.

3.  Becket (1964)-A masterful, albeit heavily fictionalized retelling of the life of the “holy, blessed, martyr”.  Here we have Archbishop Becket, Richard Burton,  in exile having an interview with Pope Alexander III, Paolo Stoppa:

4.  Francis of Assisi (1961)-A film biography of Saint Francis, ably acted by Bradford Dillman.  Go here to see the depiction of the interview between Saint Francis and Pope Innocent III,  the role assayed by Finlay Currie who was Peter in Quo Vadis.   Dolores Hart had the role of Saint Clare in the film.  She went on to become a nun.  Pete has some information in regard to that:

It has the extra added attraction of an interesting  backstory involving Dolores Hart, the actress who played Clare and  later became a nun.  She is now the Prioress of Regina Laudis Abbey  which itself has an interesting backstory connecting back to the 1949  film Come to the Stable.

By the way, I sent her a copy of the book and she sent me a  delightful note in 2009 saying that the documentation of the abbey’s  founding and her journey was “absolutely on target” and that it made her  want to read the whole book. Then she added “Said like a real actress.”  I  was especially touched when she said that she would keep me in her “heart and  prayers.”  I’m sure that has been a big help to me along the  way. Continue reading

Theme From Lawrence of Arabia

Something for the weekend.  In the middle of winter it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that I have chosen for our musical selection the theme song from Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  One of the last great historical epics, the film tells the tale of Colonel T.E. Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab uprising.  It is largely historically inaccurate, although a magnificent story.  One reason for the historical inaccuracy, other than the usual transmogrification of history in the hands of filmmakers, is that it relied too heavily on Lawrence’s war memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Lawrence was a brilliant writer and a talented leader of guerrilla forces, but he never let a little thing like truth stand in the way of a good yarn.  Continue reading

Film and Faith

Film, at its best, can convey a hint of the overwhelming impact of religious faith on those who believe.  For me, the best example of this is Jesus of Nazareth (1977), as amply demonstrated I think in the video clip above.  When we read about Jesus in the Gospels it requires a leap of imagination to conjure up the scenes depicted.  Some people are better at doing this than others.  A good film can provide us with the emotional impact of the Gospels without the necessity of our providing the imagination to bring the event alive for us.  The Church has long understood this.  Hymn singing can also accomplish this, as do Passion Plays, as does the Rosary.   God appeals to our souls, our hearts and our minds, and we make a mistake if we ever forget this.

The History Channel in March will have a miniseries that dramatizes portions of the Bible.  Below is a trailer.

Continue reading

Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals

 “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.

Inscription on the Tombstone of Thaddeus Stevens

As regular readers of this blog know, I greatly enjoyed the film Lincoln and praised it for its overall historical accuracy.  Go here to read my review.  One of the many aspects of the film that I appreciated was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (R.Pa.), a radical Republican who rose from poverty to become the leader of the abolitionists in the House, and one of the most powerful men in the country from 1861 to his death in 1868.  There haven’t been many screen portrayals of Stevens, but they illustrate how perceptions of Stevens have shifted based upon perceptions of Reconstruction and civil rights for blacks.

The above is an excellent video on the subject.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation, has a barely concealed portrayal of Stevens under the name of Congressman Austin Stoneman, the white mentor of mulatto Silas Lynch, the villain of the film, who makes himself virtual dictator of South Carolina until he is toppled by heroic Klansmen.  The film was in line with the Lost Cause mythology that portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic crime that imposed governments made up of ignorant blacks and scheming Yankee carpetbaggers upon the South.  This was the predominant view of scholarly opinion at the time.  The film was attacked by both the NAACP and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, as being untrue to history, a glorification of mob violence and racist.

By 1942 when the film Tennessee Johnson was made, we see a substantial shift in the portrayal of Stevens.  Played by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore, best know today for his portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stevens is portrayed as a fanatic out to punish the South and fearful that the too lenient, in his view, treatment of the South in Reconstruction will lead to a new Civil War.  This leads up to the climax of the film, the trial in the Senate of Johnson, with Stevens as the leader of the House delegation prosecuting Johnson, with Johnson staying in office by one vote.  The portrayal of Stevens is not one-dimensional.  Stevens is shown as basically a good, if curmudgeonly, man, consumed by fears of a new Civil War and wishing to help the newly emancipated slaves, albeit wrong in his desire to punish the South.  Like Birth of a Nation, Tennessee Johnson reflected the scholarly consensus of the day which still painted Reconstruction in a negative light, although not as negative as in  1915.  Additionally,  the issue of contemporary civil rights for blacks was beginning to emerge outside of the black community as an issue, and Stevens in the film is not attacked on his insistence for civil rights for blacks. Continue reading

Lincoln, a Review

Well, on Saturday I went with my family to see Lincoln. Considering that the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner and the film directed by Steven Spielberg, I wasn’t expecting much. I wouldn’t have been totally surprised to see something along the lines of “Gay Illinois Lincoln and the Confederacy of Doom!’.  Instead I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It is a great film and perhaps a minor masterpiece. It is definitely one of the finest screen representations I have ever seen of Lincoln, and it is a worthy tribute to the Great Emancipator. Read below for the rest of my review, and the usual caveat regarding spoilers is in full force. Continue reading

Let There Be Light

to care for him who shall have borne the battle

Abraham Lincoln

During World War II director John Huston produced three films for the US government.  Let There Be Light was shot for the Army Signal Corps.  It covers the treatment of 75 US soldiers traumatized by their combat experiences in World War II.  The film is narrated by Walter Huston, the academy award-winning actor father of John Huston.  The Army brass did not like the finished product, thinking that its focus on men who suffered psychological damage from their service could be demoralizing to the troops, and banned the film on the grounds that it invaded the privacy of the soldiers featured in the film and that the releases they signed had been lost.  (This reason was pretextual, but as a matter of law I would not place any reliance on a release signed by someone undergoing mental treatment standing up for an instant in court.) Continue reading

Father Barron Reviews For Greater Glory

The Blu Ray and DVD releases of For Greater Glory are coming out on September 11, 2012For Greater Glory tells the story of the Cristeros who bravely fought for religious freedom and the Church in the 1920s in Mexico.  I heartily recommend this film.  The above video is Father Robert Barron’s insightful review of the film.   (I believe he is too sanguine as to the effectiveness of purely non-violent movements in the face of regimes who don’t care how many people they kill, but that is a debate for another day.)   The below video has additional remarks by Father Barron on the film.  Go here for my review of the film. Continue reading

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!

 

One of my least favorite trial dramas is Twelve Angry Men (1957).  As a defense attorney with thirty years experience I find it hilarious as Henry Fonda convinces his fellow jurors that the Defendant is not really guilty.  Why do I find it hilarious?  It is such a stacked deck!  Just like a Socratic “Dialogue” the argument is tailored to make the case for the Defendant, and no contrary arguments are allowed to stand as Fonda steamrolls all opposition and saves the day for truth, justice and the American way! Or did he?  Mike D’Angelo at AV Club has a brilliant analysis of why Fonda and his fellow jurors likely let a murderer off the hook:

Here’s what has to be true in order for The Kid to be innocent of the murder:

  • He coincidentally yelled “I’m gonna kill you!” at his father a few hours before someone else killed him. How many times in your life have you screamed that at your own father? Is it a regular thing?

AND

  • The elderly man down the hall, as suggested by Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney), didn’t actually see The Kid, but claimed he had, or perhaps convinced himself he had, out of a desire to feel important.

AND

  • The woman across the street saw only a blur without her glasses, yet positively identified The Kid, again, either deliberately lying or confabulating.

AND

  • The Kid really did go to the movies, but was so upset by the death of his father and his arrest that all memory of what he saw vanished from his head. (Let’s say you go see Magic Mike tomorrow, then come home to find a parent murdered. However traumatized you are, do you consider it credible that you would be able to offer no description whatsoever of the movie? Not even “male strippers”?)

AND

  • Somebody else killed The Kid’s father, for reasons completely unknown, but left behind no trace of his presence whatsoever.

AND

  • The actual murderer coincidentally used the same knife that The Kid owns.

AND

  • The Kid coincidentally happened to lose his knife within hours of his father being stabbed to death with an identical knife.

The last one alone convicts him, frankly. That’s a million-to-one shot, conservatively. In the movie, Fonda dramatically produces a duplicate switchblade that he’d bought in The Kid’s neighborhood (which, by the way, would get him disqualified if the judge learned about it, as jurors aren’t allowed to conduct their own private investigations during a trial), by way of demonstrating that it’s hardly unique. But come on. I don’t own a switchblade, but I do own a wallet, which I think I bought at Target or Ross or some similar chain—I’m sure there are thousands of other guys walking around with the same wallet. But the odds that one of those people will happen to kill my father are minute, to put it mildly. And the odds that I’ll also happen to lose my wallet the same day that a stranger leaves his own, identical wallet behind at the scene of my father’s murder (emptied of all identification, I guess, for this analogy to work; cut me some slack, you get the idea) are essentially zero. Coincidences that wild do happen—there’s a recorded case of two brothers who were killed a year apart on the same street, each at age 17, each while riding the same bike, each run over by the same cab driver, carrying the same passenger—but they don’t happen frequently enough for us to seriously consider them as exculpatory evidence. If something that insanely freakish implicates you, you’re just screwed, really. Continue reading

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter Review

The reviews of the film had been dismal, but I felt duty bound to watch it, and give the film a review.  On  July 3, having closed my law office for the afternoon, my family and I went to the movies.  While the rest of my family, not sharing my duty to report on the film, joined the folks seeing Spider-man III, I strolled over to see the Great Emancipator dispatch vampires.  The viewing was rather like a private showing.  The audience in the vast theater consisted of me and one individual in the back.  I found this aspect of the film quite pleasant.  Alas that is the first and last positive aspect of this film that I can report.  Intrepid souls who wish to can follow me into the bowels of ALVH below, the usual spoiler  caveat being in force. Continue reading

Just Seen It Reviews For Greater Glory

The hard working film mavens of Just Seen It give For Greater Glory an enthusiatic review in the video above.  It is one of the more perceptive reviews of the film that I have seen.  The two reviewers come at the film from a purely secular viewpoint and had little if any knowledge of the Cristero War prior to viewing it.  The message of religious freedom that the film conveys is obviously the most important part of the film, but even leaving that aside the movie is a masterpiece of the filmmaker’s craft.

Ed Morrissey Reviews For Greater Glory

Ed Morrissey at Hot Air saw a rough cut of For Greater Glory back in March, so I was curious to read his review, and here it is:

 

 

For Greater Glory tells the story of the Mexican government’s attempt to stamp out the Catholic Church under President Calles (played by Ruben Blades), and the uprising that followed, a civil war that killed 90,000 people. Calles attempted to enforce the anti-clerical laws put into Mexico’s 1917 socialist Constitution by demanding the expulsion of foreign priests, banning public demonstrations of faith (including the wearing of clerical garb), and making criticism of the government by priests punishable by five years in prison. A boycott organized by the Catholic Church prompted Calles to get even tougher, and open war broke out. Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), a general who had fought for the winning side in the revolution, chose to lead the Cristero rebellion, and the film focuses mainly on Gorostieta, two of his lieutenants, and a young boy named Jose Sanchez del Rio, who was later beatified by the Catholic Church.

Back in March, I was fortunate enough to see a rough cut of the film, and wrote a semi-official review at the time (from which I borrowed the synopsis above) with the caveat that I would wait to see the theatrical release.  Last night, my wife and I saw it in its limited Twin Cities release, and the final cut has significantly improved the narrative flow of the film. One of the few areas of concern I had from the rough cut was the difficulty in following the constant shifting between subplots in the first half of the film, and some ambiguity about the intent in some scenes.  Those problems were resolved nicely, with additional footage in some areas and smoother transitions throughout. Continue reading

The Fugitive (1947)

A Fugitive: I have a question, Lieutenant. When did you lose your faith?

 A Lieutenant of Police: When I found a better one.

The film For Greater Glory has reminded me of director John Ford’s forgotten The Fugitive (1947).  Very loosely based on Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (no priest in an American film in 1947 was going to have the moral failings of Greene’s whiskey priest) the film did poorly at the box office and soon fell into oblivion, except among film critics who regard it as one of Ford’s more interesting works.  Ford said it was  his favorite film.

The film is set in a nameless country, obviously Mexico where the movie was filmed, where religion has been abolished by the government.  Henry Fonda is the last priest hunted by a police lieutenant, played maniacally by Pedro Armendáriz.  Armendariz is a whole-hearted convert to atheism, and views the capture of Fonda as a noble task.   Continue reading

A Film For Our Time, and All Times

 

No one, surely, Venerable Brothers, can hazard a prediction or foresee in imagination the hour when the good God will bring to an end such calamities. We do know this much: The day will come when the Church of Mexico will have respite from this veritable tempest of hatred, for the reason that, according to the words of God “there is no wisdom, there is no prudence, there is no counsel against the Lord” (Prov. xxi, 30) and “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matt. xvi, 18) against the Spotless Bride of Christ.

Pius XI, INIQUIS AFFLICTISQUE

 

I knew that my viewing of For Greater Glory was going to be something special when two Dominican nuns, in habits,  came out of the showing before the one my family and I attended and one of them remarked to me that it was a very powerful film.  I replied that we were looking forward to seeing it.  Well, that wasn’t completely true.  My worldly, jaded 17 year old daughter would much have preferred to have been back home killing zombies online with her internet chums.  By the end of the film  she was weeping over the scene in which 14 year old Blessed  José Sánchez del Río, stunningly portrayed by Mauricio Kuri,  was martyred.  I did not blame her.  I have not been so deeply moved by a film since I saw The Passion of the Christ.

Before we go any farther, I should announce the obligatory spoiler alert.  I will be mentioning plot elements that people who have not seen the film might not wish to have revealed to them.  For those wishing to continue on, if you have not read my initial post here on the historical background of the Cristeros War, you might find it helpful to look at it before reading this review. Continue reading

Happy New Year and Welcome to Arrakis!

Happy New Year to all our readers.  Clan McClarey spent New Year’s Eve in our usual fashion in watching the movie Dune (1984) a movie so wretchedly bad that it is good, if watched as  an unintentional comedy!  When the film was originally released the introduction to the film consisted of the above video by Princess Irulan, portrayed by Virginia Madsen, a very minor character in the film.  When it was determined that the introduction merely confused already confused moviegoers more, at least those who had never read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, a new introduction was made up when the film was released on television:

Upon its release the film was nearly universally panned.  David Lynch, the director, disowned the film, and adopted the pseudonym of Alan Smithee, a name traditionally adopted by directors of films that turn out so badly that the directors do not want their names attached to it.  The film earned the title of worst film of the year by film reviewers Siskel and Ebert.  Janet Maslin in the New York Times gave the film one star, and regarded it as completely incomprehensible: “Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie”.

Why is Dune such a grand buzzard of a film?

1.  Confusing.  Audiences were simply asked to take in too much of an immensely complicated science fiction setting.  Now if they had simply had this catchy tune at the beginning of the film, perhaps some of the confusion could have been eliminated:

2.  Overacting.  A prime example:

3.  Sting.  Dune was the movie where Sting amply demonstrated that he could not act to save his singer soul.  His role is actually fairly minor.  But he does have a climatic fight scene where he jumps around like a deranged gerbil and comes off as silly rather than menacing:

Continue reading

William Roper v. Richard Rich

 In good faith, Mr. Rich, I am more sorry for your perjury than mine own peril; and know you that neither I nor any one else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit as either I or any other could vouchsafe to communicate with you in any matter of importance.

Saint Thomas More

 

Two arresting scenes from A Man For All Seasons, (1966).  Usually the second scene in the video clip is remembered for the statement by Sir Thomas More that he would give even the devil benefit of the law.  I have written about that statement here.  However there is another interesting facet to the pairing of these two scenes:  a comparison of William Roper and Richard Rich.

Sir Thomas is fond of Roper the suitor of his daughter, and the fondness is obvious in the scene.  However, he will not allow him to marry his daughter because he is a heretic.  More notes that at one time Roper was a passionate churchman and now he is a passionate Lutheran and hopes that when his head stops spinning it will be to the front again.  (Roper did become an orthodox Catholic again and remained one till his death, even under the reign of Bad Queen Bess.)  In spite of Roper being something that Sir Thomas detests, that does not alter either his liking or his high regard for the young man.  Why is this?  Because Roper is obviously seeking after the truth and attempting to do what he thinks is right.  Such good motivation is to be respected even when it reaches erroneous conclusions.

Richard Rich on the other hand lacks such motivation.  More likes him also, but recognizes that he has no character.  Rich will do whatever it takes for him to rise in the world, and if that involves immoral actions, so be it.  Unlike Roper he lacks any good motivation or honest intent.  (The historical Rich was a complete scoundrel and recognized as such at the time.  He specialized in betrayals and making himself useful to whoever was in power at the time.  Under Henry and Edward he persecuted Catholics, under Mary he persecuted Protestants, and under Elizabeth he was whatever she was.  It is a sad commentary on the human condition that such an open, time-serving villain prospered and died in his bed, the founder of an aristocratic dynasty.) Continue reading

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