I have finally got round to the fourth part of this series. As it was so popular, I decided to continue it, at least for a while.
The definition of an unforgettable film means something different to everyone. It might be the first film you watched with your childhood sweetheart, or perhaps the film that set you on a lifelong love of Cinema. For many, it could be the first film they recall as a youngster, perhaps an animation, or stop-motion. In some cases, it might well be the film they watched most recently, or the one they came to late, after everyone else had raved about it. Some of the films that follow have been mentioned before on this blog, in different posts. As usual, I make no apology for this, as it just means that they have made a permanent impression on me.
When you have had a lifelong interest in The American Civil War, news of a new film on the subject is very exciting indeed. Not only that, but when it is a big-budget production with contemporary stars, location filming, and the use of hundreds of extras, any fan of the period will be anticipating it with relish. This was just how I felt in 1989, when I read about the forthcoming release of the film ‘Glory’. I was at the cinema in London the first week it came out, and already expecting great things. Was I disappointed? Not at all. From the outset, the film goes straight into the action. Matthew Broderick is near-perfect as the true character of Colonel Shaw, the Boston liberal who went on to lead one of the first black regiments. Able assistance is rendered by Denzel Washington, (In one of his standout performances) Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher. Appearing as the white officers, Cary Elwes and Cliff De Young both convince too.
The 54th Massachusetts regiment is on record for their bravery and valour in combat. At the start of the film, it is soon made clear that the coloured troops are only considered suitable for ‘mischief’. This involves looting, burning property, and instilling fear into the white population of the Confederacy. However, Colonel Shaw wants more for his men, and insists that they be sent into combat. The ensuing set piece battle scenes are nothing less than inspirational, culminating in the tragic battle in the sand dunes of South Carolina. I got the VHS copy, then the DVD, which has a documentary about the real characters, and is well-worth watching.
But this is Broderick’s film, and his transition from a cheeky teenager in his previous roles, to a responsible and committed adult, is a delight to watch. And it is very sad too. I have watched this film many times, and would happily watch it again this evening.
Another civil war, once again one that has always fascinated me. This time it is Spain, in the 1930s. Before he made ‘Land and Freedom’, British film-maker Ken Loach had already established his credentials in the area of social realism. Few English language films have been made about this tragic conflict that preceded the Second World War. Of course, there was the famous film treatment of Hemingway’s novel, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ (1943). However, despite the stellar cast, that film always felt studio-bound and stagey. Loach lets his cast free, onto authentic locations, and towns and villages that have changed little since that time. I would say from the start, that you perhaps have to have some knowledge, or at least an interest in the period, to get the most from this film. The different factions fighting Franco’s fascist rebels, and the machinations surrounding their part in the Republican Army can seem as dry as dust to those unconcerned.
Told in flashback, after the discovery of an elderly man’s letters and photographs in modern day England, this film seeks to address the convoluted politics and often barbaric fighting of that war. That Loach manages to achieve this is fantastic in itself, despite requiring some attention from the viewer. Ian Hart gives a career-best performance in the role of the main protagonist, a man who travels alone to Spain and joins a Union-backed militia to fight the fascists. The political and military infighting that ensues gives a considered opinion of just why the Republicans lost that sad war. One of Loach’s best modern efforts, this is a complete film that deals with a period rarely covered by mainstream cinema. When I went to see it in 1995, I was overwhelmed.
Some films that touch the heart are hard to explain. This film needs no explanation, for anyone who has a real love of cinema and film. Torantore’s 1998 film, ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a complete delight, from start to finish. Starring the wonderful Philippe Noiret, alongside the young Salvatore Cascio, this is a wonderful tribute that gets to the soul of cinema itself. Young Toto is a small child in Italy, just after the Second World War. He spends all his free time at the local cinema, the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ of the title. The friendly projectionist, Alfredo (Noiret) takes the boy under his wing. He shows him how everything works, and allows the youngster to watch all the films from the projection booth. As Alfredo ages, Toto finally takes over the job he used to do. Now a young man at college, he forms a bond with the old projectionist. Using many clips from classic films, it tells the story of both Alfredo, and of Toto as he grows into manhood. Oscar winning, and simply sublime. Is it any wonder that I have never forgotten it?
As a youngster, I watched all the new films, and many of the blockbuster epics of the day. To be honest, I haven’t really forgotten any of them, so choosing one as an example seems almost pointless. Instead, I will go back to my impressionable teens, and choose a silent film, of all things. When I went to see this at London’s National Film Theatre, I was not yet sixteen years old. I already had an interest in politics, and had been watching films for more than ten years by then too. As part of a special event about the Russian Revolution, Eisenstein’s 1925 film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was being shown. I was enthralled from the start. Stark imagery, unusual cuts and edits, all gave this film the look of something special. Despite the age of the film, and occasional melodramatic performances by the cast, I was swept up in its re-telling of real events, as the crew of the battleship revolt over conditions on board. Set in Odessa in 1905, twelve years before the main revolution, the class differences are made apparent, and the plight of the ordinary people is plain to see.
This film has many famous set-pieces, not least the massacre on the Odessa Steps, something referenced in many films since, including Brian De Palma’s ‘Untouchables’. It still stands up today, and is one of the true masterpieces of film-making.
Another foreign film, this time from Germany. To this day, I have never forgotten the sad face of Brigitte Mira. I wrote this about the film in 2013, and still feel the same today.
‘Fear eats the soul’. This 1974 film, directed by Rainer Fassbinder, tackles not one, but two taboo subjects. The love of an older woman, for a much younger man, and the inter-racial aspect that he is an Arab. The reaction of the family is much as you might expect, and the whole story-line is set against a background of increased immigration into Germany at that time. What makes the film stand out for me, is the central performance of the lead actress, Brigitte Mira. This dowdy, middle-aged lady delivers a magnificent performance, as the woman who is prepared to give up everything for the chance of happiness.’
Looking back to when I watched this film, relatively recently, I have rarely seen an actress hold my attention for so long, or deliver a performance that feels almost like a documentary. Some films have looked at the situation of men who have married so-called ‘mail order’ brides, and others have examined the love of an older woman for a younger man. Few have ever done it so well.
French film star Vincent Cassel has had a varied career. He has been cast as a villain in Hollywood films, as a romantic lead in European films, and delivered a laugh-out-loud performance as the French suitor in the film ‘Elizabeth’. But back in 1995, he was almost unknown outside France, until the release of the remarkable ‘La Haine’. Following rave reviews, I trotted off to the cinema to watch this, expecting an above-average French modern thriller. I was rewarded with a mesmerising performance from Cassel in the lead role, as a young skinhead at odds with the police, and his surroundings in the seedy suburbs of Paris. Cassel convinces from the start, and the stark black and white filming only adds to the bleakness of the situation that he and his friends find themselves in. This was not the comfortable French capital of so many films. It was modern life, in parts of the city that few of us even knew existed. Covering a period of less than twenty-four hours in the lives of this young trio, the film keeps the suspense tightly wound, and the atmosphere dark and relentless. I guarantee that you won’t forget his performance.
I admit that I rarely write about happy films on this blog. To be honest, I haven’t seen that many, and have spent much of my film-watching seeking out conflict, or the darker side of existence. But I do have a brighter side, and have been known to laugh out loud at a film too. Sorry if that fooled you, but here is a simply marvellous film about a dark episode in history. Another film that I first watched at the National Film Theatre, and later bought on DVD to watch in detail once again, as I could not forget the first time I had seen it. The French involvement in Algeria is a sorry tale of colonialism that dragged on for far too long. Fighting a war against insurgents wanting independence, the French responded to that violence with great barbarity, and became embroiled in a modern war now almost forgotten.
In 1966, Italian director Gilo Potecorvo made ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Filmed in a documentary style, and in black and white, it tells of the real events that happened up to 1957, when guerrilla fighters occupied the Casbah area of the Algerian capital, and fought against the French troops occupying the city. To counter the resistance, the French bring in the hardened elite troops of the parachute regiment. They begin a relentless hunt for the leaders of the uprising, in a no-holds-barred operation into the heart of the Casbah itself, involving torture, summary imprisonment and execution, and the use of informers. Always exciting, often challenging, you are unlikely to see a better example of the genre. And the soundtrack is by Morricone too.
Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and a Japanese Akita dog called Hachi. Finally, a family feel-good film? Well, not really. This American re-telling of a true story that happened in Japan looked like a must for any dog-lover like myself. The 2009 film from Lasse Hallstrom is called ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’. Gere’s character finds a stray dog, a small pup. Against the wishes of his wife (Allen) he takes it in, keeping it in a shed at the end of the garden. The dog is irresistibly cute, and soon steals the hearts of all the family. The problem is that the dog has bonded with the man, and cannot bear it when he leaves every day for work. He escapes to follow his owner, waiting by the station until the train arrives in the evening, so he can accompany his master back home. Eventually, they stop bothering to try to contain him, and Hachi becomes a well-known figure at the station, loved by the whole community.
One day, the man fails to return. He has collapsed and died at work, and the train gets back to the station without him.
The poor dog is inconsolable, and treks to the station every day, eventually refusing to move from his spot outside. The local people feed him, and watch out for him, as he spends every day in all weathers, waiting in vain. Even when the family move away, Hachi escapes again, returning to the station and watching the door patiently. What really got me about this film is that it actually happened, albeit in Japan, not America. A statue to the real Hachi exists to this day, outside of the station where he waited. I fell for it completely, and allowed the dog’s fate to break my heart accordingly. Even watching the short trailer makes me well up!
That’s all for Part Four. keep an eye out for Part Five, one day soon.