Thursday, June 30, 2011
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
As I did in my review of THUNDERBALL, I reread the 1965 Fleming book prior to rescreening the 1974 adaptation.
I noted that the book and film versions of THUNDERBALL fell into my phenomenal category "the uncanny," for the main aspect they have in common is the use of the metaphenomenal trope "outre outfits skills and weapons," specifically weapons. I mentioned that the book version of villain Emilio Largo also conforms to the trope "freakish flesh" while the film version does not.
Both versions of GOLDEN GUN include the "flesh" trope, even if its manifestation is pretty nugatory: villain Scaramanga has a third nipple. Both in book and movie this detail failed to impress me very much, probably because it isn't front and center, like Ernst Blofeld's "doll-like eyes." The filmic Scaramanga takes on slightly more mythic dimensions than the literary one, not because of his freakiness but because he's essayed by horror-film great Christopher Lee.
The literary Scaramanga, despite Fleming's attempts to make him a "shadow version" of James Bond, complete with gun-and-sex fetishes, didn't grab me. He's not a master schemer, merely a skilled assassin who becomes involved in a plot to ruin U.S. sugar futures-- a plot initiated by the KGB, thus bringing Bond, in his last novel, back into conflict with the sort of Cold War enemies he faced in CASINO ROYALE. Scaramanga seems a small-timer, even though he does play at psychological torture at one point, deceiving Bond into thinking his gal-pal Mary Goodnight is about to be run over by a train. (Shades of bygone silent serials!)
The only "outre weapons" in the novel appear at the beginning. In a continuation from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, Bond has been brainwashed by the Russians and sent back to MI-5 to kill M. To this end, brainwashed-Bond smuggles a cyanide-spraying gun past security. M counters with a bizarre defense: a glass wall that slams down in time to project him from the spray. After that, when Bond has been rehabilitated and sent on a new mission in jig-time, only conventional weapons are used. Admittedly there's a touch of bizarreness in the fact that Scaramanga favors gold or silver bullets for his murders. He also coats a bullet meant for Bond with snake poison, so in a way Bond attempts poisoning and gets poisoned in return-- even though Bond survives and Scaramanga does not.
The GOLDEN GUN film steps up the "outre weapons" trope somewhat by giving Scaramanga his own private island with a "funhouse" in which he and his armed prey may stalk one another. The deadly funhouse is an amusing touch but I've seen it done much better elsewhere, particularly certain episodes of TV's WILD WILD WEST.
In the book, even though Scaramanga isn't that fascinating a personality, Fleming does at least expend effort on compiling a psychological profile, including a strange Freudian trauma in which Scaramanga becomes invested in casual killing after the death of his favorite circus-elephant. It's not all that deep, but it's positively labyrinthine compared to the flat character Christopher Lee has to work with. Sadly, the cinematic GOLDEN GUN appeared at a time when the Bond franchise was beginning to indulge in some very fatuous humor, as if director Guy Hamilton and his scripters, for all their long acquaintance with the franchise, had become embarrassed by their association with the character. So Lee's Scaramanga tosses out the tale of his pet elephant's death for Bond's amusement, but it doesn't give any insight into his character. Ditto for the villain's odd relationship with his servant Nick Nack-- not in the book in any form- in which the master assassin invites Nick Nack to kill Scaramanga if he can. Further, since by 1974 Communist incursions were less significant to audiences than the energy crisis, the "sugar futures" plot is dropped in favor of hero and villain fighting over a radical new solar-energy device.
There are some decent stunt-sequences in GOLDEN GUN, such as the memorable "overturning car-in-air" stunt that ALMOST redeems the return of an obnoxious Southern-sheriff character introduced in LIVE AND LET DIE. But GUN the movie feels like it's mostly on cruise control. Admittedly it couldn't be a "send-off" for cinematic Bond the way Fleming could send off his literary version. But Hamilton and his cohorts fail to give us the sort of above-average villain that the presence of Christopher Lee merited.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY (1949)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*
Upon reviewing Ford Beebe's BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY, I was surprised to find that this Monogram production emulated the classic MGM TARZAN films so well. I recall later entries in the Bomba series-- most of which Beebe directed-- as little more than amiable time-wasters. Interestingly, Beebe was credited with writing-chores on 1929's TARZAN THE TIGER, reviewed here. It's possible that since the producers chose to cast Johnny Sheffield, formerly Tarzan's "Boy" to the MGM Tarzan, they wanted something in the mold of the moneymaking Weismuller franchise.
Given that the BOMBA books take place in South America, while this film takes place in a cinematic Africa, I'm going to guess that the script for BTJB is liberally swiped from 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN, with most (though not all) of the strong sexuality excised. This means that the heart of the story revolves around a civilized girl being quasi-abducted by a "savage" teenage boy. On occasion there's a hint of sexual awareness between leads Bomba (Sheffield) and amateur photographer Pat (Peggy Ann Garner), despite the script's efforts to keep things on a child-friendly level.
Though the principal characters are the teenagers, two adults are responsible for bringing them together in the jungle. One is Pat's father George Harland, who has come to Africa to seek out rare photographs of animals but who has no actual appreciation for nature or for the African natives. The other is Andy Barnes, a
district commissioner who has emigrated to Africa because he loves the exotic land. The set-up scenes actually devote a fair amount of time to Barnes describing a mysterious region called "the Rift" with so much trepidation that the modern viewer expects it to be filled with dinosaurs. The region is home to Bomba, but neither Barnes nor the natives seem to have any inkling of his presence prior to encountering the leopard-skinned loner.
This dualistic opposition of these two representaives of white civilization mirrors that of the MGM Tarzans, where the ape-man is visited by emissaries of civilization, usually a devout scholar in the company of a greedy scoundrel. Harland isn't a criminal as such, but he's just as much the "Ugly Civilized Man." At one point Harland wants to get close enough to photograph a rhinoceros, and believes that Barnes should be willing to shoot the animal down if it's provoked by his approach. Harland becomes a little more sympathetic when he's convinced that his daughter's been kidnapped by Bomba, but I for one would have liked him to be forced to eat crow by story's end.
Harland is also the focus of all the bad attitudes toward the black natives, mostly seen as bearers. Barnes has to remind him to let the natives rest when they're tired, and Harland seems convinced that all he has to do is throw money their way to get their cooperation. Modern audiences would probably find the bearers overly deferential, but Barnes at least treats them like human beings.
Pat Harland is the opposite of her father. Her photographic hobby clearly mirrors her father's profession, but she's actually fascinated by the wonders of nature-- which leads her into the Rift. There Bomba attempts (without success) to save her native guide from a leopard, and Pat almost repays the strange white boy by shooting him. As a nice change, Bomba is initially leery of the girl who tried to kill him, and her "abduction" consists of her tagging along after him, trying to cajole Bomba into taking her back to her father. Bomba resists, and then (for reasons unknown) seeks out Harland and Barnes' search party by himself. Harland, rash as always, shoots at Bomba and grazes his shoulder, thus convincing Bomba that he should not take Pat back to her "bad" father.
Incidentally, Harland's dialogue is intersting; since neither he nor Barnes can credence a white savage living out in the wild, Harland refers to Bomba as possibly being an "albino," that is, a Negroid with albino coloration. This adds a new level to his anger. Is he angry only that his daughter has been kidnapped, or does he also fear miscegenation?
Bomba's decision not to guide Pat back may have its own deeper level. When she asks him to take her to a native village, he spirits her off to his secluded jungle lair. No intimations of romance crop up, but it's pretty clear Bomba wants her to be his tree-house pal, to assuage whatever loneliness he feels since losing the man who reared him the jungle, a deceased naturalist described (by Pat) as a "misanthrope." Clearly Bomba is a bit misanthropic himself, but he's not beyond all socialization. The jungle boy even finds time (somehow) to fashion a leopard-skin outfit for Pat after she tears her skirt, as shown in the lobbycard picture above. To be sure, he only does so after first offering to take off his loincloth and give it to her, which was clearly meant to play *very* lightly on possible sexual tension. (For that matter, director Beebe seems to take his time showing Pat climb down from a tree, which entails a certain amount of butt-photography.)
As Harland and Barnes close in on Bomba and his rather-willing "abductee," the script introduces two new elements to forestall any deadly confrontation between Bomba and Harland. One is the presence of a hungry lion, while the other is the presence of several lion-worshipping Masai. Barnes explains to Harland their twofold peril: they can shoot the lion, but the Masai are likely to attack them. The lion does attack Barnes' loyal bearer Eli, and Barnes, acting against his own advice, saves Eli's life by shooting the lion, thus bringing down the wrath of the Masai. By good fortune, however, Bomba and Pat are nearby, and Bomba drives the natives away by starting a grassfire in their path. The picture ends more or less happily, with the white tourists going home while Bomba stays in his native land, where he'll have other G-rated jungle-adventures with other lissome lasses.
In BTJB Bomba is an "uncanny" hero only by virtue of his attire; he possesses no outre skills or weapons. But if one were to remake the film sans the Bomba character, I'd probably still classify it as "uncanny" because I find a certain element of affective "strangeness" in the depiction of the Masai. To be sure, even the tolerant Barnes shows some European bigotry by speaking of their lion-worship as "mumbo jumbo." But even though the Masai are principally seen through the film's ample use of archive nature-photography, they take on a deeper dimension than any of the servile bearers. In Barnes' summation of their religion, he says that their reverence for lions is such that when the animals menace the Masai or their property, the tribe will only allow the lions to be killed by certain designated lion-killers, and that it's an occasion of great sadness.
This element is responsible for my use of the Campbellian classification "metaphysical." Most of BTJB refers to sociological myth-motifs, regarding, say, the inevitable comparisons of savage life with civilized society. But even though the movie's main interest in the Masai religion is to provide a climactic conflict, BTJB isn't incorrect in conveying the deep resonance that primitive tribes often feel for the animals who are their "neighbors," as well as symbols of a mysterious godhood. I'm surprised to find it, even as a tossoff element, in one of the low-budget Monogram productions. But then, a diamond in the rough is still a diamond.
Friday, June 17, 2011
THE CYCLOPS (1957)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
I've never been a big fan of most Bert I. Gordon films, with the exception of the peculiar "not-really-for-kids" kiddie-flick THE BOY AND THE PIRATES from 1960 (which I hope to review here some time soon). Next to those, the Colossal Man flicks and TORMENTED are above-average cheese, but a lot of the others aren't all that thrilling, even though I grew up watching them on local SF-movie reruns.
But though I hadn't seen it for a while, I rather liked THE CYCLOPS, which was the first film on which director Gordon didn't share writing-credits with anyone else. In his recent VIDEOSCOPE interview he stated that he wrote it very quickly, but though it's clearly derivative of other stories it has a tighter feel than many of his later outings.
Bereaved Susan Winter, whose test-pilot boyfriend went missing in a mountainous area of Mexico, gets things rolling with a plot-motif clearly borrowed from the cinematic adaptations of KING SOLOMON'S MINES, in which a woman goes hunting in deepest Africa (or some analogue thereof) for a missing fiancee. In fact, at one point, the film's de facto villain, Lon Chaney Jr.'s Marty Melville, calls their trek a "safari." This Melville isn't really interested in hunting for lost husbands; the "white whale" he wants is a uranium find, which happens to be in the same vicinity that Susan's fiancee Bruce went missing. Along for the ride are Lee, a pilot flying the group to their location for mercenary motives, and Russ, an old friend of Bruce. Russ is also in love with Susan and hopes to find evidence of Bruce's death so that Russ can propose to her.
Unfortunately for all of their mixed motivations, the Mexican valley in which they land is replete with a mysterious radiation-- apparently coming from the buried uranium-- which causes animals to grow to ginormous size. This development adds a good ticking-clock element to the story: if the searchers don't leave the valley in due time, they too may become "freak-ified." The searchers encounter a giant lizard, a giant bird, a giant snake, and inevitably, the cyclops of the title, a giant man with one eye. As shown in the picture above, the makeup suggests a ruined visage suggests that at one time he had two eyes, and that one was destroyed. For a little while after Susan's encounter with the giant-- who, though savage, is gentleman enough to wear a big loincloth-- Susan simply thinks he's a local who got unfortunately mutated. Russ, however, figures out early on that it's good old Bruce. Gordon's script never explains the cyclops' mutilated features or his inability to communicate, though possibly Gordon meant to blame the plane-crash for both. In any event, for Russ one-eyed Bruce is the return of a rival who's better off dead. Susan's reaction to the Cyclops' identity is a little harder to suss out, but the dominant feeling is that she too doesn't see any future for a giant man with a face only a mixmaster could (and possibly did) love. Gordon later countered this relative feminine indifference with the ending of 1958's WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, where the giant's wife pleads with him not to kill himself.
At one point prior to the encounter with the Cyclops, Russ wonders how Bruce could have survived out in the wild for months even if he did survive the plane-crash. The unstated answer is that as the Cyclops Bruce became just as predacious as the other giant animals, presumably feeding off other wildlife. Though his mental capacity is severely diminished, he's still canny enough to trap the foursome in his cave, blocking the entrance with a huge rock, a clear tip of the hat to the Polyphemus episode in Homer's ODYSSEY. But even though the Cyclops sees to recall Susan very vaguely, Gordon's script still situates him as more beast than man, particularly since his original intention in capturing the humans, prior to his recognizing Susan, can only be to eat them. This too is another Homeric borrowing-- as is the Cyclops' fate, for he dies after heroic Russ hurls a flaming homemade javelin into the creature's eye. Analyses of THE ODYSSEY take the Cyclops' blinding to represent the triumph of man's culture over brute nature. I wouldn't say that Bert Gordon ventures into waters quite that deep. However, it is significant that his Cyclops never really does seem fully human. And though he swipes from King Kong's bag of tricks-- wrestling with a giant animal, the snake, even as Kong did, the big monkey outdoes the one-eyed giant in terms of humanity.
Still, I think the metaphor holds, albeit loosely, which is I assign it the "cosmological" function from Joseph Campbell, which deals with mythic recapitulations of the natural world, the physical world beyond the boundaries of human civilization. Gordon's CYCLOPS is one of many radiation-transformations throughout 1950's SF-cinema, but it's one of the few in which the radiation is entirely the product of nature, and no way attributable to the sins of humankind.
Even though the plot is nothing new, or even new-seeming, Gordon keeps a good level of tension thanks to Chaney's Melville. Long before any giant critters show up, it's clear that Melville is out for himself and will almost certainly be The Weakest Link: the guy who constantly screws up or otherwise endangers his supposed allies. During the plane ride to the valley, pilot Lee has to listen to Melville brag about what a smooth, smart operator he is. Moments later, when the plane hits turbulence, Melville panics, slugs Lee and apparently thinks he's going to land the plane himself. Later, once Melville finds the uranium cache, he tries to talk Lee into cutting out the others by flying away and registering a claim on the valuable mineral. To be sure, Melville's still a stock bad egg. But Chaney succeeds in making him more pitiful than pitiable. A viewer can thoroughly enjoys despising such a character; one who has, if anything, less ability to see the world around him than the Cyclops does.
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