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Thursday, March 31, 2011

“Party On, Dudes!”: History's Hidden Despotism in Stephen Herek’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

The John R. Cherry III Cinema Convention is an annual forum hosted by Grand View University in Des Moines, to which I was honored to be invited this past February. Fifteen Midwestern film critics and writers gathered on the stage and discussed motion picture art for a live audience of 300 students and academics, in addition to National Public Radio. Professor and revered film writer Wendell Bryan Jennings (whose out-of-print A Port Dock Hound is the best book ever written about film criticism) emceed and brought the significant questions to the stand. The most hilarious aspect of the evening was how an Amway convention went long and delayed the Cherry conference, keeping us on the perilous east side of Des Moines two hours too long. Consequently, by showtime most the panel was drunk and/or had eaten too much Taco Bell and Fazoli's.

We struggled to keep our sentences straight through questions that demanded both provocative insight and jargony adlibbing secretly amounting to nothing. I personally found myself partaking in the latter when I was asked to compare my own published views on Greenaway's The Pillow Book to those of my notorious intellectual adversary, Professor N. Zukic out of New York, who had some take involving communication, phallocentricism, and "the body" or something. I said the word "diagesis" a few times, mentioned Adorno once, and concluded by adding, "Zukic can say whatever she wants, she's wrong! She's a silly academic stupid-head!" This was the array of Aqua Velvas talking, being that I hadn't read Zukic's paper on The Pillow Book for some years, and even then, I confess, I only skimmed it because I wanted to date her.

The crowd bought it and my anxiety was relieved. You have to take the questions you don't want to answer along with the questions you thirstily can't wait for. At the end of our two-hour allotment, we were asked to name our choice for "best film of all time" – that question one both hates and loves to answer. It is an irritant, because it hurts to limit the decision down to one; but then again, it is the fulfillment of the ego naming what it favors most. The Cherry forum was probably the best platform I had ever been offered to give such an opinion.

The usual suspects were named by my colleagues: Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Troop Beverly Hills, Raging Bull, The Godfather I & II, Nashville, Knife in the Water, Wages of Fear, The Third Man. Good enough. But then my turn came. Being my first time at the conference, I was tempted to massage the ego of my patrons by listing a film by the director after which the conference was named, the great John Cherry. Or Bertolucci's The Conformist or some shit. But world events being what they were, and also being haunted by the opening line in a Thomas Mann book I had recently reread (the line being: "What is time?"), in addition to a recently invigorating screening of the Triple H vehicle, The Chaperone, I was compelled to publicly validate the genius of filmmaker Stephen Herek. Certainly I could have just as well named Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Murnau's Nosferatu, or 8 ½. I also felt the pressure to distinguish myself, seeing how I wanted to impress a young blond journalist seated in the audience. That son of a bitch Duluth Gazette critic had made the maverick selection of Wages of Fear, and she was smiling at him too much for my comfort. Instead, I selected Herek's sometimes neglected masterpiece, a complicated rumination on time, the soul, history, and language. I can only be talking about Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

I began my explanation thusly: "Perhaps Kane is the best film of all time. Certainly its only competitor for the first half of the 20th century is Pierre Tukalow's Franco-Grecian documentary about perilous tuna hunting, cross-cut brilliantly with sandwich eating contests, The Big Fish, all too often confused with Tim Burton's 2003 tearjerker. Either choice is legitimate. But if one film challenges Kane, for me the most legitimate choice for a personal favorite is Herek's Bill and Ted, which takes Resnais' Last Year at Marianbooth or something to a whole new level." Journalist chick was smiling. They always fall for that Resnais crap. You don't even have to get the titles right. Nagasaki, Mon Amour or whatever would have worked just fine.

The genius of Bill and Ted has only become more amplified in retrospect when we think about the context of its release. In early 1989, Reagan was leaving and George Bush was entering. Communism was on the brink of collapse and the Cold War was almost at an end. The fall of the Berlin Wall was bringing West and East together. We would have to look seriously at history, our nation's history, if we were to seriously move forward into the 1990s and then the 21st century. It has been pointed out by Dolores R. Utzbig in her fascinating study on '80s cinema, I Sure Am Glad It's Raining: Cinema at the Climax of the Cold War from Raging Bull to Wild Orchid, that the United States was not unlike Inigo Montoya at the conclusion of The Princess Bride: we've been in the revenge business for so long that, once our mission is accomplished we do not know what to do with our lives. Bill and Ted climaxes with the triumphant revision of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, an invocation of American history that references the 19th century schisms created by slavery, and is here dually meant to portend East/West geopolitical relations on the brink of a new age. The question that we have to ask ourselves is given to us in the philosophy of Bill and Ted (played brilliantly by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, their casting highlighting Winter's Western features in collision with Reeves' Eastern ones), here voiced by Lincoln (Robert Barron): "Be excellent to each other…and…party on, dudes!" Indeed, the ideals of a post-Cold War world would contain mutual excellence to one another, but unfortunately, late capitalist opportunity did more harm to the provinces of the former Soviet Union than could ever be anticipated. The ideal future, such as given to us by the Wyld Stallyns, is a perfect balance of "being excellent to each other" and "party on, dudes." Bill and Ted is a warning and prophesy about history.

We cannot succeed in partying unless we are also excellent to each other. Being excellent to each other is no fun without the partying. The question is, given the exuberance with which the film greets Lincoln's proclamation of "Party on, dudes!" is Herek and his two writers, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, critiquing our own euphoria? For decades, failure loomed over capitalism and the free world. In the end, we were "most triumphant," but at what cost? It is then significant that "Party on, dudes!" is the credo of Ted as opposed to Bill, being that Bill is, of these two characters, the more conscious of feelings. Because of his father, Ted is linked to militarism and unrestrained patriotism.

Our euphoric conquests are best represented in the most highlighted of the historical figures, Napoleon (played by Terry Camilleri in a scene stealing bravura performance). A military genius, Napoleon engages in each sport – whether bowling or watersliding – with care, perhaps too much care. But when he at last becomes a glowing participant, his tragic flaw is an overabundance of self confidence. Napoleon loses all trace of reason, even butting in line, his heinousness best exemplified when he stops a little girl from going down the waterside so he can go again. We know from our own historical knowledge that Napoleon's infatuation with waterslides will spell his doom whenever he goes back to 19th century Europe, and his fateful defeat at Waterloo. Woe to the line-budder.

And what of Napoleon in San Dimas? There is something to how everyone can essentially understand him, or makes the best effort to interpret him. Ted tells him of Waterloo, "I don't think it's going to work," though Napoleon has not uttered a single word in English. Napoleon's flaw, in his righteous exuberance, is that while others understand him, he does not understand them. Ice cream even confuses him at first (yet once the concept of the "Ziggy Wiggy Ice Cream Pig" makes sense, he becomes a Ziggy Piggy champion). He finds himself isolated, withdrawn, and abandoned, not even sure how to settle a food and bowling bill ("Pay?") Herek's complex characterization of Napoleon is surely the reason why Kubrick never resurrected his passion project of Napoleon, shelved in 1969.

The problems – and miracles – of communication are a key motif to this marvelous picture, showing how signs transcend temporal boundaries. It is significant that one of the first adventures for Bill and Ted (after rescuing Billy the Kid) is in Ancient Greece, where they encounter Socrates (Tony Steedman), mispronounced by the boys (so as to rhyme with "Grates"). "All we are is dust in the wind, dude," Ted, a better communicator than Bill, says to Socrates, who is struck by the profundity of what he is told. Jerald Schymie's essay, "Dust, Wind, Dude: Socrates in Film and Literature," explicates this, pointing out the significance of comparing Ancient Greece to the album cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy. "That one of the standout tracks is "Over the Hills and Far Away" is an intertextual allusion to the destination not only for Socrates the character, but for Western civilization, both ending up in San Dimas 1988, just as Bill and Ted's Wyld Stallyns will pave another future path for civilization." We know the anxiety of the "modern" in San Dimas 1988 when we listen to the San Dimas High football player stumble over his own speech at the final history class presentation, "These computers…" he says to himself, unable to form coherent sentences, but his thoughts clearly voicing the chief quandary of the burgeoning Information Age of the late 1980s. The only way that he can escape from the burden of intellectual history is to fall back on familiar simulacrums devoid of introspection: "San Dimas High School Football Rules!" This moment, highly significant yet often overlooked by critics, pinpoints the danger of an ignorant Party On, Dudes! philosophy.

Symbols of the present align with those of the Past to make History coherent. Socrates is not only Led Zeppelin, but also Ozzy Osbourne. Beethoven (Clifford David) loves Mozart's Requiem and Handel's Messiah, but also Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. Even in the casting, there is the symbiosis of the transcendent modern pop psychology and antiquity. Jane Wiedlin from The Go Go's plays Joan of Arc, a character whom we should notice also wants to bring spiritual excellence together with physical excellence. Soul and Body are to be perpendicular, just as Past and Present are. Only then can the Future be the Clean Utopia that opens with Rufus (George Carlin).

Historical personages have different meaningful references devoid of their origin. The first words uttered by Bill in class are, "He's dead?" This is his answer to the question, "Who is Napoleon?" Yes, Napoleon is dead, as we all are in history. The resurrection for us in this dead and blank existence is the active presence of the Self in the past. This happens later on, when Bill is activated out of his "Party On, Dudes!" leisurely attitude in King Henry's kingdom by Ted's apparent death. When Bill sees the possible murderer of his best friend, Bill screams, "You killed Ted, you medieval dickweed!" Magically – or coincidentally – Ted is resurrected. We must seek for the ecstatic nature of history, not the mortal or passive: such as Caesar (rendered as food: a "salad dressing dude") or Joan of Arc (who is simply the passive female, "Noah's wife.") This is why casting the great deconstructor of language, Carlin, as our guide Rufus was another stroke of genius. (Communication and language or speaking has significance reinforced by the fact that the Time Travel mechanism is a Phone Booth).

Much has been written about the dynamics of the Time Travel philosophy in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and for that I would recommend specifically "Strange Things Are Afoot at the Circle K: The Circuits of Time in Stephen Herek" published in Film Comment magazine. However, I honestly do not think that the time travel science or logic in Bill and Ted has much to do with its genius. There is a huge debate between academics and cultural critics, for example, as to whether Bill and Ted is more closely aligned with Terminator rules or Back to the Future rules. This is a deliberate red herring on Herek's part. If we focus too much on the specifics of history, making it "other" from the present, we lose ourselves and become like the San Dimas High School Football players. Accepting that Time is itself all one thing and one's only responsibility is to be respectful of that time (the clock is always ticking in San Dimas) brings history into the present, together instead of apart. It is transcendence over death (Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, and Billy the Kid exist now without the duress of impending assassinations and executions) as well as the ability to reflect on oneself in the present (Bill and Ted meet their doubles). In the Future, they struggle to catch up to who they are. "It's you," one of the council members says to them. "Yeah," Bill replies. "It's us. Who are we?" (Also see Jane Kitzburgh's "Woah and Whoa: Language in Bill and Ted," published in Pooky's Journal, Vol. IV Issue 12).

A magnificent piece about Bill and Ted is found in Hugh Walpole's anthology of film writing, Camera Shake Hump Monkey, in a piece by Florence Peasley entitled "It's Your Mom, Dude: Sex in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Beginning from the Oedipal problem plaguing Bill, in love with his stepmom Missy whom we suspect may be copulating with Bill's father on Bill's bed in Bill's room, we note how these two characters are almost driven obsessively mad by their sex drives. In the end, the only pathway to peace is the eradication of sexuality, which seems to have happened in the future when we look at The Three Most Important People in the Universe (which addresses a class subtext in the film) and the other members of the Future Council: everyone is androgynous. Sex is a thing of the past, and that makes Bill and Ted almost bittersweet. Bill and Ted find "historical babes" in England, and Rufus even saves these women later so that they can complete Wyld Stallyns.

But ultimately sex is an impediment, as the attachment to Missy (Bill's stepmom) causes friction between Bill and Ted in addition to Bill and his father. By that same token, we know that Ted's father's own fears of failure and inadequacy (it is conspicuous that there is no woman in the household, indicating that Ted's dad is a failed husband and possibly impotent; his bald head makes him resemble a phallus) has created friction between himself and Ted. If Ted's father did not need erotic fulfillment, there would be fewer problems, and there would be no transferences of inadequacy onto Ted. The most beautiful woman in the picture is Weidlin's Joan of Arc, but she is never eroticized. She is above sexuality, her spiritual excellence anticipating the world to come in the present, indicating that the Future (which is "not History," and thus out of time, as evidenced by the dialogue shared in the Future Council sequence) is possibly an afterlife beyond space and time. Sex and the cycle of repercussion is the cycle of failure and pain, a point written at length about in Adrian Stebley's essay, "Putting Historical Babes In The Iron Maiden: The Excellent and the Bogus in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure's Erotic Violence." The endgame is ultimately to get out of the circle of sex and dying. Sex is always an impediment in this film (as it is in other Herek pictures, like Mr. Holland's Opus in addition to the plethora of hidden meanings in The Three Musketeers, the latter being perhaps the most avant-garde Hollywood production to come out of the early 1990s); Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) may be the smartest of the film's historical figures, but with his corn dog and vacuum hose, "Siggy" is a "geek." In the cycle of sex, Freud is blind to the meaning of "geek," whereas the celibate Socrates understands it immediately. Sex may make us "very excellent barbarians," like Genghis Khan (Al Leong in his startling follow-up to Lethal Weapon), but we only lose our heads, like the mannequin at Oshman's Sporting Goods.

What is the final analysis of Bill and Ted? Would our post-Cold War picture agree with the prophecy of Abraham Lincoln? Herek is a smarter filmmaker than we give him credit for, and I believe the utopia of the future is a snide joke on his part, wishful thinking, a stage of irony playing into our own base expectations as lazy moviegoers. Could his film actually be a condemnation of Bill and Ted and Wyld Stallyns? The future is "clean," but it's also, if we look behind George Carlin, very dark. There's nothing there. And though sex causes frustration, is it not sex what makes life interesting to begin with? We are creating nothing in creating peace. Though Herek is critical of the triumphalist capitalist mindset that wins in the Cold War, the unease between the two superpowers was a dialectic, a friction that created boundless imagination. Bill and Ted videotape themselves in a garage, waiting on a higher power (Eddie Van Halen) to make their dream real. They become Gods themselves, but also reduce all communication to effete air guitar. This is a profoundly sad film.

It's too bad then that Herek did not direct the sequel, which could have been a wonderful second act. Attached to helm the sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey before suddenly dropping out, we can spot Herekian themes like the cyborg destroying self realization, altering history on a whim, to say nothing of the imminence of Death, beaten by Bill and Ted at both Battleship and Twister. Bill and Ted, like Nietzsche's Ubermensch, "go under to overcome," descending into hell and then emerging triumphant with death on their shoulders. But unlike the more detached and obscure cognitive challenges of Excellent Adventure, Bogus Journey has themes that are too overt, not nearly as delicately handled. Though there are minor pleasures afforded by this sequel, it remains a ghostly chant of the "could have been" and Herek's absence is a great loss.

As our own present day, still haunted by the Cold War and its implications twenty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, looks to be even further from the utopia of Rufus' time, Bill and Ted becomes more interesting: both as a critique of our culture, and a celebration of what it used to be. It warns of the Computer Age, while promising progress through struggle and sacrifice. Herek has continued to be one of the world's most sage and significant filmmakers. As I mentioned, his new film The Chaperone is one of the year's best films, easily, and possibly the first masterpiece of the new decade. For while many will praise The Social Network, The Chaperone gets right what The Social Network could only make oddly opaque. Casting professional wrestler Triple H as a hard-nosed ex-con chaperoning grade school kids on a bus that comes under attack, Herek has made a film exemplifying the perils of the Obama Age, as the figurehead must endure insurmountable circumstances. There is a three-way irony here, though, that Herek wants us to pay attention to: professional wrestling, politics, and film writing are all simulations, all faked however exciting and impassioned. The film is a veiled farce and razor-tongued satire on where entertainment and politics have gone since Herek's heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whereas Bogus Journey is the sequel in name, I think that The Chaperone, if we read Bill and Ted as an ironic text that is critical of itself, is the true revised sequel, and as such it ranks with other follow-up masterpieces such as Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, and Ernest Goes to Jail.

We are locked in the movie theater and forced to applaud the future we are told to dream of, just as the San Dimas High School class is forced by Billy the Kid's gun to "put your hands together" and adulate Bill and Ted for a history paper/project that ultimately has very little content. Herek certainly had Triumph of the Will on his mind when filming this scene, where the historical personages are less about themselves and more about right now, in worship of San Dimas, California, and by association, our new Leaders and Dual Fuhrers, Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan. Socrates loves Billiards and Baseball, but he really only loves San Dimas. And Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address is revised to have no historical context regarding slavery. Instead, this rally is to honor Bill and Ted, and the Dionysian thrill of Party On, Dudes! A close examination of all the film's characters reveals doubles – all save for King Henry. The trick is that King Henry's doubles are Bill and Ted both, who are destined to lose their souls in imperial despotic reigns as Keepers of the Universe. All will hail allegiance to them. And those who don't?

"Put them in the Iron Maiden."

It will be excellent indeed. Which is code, among the poor hypnotized masses, for "heinous."

Next year: The Oeuvre of Yahoo Serious, auteur behind Young Einstein, Reckless Kelly, and Mr. Accident.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spectacles Devouring The Past: Four Epics by Anthony Mann and Ridley Scott

There's no more succinct way to begin here than saying this: El Cid kicks ass. The sword duels, the battles, peerless composition after composition, and the impact of the performances – it was wholly satisfying. I wasn't expecting it to be. I thought it would be a bloated, trudging, ham-fisted war machine of a glossy epic, wearing its cost and stars (Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren) on its sleeve instead of offering anything vibrant or transfixing. But I was wrong – at least as far as I'm concerned. I asked my mother about El Cid, sparking her reply of enthusiasm for a movie she loved as a teenager. I lent my Netflix copy to her, and she tried watching it. 50 years later, she found it an absolute bore.

I would like to examine the whole corpus of Epics and their genre, under certain guidelines: for example, for this discussion, we would only consider films that were period set, over 150 minutes in length, featured hundreds of extras, and had at least one scene of mass slaughter (as the Waco Kid says in Blazing Saddles, "I must have killed more people than Cecil B. DeMille.") But that's a very, shall we say, "epic" task for me at this instant. I would need to freshen up. I only just saw El Cid for the first time, and its follow-up, The Fall of the Roman Empire. I would then like to just make this a short capsule of a larger study, focused on those two movies produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann in 1961 and 1964 respectively, and two more contemporary and well known works that are deeply indebted to them, Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), both directed by Ridley Scott.
Scott is credited for bringing the Epic back to form, thanks to Gladiator, which is kind of a mind-boggling fluke. He was already technically a senior citizen by the time he took the job, and only had one other movie that would fit into my feeble Epic Paradigm, 1992's ill-fated 1492: Conquest of Paradise, about Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu). He had worked in period before (his debut The Duelists), had done some ravishing work in creating science fiction / fantasy worlds (Alien, Blade Runner, Legend), and was respected as one of the most talented visual stylists in the medium. His other works were contemporary and varied in quality or general success: the solid thriller Someone to Watch Over Me (1987); a bland Michael Douglas American-cop-in-Japan vehicle, Black Rain (1989); the terrific feminist road movie Thelma and Louise (1991); White Squall (1996); and another feminist star vehicle, Demi Moore's G.I. Jane (1998). Gladiator was a for-hire assignment offered to Scott by the newly established Dreamworks studio, with a monstrous scale and budget offered to him (over $100 million), despite his never making a movie that had exceeded $50 million in domestic grosses – along with a handful of pictures that were expensive money-sucking flops (Blade Runner, Legend, 1492, White Squall).
But Gladiator succeeded. If you read into the pop cultural climate of the time, you would hear about audiences being starved for an entertaining and thrilling movie about history and our civilization. The phrase "sword and sandal" was repeated ad infinitum, with critics and writers remarking how the genre of Spartacus had died just less than forty years before thanks to Cleopatra in 1963. Gladiator fed into that hunger, with a respected actor (of back-to-back masterpieces L.A. Confidential and The Insider) who commanded enough authority here that audiences watched in awe as a movie star, Russell Crowe, was created before their eyes. The movie, for lack of better words, "kicked ass," much as its protagonist, Maximus, succeeded in doing again and again. The movie won our hearts.
However, winning the heart can cloud the mind. I've watched Gladiator several times since its release, and I admit that it's not great. It's lucky. It has a few key, sustained rousing moments that are nicely spaced out between the plodding developments, aided by how the first and final 15 minutes are particularly strong. Mind you, not strong in the sense of great literary drama so much as the strength and catharsis some kids (or grown-ups, let's admit it) have when watching a WWE professional wrestling storyline get its closure. The energy Gladiator was able to channel and release in the early summer of 2000 was well-timed, especially given how it struck its chord early in the movie season: Spring is typically a weak time of year, and the period prestige of Gladiator helped differentiate it from other summer sequels and escapist fantasies. That B-12 shot motivated studios to green-light other scenarios of a lost genre. The technology was also perfect for the time. CGI could create those masses of armies and fleets, which before were necessitated with spare-no-expense woodwork, studio space, location shoots, and of course, extras.
During the release everyone brought up Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick's gladiatorial 196-minute spectacle with Kirk Douglas (also the film's producer) as the rabble rousing slave-turned-revolutionary. But I don't think Scott had Spartacus on his mind so much as he did Anthony Mann's films, both El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Though Cleopatra killed the Epic genre, The Fall of the Roman Empire was the death rattle that assured its demise, the title becoming ironic in how it related to the genre's fate – and Old Hollywood's. The European (Barbarian) invasion was coming, and with movies like Cleopatra, Mutiny on the Bounty, Roman Empire, and the coming Dr. Dolittle, the studios were very much like the bawdy, excessively garish and indulgent Roman emperors. Fellini (whose La Dolce Vita is its own kind of Roman Epic, and whose Satyricon would be the most bizarre spectacle of antiquity), Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Bertolucci, and company were fermenting a new spirit in young American filmmakers, coinciding with formal adventurousness undertaken by Penn and Kubrick. Even though the latter directed Spartacus and its success helped secure his independence, he seemed to immediately disown it. Its form and resonance contradict most everything about his later masterworks, carrying none of their richness or personality. It's the only Kubrick film (discounting the films he made prior to 1956's The Killing) that I personally do not love.
But Mann's films have much to offer. Though a studio director, Mann was one of the "smuggler" directors that foreign critics of the New Wave praised for imbuing his otherwise conventional genre work with psychological complexity and vivid craftsmanship. He's not unlike his namesake of the subsequent generation, Michael, who often makes genre films (Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) that are elevated by nuance, texture, and ambivalence concerning absolute good and evil. Anthony Mann began with B-crime films in the late 1940s, moving on to becoming the master of what is called "the psychological Western." Some are now seen as near-masterpieces, like The Furies, and his many collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, like Bend In the River, The Far Country, The Man From Laramie, and most especially Winchester '73, a movie that seems to be a direct ancestor to the later Mann's Heat in 1995. The frontier plots seemed basic, but Mann and his actors were tremendous at conveying the characters' entrapment by their own obsessions. A bad man could become a good man, who could once again become a bad man if the compulsion (usually caused by greed) was baited properly. Obsession is irresistible, enticing a rational individual to their own destruction. That the all-American Mr. Nice Guy, Stewart, so often played this character for Mann is a testament to the challenge the director repeatedly embraced.
Watching the Anthony Mann Westerns side by side by side, one can see how he must have wanted to move on to something bigger. They are circumscribed by the Western palette, and almost seem to be repetitions of the same song, wonderful as it is. John Ford, using a bigger canvas, had taken Mann's lead in 1955 with The Searchers, where John Wayne was given the psychological complexity of the Mann/Stewart archetype. It was a sign of radical shifts in the Western, and of Hollywood. At the turn of the decade, when the Western was dying, Mann finally got the opportunity to work in the Historical Epic genre with Samuel Bronston's El Cid production, which would finely suit the director's predilections. Bronston had moved the entire production to Spain, making it more or less a location shoot. Mann – again like his namesake – loved shooting on location despite the difficulties, because of the inimitable aura that a particular atmosphere has in affecting performances. In a sense, El Cid can be seen as a Western set in 12th century Spain. The archetypes are similar to the earlier Mann Westerns; the landscapes are equivalent; instead of Indians, there are Moors; the frontier is seething in a similar conflict, of principalities instead of disparate towns. Through it all is Mann's search, often futile, for moral clarity in a merciless, if beautiful, landscape.
El Cid was a quick rebound for Mann. It was he who was actually hired by Kirk Douglas to direct Spartacus long before Kubrick, and some of his footage remains in the final film. The opening moments of Spartacus, with Spartacus and other slaves chipping away while abusive Romans supervise, is Mann and it looks like Mann, as opposed to Kubrick. It opens, as I recall, with a tremendous crane shot featuring a highly startling depth of field, very unique for the Cinemascope pictures of the time which emphasized the horizontal breadth of the frame instead of the rich depth within (such as we see in, for example, Orson Welles, or Kubrick's own Paths of Glory). Mann was fired soon after, Kubrick was hired, and Spartacus became a huge success. Mann was depressed, but was seen by Bronston as an ideal candidate for his superproduction in Spain. He hired Mann and they created a film that exceeds Spartacus both dramatically and visually. In nearly all of its 182 minutes, El Cid carries the visual richness in that opening bit of Spartacus, itself which never seems to regain it. It also does not have the didactic simplicity that was woven into Dalton Trumbo's Spartacus screenplay (a script that Kubrick strongly disliked).
That's not to say that El Cid is The Conformist. It's still a Hollywood epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, with uncomplicated dialogue, loud blaring music, and follows a straightforward narrative outline. It relies on spectacle more than drama to grab viewers, and thus may be seen as an example of tired Hollywood decadence when new forms and styles were eager to take hold of the culture. The movie has been criticized for its stiffness, something that plagues so many other films in its genre, embodying the unwillingness Hollywood has with bringing urgency to antiquity. Viewed from this jaded post-Bonnie and Clyde light, one may see nothing of interest in Charlton Heston's Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, our old-fashioned blond-haired and blue-eyed Spaniard who seems to effortlessly bring great morale to fractured Spain while alien forces from North Africa prepare to invade (Heston as a Spaniard? Why not. He had just played a Mexican in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil; and what about Crowe in Gladiator?). It doesn't help that the first moments of the picture focus on those foreign hordes mobilizing. General Ben Yusuf is played by Herbert Lom in Moorish brown-face, his mouth covered, telling his Emirs to stop fiddling with science and poetry and focus on war declared in the glory of Allah. This feels like reactionary racist stuff ranking with the worst of Hollywood's depiction of similarly painted white actors as Comanche savages. A modern day viewer is appropriately disturbed and anticipates a brutal struggle where the cross-wielding Christian white man – played by right-wing icon Heston – smites these vainglorious infidels. What more, a precocious film reader can easily interpret resonances the production of El Cid would have in 1960s Spain, where the El Cid character is something of a stand-in for the fascist dictator, Franco (the Spanish censors had to approve the screenplay before Bronston's production could begin shooting). There's also the Cold War allegory, where the different principalities of Spain are said to represent bickering Western countries that must unite against the great evil from the East, the Communists/Moors. Both interpretations require some faith in interpretive fallacy and are necessarily imperfect, being that Bronston was an apolitical man, and the creative forces in the picture, director Mann and screenwriter Philip Yordan, were with Marxist sympathies.
The pervading theme of El Cid is one of forgiveness, at its most irrational and perplexing. It's about all-too-human pride and hubris, and how the mechanisms within in our honor codes are dissonant with the high principals of Christianity, themselves being obscured by war and intolerance. This is the sense that I didn't expect to see in El Cid, and which made it an oddly spirited epic. There was such thematic consistency that the spectacle of the production never threatens to overtake everything. The two most highly regarded epics previous to it, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), are also filled with religious ideas, but I don't think they ever seek to challenge our Western expectations of heroism. In all three cases, Heston plays the protagonist, but his spiritual path in the first two cases is surrounded by blatantly antagonistic, clueless, or passive fools. The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are superseded by their spectacular natures which blot out the sometimes troubling Judaic-Christian themes. Spartacus, which makes no mention of Christianity or Judaism, is the same way with screenwriter Trumbo's black-and-white Marxist notions: the imperial exploiters are plainly evil, as the proletariat slaves are good.
The meaningfulness of how forgiveness and real religion is handled by El Cid probably relates to how I first heard about the movie and finally was convinced to see it. Miramax Films restored El Cid in 1993 under the tag "Martin Scorsese Presents." I thought that Scorsese associating his name with the restoration may just have been some petty lip-service of the director, who has supported film restoration for decades and would not at all quibble about putting his name on a poster. But I learned that El Cid was in fact one of Scorsese's favorite motion pictures, and to actually watch it is to understand how he could have easily related to and fell in love with it as a young man (he would have been about 17 when it was released). Students of Scorsese must understand and contemplate his Catholicism, and how as a young man he took the dictates of his religion much more seriously than his fellow Little Italy inhabitants on the mean streets. Scorsese is fascinated by Christ's compassion, man's search for forgiveness, and how spiritual ideals conflict with the needs of the flesh. Christian society – or Christendom – is understood by the director as a contradictory phrase. An immersive study in the New Testament shows that Society and Christ are incompatible.
This is precisely what drives El Cid. It features kingdoms and political posturing or alliances within Christendom (and so anticipates the architecture of Kingdom of Heaven). Christendom raises its crosses high, even though the dictates of its policies have nothing to do with Jesus or compassion. When Don Rodrigo captures some Moorish Emirs at the beginning of his journey, the Spaniards cannot wait to hang them. But this is what distinguishes Rodrigo. He becomes immediately associated with Christ visually after aiding a priest and carrying a stone cross, but his compassion then extends to his alien captors as he grants them their lives even though it means that he will be tried for treason. This incident leads one of the Emirs to dub Rodrigo "El Cid," the Arabic term for "Lord." The mercy of Rodrigo, the Cid, is not restricted by race or religion, but extends to the whole world of beings, even one's enemies. It's this mercy that makes Rodrigo a true knight of Christ, in how he is not led by human civilization or laws, but by the higher dictates of God. Throughout the film people ask, "What kind of a man are you?" (Judas asks Jesus the same question in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ). To be a normal man in society and to be a servant of Christ are two very different things, often asking the impossible – and so, Rodrigo finds himself repeatedly thrust into dilemmas of loyalty.
Rodrigo's refusal to hang his captives, and then even release them, is contradictory to his own self-interest. He is on his way to marry the beautiful Dona Jimena (Sophia Loren), who even winces after discovering Rodrigo's "treasonous" act. Dona Jimena also happens to be the daughter of the kingdom's most respected warrior, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank). Motivated by Rodrigo's opponent for Dona's hand in marriage, Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone), Gormaz brings Rodrigo's "treasonous act" to the royal court of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman), concluding with Gormaz slapping Rodrigo's father (Michael Hordern) across the face. The marriage is called off, and Rodrigo is compelled to defend his family's honor by demanding Gormaz's apology. The private duel between the two swordsmen verbalizes a relevant idea, when Gormaz, almost mechanically admits that it is not that he does not want to apologize; it's that he cannot. To humbly step away from his proud position as nobleman is simply not a component in his psychology; even if he was wrong, and he knew he was wrong, it would not make any logical sense in his own mind to ask forgiveness. The sword fight that follows, among the best of its kind, ends in Gormaz's death. He is discovered by Dona, who listens to his last plea for revenge. The lovers then become enemies, with Dona conspiring with Ordonez to have Rodrigo murdered.
The characters in El Cid, like other Mann films, are unpredictable in their allegiances, which are necessarily complex. King Ferdinand has two sons, Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alphonso (John Fraser), who both alternate between our accustomed moviegoer sympathies. The princess, Dona Urraca (Genevieve Page), begins as Dona Jimena's competitor for Rodrigo's affections. Then when Dona Jimena becomes murderously antagonistic to Rodrigo, Urraca threatens to even morph into the film's heroine. Rodrigo seeks to regain favor in Ferdinand's court by representing the king in a joust and duel against the representative from a threatening principality (the second of the film's amazing and wincing one-on-one fights); Dona Jimena gives the enemy combatant her colors, while Dona Urraca allows Rodrigo to carry hers. As for the princes, Rodrigo first seems sympathetic to Alphonso, then to Sancho. By the film's second half, Dona Urraca meanwhile threatens to become Rodrigo's chief provincial enemy. The plasticity of character in El Cid, as in Anthony Mann's Westerns, amazes me when compared to both the other epics of the time, like The Ten Commandments, or the epics that I'll be looking at later, like Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.
The dimension of its characters allows the film to get closer to us with this theme of forgiveness and the address of our all-too-human hubris. Though the brown-face "savages" of the film's introduction seems to color El Cid as a racist film, we come to see in Rodrigo's relationships with other Moor characters that there is mutual respect between religions and cultures. "How can people say that this is wrong?" he asks in the company of the Emir whose life he spared, "We have so much to learn from each other." The Christian mandates of the newly crowned Alphonso are shown to be just as intolerant and nonsensical – and un-Christian – as the opening speech of General Ben Yusuf. Rodrigo brings his Moorish peers to the court of the king, seeking to aid imperiled Spain. After Alphonso notes, "We have not forgiven nor forgotten," in reference to a blow inflicted to Alphonso's pride by Rodrigo during his coronation (making him swear on the Bible that he had nothing to do with Sancho's murder), he refuses the aid offered by Muslims. The king believes that this must be a purely Christian army against Ben Yusuf. The king's intolerance almost results in his downfall.
On Rodrigo's deathbed, however, even the king is granted the chance of redemption. The king humbles himself against his custom, which is the noblest goal in this courtly world of strict order and ritual. "Forgive me, my Cid," he pleads. Rodrigo replies, "It's not easy for a man to conquer himself." Rodrigo has fought self-interest throughout his entire spiritual and militaristic journey, even pledging allegiance to Alphonso after the king had exiled him, and then even refusing to wear the crown. The failure of Count Gormaz is juxtaposed against this redemption of King Alphonso, who is finally able to admit his faults as both a king and a man.
The design of El Cid is essential to its potency. I admit that the spectacle – in true epic fashion – still trumps the drama. And like other films in the genre, some criticize El Cid for a kind of stiffness. But I don't see it like that. The film is a ritual just as it is composed of scenes of rituals, a kind of opulent Catholic Mass being performed in a sumptuous motion picture cathedral. The perfectly symmetrical compositions, timed movements of both actors and the camera, beams of light from above, and finally the organ music on the soundtrack when the dead El Cid leads his army to victory against Ben Yusuf, all seem to imply that this picture is its own kind of religious experience. This certainly also appealed to a young and impressionable Martin Scorsese, just as it appeals to me. It's not stiff; it's a sequence of rites, a grand Eucharist communicating death, resurrection, and forgiveness. The movement of the picture is also entrancing. Mann does not really use a lot of normal medium shots here. I love how he alternates in his 70mm Cinemascope aspect ratio from extreme wide shots, so perfectly designed, blocked, and proportioned with enormous depth of field, and tight close-ups of the actors. We may also nowadays disdain the acting style of Heston as Rodrigo, but he has a natural gift of screen presence that is almost unmatched, either back then and certainly today. The dialogue he utters, in this as in most of his other pictures, is not necessarily sophisticated, but there is never a faulty line delivery. Every cadence, expression, movement, and breath is perfect. He is essentially the priest or bishop conducting this Epic Mass. El Cid is about faith and ideals, which we may also think of as hocus pocus, and even politically dangerous (I get uncomfortable when there is a dilemma between allegiance to God or allegiance to State). From another vantage, it's marvelous, and Terry Gilliam obviously had El Cid in mind for his own monument to imagination, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), in designing the baron and company's victorious assault on the Turks.
El Cid was one of the most successful films of the early 1960s, and inspired Mann and Bronston to collaborate once more for The Fall of the Roman Empire, the picture that would be the pair's undoing. The Fall of the Roman Empire was probably a little unfairly maligned during its initial release, and some may think of it as the era's "thinking man's Historical Epic." Viewers of Gladiator will recognize conspicuous fragments of the narrative. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is ill and thinking about his successor. He has almost defeated the barbarian hordes from the north, but really wants to create meaningful dialogue with them, inaugurating a true period of peace. His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), is too committed to sport, drink, and leisure to be a responsible emperor, and so he plans on unexpectedly naming one of his most successful generals, Livius (Stephen Boyd), as successor. To complicate matters, Livius is Commodus' best friend, and is also in love with Marcus' daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren). The plan would work, if not for greedy senators who know that their power is jeopardized with a General in charge. They conspire to poison Marcus, ensuring Commodus' succession. The fall of the title ensues, as Commodus seeks to maintain a constant state of war, exiles Livius, alienates Roman provinces, and dooms Lucilla to a loveless marriage to an Armenian (Omar Sharif).
Beginning with a beautiful vista of the Germanic wilderness, the flaws of Roman Empire soon emerge in the guise of Livius, or more in the actor playing him, Stephen Boyd, and the ensuing blabbering romantic exchange that he has with Lucilla. This is stiff (there's no Catholic subtext to save it for me), but I wonder if my reaction to it would be different had Bronston and Mann got their original choice, Heston, to play Livius. Heston, as I implied earlier, can make dumb dialogue pure with his voice alone. The problem for the actor was he would have to once again be playing opposite Sophia Loren, with whom he didn't get along on the set of El Cid (pay attention to how he barely looks at her during some of their most intimate scenes; this was Heston being a diva). He didn't want the part, particularly after learning that Loren would be making more money than he would, as Roman Empire would make her only the second woman to earn $1 million for a movie (the first was Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra). Stephen Boyd was seen as a good replacement for Heston being that he held his own against the bigger star in his Ben-Hur role in 1959.
But the first time Boyd opens his mouth we can spot how this was a grievous error for the filmmakers. Set alongside Guinness, Loren, Plummer, and James Mason (wonderful as Marcus' Grecian philosophical assistant, Timonides), Boyd is like cellophane. His blandness saps the film's center of any compelling weight, such as Heston was able to give El Cid, and as we will see, Russell Crowe would give Gladiator decades later. When he's on screen, the film withers under its own spectacle and begins to starve for the British actors to come back. Because of Boyd's inadequacy, the thrust of the love story is flimsy and soft. Had Heston been acting it, how different things might have been. After all, one could say that the love story of El Cid was equally sappy and hackneyed, but the performers' aura elevated it above doggerel.
Yet for Boyd's weakness, Plummer's Commodus is a superb creation, a larger-than-life indulgent sociopath who at times is almost sympathetic, but not quite. Years later, Gladiator would have done well had Plummer's Commodus been the villain instead of Joaquin Phoenix's weak and erratically neurotic characterization, who is never a match for Russell Crowe's Maximus. Also marvelous is Guinness's dying Marcus Aurelius, who has a scene of inner dialogue that Mann found impossible to musically score. The questions of doubt going through the Philosopher-Emperor's great mind are stirring and dramatically compelling, whereas Richard Harris' take on the character in Gladiator is comparably a ponderous and gravel-voiced ham.
The scene of Marcus' self-dialogue works well in driving home what was probably Mann's theme here and may have been the great theme of his whole oeuvre. His characters are always alternating in their "dilemmas" (the concept of the "dilemma" is directly addressed in The Fall of the Roman Empire). To be a fully developed human being, one must converse and engage in dialectical conversation of opposite views that are in conflict. Put simply, Anthony Mann distinguishes himself from other Hollywood directors of his era by acknowledging – and focusing – on how the world is not simple. Timonides embodies the nature of philosophical dialectics and interpretation. As Marcus points out, Timonides would makes a list of several different aspects of climate if a person simply asked him, "How is the weather?" Marcus wants to establish peace with the Germanic tribes through dialogue, not simply smash them with aggression, which necessarily only creates more animosity and more war. "If men do not talk to each other, they are no longer men," he says at one point. He points out the important values of civilization: thinking, reading, talking – talking being the most important aspect. The things that the Emperor wants protected above all else are the books, "For this is Rome," he says. We are also shown how talking is difficult, such as when Timonides is tortured by his Germanic captors and burned several times, fighting with his own basic impulses which would drive him to pettily insult and scream at them. But it is through talking and its difficult paths that empathy develops between enemies, and how the Other becomes a benevolent Self worthy of respect and identification.
The opposing view, which is not really a view so much as a lifestyle, is embodied by Commodus, who adheres to an Old World provincial ideology of war, alienation, and making one's enemies slaves. The glimmers of Mann's Western genre heritage are in The Fall of the Roman Empire just as they were in El Cid, the Indians here being the German Barbarians. Commodus does not want to "talk to them as men." They aren't worthy of such respect or capable of sentience. They are savages. Commodus disdains the "Rome of my father" where Men of Reason are esteemed and wisdom and compassion become ideals.
This makes The Fall of the Roman Empire a very interesting picture to look at, perhaps more nowadays than even during the time of its release. The whole picture could be seen as a political dialectic, as opposed to the easily identifiable revenge drama that we have in Gladiator. It's a picture about politics and philosophy, such as we will get in Kingdom of Heaven.
The question is what we do with our enemies. The war-eager senate, mostly in allegiance to Commodus, believes that the Germanic tribes should not be given Roman citizenship but rather must be taught a lesson. Timonides assumes the contrary position, stating, "One hundred times we have taught the barbarians a lesson." The result? They keep on fighting with even more fury and vengeance than before. Timonides makes the insight that the lesson isn't working, and thus the Empire must ask itself if the pupils are to blame – or rather the teachers. "The hatred that we leave behind us never dies." The opposite, and more popular (and much less examined) viewpoint is not at all dissimilar from what Right Wing hawks repeat again and again in modern-day political discourse: the thing that makes us great is "Our strength! Our might! 'Equality,' 'Freedom,' 'Peace.' Who is it that uses these words but Greeks and Jews and slaves? The Vandals wait for a moment of weakness!" In other words, to pull back our troops or seek peaceful solutions only energizes and emboldens the Terrorists, as Michelle Bachmann would say.
An older senator aligns with Timonides and points out that military prudence is not what kills nations. "How does an Empire die? Does it collapse in one terrible moment? No. But there comes a time when its people no longer believe in it. Then does an Empire begin to die….The law of life is grow or die." In other words, empires must liberalize and adapt to necessary changes. The Fall of the Roman Empire links itself to El Cid when a character asks, "We have changed the world. Can we not change ourselves?" Conquering our xenophobia and prejudices is as difficult as conquering our base compulsions. The dialectical world of Marcus Aurelius and Timonides is not different from the Christian ideals of Don Rodrigo, where one must become "more than a man" to overcome the perilous obstacles that politics and tribalism set.
The goals of Livius, Timonides, and the late Marcus Aurelius fail, which makes the final act of The Fall of the Roman Empire live up to its title. The barbarians have set up a peaceful new civilization as citizens of Rome, only to be slaughtered quickly by Commodus' forces. The military proves to be disloyal to great generals like Livius, soldiers being bought for gold, another Mannian theme smuggled in from the Westerns like Bend in the River. "There's your great Roman army," one general says, "bought for a handful of gold!" Greed and easy access to prosperity blot out any kind of noble ideals or dialectical thought. Here, the film says, Rome begins to die.
Commodus and Livius have a final gladiatorial duel, which ranks alongside the duels from El Cid or the final cat-and-mouse chase in Winchester '73. It's Boyd's high-point as performer in the film (after all, he doesn't have to utter a word), and once again also makes us wish that Ridley Scott had replaced his Gladiator Commodus for Plummer's. Livius is triumphant, but not before the dying Commodus tells him the gods are laughing and with his final breath calls for the prisoners – including Lucilla – to be burned alive. Though Livius saves Lucilla before it's too late (I suppose it would be blasphemy to burn Sophia Loren alive), all other captors die in the flames. The two survivors walk away as the Empire is haggled away between senators and generals, Will Durant's narration commenting, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
That sentiment applies to Hollywood and where the industry found itself in the 1960s. Though The Fall of the Roman Empire is a noble effort when we compare it to the other, more successful and esteemed, big pictures of its day (Dr. Dolittle, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins), it was symptomatic of unsustainable excesses in a changing cinematic landscape that was decaying because of television and changing cultural attitudes. It failed at the box office, grossing a fraction of its cost. It is a requiem mass for the Old Studio System just as it is for Rome, and if we look at the mind-boggling logistics of its design and execution, we should find it precious and think on it not lightly. There were no CGI or greenscreen special effects in this era (though there were some highly entrancing matte paintings). The exteriors were location set-ups, and the sets were wood and nail constructions, the bodies filling the widescreen frame being real human beings requiring human direction from Mann and his assistants. The Historical Epic died with the New Hollywood's emergence. As we prepare to examine Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, which also afford many visual extravagances, we remember that they are constructed more by graphic designers rather than on-set flesh-and-blood filmmakers. Are these even part of the same paradigm? The era of Spielberg and Lucas birthed the technology that would be able to give us mass armies again, but as digital bits and not meat and nails. A larger study of the Epic genre would have me going into more detail on Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which has its own occasional allusions to Mann's epics (a shot of the ear-collecting Hellcat Maggie leaping on her prey during Gangs' opening battle, for example, is an image taken directly from one of the opening battles in The Fall of the Roman Empire). I should note that Scorsese's colleague, George Lucas, visited the Five Points set in Cinecitta Studios during the laborious production and asked why would Scorsese actually build this enormous set when CGI could build it for him in post-production? But Gangs of New York is conscious of its cinematic heritage, and realized it would probably be the death rattle of real-space wood-and-nail epic filmmaking. Scorsese may have deliberately cast Henry Thomas, Spielberg's Elliot from E.T., as the conniving and traitorous friend to the main character, as an inside commentary on the decay that would inevitably ensue from a graphic designer's cinema of technological and digital convenience. Maybe the proof is in how the images affect us.
We find ourselves back to Gladiator, which contains that proof. Observe the moment when Maximus and his fellow gladiators, led by their owner (and former gladiator) Proximo (Oliver Reed), approach the Coliseum and look up in awe. "I didn't know men could build such things," one of them says, some digitally created birds flying through the frame. The Coliseum we're looking at is not real, of course, but created in post-production through computer generation, as much of the crowd watching the gladiatorial bouts within is. Gladiator was after all a production of Steven Spielberg's new production company, Dreamworks, and nearly works on the audience's emotions and senses the same way Spielberg's best work does. But for me, what we're seeing does not at all compare to what Samuel Bronston and Anthony Mann put together. Technological evolution is, in terms of the Epic, a devolution.
Gladiator still works, if barely. The first 15 minutes, covering Marcus Aurelius' Roman army defeating a final Germanic stronghold is wonderful, particularly the way Scott bathes the image in warm blues and manipulates frame rates throughout the battle, bringing a hard graphic intensity to the collision of metal, flesh, wood, and soil. We also see Russell Crowe become a movie star almost immediately with his first close-up. At this time, Crowe had been in only a handful of big studio films, the two most well regarded being Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential and Michael Mann's The Insider, the latter for which he earned many deserved awards (he aged twenty years and fifty pounds, in addition to perfectly conveying vulnerability clashing with enraged but silent intensity). His Oscar win for Gladiator was a make-up for the award he should have won for The Insider. It was on The Insider's set that Mann encouraged a reticent Crowe to take the role of Maximus, stating that Ridley Scott would shoot Crowe visually in a way that would be advantageous for his burgeoning career. Scott's eye, matched with the natural – I almost want to say Hestonian, though there is some degree of difference – gravitas of Crowe, immediately makes the character, and what more the personality of the actor playing the character, iconic.
After Maximus' victory, the flab of Gladiator begins to show itself off, in Marcus Aurelius and his offspring, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Like in The Fall of the Roman Empire, Marcus is dying and filled with self-doubt, dreaming of a peaceful Rome with a reliable and wise successor. Maximus is in the Livius role, and like in Anthony Mann's film, the reason why Marcus demands his general take the position is precisely because of the Maximus' reluctance to accept (I should note that the actual Marcus Aurelius apparently had no such reservations about his son, Commodus, who historically may have been worse than either of these fictional portrayals, and ruled for much longer). Unlike Mann's film, it is Commodus who does the assassination, smothering his father in an embrace that turns vengeful, an image that Scott's viewers may find very similar to how replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) kills his own creator (Joseph Turkel) in the now-classic Blade Runner. Maximus is arrested and sent off to his execution by Commodus' soldiers, his family in Spain also ordered to die.
The vendetta story of Gladiator, thanks so much to Crowe's performance, makes the next two hours compelling enough as long as his own saga is in the camera eye. He escapes his execution but is far too late to save his wife and child, both of whom were crucified on his farm. He is captured by a slave caravan, bought by Proximo, and trained to fight and die as a gladiator. His talent with weapons and organizing skills as a military general helps make him a sensation, and his new stardom as a gladiator gives him the opportunity to fight at the Roman Coliseum, where he may be able to get his revenge on Commodus.
But between the simple though appealing He-Man aspect of Gladiator are the lethargic bedroom scenes, filmed in cooler colors (a stark contrast from the beginning), between Lucilla and the increasingly deranged and paranoid Emperor Commodus. One of the film's chief structural virtues is eschewing much of a romantic storyline, establishing Lucilla and Maximus as former lovers who regard each other well enough, and leaving it at that. In its place are the incestuous desires of Commodus for Lucilla and his fear that her son, Lucius, will one day usurp him. In Phoenix's Commodus, the movie bogs down too much and longs for Christopher Plummer's variation of the character. I would like to say that Phoenix, a very good actor, is not awful here, but he is, or at least the role is awfully written. This is another chief flaw of Gladiator and of the Epic genre generally. These films begin as historical conceptualizations ("A story about Ancient Rome and gladiators!"), but then must fill in the spaces with melodrama, standard character development, and story arcs. Consequently, they often run through many hired writers and suffer from unevenness, the dramatic gaps inserted within the grand conceptualization often being hackneyed and weak. Gladiator has three credited screenwriters: David Franzoni, who came up with the original idea, and then two revising writers, the very talented John Logan (whose The Aviator is a masterpiece of economical biopic screenplay writing), and then William Nicholson (Shadowlands). And yet still there is very little within Gladiator that recommends itself being the work of highly skilled writers, certainly as regards to dialogue (and Logan and Nicholson are both acclaimed playwrights). Indeed, much of Gladiator's dialogue exchanges were written during the actual shoot, some moments ("Are you not entertained?! Are you not entertained?!") like they weren't written at all and simply handed to Russell Crowe as something to say at the last moment before the cameras rolled. It's then interesting for me to compare Gladiator's inadequacies as the work of three separate writers when compared to Scott's succeeding epic, Kingdom of Heaven, the work of one writer, William Monahan, which is markedly superior in terms of content.
The final half-hour of Gladiator is otherwise quite good. Maximus fails in staging a revolt with the other gladiators. As in The Fall of the Roman Empire, Commodus challenges him to a one-on-one gladiatorial duel to the death, though this time the Emperor plays dirty by gravely wounding the chained Maximus beforehand. Maximus still kills the Emperor by using his strength to maneuver Commodus' dagger to his own throat. His revenge achieved, Maximus collapses with the final plea to restore Marcus Aurelius' dreams for a Roman Republic in the service of the people. He drifts into death, reuniting with his wife and son. Lisa Gerrard's aria over Hans Zimmer's music helps move the audience, and the result is absolute fulfillment on our part.
This is a perverse revision of history, and maybe Scott and his writers are playful in acknowledging it. Earlier, Maximus' squad of gladiators was forced to re-enact the Battle of Carthage, with Maximus' team playing the conquered barbarians. Naturally, Maximus overcomes the odds and triumphs, leading an amused Commodus to note, "My history's a little hazy, but don't the barbarians lose the Battle of Carthage?" Whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire ends with the gradual decay of a civilization, Gladiator makes no qualms about ending its history lesson optimistically, where the People have overthrown a Tyrant, and the dreams of the great Marcus Aurelius will be fulfilled. Maybe this makes Gladiator a perfect movie for its own time, the year 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president and inaugurated weeks before Gladiator won the Best Picture Academy Award (something hardly deserved, fun as Gladiator can be). Gladiator like Bush was marvelous at pandering to the people, just as Commodus is with his celebratory gladiatorial festivals. Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) observes about Commodus, "I think he understands what Rome is. Rome is the mob. He'll give them death, and they will love him for it." Such a statement seems applicable to the popular president Bush would become about two years later, or for that matter, Gladiator itself as violent, historically "voyeuristic" entertainment. Maybe this is a much more historically resonant motion picture than we give it credit after all.
Gladiator is credited with opening the floodgates in the studio system of a period of new historical epics, though I'm not sure if we should credit it so much as perhaps Saving Private Ryan, which fed into the audience's sadism and desire for historical voyeurism. Much like Braveheart five years before, Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan both had much publicity regarding how they unflinchingly were showing violent history "as it was." In any case, the sins of Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire were washed away, and antiquity was born again: Troy, King Arthur, Alexander, and 300 were all soon put into production.
Ridley Scott was now King Midas. Despite never having an overwhelmingly successful film (during initial release anyway), following Gladiator he became a kind of household name filmmaker. He took Jonathan Demme's place, replacing subtlety with cackle-worthy camp in the moderately successful sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and later that year did well with Black Hawk Down, adapted from Mark Bowden's chronicle of the United States military in 1993 Somalia, making arguably the best film about modern war until The Hurt Locker in 2009. In 2002, he became interested in a spec script detailing the first Barbary War in 1805, Tripoli, to be filmed on an enormous scale.
While working with the script's author, a former Time Out New York editor, writer, and scholar, William Monahan, the two found themselves discussing Tripoli less and medieval knights more, particularly pertaining to the Crusades. Tripoli was eventually dropped completely, Kingdom of Heaven becoming Ridley Scott's next film. And though Gladiator is the more famous and rewarded picture, it feels clear to me that Kingdom of Heaven is Scott's magnum opus, and for whatever flaws it bears, moment for moment and image after image, and also in terms of its ultimate resonant thrust, it is probably the highpoint of the nouvelle CGI-era historical spectacles of the time. It was largely ignored or dismissed at the time of its release, and for good reason. Scott truncated his theatrical release by 45 minutes, a grievous error that stole any texture from the story, and as such made its spectacle hollow.
This is a huge difference between the great road-show epics of the 1950s and 60s versus those of the contemporary era. El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and The Ten Commandments were not leisurely entertainments to be quickly consumed. They were events, and took their time as such at a minimum of three hours, not including an overture and entre'act intermissions. It was a moviegoer's great privilege to see these 70mm Technicolor marvels, offering something that a square television set could never dream of giving. And because of that, these weren't blandly manufactured to ingest viewers and spit them out just as quickly before the next screening, profitable though many of them were. Economy of plot may be much more important nowadays. With Kingdom of Heaven, Scott found the studio breathing down his neck to erase any kind of subplot that would seem tangential. He acquiesced, but losing those tangents basically stole the spirit of his movie that would have made the film in any way memorable to a cinema audience. The reception and returns were both lukewarm.
One thing Scott's time has greatly helped him is the presence home video. For though his faultless eye would seem a bad bedfellow for puny televisions, the phenomenon of the "Director's Cut" helped make the flop Blade Runner into a revised canonical masterpiece, and has also aided Legend and to a very large extent, Kingdom of Heaven. Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down were also given "Extended Cuts" on DVD, though Scott is adamant about how they do not represent his own "director's cut," claiming to be pleased with the theatrical versions as they were; two other Scott pictures, American Gangster and Robin Hood, both of which I found mediocre, have alternate DVD cuts that I have not seen, though I can only imagine they mark improvement. In Anthony Mann's time, it wasn't considered by the filmmakers that their work would be watched on television or be available for mass-market purchase; if there were "director's cuts" they were lost (like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons). Consequently, the restored Kingdom of Heaven is an incomparable visual marvel even on a small screen, and feels much more dramatically compelling and intelligent than most other mainstream films. The same critical revisionism, in my opinion, holds true for Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), a disastrous critical and commercial bomb on release. Stone recut and restructured the film twice for DVD, the second time elevating it to near greatness for me. The more successful epics of the last decade, including Gladiator, the dreadful Troy, and Zach Snyder's over-posturing 300, feel comparably like fast food.
Kingdom of Heaven has many of the same craftsmen (production designer Arthur Max; cinematographer John Mathieson) from Gladiator, in the same way that The Fall of the Roman Empire reunited a lot of people from El Cid, though it is a marked improvement in terms of evenness and its effective argument for CGI spectacle. It begins with the same warm blue colors, gradually moving cooler with the running time as the action moves out of the European forest and into the desert. If The Fall of the Roman Empire is Gladiator's key model, El Cid hovers over every frame of Kingdom of Heaven. There are two key differences, one for the better and one for the worse, between Scott's epics. Gladiator is a patchwork screenplay of hired hand writers, who were kept separate from on-set historical consultants that were there as a press junket necessity. Their contribution was inconsequential to the story or characters, being mainly applicable to costume and set decoration details. William Monahan for Kingdom of Heaven, however, apparently knew just as much – if not more – than the consultants that Fox wanted to hire. The screenplay is much more interested in the dynamics of political and religious discourse and conflict than the norms of melodrama, which dramatically works in its favor. It consequently feels like a much more "complete" work.
The other difference regards the leading player. For though the lines in Gladiator's screenplay were banal, Russell Crowe is the rare actor that could sell them. Kingdom of Heaven casts the effete Orlando Bloom as its center, a decision that could have turned out much more badly than the end result. Bloom is a stronger lead than he would seem to suggest, working far better than Stephen Boyd, for example, in The Fall of the Roman Empire; but he is still lacks the commanding presence of Russell Crowe or Charlton Heston, figures whose presence would seem to evenly match the spectacle and sell the necessary clunky bloat of a highly conceptual movie (read: the love story), good as Monahan's script is. It remains a chief flaw of Kingdom of Heaven, though Bloom, a graduate of Scott's Black Hawk Down, carries out his miscasting very nobly in holding his own against this digital-era marvel. He simply does not dominate. In his defense, though, who does?
Kingdom of Heaven is about brother religions, Christianity and Islam, at war despite being born from the same Abrahamic faith. Appropriately its first act centers on brothers who are anything but familial. Balian (Bloom) is a great artificer in rural France, whose wife is a recent suicide following the grief of a stillborn child. His brother (Michael Sheen) is a jealous monk, who has the wife decapitated and consigns her to hell, even stealing the crucifix off her neck before her burial. In a fit of rage, Balian kills his devious brother and understands that he must seek forgiveness, in addition to healing the grief that still haunts him since his wife's death. At the same time, a squad of Crusaders returns from the Holy Land, led by Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who has become the Baron of Ibelin in Jerusalem. Without an heir, his own brother (Robert Pugh) plots Godfrey's murder. In both cases, wars are less about ideology than the acquisition of land and wealth, and the movie essentially will argue the same thing about the two religions. The Crusades were more about opportunity than they were about God.
Godfrey secretly does have an heir, however. Balian is his bastard son, conceived almost twenty-five years before. He seeks the forgiveness of his own child and then proposes that Balian join him in Jerusalem to begin a new life. An ambush set up by Godfrey's brother almost foils everything, nearly wiping out the whole "Wild Bunch" of Crusaders that came with Godfrey, an inversion of story expectations that Scott and Monahan state was meant to imply how fragile life was in the late 12th century. Godfrey too is wounded and dying from an arrow's infection; before he dies, he knights Balian and charges his son with overseeing Ibelin and working with King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) in maintaining a fragile peace held between Christians and the Muslims, who are commandeered by the venerable Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
Kingdom of Heaven is a densely plotted film with a wide array of characters. A weakness, especially when we compare it to El Cid, involves the rather black and white disposition of the characters. The villains are black-hearted, and the heroes always striving for the light. But that this picture focuses on political machinations so much makes it – in its 195-minute cut anyway – fascinating. Balian becomes a favorite of Baldwin IV, an intelligent and philosophical king conscious of how rituals and posturing are akin to moves on a chess board. But ultimately, he explains, a man will ultimately be accountable to the decisions he makes privately and how they associate with his own spiritual disposition. Politics and Religion have a shaky relationship in Jerusalem; politics involve acquiring power, but ideology drives political individuals, like Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and the fanatically Christian Templar Knights to consolidate that power at the expense of an entire group (Muslims). When Religion becomes Political, it becomes dangerous. When it is private, it is meaningful. David Thewlis plays an interesting character known as the Hospitaller, who is half knight and half monk. He is the most religious character in the picture, having daily topics for his prayers: his relationship to the Divine is ecstatic. He states, "I put no stock in religion. I've seen too much violence in the name of God's will." He believes "holiness" and "Godliness" are things rooted in a man's private deliberations, having nothing to do with the political role-playing of religion.
Like The Fall of the Roman Empire, Kingdom of Heaven may be felt as something of a downer, because the Western powers and ideals lose out. The downslope begins with Baldwin IV's death. His child nephew, Baldwin V, is named king but also has leprosy, leading his mother, Sibylla (Eva Green), to euthanize him. Sibylla's husband, Guy, attains the throne, and with the help of his fanatically anti-Muslim warrior Raymond de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), wages war on the Muslims, in turn giving Saladin a political excuse to break his peace with Christian Jerusalem. Kingdom of Heaven's cycle of regression works with its silent exhortations. This is a movie about death and decay, an interesting subtext of the body's realities when set against the "body politic" or realpolitik, a theme that Monahan, a very Catholic writer, worked into his subsequent screenplays The Departed, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness. Where is the soul in the body? Where is the soul in our systems of politics and religion? Machinations are worked out by individuals who seem to have no bearing on their mortality, like Guy and Raymond. Conversely, Baldwin IV and Baldwin V both have leprosy, where the flesh decays grotesquely while one is alive. The political voice of reason in the court is Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), whose face is badly scarred. There is a grasp on the body's fragility in these individuals. Greedy human beings are otherwise like festering worms eating away without conscience, much like the ones we see in the apple of Balian's brother during the film's first moments. The filthy world of chaos, vermin, and disease has the alternate escapes of political ego and internalized conscience – a negation of self versus a realization of self through an acceptance of mortality. Baldwin IV's disease, we notice, intensely disturbs his sister Sibylla, a very beautiful woman whose riches and regality cannot save her, or her son, from decay. This is a pointed contrast to El Cid, where Sophia Loren never ages (the actress wouldn't allow it), and Rodrigo's dead body is sealed in armor and attached to his horse, leading his men out to a final battle. In Kingdom of Heaven, the transcendental promise of the resurrection does not relieve people, pagan or Christian, of the body's grotesque dismemberment and entropy. This taunts Sibylla, who looks at paintings of dancing skeletons, "As we are, so you shall become" being the words written beneath them.
The final siege of Jerusalem concludes with a tidy surrender by Balian to Salidan, where Balian asks Salidan, after endless carnage and explosions, "What is Jerusalem worth?" Saladin replies, "Nothing," as if the answer were obvious. He walks away, then suddenly turns around with a wink, "Everything!" Saladin too acknowledges the sharp difference between the private and public spheres of religious and political discourse; he had to go to war in order to make his own religious fundamentalists happy. But upon entering Jerusalem's walls, he respectfully picks up a fallen crucifix and asks his mullahs to leave him. He prays, alone, not as a statesman but as a man whose relationship with God is very private. The fault of the Crusades was the absurd notion of assigning "the kingdom of heaven" to a geographical location, which can only lead to political disputes concerning property and to deep tribal prejudices. The true kingdom, for Saladin, Balian, Godrey, Sibylla, the Hospitaller, and Baldwin IV, is in a man's private sphere in how he dialogically relates to his conscious self and how that in turn affects the world around him.
Kingdom of Heaven was probably the most important project for Ridley Scott, and with the sole exception of Blade Runner it's his most accomplished. True, it suffers from some of the "love handles" of the Epic genre, with a token romantic subplot, hammy dialogue and acting here and there, a barely-good-enough leading man, and an ending that is too happy for my taste. But thanks to Monahan's script it's also the best example of a Historical Epic that has overstepped the quandary of a conceptualization trapping a drama: it's a "consonant" movie, which is the very opposite of Gladiator. I should also add how that as a Digital Era spectacle, it may represent the most satisfying of efforts, for me far surpassing the imaginarium of James Cameron's Avatar.
Gladiator I criticized because its computer-generated spectacle was no match for the audience's eyes – it didn't fool us. The artifice felt more convenient than stunning. Kingdom of Heaven similarly uses the same visual effects to recreate the past, with a lot of digital plates on the set that were later digitally repainted and enhanced in post-production. Kingdom of Heaven is a graphic designer's motion picture, but almost every moment seems so meticulously designed and balanced throughout the entire 195-minute experience that its modern day spectacle in the oddest of ways reconciles our digital era with the Anthony Mann epics orchestrated in Meat-Space/Real-Time. Scott seems to put his whole soul into Kingdom of Heaven just as much as Mann and Bronston did with El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire: it is a sublime sequence of ecstatic murals in a ceaselessly moving zoetrope cathedral. As Real Space becomes increasingly derided and degraded in the automated eye of artificial intelligence filmmaking, this future is irresistible logistically, and so it must be well executed aesthetically. David Fincher, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron are probably the emperors of this environment of digital, non-stop filmmaking, where the images can be altered many times following shooting, and the work can be edited any number of ways in a short amount of time.
Kingdom of Heaven shows how the screen can be a wonderful canvas for an artist's eye. Scott's eye recently replicated the visual mastery of Kingdom of Heaven with Robin Hood, a sequel of sorts. Once more, Scott created a phenomenal spectacle of fighting alongside an unrivaled handling of actors in spaces, though much like the truncated theatrical Kingdom of Heaven, the drama was sapped and felt incomplete. We were left with an ass-kicking that lacked any texture on its boots to leave an impression. In recent years, Zack Snyder's 300 stole the cinematic genre that Ridley Scott inherited from Anthony Mann and then rejuvenated, and mutated it into a banal video game suited for Mark Zuckerberg's Post-Human Generation. Scott is now fleeing from the past and going back to the future with his pseudo-Alien prequel, Prometheus, perhaps again to show how the future that we birth also grotesquely eats us in return.