Tuesday, May 29, 2012

LEGO Lord of the Rings: Remember the Ladies?

Let me start by saying that, overall, I'm pleased as punch with the new LORD OF THE RINGS LEGO sets. They have lots of great figures, neat play spaces, awesome new horses, and *omg!* they aren't a bunch of stupid vehicles (I'm looking at you, STAR WARS). There's just one thing really missing from the first wave of sets - a single female character.

I know THE HOBBIT sets are coming out in December in conjunction with the first HOBBIT movie, so there's more LEGO to come, but we all know that female characters are rarer than hens' teeth in the original Tolkien tale. Even if the movie tweaks the story, it's going to be hard to find a lot of girl power there. Even in LOTR, the central Fellowship is an all boys' club, which is not surprising considering the generation to which Tolkien belonged.

LOTR, however, does boast some fantastic female characters, especially as depicted in the Peter Jackson films. We've got brave Arwen, spooky Galadriel, and - let's be honest - totally freakin' awesome Eowyn. It would have been nice to see LEGO put one of them in the first wave of sets. Especially since LEGO has recently taken some fire for the FRIENDS line (and I went to bat for them on that one), it would be great to see them be a little more proactive about taking the opportunity to include female characters in licensed sets when there's an obvious place for them.

To some extent, this is also a problem with the SUPER HERO sets, since Black Widow only appears in the most expensive set of the AVENGERS collection. Director Joss Whedon did a great job making her a central character and giving her a lot to do, but in the LEGO set she's reduced to a pilot, and her hair doesn't even look right. They made all new figures from scratch for most of the characters but can't be bothered to do a new wig for Natasha? Fan boy and redhead devotee that he is, it seems like Whedon himself ought to have something to say about that. Agent Hill, admittedly a minor character, would still have been nice to have and easy enough to include. Thankfully, we do better with the DC collection, where we get Wonder Woman in a very reasonably priced set, and the Bat Family is so equal opportunity that we get Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman.

It's important to point out for the sake of fairness that other really compelling male characters are also missing from the AVENGERS and LOTR sets. Where's Agent Coulson? Bruce Banner? What about NICK FURY, for Stan Lee's sake? Middle Earth, likewise, won't be complete without Elrond, Saruman, the Witch-King, and Faramir, among others. I'm still trying to figure out why LEGO made a Haldir figure before producing any of those other characters.

A brave heroine takes on a mummy in the MONSTER FIGHTERS line.
The slights matter more for the female characters, though, because of the recent gender dust-up over FRIENDS and the need for LEGO to continue its efforts to incorporate more gender equity into its mainline sets rather than just shunt the girl market off to FRIENDS land completely. (Actually, by that logic, leaving Nick Fury out of THE AVENGERS is just bad all over, for pretty obvious reasons). By contrast, the company did a much better job putting female characters into the new MONSTER FIGHTERS line, with a very tough-looking heroine and a fabulous vampire bride.

Let's hope that LEGO, unlike John Adams, harkens to the advice of Abigail Adams to "remember the ladies" in the upcoming LOTR LEGO sets so that they can be a vast trove of unalloyed awesomeness. Personally, I'm rooting for an "Eowyn fights the Witch-King" set and some all-elf Rivendell or Lothlorien scenes. The Virago is waiting, LEGO, with credit card in hand!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

LEGO Addicts Know to Beware of Toys R Us Prices

With all the awesome new LEGO themes coming out right now, plenty of people will be heading to toy stores looking for AVENGERS, LORD OF THE RINGS, and MONSTER FIGHTERS sets. Let me share some advice that serious LEGO collectors already know: stay away from Toys R Us.

The massive toy retailer regularly marks LEGO sets up 20%-30% beyond list price. That means that even when they're "on sale," you're lucky to pay the regular full price. Some items will be list, but you simply cannot go into the store expecting to pay a fair price or get some kind of "deal" because their ads claim that they have one.

You can sometimes get list price at Amazon.com, but it depends on the company that is actually selling the toy, so be careful there, too. For the best prices, shop in a LEGO Store, where you can get special promotional deals and points as a VIP member. The Shop-at-Home site is nice, but you'll have to pay shipping (and sales tax if there's a LEGO Store in your state).

As for other stores, Target tends to be slow about getting new sets, so you'll probably have to wait a while if you want to shop with them, but many of the new sets are already available on the Target website. Walmart can be hit or miss; some stores have more robust LEGO aisles than others. The prices, however, tend to be a few pennies below list.

Personally, I prefer to give my money to a locally owned independent toy store (Southerland Station here in Huntsville, AL) or directly to LEGO itself, but my loyalty is tempered by the overall costs involved and the speed with which I can acquire newly released items. The mega LEGO Store at Downtown Disney proved a huge disappointment recently when Shop-at-Home released the LORD OF THE RINGS line but the actual store didn't simultaneously get the items.

Many of the new sets coming out are high-end items, and consumers will be spending hundreds of dollars to purchase the full collections. Don't let unscrupulous pricing cheat you out of cash you didn't have to spend.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From Auburn to the "Wild Altama": Colonial South Georgia in Goldsmith's "Deserted Village"

            In his 1994 article, “The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre,” Alfred Lutz laments Oliver Goldsmith’s “reputation as a narrowly pastoral poet” (149) and argues that The Deserted Village is not merely a conventional pastoral poem, but, on the contrary, one that  represents Goldsmith’s role as an active participant in mid-eighteenth century political and social concerns. Lutz contends that one of the chief ways in which Goldsmith subverts the traditional pastoral form is by introducing the element of historical time and specificity, which undermines the traditionally ahistorical conventions of the poetic genre. My own reading of The Deserted Village has much in common with Lutz’s argument, but my focus here concerns an element of the poem that Lutz, in company with most other Goldsmith critics and scholars, largely overlooks.  Lutz and others make much of Goldsmith’s representation of Auburn as both idyllic past community and present ruin, but few actually take into consideration his depiction of the North American region along the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia.  In fact, most completely ignore the geographical and historical specificity of this section of the poem, but my own argument hinges upon the conviction that the details of the North American passage are actually central to the concerns of the work as a whole, providing a context in which to read the poem that Goldsmith’s own contemporaries would not have missed, although modern readers do so almost unfailingly.
            Footnotes to various editions of The Deserted Village reveal the scarcity of information about the “wild Altama” and its importance. Many editors, including Arthur Friedman, only note it as “a river in Georgia in North America” (300 fn). This short citation is not particularly helpful, as it gives no regional information about the river’s location and does not provide any eighteenth-century historical or cultural context for the Altamaha.  In his Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Oliver Goldsmith, Roger Lonsdale gives by far the most thorough notation on the North American section, but the information Lonsdale provides is limited to a comment about Goldsmith’s familiarity with Oglethorpe and a list of the few scholarly articles that address some of the elements of this part of the poem. One can certainly forgive Lonsdale for being brief; after all, he is writing footnotes, but later critics of The Deserted Village have looked no farther than this general citation, and thus have not apprehended that the notes signify anything more than an unimportant detail. Not being familiar with the river prior to reading the poem, they do not learn anything more about it that might pique their interest from the footnotes that Friedman, Lonsdale, and other editors care to provide.
            It is not surprising if twentieth-century critics, editors, and readers miss the significance of the “wild Altama.” Located in southeastern Georgia, the river is not well known today because no major metropolitan areas have sprung up along its banks. The nearest population center is Savannah, which lies some 170 miles to the east of the Altamaha. The river itself is only 140 miles long, and it flows through the largely rural counties of Appling, Tatnall, Long, Wayne, McIntosh, and Glynn before emptying into the Atlantic near St. Simons and Jekyll Islands. The earliest settlement on the river was Fort King George, which was established by the Carolina colony in 1721 in the area later named Darien by the Scottish Highlanders who settled there under General Oglethorpe’s leadership between 1735 and 1748.  During the eighteenth century, the section of the Altamaha nearest the coast was the best developed, and that tradition has continued until the present time, with the largest and best known centers being Brunswick and the Golden Isles. The Altamaha River actually marked the southernmost boundary of the British Georgia colony until 1763, when the Creeks formally ceded the land between the Altamaha and St. Marys Rivers to the British. After that date, it remained a “wild” region; Savannah had already firmly established itself as the metropolitan center for the colony, and the Altamaha area was settled and developed as farm country by those European colonists who were hearty and determined enough to withstand the conditions and isolation.
            In the eighteenth century, the Altamaha River was much better known in England and America than it is today. As Roger Lonsdale points out in his footnotes to the poem, Goldsmith and most of his contemporary readers would have been familiar with the river through General James Oglethorpe, who had founded the Georgia colony in 1732. Oglethorpe returned to England for good in 1743, and, during the late 1760s, when Goldsmith was composing The Deserted Village, the old General was enjoying a great deal of prominence on the London social scene. By 1772 we know that Goldsmith, along with Boswell and Johnson, had become good friends with Oglethorpe because Boswell’s Life of Johnson records the four men having dinner together at the General’s home (483). While Goldsmith’s personal friendship with Oglethorpe developed after the publication of The Deserted Village, it remains true that both operated in the same social circles during the late 1760s. Oglethorpe’s high visibility and penchant for telling stories about his glory days in the colony would have given Goldsmith -- and many other Londoners -- ample opportunity to hear about the Altamaha and its wild environs.
            Other eighteenth-century sources besides Oglethorpe also cite the Altamaha and describe the environment that settlers found there, but one particularly interesting description occurs in Bartram’s Travels, the 1791 travel diary written by William Bartram during his 1773 visit to the southern colonies. Bartram and his father John had previously traveled through southeastern Georgia in 1765, when they first discovered the legendary disappearing Gordonia, the Franklinia alatamaha (Gibbons 583). Bartram provides a useful context for The Deserted Village because he approaches the Altamaha from a naturalist’s perspective, describing the same region as Goldsmith but with different ends. Writing in 1773, just three years after the publication of The Deserted Village and one year before Goldsmith’s death, Bartram depicts the Altamaha as Goldsmith’s deserting villagers would have found it when they reached their new North American homes.  In his record, Bartram gives the following account of the river, which he calls “Alatamaha”:
Having now gained a vast acquisition of waters, [the river] assumes the name of Alatamaha, when it becomes a large majestic river, flowing with gentle windings through a vast plain forest, near an hundred miles, and enters the Atlantic by several mouths. The north channel, or entrance, glides by the heights of Darien, on the east bank, about ten miles above the bar, and running from thence with several turnings, enters the ocean between Sapello and Wolf islands. The south channel, which is esteemed the largest and deepest, after its separation from the north, descends gently, winding by M’Intosh’s and Broughton islands; and lastly, by the west coast of St. Simons island, enters the ocean, through St. Simons sound, between the south end of the island of that name and the north end of Jekyl island. (67-68)
Here Bartram gives a strictly scientific description of the Altamaha, but an earlier passage contains the poetic effusions for which the naturalist is, perhaps, best known. He writes,
I ascended this beautiful river, on whose fruitful banks the generous and true sons of liberty securely dwell, fifty miles above the white settlements.
How gently flow thy peaceful floods, O Alatamaha! How sublimely rise to view, on thy elevated shores, yon magnolian groves, from whose tops the surrounding expanse is perfumed, by clouds of incense, blended with the exhaling balm of the liquidambar, and odours continually arising from circumambient aromatic groves of illicium, myrica, laurus and bignonia. (64)
Bartram’s exuberant celebration of the river provides an intriguing contrast to Goldsmith’s description; one must bear in mind the radically different perspectives and intentions of the two writers to remember that this is in fact the same river that actually appears in The Deserted Village. (One must also bear in mind that Bartram’s Travels contains very few negative reactions to the southern landscape, and Bartram seems inclined to wax enthusiastically about every new plant, animal, or person he encounters.)
            Neither Bartram’s rhapsodies nor Goldsmith’s bleaker description could depict the Altamaha in vivid enough terms to bring it lasting fame, however, and modern critics refuse to take into account the detailed specificity of The Deserted Village’s American landscape. The only articles on this particular section of the poem deal with Goldsmith’s understanding of North American zoology: one is J.R. Moore’s “Goldsmith’s Degenerate Songbirds: an Eighteenth-century Fallacy in Ornithology” (Isis 1943), and the other is E.D. Seeber’s “Goldsmith’s American Tigers” (Modern Language Quarterly 1945). Critics who focus on the larger issues of the poem usually do cite at least part of the North American passage, but they almost always omit the line identifying the region as the “wild Altama.”
            The comments that are made about the North American section of the poem further illustrate a general lack of knowledge about the Altamaha’s geographical and ecological particulars, for they dismiss the description as Goldsmith’s nightmarish fantasy. In his 1991 book, Preromanticism, Marshall Brown describes the passage as an “apocalyptic vision” (128) of a “demonic landscape” (137), and earlier critics reveal the same sense of the passage as a kind of wild hallucination of American horrors. Laurence Goldstein, for example, contends that “the unkind portrait of America in the poem is not meant to be realistic any more than the America of Blake’s prophecies” (104), while John Montague argues that “the picture of North America... is unreal, but dramatically so, one feels: a land enlarged by the exile’s anticipation and fear of the unknown”(101). None of these observations can be interpreted as polite attempts to spare the feelings of native southeast Georgians, and Brown, Goldstein, and Montague all seem to think that Goldsmith’s depiction is meant to apply to North America in general, which would, of course, account for their belief that the passage is intentionally unrealistic.
            These arguments, however, fail to consider the full details of the specific location Goldsmith describes. Uncut, the passage offers telling details:
                        Ah, no. To distant climes, a dreary scene,
                        Where half the convex world intrudes between,
                        Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
                        Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
                        Far different there from all that charmed before,
                        The various terrors of that horrid shore.
                        Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
                        And fiercely shed intolerable day;
                        Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
                        But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling,
                        Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned
                        Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
                        Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
                        The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
                        Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
                        And savage men more murderous still than they;
                        While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
                        Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.
Certainly such a description might seem unrealistic to those who know nothing about southeastern Georgia, but Goldsmith’s depiction, while clearly negative, is, nonetheless, technically accurate, particularly in light of the beliefs and experiences of eighteenth-century travelers. Moore and Seeber have already provided discussions of the songbirds and tigers in the passage, so I will not elaborate upon them here. The other details of the section are all quite correct, from the famously intense heat to the frequently dangerous tornadoes.
            A discussion of the snakes in southeastern Georgia alone might furnish the material for a whole book. Even the usually cheerful Bartram observes that “the dreaded and formidable rattlesnake is yet too common” (62). Even today, the Altamaha region is home to forty species of snakes, including the venomous Eastern diamondbacks, canebrakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, pygmy rattlers, and coral snakes.  (One modern travel guide tries to put a positive spin on the situation by referring to the abundance of snakes as “herpatofaunal wealth,” but it also points out that few Georgians appreciate this particular aspect of their state’s natural diversity (Gibbons 587) .)
            By focusing on the snakes, the predators, the natives, and the weather, Goldsmith is admittedly representing a “glass half-empty” view of southeastern Georgia, but that view is not any less accurate for its negativity, and one cannot simply dismiss the representation as fantastic or unrealistic. The realistic nature of the depiction is part of what makes it such a perfect foil for Auburn, both in its heyday and in its desolation. Even critics who have overlooked the specific identity of the American landscape have noted its “intricate relationships with other sections of the poem” (Dixon 110).  The Altamaha’s gritty realism contrasts beautifully with the idyllic past Auburn, but it also provides excellent points of comparison with the current ruin. The poem’s movement between Auburn and the Altamaha creates a series of antitheses that capitalize on the extreme differences between the two landscapes. From this aesthetic perspective, southeast Georgia is the perfect choice for Goldsmith; he could have invented a fantastically horrific America from pure imagination, but it could not have suited his poetic ends any better than the real dangers and terrors of the colonial Georgian wilderness.
            That Goldsmith’s depiction of the “wild Altama” turns out to be an accurate one is not surprising if one considers that Goldsmith himself insisted upon the realism of his work in his dedication of it to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Goldsmith asserts, “I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I alledge” (285). Goldsmith is here referring, of course, to the issue of village depopulation and emigration, but this concern is actually intimately linked with Goldsmith’s decision to use the Altamaha River as his villagers’ North American destination.
            Here, Goldsmith’s geographical specificity gives way to historical and political specificity. The appearance of the Altamaha in the poem provides an important context for understanding the poet’s claims about village depopulation. These claims, of course, have generated a great deal of debate among critics since the poem first appeared. Although Arthur Friedman, for example, supports Goldsmith’s claim in his introduction to The Deserted Village, other modern critics like Ricardo Quintana have continued to doubt it. In his study of Goldsmith, Quintana contends:
It is still objected that Goldsmith was in error in his belief that those forced from their homes were emigrating to distant places overseas. What was actually happening was that they were finding their way to the fast-growing urban centers where the new industries were being rapidly developed. Goldsmith was doubtless wrong about emigration -- though some there must have been... (134)
What Quintana and other skeptical critics have failed to note is that Georgia in general, and the Altamaha region in particular, did in fact experience two major waves of British immigration during Goldsmith’s lifetime. Significantly, most of the new arrivals were Irish Protestants from the Ulster area. One historian of Irish immigration observes that “in the 1730s and again in the 1760s the South Carolina and Georgia assemblies successfully encouraged Ulster emigration by offering cheap land, free tools and seed, and temporary maintenance to farmers willing to settle in the southern backcountry” (Miller 154). The exodus of the 1760s was large enough to raise public concern in England that Ireland would be completely depopulated of Protestants and left entirely to the Catholics, and in 1767 George III attempted to stem the flow of emigrants to Georgia by forbidding the colony to continue assisting new settlers financially. In 1764, the lands south of the Altamaha had become the parishes of St. David, St. Patrick, St. Thomas, and St. Mary, and, by 1770, when The Deserted Village appeared in print, these areas had grown enough to be badly in need of extended political representation (Jackson 264).
            The dates of the two largest removals from Ireland to Georgia are not insignificant, for Goldsmith was actually growing up in Ireland during the 1730s, and he was writing The Deserted Village during the 1760s. Himself an Irish Protestant -- though not a Presbyterian, as many of the emigrants were -- Goldsmith would have been especially interested in the desertion of so much of Ireland’s Protestant population, and he would have known that large numbers of these people settled in the newly opened lands around the Altamaha River. The fact that Georgia and the Altamaha region were frequent destinations for Irish colonists supports Macaulay’s old argument about The Deserted Village that the “village in its decay is an Irish one” (30). Certainly, the Irish left their native country for America in much greater numbers during this period than did the English; some historians estimate the total numbers between 250-400,000 from 1700 to 1776 (Miller 137), and others note that perhaps half the Presbyterian population of Ulster left for America between 1730 and 1770 alone (Potter 31). These emigrants would have been attracted to southeastern Georgia because the Darien settlement had already marked the area with a strong Presbyterian character, making it much easier for non-Anglican Protestant colonists to establish themselves and gain important political and social connections. This combination of factors suggests that Goldsmith knew about Protestant Irish emigration to Georgia and thus chose the Altamaha for his villagers because real villagers were in fact making their new homes there, and Goldsmith wanted to draw attention to the hardships such an environment would present to settlers, as well as support his widely contested depopulation claim by citing a region which was actually benefiting from the British exodus.
            Overall, the geographical, social, political, and historical significance of the Altamaha during the mid-eighteenth century leads to the conclusion that this section of the poem is neither an outlandish American nightmare nor an insignificant detail, though generations of critics have insisted on treating it as such. Goldsmith chose this particular location because of its resonance with his contemporary readers and its ability to convey the central ideas of his work, both aesthetically and politically. The “wild Altama’s” presence and function in The Deserted Village support Alfred Lutz’s argument that the poem speaks to a specific historical moment with equally specific political ends. Goldsmith knew precisely what he was doing when he chose to send his deserting villagers to the banks of the Altamaha, and a recognition of that decision’s value has been long overdue.

NB: Works cited entries have been removed to make plagiarism of this essay more difficult. The author reserves all rights to this material, which may not be copied or reprinted without permission.

Blogathon surveys future classic movies

Check out the Future Classic Movies Blogathon over at Paula's Cinema Club. All the usual suspects get some praise as future classics, as well as some less expected choices. My pick, BRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2004), is posted at The Cinementals.

You can also find a longer write-up about the blogathon in my column for Examiner.com.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE SHOOTIST (1976)

Don Siegel’s Western, The Shootist (1976), is best known today as John Wayne’s last film, the swan song of the genre’s most iconic star. Given its subject matter, no picture could be more appropriate for an actor’s final bow, but The Shootist also serves as an elegy for the West as a whole. It is a movie for adults only, not just because of the swearing and the blood, but because only people who are old enough to understand the quest for dignity in death can appreciate its themes. Helped by a moving performance from Lauren Bacall and supporting appearances from Ron Howard and James Stewart, The Shootist tells a compelling story about the end of one man’s life and the passing of the era that defined him.

Wayne is J.B. Books, a notorious gunman who comes to town looking for confirmation of his terminal illness from an old friend, Dr. Hostetler (Stewart). When the doctor gives him the bad news, Books takes up residence in a local boarding house run by a widow (Bacall) and her son (Howard). Books hopes to protect both his dignity and his privacy in his last days, but his reputation makes him an outcast, a celebrity, and a target, while his illness forces him to consider the kind of death he must choose to face.

Wayne, who was 68 when he made the film, gives one of his most affecting performances as the dying gunslinger. He brings a mixture of strength, humor, and sadness to the character that encourages us to sympathize with Books but not to pity him. He has made his choices and accepts them. When he rides into town at the opening we understand already that his time has passed; the cowboy looks conspicuously out of place in this new world, where streetcars rattle along and new-fangled automobiles are replacing the horse and buggy. It is too late for Books to settle down and join the new order; his subdued romance with the widow, Bond, is merely a taste of what might have been.

As a whole, the picture reflects the changing times of the Western. Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah had already remade the genre into a grittier, more violent vehicle for post-modern themes, leaving the traditional visions of John Ford and Anthony Mann behind. Siegel’s picture, shot in Technicolor, resorts to splashes of garish red blood, which seem both patently fake and unnervingly obscene. The saltier language also indicates an attempt to change with the times, but the presence of the Duke himself roots the picture in the old ways, as the opening montage of previous Wayne roles reveals. Westerns would never really be the same again, and 1976 would also be the year of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill, and Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks.

Don’t miss Harry Morgan, John Carradine, and Scatman Crothers in supporting roles. Don Siegel is also remembered as the director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971). For more of Wayne’s late Westerns, see True Grit (1969), Big Jake (1971), and Rooster Cogburn (1975). Wayne and Stewart can also be found together in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ron Howard would try his own hand at directing a Western with the 2003 film, The Missing.

Note: A shorter version of this review can be found on Examiner.com.

Classic Films in Focus: STALAG 17 (1953)

Stalag 17 (1953) is exactly the kind of war movie one might expect from Billy Wilder, the writer and director behind monumental classics like Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Wilder’s darkest pictures inevitably reveal a grim sense of humor, while his funniest flirt with violence and death. Stalag 17 plays like a comedy, even though it’s set in a World War II POW camp and opens with the deaths of two of the prisoners. An outstanding ensemble of actors, led by William Holden, helps to sell this complex mix of humor and tension, and the result is a memorable story of wartime experience that stands alongside The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963) as one of the best prisoner of war movies ever made.

Holden plays camp trader J.J. Sefton, one of a large group of American sergeants held in Stalag 17. When the Nazi guards repeatedly get wind of the prisoners’ plans and information, it becomes clear that someone on the inside is acting as an informant, and the other soldiers immediately suspect Sefton. The danger posed by the leak increases with the arrival of a new prisoner (Don Taylor), whom the Nazis will execute as a saboteur if they can get proof of his actions.

Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the story from a stage play by former Stalag 17 prisoners Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, and Trzcinski even has a small role in the picture as the prisoner whose wife concocts a tall tale about “finding” a baby during his absence. Several of the supporting players are carried over from the play, including Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck as the scene-stealing Animal and Shapiro. Unlike some films adapted from plays, Stalag 17 avoids feeling overly staged and closeted because of the numerous outdoor scenes, most of which feature an incredible amount of mud.

Holden’s performance drives the story, but his jaded, opportunistic character is no hero. We have to dislike him enough to see why the rest of the prisoners suspect him, although a thoughtful viewer will also recognize the significance of his protection of Cookie (Gil Stratton), the story’s narrator and one of the most vulnerable prisoners in the barracks. The more obvious antagonists, Sgt. Schulz (Sig Ruman) and the camp commandant (Otto Preminger), are as ridiculous as they are menacing, much like the Nazis in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). The other prisoners run the gamut of character types, from the heroic Lt. Dunbar (Taylor) and the shell-shocked Joey (Robinson Stone) to the boyish “Blondie” (Robert Shawley) and the camp clowns Animal and Shapiro. Take time to appreciate the solid performances of Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, and Neville Brand as the other residents of the barracks.

Stalag 17 earned three Oscar nominations, including nods for Wilder and Strauss, but Holden’s Best Actor award was the only win. For more of Wilder’s films, see The Major and the Minor (1942), The Lost Weekend (1945), and The Apartment (1960). Look for William Holden in Born Yesterday (1950) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Sig Ruman appears in many classic comedies, including A Night at the Opera (1935), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Otto Preminger appeared in very few acting roles but is remembered today as the director of classics like Laura (1944), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Note: A shorter version of this review can be found on Examiner.com. 

Classic Films in Focus: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

Like its protagonist, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) has become the stuff of legend, a film so critically acclaimed and celebrated that it is difficult to come to the picture itself without preconceived notions. It won seven Oscars in 1963, including Best Picture and Best Director for David Lean, with ten nominations in all to attest to its immediate success. It is, of course, an epic story told on a grand scale, with sweeping desert landscapes and camels silhouetted against the sun. It is also, however, a very personal and tragic account of a man who seeks greatness but finds it an excruciating burden to bear, a man whose sanity seems to hang in the balance even at the best of times. It is this aspect of the story, as much as its visual grandeur, that makes Lawrence of Arabia an enduringly compelling film.

Peter O’Toole takes center stage as the legendary T.E. Lawrence, a British officer stationed in Arabia during World War I. Lawrence sets out on an impossible quest to unite the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire, and he eventually becomes the leader of a surprisingly effective Arab army. His feats attract the notice of many powerful men, including Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), and the American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy). Lawrence, however, struggles with the bloody experience of war and his own fame and suffers many painful losses during his time in the desert.

Lean’s direction merges characters and setting into a story that unfolds like a religious epic, with Lawrence as both messiah and madman (which might be the same thing). Lawrence’s essential difference from everyone around him and his constant, terrible suffering only increase his charismatic power, which rapidly evolves into something far beyond his control. He very much resembles Lancelot, the ill-made knight, as T.H. White imagines him in The Once and Future King. Behind the heroic posture lurks a dark side, a violent, sadistic urge that is also masochistic. All of these things are suggested in the thorniest moments of the story, when Lawrence is tortured by the Turks and later leads a massacre of retreating Turkish troops. Tragedy is ultimately his portion, which the film makes clear by opening with his death.

Peter O’Toole is justly applauded for his role as the enigmatic protagonist, but Lawrence of Arabia also features brilliantly nuanced performances from the supporting players. Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali is the closest thing Lawrence has to a romantic interest; the dynamics of their relationship, which serves as the heart of the picture, prove endlessly complex. Alec Guinness plays Prince Feisal as a polished, calculating politician, one we aren’t meant to trust any more than we do the British leaders who see Lawrence as a PR opportunity and an expendable catspaw, while Anthony Quinn acts as foil to Guinness in the part of the rougher, louder Auda Abu Tayi. Claude Rains only appears in a few scenes, but he makes those count, and Arthur Kennedy gives a very sharp performance as the opportunistic reporter.

Come for the splendid scenery, by all means, but stay for the story. The truth about T.H. Lawrence might be shrouded in myth and rumor, as it was even in his own lifetime, but he was beyond doubt an extraordinary man, just as Lawrence of Arabia is an extraordinary film.

For more of David Lean’s most memorable pictures, try Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). See Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter (1968) and The Ruling Class (1972). Omar Sharif also stars in Lean’s Oscar-winning drama, Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Note: A shorter version of this review can be found on Examiner.com. 

Classic Films in Focus moves to blog

After posting classic movie reviews on Examiner.com for three years, I have decided to move all future reviews and Classic Movie 10 pieces to the Virtual Virago site. News items and other short pieces will continue to appear on Examiner.com for both the National Classic Movies and Huntsville Classic Movies titles, but recent changes at Examiner make it clear that I ought to move my most valuable and time-consuming content to a more congenial format. Check back here at Virtual Virago for classic movie reviews and top ten lists in the near future! You can also find more of my posts about classic movies over at The Cinementals, which brings together a lot of classic movie bloggers to provide an amazing array of classic movie news and content.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mythmaking in America: Reflections on the Western

I have always loved Westerns. I started watching them when I was very young, and I’ve never lost my taste for them, even if Hollywood and the general public got tired of them years ago. It might seem odd, even heretical, for a liberal feminist scholar to admit to a yen for horse opera, but to me the Western represents the only truly American mythology, and as such it has endless allure, particularly to a cinephile who cut her critical teeth on Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, and the idea of the Jungian archetype. The Western is our Iliad, our Odyssey, our story of the founding of empire and the time of heroes. It is not and should never be confused with our history, but it is our story, a troubled, colorful, bloody, awful, funny, and brilliant tale with roots that reach far back into the very dawn of narrative.

Like Achilles, Aeneas, and Odysseus, the heroes of the Western are soldiers, wanderers, and men who have greatness thrust upon them. They live in extraordinary times, although they often yearn for peace and domestic quiet. Certain actors embodied the types more evocatively than the rest: John Wayne, of course, but also James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, and Joel McCrea. They had to look at home outdoors and on a horse, with a rifle slung across the saddle. They had to be able to stand out against the grandeur of the landscape around them. They didn’t always play nice, but they had to earn our respect if not our friendship.

The time of the Western hero is not our time, a theme reflected in the many films that function as elegies. Like all myths, Westerns tell the story of a golden age that never was, and their regret at its passing is tempered with recognition that we live in a safer, better, more civilized age. Think of Tom Doniphon surrendering the future to Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The gunslingers ride out when the films end, or they lie dead in the street, or they hang up their guns and settle down. Civilization moves in, the West changes, and the world of the Western is always past tense, presented with a swan song and a bow.

Women in the Western also follow the old mythic models. They are patient Penelopes guarding the ranch, contested Helens, and tragic Cassandras. Maiden, mother, and crone, they symbolize the transformative forces of civilization and family. A man who is not changed by an encounter with a woman is a beast, a savage beyond saving. Even Paint Your Wagon (1969) understands that code, but we see it in Shane (1953), The Gunfighter (1950), and dozens of other films. The actresses who played Western women had to embody that civilizing force but also be strong enough to survive on the frontier. We could believe in sturdy heroines like Maureen O’Hara or Yvonne De Carlo and tough matrons like Mildred Natwick. In High Noon (1952), even Grace Kelly has to pick up a gun. It takes smart, resourceful, true-hearted women to transform the wilderness and its wild men into farms and husbands, towns and fathers.

The Western has its flaws, of course. Native Americans were mythologized into bogeymen, especially in the earlier films, Mexicans and African-Americans appeared mostly as comic relief or second fiddle sidekicks, and other outdated notions about gender, class, and race plagued the genre’s heyday, as they did pretty much every other cinema genre of the same period. Movies are not history; they are stories that reflect the attitudes of their own day much more accurately than they reflect those of their settings. The prejudices of the early 20th century bleed into the Western more noticeably, but that’s because everyone has a gun. The Homeric epics and Shakespeare have similar problems, but scholars embrace them as part of the conversation rather than throwing the whole canon out. 

I know a lot of people today who dismiss the Western because they feel that it doesn’t speak to them, but maybe they ought to listen differently to what it has to say. This is an old, old story being told, recast against a peculiarly American backdrop. It’s not just the story of cowboys and Indians, or white hats and black. It’s the story of the human quest to build civilization and find a place in the world. It’s the story of greatness and cowardice, struggle and triumph, hubris and defeat. Akira Kurosawa understood that, and so did Sergio Leone. They knew, like John Ford before them, that the Western is really a story for all time, a great myth always in the past but ever unfolding, endlessly retold. It sings of arms and a man. Tell us, O muse, of those heroes once more.