Le Silence de la mer (1949)

When Jean-Pierre Melville released his first movie, he was 32 years old, a veteran of the French Resistance, and had never had any formal training in film-making. Le Silence de la mer, however, displays the supreme confidence of an artist who knows he has found a story only he can tell. Jean Bruller’s iconic short novel, which was written during German occupation of France, and dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet,” could not have been adapted to film by a graduate of NYU or the Lodz Film School. Too much cinematic technique would have spoiled it. Only a French patriot and a member of the resistance, more importantly, only a man who loved French literature, someone who understood narrative and internal monologue, could have brought the story to life. Nobody fit that description better than Jean-Pierre Melville.

Jean Pierre Melville — He was Jewish. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. — displays almost no personal animosity towards the Germans. Patriotism, for Melville, is not jingoism. While he certainly wants to see France liberated from the Nazi occupation, he has no desire to see France, or the United States, crush Germany. What’s genuinely striking, in fact, about Le Silence de la mer, is the way Jean Bruller, who wrote under the name Vercors, and Melville almost seem to predict the European Union. Try to imagine a war between France and Germany — or either country and the United Kingdom — today. There’s a reason America liberals, American jingoism notwithstanding, look to Western Europe as a better, more civilized, more prosperous version of the United States. The idea of a united, democratic Europe, which would inevitably be dominated by the French and the Germans, worked, at least for a time. But it’s not a French resistance fighter who articulates the higher ideal of a united Europe. It’s the German occupier.

It’s 1941.Werner von Ebrennac, a Wermacht Lieutenant, is quartered in the house of an elderly Frenchman and his 20-something niece. This is the very definition of repression. The Quartering Act of 1774, after all, was one of the main causes of the American Revolution. But the old Frenchman and his niece are not the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. They’re too weak to fight the Germans openly. The Battle of France is over, and the resistance is still tiny. They could, of course, murder von Ebrennac in his sleep, and they’d be well-within their rights to do so. But, as we see as the film progresses, von Ebrennac doesn’t really deserve to be murdered. So the old man and his niece opt for a different strategy, passive resistance.

They refuse to speak to von Ebrennac, not a word, not a “hello” or a “good morning,” not a “good night,” not even a “go fuck yourself you fucking Krauthead.” They simply pretend he doesn’t exist. You might point out that compared to what people in eastern Europe were going through at the hands of the Germans, the French had it easy. I’ve heard John Merriman, for example, the Yale professor of French history, poke fun at the idea of “passive resistance” in the form of a French bourgeoisie who pats himself on the back for being rude to a German at the Paris opera house. But Vercors and Melville are artists, not historians. Melville was well aware that, as a Jew and a member of the resistance, had he been captured by the Gestapo, he would have been tortured for weeks before being sent to Auschwitz. What Vercors and Melville are interested in are the effects of a military occupation on an occupied people and on their occupier. What does it do to your soul to realize that your occupier is not a monster at all, but a sympathetic human being? What does it do to the soul of the occupier, who’s an educated and cultured, if deluded and propagandized man, that the people he rules over obey him not out of love or respect, but only through fear, that while he may win their compliance, he will never win their “hearts and minds.”

For a sadist, the fear is part of the appeal. Vercors had no illusions about how most of the German officer corps in 1941 was made up of men who enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. The novel Le Silence de la mer is, after all, dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet.” Saint-Pol-Roux, who was 79 in 1941 and his daughter are the model for the uncle, played by Jean-Marie Robain, and the niece, played by Nicole Stéphane, a member of the Rothschild family and a future companion of Susan Sontag. What happened to Saint-Pol-Roux is too horrible for words. Every Frenchman reading the novel, and its dedication, would have been well aware of Saint-Pol-Roux’s fate.

“During the night of 22 to 23 June 1940,” Wikipedia tells us, “a drunken German soldier invaded the manor, killed the family’s faithful governess, raped Saint-Pol-Roux’s daughter Divine, and seriously injured her in the leg with a revolver bullet. Saint-Pol-Roux miraculously escaped death in the incident, but was later taken to hospital in Brest on October 14, where he died of a broken heart when he heard that the manor had burned down with his unpublished manuscripts inside.”

But von Ebrennac is no sadist, and no drunken brute. He doesn’t want fear. He doesn’t want simple compliance. In fact, his sense of inferiority to the old man and his daughter gets at the heart of the kind of inferiority complex the German people once had towards the French and English, that kind of psychological inadequacy that would move a nation to declare itself “the master race.” He doesn’t even want their “hearts and minds” or sex with the niece, with whom he falls in love. He wants a “marriage” of Germany and France, a commingling of two nations, the masculine Germans, and the feminine, cultured French, he feel make up for each other’s shortcomings.

For Vercors, a member of the resistance, to explore the idea that a Nazi officer could express a noble, uplifting outlook on life was an act of disciplined creativity. It would have been far too easy just to paint the Germans as drunken brutes and tell the horrible story of the attack on Saint-Pol-Roux and the loss of his unpublished manuscripts. That would have been propaganda, not art. Melville’s masterstroke is in his casting of Howard Vernon, a homely man with a striking resemblance to Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard’s Alphaville. Vernon, who was mainly cast in roles as gangsters or villains –- supposedly his Swiss accent was considered vulgar and common in France –- plays von Ebrennac as a man trapped in a body he hates. His stiff, tentative movements, his mask-like face, his haunted, otherworldly expression dramatize the tragedy of the occupier. Melville doesn’t hate von Ebrennac. He feels sorry for him.

Melville and Vercors don’t hate the German people, but they’re angry at the German people. How could a people with such a grand culture, one capable of giving the world Beethoven and Goethe, follow Hitler into madness and barbarism? The old man and his niece, in effect, by their silence, save von Ebrennac’s soul. France saves Germany. The more they ignore him, the more von Ebrennac digs down into himself for some flash of inspiration, some poetic words, anything that will get the niece’s attention. But the more he tries, the more we see what a deluded, propagandized man he really is. He admires French literature, unaware of how the German government eventually intends to impose a strict regime of censorship on the French people designed to destroy their culture. He tells them the story of Beauty and the Beast, the beast being Germany and beauty the French. He believes that by subjugating the French, Germany, like the beast, will eventually reveal itself to be a handsome prince. He reads them passages from Macbeth, admitting that Germany, like Macbeth, seized power illegitimately and only rules through fear, mistakenly thinking that if a tyrant admits that he’s a tyrant to the people he tyrannizes over he’ll stop being a tyrant. Try to imagine a cop arresting you and whining about how tough it is to be a cop.

Von Ebrennac finally “gets it” when he goes on a trip to Paris and gets to know his fellow German officers. They tell him about Treblinka and the death camps. They brag about how the current occupation is a mild one designed to flatter the French people. France, as the other great nation in western Europe, will eventually have to be destroyed to make way for the 1000 Year Reich. He meets an old friend, who, unlike the old Frenchman and his niece, has in fact been conquered by the Nazis, not only in body, but in his very soul. To his horror, von Ebrennac realizes that Nazism will destroy everything noble about German culture. That it took him until 1941 to realize it may perhaps put him in a bad light, but how many Americans in the 1960s ever realized what their country was doing to Vietnam, and what occupying Vietnam was doing to their country. High level German army officers actually tried to assassinate Hitler. What high level American army officer ever tried to assassinate Richard Nixon?

But von Ebrennac, like any liberal, never goes far enough. He confesses to the old man and his niece that he now realizes how evil the German government is, but instead of joining the French Resistance or flying off to London, he volunteers to fight on the Russian front. Doesn’t he know that, in Russia, he’ll commit war crimes 1000 times worse than any he would commit in France? Does he know that he stands a better chance of dying at Stalingrad than he would in the French Resistance, or as a double agent? Perhaps he does, and, perhaps, he’s suicidal. More likely, von Ebrennac’s decision to go to Russia, and probably die, is Melville’s way of telling us that he never quite gets out from under Nazi propaganda. He’s still a German nationalist willing to “obey orders,” made pointedly obvious by a quote the old man highlights in a volume of Anatole France.

“It’s a noble thing for a soldier to obey an illegal order.”

Or perhaps it’s Melville’s own conservative politics that make it impossible for him to imagine a better alternative for von Ebrennac than going off to the Eastern front to fight communism. Indeed, inside the command post von Ebrennac is assigned to there is a poster. “Le Socialisme contre le Bolchevisme.” Was Jean-Pierre Melville a Gaulist after all?

The idea of “socialism against Bolshevism” isn’t exactly a Nazi idea. It’s the Cold War liberalism of Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and Western European social democracy. Cahiers de Cinema, in 1968, would bury Melville’s much greater film, Army of Shadows. By the late 1960s, de Gaulle, and Melville, were considered dinosaurs of the old French center-right. Cahier de Cinema would eventually recognize that Army of Shadows is by far and away, a more politically progressive film. But it would take them until the 1990s to do it. Perhaps Melville ultimately paid for his decision to send von Ebrennac to join Hitler’s army of conquest in the Soviet Union, and for his anti-communism. It so, it’s a testament to a stunning debut film by a man who was only 32, and who had never been to film school. Le Silence de la Mer, indeed, will haunt you for years after you see it for the first time.

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Why are the Sartres always on the other side?

When Colonel Mathieu asked the question in The Battle of Algiers, he overestimated the support the idea of revolution gets from the intellectuals. For every Henry David Thoreau, who passionately defended John Brown, there’s a Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the iconic novel of the United States Civil War from the point of view of the old Slave Power. For every Mark Twain there’s a Charles Dickens.

Mark Twain, in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, damned feudalism and defended the French Revolutionary Terror.

Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal-wave of blood — one: a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Charles Dickens, the greatest British writer after Shakespeare, may have hated brute capitalist greed and the exploitation of working-class children, but he also hated the idea of revolution. Sadly, he was a better propagandist than Mark Twain. Twain’s defense of the Jacobins has barely dented the American consciousness. A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand, destroyed the reputation of the French Revolution in the English speaking world, forever. It’s not only good propaganda. It’s great propaganda, mainly because it’s not only propaganda. It’s great drama. Dickens can tug on your heart strings like no other novelist. I’d gladly give Colonel Mathieu Jean Paul Sartre if only he’d give me the man who gave us Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton.

In 1935, Charles Dickens got an actor worthy of Sydney Carton, Ronald Coleman, and a film worthy of the novel. While Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities may have its flaws, it’s perfectly faithful to the book, and to its conservative politics. Perhaps it was the right year. In 1858, the English middle class was worried about the idea of working-class revolution. The English aristocracy, after all, was no better than the French aristocracy. The industrial revolution had brought the country great wealth, but to the lower classes it brought only poverty, and cruel dislocation. 1935, in turn, was the height of the Great Depression. Privileged Americans were beginning to feel the same anxiety about communism that Charles Dickens felt about Jacobin mobs coming to London. Jack Conway got them both on film.

While A Tale of Two Cities, for obvious reasons, never mentions Stalin’s purge trials, the fear of the Bolshevik revolution runs throughout Conway’s film. If London is the United States and the democratic west, then Paris is the Soviet Union and the totalitarian east. There are spies everywhere. There are trumped up charges against innocent working-class women like the terrified little seamstress Sydney Carton comforts on her way to the guillotine. There are benevolent capitalists, Jarvis Lorry and Tilson’s Bank. There are unscrupulous professional revolutionaries who hijack the legitimate grievances of the poor. The poor, in turn, are hateful and easily manipulated. Above all there is the idea that anybody from the privileged classes deserves to die. Just as Stalin liquidated the Kulaks and sent intellectuals from bourgeois families to the gulag, Madam Defarge is so determined to exterminate the St. Evremonde family down to its last member that she’s even willing to send Lucy Manette’s young daughter to the Guillotine. Are working-class revolutionaries child killers? They are in A Tale of Two Cities.

So why is Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities a conservative and not a liberal movie? After all, the novel’s young romantic lead, Charles Darney, leaves his family in Paris to go to work at Tilson’s bank in London in protest over his uncle’s callous attitude towards the poor. The Marquis de St. Evremonde, an oily, perfumed, supercilious dandy played by Basil Rathbone, is a villain who feels no remorse after his carriage runs down a child. He attempts to have his own nephew framed and executed for treason. We feel no regret after one of the Jacques, one of the revolutionary san culottes, stabs him in his sleep, nor does the film expect us to. Charles Darney’s tutor Gabelle is an “advocate for the new equality.” Tellson’s Bank lends money to people who might not be able to pay it back. Jarvis Lorry could be an elder statesman in the Roosevelt Administration, a wise old man with a heart of gold underneath the pretension that he’s concerned only with the profit motive.

The Marquis de St. Evremonde is a despicable man but he’s not the books primary villain. That, of course, would be Madame Therese Defarge, a terrifying, yet in at least one instance, passionate and charismatic Blanche Yurka. The film’s French aristocrats, apart from the Marquis de St. Evremonde, don’t seem particularly wicked or hateful. Some of them are vain and clueless, but, in general, they’re mostly just confused victims of history. The embodiment of evil, the representative of the demonic forces unleashed by the French Revolution is a woman. Indeed, revolution in the form of Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and the harpies who help storm the Bastille is mostly a feminine affair, an expression of womanly rage against law and order. Ernest Defarge, the leader of the Jacques, seems almost a nonentity by comparison. This is partly true to history. While the most familiar leaders of the French Revolution, Danton, Robespierre, Mirabeau, Abbé Sieyès, Desmoulins, were men, the militant action in the streets was often, if not primarily led by women. Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle both knew that the March on Versailles in October of 1789, the march that dragged King Louis XVI back to Paris for good, was begun by rough, working-class women from the Parisian fish markets, and that its memory terrified the English middle-class. The deeper level of radicalism underneath the Jacobins and the National Covention was made up of the hungry women who organized bread riots. In 1793, a mob of women who get violent because they have no milk for their children or food for their families could scare even a Robespierre.

In A Tale of Two Cities, the man who restores order, who makes the world safe for the English middle-class is the heroic Sydney Carton. When we first meet Carton, he is a brilliant but morose, self-pitying alcoholic lawyer in his 30s, or perhaps his 40s. We really don’t know. Dickens never tells us his age, but what we do know is that he’s deeply depressed over the idea that he’s going to grow old without ever having had a wife or family. He’s obviously got an education. He speaks fluent French. He knows the law. But he’s also working-class. He doesn’t have his own law firm. He works for the comically incompetent Mr. Stryver. Carton saves Charles Darney from being executed for treason not by going to the law libraries, but by descending into the London underworld and uncovering the Marquis de St. Evremonde’s spy in England. Sydney Carton is a man who knows the streets, of London, and of Paris.

When Sydney Carton meets Lucy Manette, it’s love at first sight. To us, Lucy Manette seems dull. She must have seemed just as dull back in 1935. The 1920s were the age of the flapper and the woman’s suffrage movement. The production code censoring Hollywood had just kicked in the year before, but there were already dozens of films starring bawdy, self-sufficient, liberated women like Mae West. But it’s not a liberated woman that Sydney Carton wants. When Stryver suggests that he “find a wife with a little property, maybe a landlady,” he scoffs at him in contempt. Carton wants Lucy Manette, the Victorian angel of the hearth. Lucy represents the idealized upper-middle-class family, children, church on Sunday, large gatherings on Christmas Eve. Carton wants her so badly he’s willing to die for her, to go to the guillotine to save her husband from the now degenerate revolution in Paris.

There’s not much more to say about Ronald Coleman other than that he’s brilliant. Coleman is the perfect self-sacrificing romantic hero. As Lucy Manette tries to coax Sydney Carton back into polite society, we watch the struggle he undergoes to master himself. He should hate Charles Darney, the privileged child of the French aristocracy who marries the woman he loves. Coleman’s expressive features register every note of sorrow the dissolute, drunken lawyer — the 40-year-old loner looking through the plate glass window at the happy family he’ll never have — feels, but he’s no Madame Defarge. He’s no revolutionary. On the contrary, he’s a conservative determined to do whatever he has to do to protect the middle-class world he’ll never be a part of. In 1935, in Jack Conway’s film, he foreshadows the “Greatest Generation,” the men who fought World War II but never talked about it, who sucked it up after the Great Depression, and restored middle-class normality in the 1950s.

I doubt there was a woman in any movie theater in 1935 who didn’t take out her handkerchief and sob when Coleman helped calm the poor little seamstress, Isabel Jewell, on the way to the guillotine. But it’s a double edged blade, after all. Women in A Tale of Two cities are either victims or harpies, angels of the middle-class hearth or demonic revolutionaries, virgins, whores, or Mr. Pross, the ferocious, unsexed, manly English spinster who kills Madame Defarge. Carton’s companion at the guillotine is in fact the only sympathetic working-class woman in the whole film. For Charles Dickens, a woman’s place is in the home, or crying on the hero’s shoulder, not marching on Versailles or storming the Bastille.

But Dickens was the true poet, and often of the devil’s party without knowing it. One of the most exciting moments in Conway’s film is Madame Defarge’s speech to the revolutionary tribunal during Charles Darney’s trial. The charges are bogus. The judges are sneering political hit men. Madame Defarge is trying to send an innocent man to his death, but still, Blanche Yurka’s passionate denunciation of the French aristocracy jolts the film out of its sentimental middle-class melodrama. She’s a far more interesting character than the insipid Lucy Manette. If only Dickens had made her the heroine, and not, to quote Miss Pross, “the wife of Lucifer himself.” Then there’s The Vengeance, Madame Defarge’s cackling old sidekick. Yes, she’s as evil as Madame Defarge, but, since Dickens is always at his best when it comes to comic relief, we can’t help but like her in spite of herself. “I dropped a stitch,” she snarls after the drop of the guillotine’s blade interrupts her knitting, “cursed aristocrats.” If only she had added “cursed bourgeoisie.”

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

If young Mr. Lincoln has been forgotten in favor of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also released in 1939, it might have something to do with the complex, understated quality of its screenplay. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a crowd pleasing film about an idealistic young populist going up against a corrupt federal government. Nobody ever went broke in the United States bashing politicians. Young Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, suggests that the problem isn’t so much the American government as it is the American people.  John Ford is conflicted. It’s 1939. He’s clearly worried about fascism and the rise of a demagogue. But he also seems to think that a heroic leader like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt can make up for the people when the people fall short. The result is a subtle film full of contradiction and ambiguity that requires a lot more effort to fully understand than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It’s easy to see why Young Mr. Lincoln was Sergei Eisenstein’s favorite American movie. As many times as I’ve seen Young Mr. Lincoln, its cinematography still takes my breath away. The film opens in 1832, in a small frontier town called New Salem Illinois. We know that it’s Henry Fonda and not Lincoln campaigning to go to the state legislature as a Whig, but do we? The effect of Ford’s camerawork and Fonda’s acting is so hypnotic, that I’m half ready to believe that I’m watching “found footage” from the mid-19th Century, or that John Ford has a time machine, or that God has momentarily opened up a window to the past and I’m looking at the 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln in real time. If that weren’t enough, a little bit later in the film, we get to see Lincoln doing exactly what we’re doing.  He attends a parade in Springfield. There’s a float with “Veterans of the War of 1812.” There’s another float with three ancient “Veterans of the American Revolution.”  As we watch the young Lincoln watch the parade, we are, in effect, remembering the past remembering the past, looking across the entire timeline of American history at 24 frames per second. To quote Woodrow Wilson about a very different film, “it’s like history being written in light.”

If Young Mr. Lincoln doesn’t speak directly to Franklin Roosevelt’s cowardly record on Civil Rights, it’s still centered around an attempted lynching. Two young men — uneducated country bumpkins — are framed for a murder they didn’t commit. They’re taken to the Springfield city jail, which is immediately surrounded by a mob. Lincoln, now 27 and attempting to set himself up in town as a lawyer, intervenes. He stands in front of the door, and offers to “lick any man here,” freezes the mob in place. He points out various men in the crowd. “You read the Bible every night,” he says to one of them. “Is this what a Christian does?” He turns to another man and tells a joke. The man laughs, then hangs his head in shame. It’s difficult to help string a man up after you start laughing. One by one Lincoln ticks off each member of the lynch mob, finding some little hook by which he can give him back his reason. Ford’s young Mr. Lincoln, in effect, pushes back history as he pushes back the mob, transforms an undifferentiated mass, the raw material for a fascist dictator, back into a democratic community of individual citizens.

The ultimate problem with Young Mr. Lincoln, however,  is that Ford doesn’t carry this insight through to its logical conclusion. The two young men will get a fair trial. There’s a hilarious and revealing sequence where Lincoln evaluates potential jurors, trying to separate honest men capable of independent thought out of the crowd of easily manipulated fools and conformists. He visits with the mother of the two young men, an honest, self-sacrificing woman he sees almost as the reincarnation of his own mother, as the true representative of the kind of people he grew up with. But we forget about the jury almost as soon as they’re chosen. Instead of letting the trial go through to its conclusion and allowing the jury to vote “not guilty,” Ford has Lincoln bully the real murderer into confessing on the witness stand. It’s a classic “Hollywood” happy ending. But the radical insight into how a democracy is only as good as its people gets lost in his apparent belief that a dictatorship is only as bad as its dictator.

Ford’s potentially complex and insightful script, therefore, becomes a lot like Mr. Smith goes to Washington. There’s good. There’s evil. There’s right. There’s wrong. There are urban sophisticates, like the politicians hardened to the entrenched corruption of Washington, or like the real murderer in Young Mr. Lincoln. There’s the self-sacrificing, salt of the earth frontier mother. There’s the young, naive, but idealistic Jefferson Smith. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the film that plays to the galleries, that wears its crowd pleasing simplicity on its sleeve, has become the iconic film about American politics. In turn it’s probably not surprising that a film that promises a sophisticated analysis of American democracy only, in the end, to pull back and give us a sentimental populism little different from Capra’s,  is beloved by the French New Wave, but has not entered into the American popular consciousness in the same way that Jimmy Stewart’s iconic filibuster has.  Nevertheless, the two films complete each other. Since everybody has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at least once, everybody should also see Young Mr. Lincoln at least once. If Jimmy Stewart went out to see a movie after taking in the Capitol dome and the Lincoln Memorial, it was probably this one.

Hamlet (1948)

That Lawrence Olivier, who was 42-years-old in 1948, wanted to explore Hamlet’s incestuous desire for his mother is obvious when you consider how he cast the 30-year-old Eileen Herlie as Queen Gertrude. You lose track of how many times they kiss each other on the mouth. At some point, probably right after Hamlet kills Polonius but seems more interested in staring at his mother’s nipples, ostentatiously visible through her sheer night gown, you just want to throw your hands up in the hair and shout. “Oh for God’s sake, why don’t you two just fuck?” But neither Herlie, nipples or no nipples, or the very young Jean Simmons, who plays Ophelia, is the object of the film’s sexual desire. That would be Olivier himself, and you really don’t have to be gay to notice, who moves with the athletic grace of an Elizabethan Nijinsky, and who stages the best choreographed dual this side of the Mark of Zorro.

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, is justly renowned, but it can be frustrating. It’s partly a result of how difficult it was to translate the culture of the Renaissance to the mid-20th Century, and how earnestly Olivier tried. 20th Century Englishmen were not Elizabethan Englishmen. In 1948, the British monarchy, and even the British Conservative Party, seemed like relics of the past. After the war, the voters had thrown out Churchill, voted in the Labor Party, a government that implemented the National Health Service in 1948, and the United Kingdom seemed well on the way to becoming a social democracy. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, therefore, is a very personal Hamlet. There’s no need for spies. Clement Atlee’s Great Britain was no police state. So Olivier can cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern altogether. He also gets rid of Fortinbras, giving most of his lines to Horatio. Above all, Castle Elsinore becomes less like a seat of the Danish crown, and more like the great estate of one isolated, perverse ruling-class family, closer to the Earnshaws than the Tudors. You go in expecting Shakespeare. When you come out, you realize you’ve seen Emily Bronte.

Laurence Olivier’s Elsinore is a great haunted castle, sparsely populated, hallucinatory, unstable, dreamlike. His Hamlet doesn’t so much feign madness as he does participate in the madness of the Danish Court. Olivier so dominates the film that there are times when you’re almost ready to believe that everything around him is simply a product of his imagination. His cruelty towards Ophelia and his mother, the murder of Polonius and the play he stages to trap his uncle into revealing his guilt, much of it comes off like a series of destructive gestures designed to shock him out of a nightmare, to help him break out of the isolation of his own mind. For Grigori Kozintsev, the assassination of Polonius is the consummate political act. While it may have been an accident, it was still a decisive gesture by Prince Hamlet against a scheming politician who had already betrayed him. It’s also the moment that Claudius decides to send him to England to have him killed. Olivier’s Polonius barely exists. Hamlet stabs him through the arras, then turns away just as quickly to pin his mother to the bed.  She’s terrified, but not because her son just killed an old friend. She’s already forgotten the corpse on her floor. What scares her is the far off look in her son’s eyes. Is he going to kill her or rape her?

In this strange, perverse land of unreality, what exactly does Claudius govern? The film opens with him drinking a toast to his marriage. It foreshadows the famous climax where he tries to murder his nephew by persuading him to drink from a poisoned chalice, but we’re a little confused about whether he’s a head or state, or simply the head of an extended family. Indeed, there are times when Olivier’s Claudius seems more like Lord Toastmaster of Elsinore than the King of Denmark. His last act before he dies is to reach for his crown. It seems that much more pathetic when we wonder whether or not that crown is even worth anything. It also makes it clear why Hamlet is so reluctant to kill his uncle and become king himself. What will he rule over? What does he want?

The reaction of Claudius to the Murder of Gonzago, is so sudden, so decisive, so tormented, and so violent that it leaves no doubt in Hamlet’s mind, or our mind, that the ghost was real. Claudius killed the elder Hamlet. After he leaves the play, Claudius goes to his private bedchamber. Hamlet follows him. Dagger in hand, he hovers over the older man as he confesses his guilt to God. Then he pulls back. The excuse seems fantastical, contrived. Hamlet doesn’t want to kill his uncle while he’s praying because that means Claudius will go to heaven. We get a hint at the real reason a few minutes later when he sheaths his dagger then goes to his mother’s bedchamber. Inflamed with incestuous lust for Gertrude, he has no trouble stabbing Claudius, really Polonius, through the arras. He wants exactly what his uncle possesses, his mother. Therein lies the problem. Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father’s death. But he fears that once he’s King of Denmark, he’ll get what he wants, dominance over his mother.  He’ll be damned to hell. Polonius’ cadaver, like a reminder of his guilty desire, lies on the floor. Who is this damned mother? Who is this damned son? Like a pair of  serial killers, they momentarily forget the bloody cadaver lying on the floor while they argue, thinking only of themselves. It’s grotesquely comic, especially when Hamlet regains his wits.

“I’ll lug the guts into the next room,” he says.

It is significant, therefore that Hamlet finally murders Claudius only after Gertrude drinks from the poison cup meant for him, and dies. Hamlet can commit murder to avenge his mother, but not his father. More importantly, he can only murder the patriarch of Elsinore after his mother is dead, after the forbidden prize he really wants is safely out of his reach. The last half hour of Olivier’s Hamlet is as much a ballet as it is a play, or a film. The dreamlike, unstable Elsinore gives way to the clang of rapiers and daggers. Hamlet descends from a narcissistic, isolated consciousness into the solid reality of the physical. We finally get to see him as more than a creepy boy man who wants to crawl back into the womb. Olivier’s Hamlet is an Olympic class fencer. Laertes, poisoned rapier or no rapier, can’t touch him. The longer the dual goes on, the more base Claudius, and his treachery, seems. Laertes is no villain. Like Hamlet, he is obligated to avenge his father, and his sister. Terence Morgan is as good an athlete as Olivier, but the scratch with which he finally manages to infect his rival is small, petty, mean spirited, the act of a coward. Hamlet, by contrast, leaps gracefully up a flight of stairs, then falls on Claudius like an eagle descending from the clouds. We realize that, had it not been for the incestuous desire he felt for his mother, Hamlet would have been a hero no less noble than Prince Hal. But that is not to be. The United Kingdom in 1948, like Hamlet’s Denmark, is a prison, at least for the aristocracy, isolated and inbred on their country estates. The empire is over. The Queen is just a figurehead. There’s no more need for heroes, or kings. Hasn’t the world had enough of these decadent gentlemen and ladies? Hamlet’s level headed friend, the commoner Horatio, therefore, not King Fortinbras of Norway, gets the last word.

“Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Hamlet (1964)

Since the suppression, or even the regulation of language is tyranny, madness is a kind of freedom. A madman can say anything he wants. He can slip the bonds of court etiquette, political correctness, or suburban, middle-class restrictions against “talking about politics or religion,” and speak his mind while other people cower in fear or clam up like good Germans. Whether or not anybody listens to him is another question. To feign madness can be the act of a revolutionary. A man in full possession of his wits pretending to be out of his mind, whether he’s a poet or a fool, needs to have a better sense of what’s considered appropriate and what’s considered to be transgression than someone who never pretends to be anything but sane. King Lear’s fool spoke truth to power. Jesus was half crazy with rage when he kicked the money changers out of the temple. Can you imagine Arthur Rimbaud or William Burroughs saying as much as they did by writing a PHD thesis in sociology or a realistic novel?

When Hamlet returns to Elsinore after the murder of his father, he knows he’s walking into a potentially fatal trap. He’s next in line for the throne. His uncle Claudius, fortunately, doesn’t have any children, but that doesn’t mean a man who’s widely seen as a usurper wouldn’t consider his nephew, the rightful heir to the crown, a threat, and have him killed. There are spies everybody. Neither his lover Ophelia, the daughter of a fatuous court counselor, or even his own mother, especially his own mother, is trustworthy. A man like Claudius who murders his way to a throne certainly wouldn’t be above murder to consolidate his place on that throne. Even before he sees the ghost of his father, Hamlet has his suspicions. He’s faced with a choice. He can organize a coup, kill Claudius, and seize power, or he can end up locked up in, or, more likely, locked up in and strangled in one of Elsinor’s dungeons.

An Elizabethan Englishman would have understood that perfectly. A modern Englishman, or American, can be a bit more naive. Like Kay Corleone in The Godfather, he often labors under the illusion that “Presidents and Senators don’t have people killed.” Cinematic versions of Hamlet, therefore, such as the brilliant 1948 version by Lawrence Olivier, often dispense with politics altogether. They concentrate on family politics, forgetting that in Medieval Denmark, just like in The Godfather, politics are family politics. Sometimes, like Kenneth Branagh’s dull, messy 1996 film, they just get lost in Shakespeare’s cascade of words, unable to find a dramatic center among all the famous poetic tropes. Actors just wind up saying the words for the sake of saying the words, and the only thing that winds up being expressed is that some people are ACTING Shakespeare.

A Russian in 1964 wouldn’t have had that problem. He knew about purge trials, doctors plots, and secret police lurking around every corner in the Kremlin. Sergei Eisenstein’s brilliant Ivan the Terrible Part II — and Eisenstein was court poet to Stalin exactly the way Shakespeare was court poet to Elizabeth I — dramatized in shadow and light what Hamlet dramatized in words. So when I read on Dennis Grunes’ blog that there was a Russian version of Hamlet, the screenplay adapted by Boris Pasternak, that is fully the equal of, and perhaps even greater than Olivier’s 1948 film, I got a copy as soon as I could find one. My heart started to pound as soon as I heard the opening music, written by Shostakovitch — the man who wrote the Eighth Symphony that played in the streets of Leningrad during the long siege by the Nazis — but I was still a bit sceptical. The essence of William Shakespeare is language, more specifically, the English language. What’s more, as good as Pasternak’s translation probably is, I don’t speak Russian. So I’d have to read English subtitles of a Russian translation of a play from Elizabethan English. How much of Hamlet would actually be left?

Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet, which stars the Polish actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet, Mikhail Nazvanov as Claudius, Elza Radzina as Gertrude, Vladimir Erenberg, and Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Ophelia is a triumph that deserves to be better known in the United States. Had Kozintev’s just filmed a straight dramatization of Pasternak’s translation, he might have gotten lost in Shakespeare’s words just like Kenneth Branagh did. But he does more. Kozintev’s Hamlet is not just a translation of Shakespeare’s play into Russian. It’s a translation of Shakespeare’s play into light, shadow, music, geometry, into the language of cinema. At times it almost feels like Eisenstein’s poetic reconstruction of Stalinist terror wedded to Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, lingering camera work from Andrei Rubelev. Above all it’s a distinctly Russian take on Hamlet by people closer in spirit to Elizabethan England than anybody in the modern United Kingdom, Slavs rescuing an Anglo Saxon masterpiece from the Anglo Saxons, “cultural appropriation” in the best sense of the word.

The first thing you realize is that Kozintsev’s Hamlet is not an intimate, domestic, psychological Hamlet like Olivier’s. We aren’t introduced to the title character at his uncle’s and mother’s official wedding announcement, but riding into Elsinore along a beach. Northern Estonia fills in for Denmark. After Hamlet rides into the family fortress, a forbidding drawbridge over a deep mote is raised. We are now behind the Iron Curtain, cut off from the rest of the world. Suddenly it makes perfect sense when, later in the play, he asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why they’ve come to “prison.” Denmark is a prison. Canons are fired. Black flags, for the elder Hamlet, are draped over the ramparts. A herald, not King Claudius himself, announces the marriage. During Claudius’s early meetings with the Danish court genuine political business gets taken care of. They’re not just an excuse for Hamlet’s brooding. What’s more, we know we are at a royal court. Protocol counts. Ritual counts. Hierarchy counts. This is the seat of the Danish crown, not an upper-middle-class living room.

During Hamlet’s initial monologues, therefore, we are aware, not only of Hamlet’s isolation, but of the consequences of Hamlet’s isolation. “O God, God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” he thinks as he walks through a room full of haughty, scheming courtiers. They are thinking about power, money, self-preservation. He’s dwelling on his alienation. He has to get himself together quickly, or he’s doomed. What’s more, the Danish court seems like an oppressive place, for the Danish people, not just for Hamlet. This is a stylized, ritualistic set of Mandarins, not a boisterous democratic assembly. This is not Henry V’s Churchillian host amassed on the beaches of Normandy ready to do battle with the forces of evil. This is the twisted, repressed, secretive, secretively violently world of a tyrant. We are aware of, we dread the forces that lurk beneath the surface as much as Hamlet does. Something is waiting to spring out of the shadows, to consume the rotten state of Denmark.

In most productions of Hamlet, the elder Hamlet’s ghost is simply a messenger, the spirit that, “more in sorrow than in anger,” informs his son that he was murdered. Even in Olivier’s film, the ghost, while menacing, acts mainly as a Greek chorus. Not so in the play, where Horatio is justly concerned that the ghost could lure his friend to a precipice and so terrify him that he goes mad and jumps to his death. Try not to jump out of your skin when you see Kozintsev’s ghost for the first time. The music blares out. Hamlet, Horatio and their companions jump back in terror, the camera turns, and we see it, an enormous figure out of a nightmare, towering above Elsinore’s battlements, not only a messenger, but the return of the repressed soul of Denmark, the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Dennis Grunes, in his otherwise positive review of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, expresses some disappointment that Olivier didn’t leave some ambiguity open about whether or not Claudius really murdered the elder Hamlet. Perhaps, he suggests, the ghost is merely a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, a demon who plays on his hatred of his uncle and his incestuous feelings for his mother to lure him to his destruction. In Kozintsev’s Hamlet, it really doesn’t matter. We are, once again, in the world of politics, not domestic politics. Claudius, whether he murdered the elder Hamlet or not, is still a usurper. He’s not the man to defend his kingdom from an invasion by Norway. His court is decrepit, old, ritualized, rotten. Denmark needs young Hamlet to organize a coup, remove Claudius, and release the repressed energy made so manifest in his father’s terrifying specter. Indeed, Kozintsev is so confident that in his reading of Shakespeare’s play that, after the players stage The Murder of Gonzago, and Claudius retreats to his study, the usurper confesses to the murder on camera, but Hamlet is nowhere to be seen. The famous “now I’ll do it pat, now he is praying” scene has been eliminated altogether. Innokenty Smoktunovsky’s Hamlet is a man of action, not a brooding melancholic. He goes right to his mother’s bedroom, brushing obsequious courtiers aside as he walks, and stabs Polonius, who he mistakenly believes to be Claudius, behind the heavy curtains.

That Kozintev is uninterested in the theme of incest is obvious by the actress he cast as Ophelia. Anastasiya Vertinskaya is a remarkably beautiful woman, not a sexed up tart like Kate Winslet in Branagh’s awful film. Branagh actually seems to take Polonius’ view, that Hamlet is just using Ophelia for sex. In Kozintev’s film, Ophelia is not a social inferior Hamlet is toying with as a sexual plaything. She looks more like a queen than Gertrude does. Kozintev’s Polonius isn’t as much of an obvious fool as he’s often played in English language versions of the play. He’s an obvious schemer. It’s clear that his “concern” over Hamlet’s attentions to his daughter is more a trumped up bit of drama he can use to get into King Claudius’ favor. He’s made his choice. He doesn’t see Hamlet as ever ascending the thrown — Or why wouldn’t he want his daughter to marry the next king? — but, rather, ending up strangled in one of Elsinore’s dungeons. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, therefore, makes perfect sense. It’s not just a semi-comical cockup. It’s the beginning of the coup that Hamlet has to organize if he wants to live. Unfortunately, it also destroys Ophelia, and any chance of an alliance with Laertes, a sympathetic, and forceful character Hamlet might have otherwise gotten on his side. Indeed, we can finally see what’s at stake when Claudius suborns the grief stricken young man to murder his nephew. Whether or not he murdered the elder Hamlet, Claudius is an evil, Machiavellian politician fully prepared to use his late counselor’s son to save his own skin.

If Konzintsev’s Hamlet has a weakness, at least compared to Olivier’s Hamlet, it’s the way he stages the fifth act. Perhaps it’s more of the logical outcome of the way he stages the first four acts than a weakness, but, in any case, Kozintsev’s Hamlet lacks the thrilling climax of Olivier’s. For the explosive, athletic Laurence Olivier, Act Five of Hamlet is the revolution, the moment when the man feigning madness throws off the cloak of his mental distress in order to overthrow the rotten monarchy in the state of Denmark. Olivier loudly  forces himself onto Ophelia’s funeral procession. He’s an Olympic class fencer who choreographs one of the most thrilling duals in cinema. He’s undone, not through his own tragic flaw, which he’s now resolved, but through Claudius’ treachery. Before he dies, he leaps off a flight of stairs on top of his uncle, stabbing him repeatedly, a man who’s now decisively answered the question “to be or not to be” with “to be.” He wants to live but he’s dead. Innokenty Smoktunovsky’s Hamlet never quite makes it out of his brooding shell. He confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s grave, but never one ups his grief. I don’t even remember, for example, if Kontzinev even left the famous “should I eat a crocodile” monologue in the film. The final duel lacks the explosive grace of the 1948 film. Hamlet doesn’t so much overthrow Claudius as stand witness to the collapse of the Danish monarchy on the eve of a hostile takeover by Fortinbras and Norway. Claudius is sent to hell, but manages to drag the Danish crown down with him. Hamlet walks outside and looks at the sea. The camera lingers, Tarkovsky style. The landscape seems to overpower the dying king of Denmark. Has order been restored? We don’t know. A blight, Claudius, has been removed from Castle Elsinsore. Whether or not Fortinbras will prove any better is left to our imagination. But we suspect that he won’t.

Henry V (1944) Henry V (1989) El Cid (1961)

“But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?”

When Laurence Olivier decided to film Henry V, he understood that he was defying the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare didn’t translate well to the movies. With a multi-million dollar budget and a cast of hundreds, you could reenact the Battle of Agincourt, but that by no means guaranteed that you’d capture the excitement of the famous English military victory any better than the Lord Chamberlain’s men did in 1600 with a cast of dozens. William Shakespeare knew that what limited his ability to stage the history of Henry V also freed his imagination. The more he was required to to make up for the Globe Theater’s lack of realism, the more he would  have the opportunity to display his poetic genius. Laurence Olivier understood Shakespeare intuitively. He decided not to film Henry V as a Hollywood epic. Rather, he would use the tools film gave him to translate the language of the Elizabethan theater into the language of cinema.

Henry V opens with a panoramic view of London in 1600. There it is, old London Bridge, old St. Paul’s, the full skyline of the medieval English capitol. Surely this would have been a powerful image for any British theatergoer in 1944. Olivier’s inspired approach to filming a close, almost literal translation of Henry V from the Elizabethan stage to the movie theaters of 1944 was to film, along with Henry V itself, a recreation of how Henry V would have been staged in 1600. Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann, therefore,  not only play the Archbishops of Canterbury and Ely. They play actors playing the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely.  Laurence Oliver not only plays Prince Hal. He plays an actor playing Prince Hal. As the two archbishops manipulate the King into invading France — a war that will head off any possibility that the crown will try to confiscate church property — we realize that we are watching the opening of Henry V along with a 16th century audience. They laugh. They cheer. They make the actor playing the actor playing the Archbishop of Ely so nervous that he drops a handful of documents on the floor. He has to pick them up to read his lines. He drops them again.

By this method, Olivier can stop and start the play at his convenience. He can slow down and break up the famously convoluted reading of the Law Salique, dish it out in bites small enough for a modern audience to swallow. By the time Henry is ready to cross the English channel to invade France, we understand both the legal justification for the invasion and how contrived this legal justification probably was. It doesn’t matter. These funny little churchman aren’t manipulating King Henry. He’s already decided on his course of action. What’s more, we no more question Henry’s decision to invade France than we question the coming invasion of Normandy. Henry is the man to restore a just order to western Europe, a Churchill in Elizabethan clothing. Olivier’s reading of Henry V is both nationalist and true to its original intent. William Shakespeare knew war was terrible. He was also a patriotic Englishman.  War is hell. Go team Britannia.

If Laurence Olivier’s decision to stage a play within a film solved the problem of how to translate the language of theater into the language of film, he’s now faced with the challenge of how to make full use of the tools cinema provides him. How would William Shakespeare himself stage Henry V if he had cameras and hundreds of extras, if he could control the lighting, stop and start the film as he successfully builds new stage after new stage, if he could leave the “cockpit” and film on location in the “vasty fields of France?” An abrupt introduction of “nature,” a rainstorm, into the play within the film signals the beginning of the transformation from the theater to the movies, from the play within the film to the highly stylized, yet still more cinematic than Elizabethan recreation of the Battle of Agincourt. We hear a thunderclap. A boy with a placard that says “The Boar’s Tavern” indicates a possible change in venue, but the “groundlings,” the common people in the cheap seats, stay on. It’s their moment, the introduction of “Pistol,” who was a great favorite of the working class in Elizabethan England,  Nym, and Bardolph. We here about Sir John Falstaff’s illness, and remember how Prince Hal rejected Falstaff and all his old friends when he became king. The groundings laugh at Pistol’s every word, every gesture. The actors get soaking wet but continue. Whether or not the “gentlemen” in the audience have gone to the Boar’s Tavern is never made clear, but we don’t see any sign of them. This is the London mob having fun.

When Nym, Bardolph and Pistol decide to follow King Henry to France, we remember that the English army at Agincourt, like the British and American army that would hit the beaches at Normandy depended on the working-class, those English long bowman who would defeat French chivalry, those British and American factory workers and shopkeepers who would drive Hitler’s master race back across the Rhine. The transition to France now quickly proceeds, first to the French court, then to the siege of Harfleur.

“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the ravage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur.”

Harfleur, like Normandy, falls. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Henry declaims, leading the charge. “Or close the wall up with our English dead.” Nym, Bardolph and Pistol are now in France, having participated in the successful attack. The Globe Theater is gone. We know we’re not really in France. The scene is stylized, ritualistic, dramatic, not realistic, but it’s no longer a film of a play, but, rather, a cinematic dramatization of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Every Englishman (and woman) in 1944 would have known what happened next. The English army is cornered by vastly superior French numbers. The French crown has paid an enormous sum of money to recruit and outfit a army, which now  outnumbers the English anywhere from 4:3 to 6:1. By all rights the English should have lost. Henry should have gone back to England in disgrace with most of his soldiers lying dead in the “vasty fields of France.” Agincourt was a decisive English victory against the odds, as unlikely as it would have been had the British not gotten on their ships at Dunkirk, but turned and smashed Hitler and the Wehrmacht once and for all.

Compared to pageantry and unapologetic patriotism of Olivier’s film, Kenneth Branagh’s revisionist, post-Vietnam reading of Henry V is intelligent, competently acted, thought provoking, and humanistic, but, ultimately, dull and uninspired. Laurence Olivier’s St. Crispians Day speech makes me want to jump once more into the breach right along with Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol.  Branagh’s makes me wonder what exactly such a ringing call to battle is doing in a film that,if a misreading of Shakespeare’s play for a good cause  is still a pretty blatant misreading. The film’s most powerful scene, Henry ordering his old friend Bardolph hanged for looting,  is so well done that it short circuits the victory at Agincourt. Is Henry a hero or just a ruthless dictator? In Olivier’s play, Henry is a shimmering democratic warrior angel, an athletic Churchill in the prime of his youth. In Branagh’s film, he’s an opportunistic social climber who hangs an old friend on the way to marry his French Princess — a magnificent young Emma Thompson speaking perfect French and bad English.

But as laudable as Branagh’s liberal, anti-war vision is, he undercuts it with the way he stages the Battle of Agincourt. The battle, which is filmed largely in close ups, might be more realistic than Olivier’s. The mud, gore, and brutal hand to hand combat is probably what the Hundred Years War did look like to the common soldier, but neither Shakespeare nor Branagh has the consistent anti-war, anti-authoritarian vision of, say, a Leo Tolstoy. For Shakespeare, it’s intentional. He wrote a play to glorify Henry V and the Tudors. Branagh, on the other hand, rudely pushes a post-Vietnam sensibility into the play’s patriotic Elizabethan myth making. What’s more, shortly after we see Henry order Bardolph’s hanging, we then get to see the horror of war visualized as the brutality of the common soldier. That might work as an anti-war message. War reduces us to beasts. But it also detracts from message Branagh had sent when he dwelt on Bardolph’s brutal execution. Is this a straight staging of Henry V or a deconstruction of the legend of Prince Hal? It’s both, obviously, and it’s not bad as far as cinema goes, but it’s not Shakespeare either. It’s a realistic war movie weighted down by Shakespeare’s language.

Anthony Mann’s El Cid is something quite different. If Olivier overcomes the limitations of the cinema of his day by his oblique, stylized approach to the Battle of Agincourt, and if Kenneth Branagh gives us a realistic, big budget Henry V that’s neither true to the source material nor grand enough to be genuinely realistic — Agincourt was, after all, the biggest, bloodiest battle of the Middle Ages — then Anthony Mann, up until then best known for low-budget westerns, makes a bold dramatic choice and stays with it with so much crazy determination that it works. El Cid is the biggest, loudest, grandest, most patriotic, most romantic historical epic ever made. Mann has thousands of extras, not hundreds. He films on location at four of the biggest, most imposing castles in all of Spain. What’s more, having worked in the American southwest, he knows how to make good use of the Spanish landscape, the deep blue, sun drenched Mediterranean, the forbidding light, space, and beauty of the Iberian peninsula. Charleton Heston may be wooden, but he’s larger than life wooden. Sophia Loren may not be a great actress, but she is able to convey the broad, operatic quality of her character Doña Ximena. Genevieve Page, as Princess Donna Urraca of Zamora, has more regal, female authority in one glance than you can find in all nine hours of Peter Jackson’s execrable Lord of the Rings saga. The over the top drama, the incestuous love of Donna Urraca for her brother Alphonso, Alphonso’s betrayal of their other brother Sancho, Cid’s blatantly oedipal dual with Doña Ximena’s father Count Gormaz, the Muslims, both good, Cid’s friend Al-Mu’tamin the Emir of Zaragosa, or comically, B-movie evil, the Osama Bin Laden like Ben Yusef, Doña Ximena’s attempt to revenge herself on the man she loves for having killed her father, everything right up to the climatic battle on the beaches in front of Valencia, where Cid leads his troops into battle even after he’s dead, serves up the kind of blood and thunder, the romantic melodrama an Elizabethan poet like William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe surely would have appreciated better than any of us.

The very best scene by far in this relentless, driving, noisy, colorful, out-sized, overly long, over the top medieval epic follows the inspired method Laurence Olivier invented for Henry V. As good as the climatic battle scenes are — and they’re better than anything in the infantile Lord of the Rings — the most exciting battle scene is a fake, or more accurately, a staged battle scene, a tournament staged by the film’s characters within the film. We are in front of Castle Bellmonte in Southern Spain, here standing in for the ancient Spanish city of Callahora. Callahora is disputed territory, claimed by both the King of Aragon and the King of Castile. Cid, who’s under arrest for treason — he defied a royal decree by sparing Al-Mu’tamin’s life — has taken up the gauntlet as Ferdinand, the King of Castile’s champion. Since Cid had killed Count Gormaz under suspicious circumstances, the King of Aragon thinks it’s an opportune moment to lay claim. He’s certain his champion, Don Martin, who’s killed 27 other men in single combat, can beat anything Ferdinand can send against him. Ferdinand, with good reason, is skeptical himself. Cid is a young man. Don Martin is a legendary knight.

What follows is as realistic a staging of a medieval trial by combat as you’re likely to see, yet a realistic staging that uses the full panoply of cinematic technique available in 1961. Olivier’s staging of the Battle of Agincourt, Sergei Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of Lake Peipus are among the best battle scenes ever filmed, but they are limited by their size and scope. Olivier couldn’t put the 30,000 men he would have needed on stage. Nevsky couldn’t show the real carnage of the battle on the ice. Anthony Mann solves the problem by staging not a battle — although he would stage a battle at the end of the movie — but a tournament, a dual, a fight to the death by the champions of Aragon and Castile for the City of Callahora. In place of Olivier’s and Shakespeare’s groundlings, in place of the London mob, we get a battle of of facial expressions between Doña Ximena and Donna Urraca. Donna Urraca wins. I think Genevieve Page is a much better, much more subtle actress, but I suppose your mileage may vary. We see the dual between Cid and Don Martin — we know that Cid’s going to win because we’re only an hour into a three hour movie — not through our eyes, but through the eyes of the Castilian court. Donna Urraca’s beautiful face registers every blow and every counter blow. Doña Ximena is melodramatically conflicted. She loves Cid but wants him dead. She was charged by her father just before he died to avenge his death, and she wants to avenge his death, but she also knows that the only reason he had been so determined to provoke Cid was a creepy, incestuous passion, and a reluctance to admit he was growing old. After Cid stabs Don Martin through the heart, the camera draws back. Cid walks across the field to bow to greet King Ferdinand as the now Prince of Callahora. We see not only the scale of their field of battle, but the scale of Castle Bellemonte, and the stark landscape surrounding it. Olivier’s Henry V seems positively intimate and domestic compared to this. But Mann could not have done it without the approach to history Olivier invented back in 1944.

Sadly, people who film historical romance have not followed up on Laurence Olivier or Anthony Mann. They’ve taken one of two approaches. There’s the approach Kenneth Branagh used in the 1989 version of Henry V, a liberal, revisionist, anti-war deconstruction of the myth of chivalry. The best, and probably the most extreme example of this type of cinema would be Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The second and far worse would be the one Peter Jackson took in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, romance devoid of romance, chivalry without chivalry, a medieval epic that uses special effects in place of drama, infantile racism in place of political intrigue. If Olivier’s Prince Hal is a man of destiny who triumphs, and Charleton Heston’s El Cid one who fails, then Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is one who bores. Replace the bawdy, irreverent Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym with the insipid Frodo and Sam, and Shakespeare’s groundlings become G-rated moppets. Aragorn’s speech in front of the gates of Mordor is a wooden imitation of Olivier’s St. Crispian’s Day speech. Three major set pieces and an army of the dead against what must seem like 100,000 computer generated orcs doesn’t equal one Battle of Agincourt. Laurence Olivier we have need of thee today.

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin, is part The Man Who Fell to Earth, part Let the Right One In. The story of a beautiful female serial killer who preys on vulnerable working-class men, it’s set in an unnamed Scottish city, and stars Scarlett Johannson and a cast of non-actors. Under the Skin seems to have polarized many film critics. Some have labeled it a masterpiece, others a complete bore. I’m somewhere in the middle.

The key to how you feel about Under the Skin is how you feel about Scarlett Johannson. I think she’s a very good, if somewhat over-hyped actress, an attractive woman but no Monica Vitti or Anna Karina. I think her willingness to strip herself naked, both emotionally and physically shows a lot of courage, but I also think she depends a little too much on raw sex appeal for the kinds of men she preys on. A plainer actress with a greater emotional range would have been far more terrifying in the same role. But your mileage may vary. If you’re a fan of Scarlett Johansson, if you like listening to her talk, watching her move, or trying to read her facial expressions, Under The Skin is the film for you.

I haven’t read the book Under the Skin, so I left the film with questions. Her motorcycle riding partner, is he her boss or her assistant? Is he human, or, like her, an alien who has taken on human form? What do her people actually do with the meat she harvests from the men she seduces? Do they freeze it and send them back to their home planet? Or is there an colony of aliens living on earth who dine on human flesh? I don’t think any of it really matters. I’m just curious.

Scarlett Johansson’s motivations, on the other hand, are key to whether or not the film works. The vampire heroine of Let the Right One In, a very similar film, is an old pedophile in the body of a 12-year-old girl. It’s genuinely terrifying because we can see exactly how and why the creature is grooming the little boy to be its companion. Under the Skin is a lot more complex. If you interpret the first half of Under the Skin as crude, misogynistic paranoia, the second half will probably confuse you. If you see the film as the transformation of an alien in the form of a heartless woman into a compassionate, and ultimately doomed human being, it makes perfect sense as a whole, but you’ll also wish the director had made better use of one or two key events in its narrative.

Under the Skin is set in a cold, grey northern country, Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. People are guarded, alienated, closed off, their emotions as chilly as the often beautiful landscape surrounding them. The working-class Scottish men Scarlett Johansson preys on seem like a particularly homely race. They have long torsos and short legs. They move without a hint of grace. They have no masculine force or charisma. Most of them are, in fact, non-professional actors, random men who couldn’t recognize Scarlett Johannson in her dyed black hair, fake furs, and stonewashed jeans shot. A good part of the film was shot with a hidden camera. The men later signed releases. But you can find attractive looking non-professional actors. Robert Bresson certainly did. Glasgow, I’m sure, is full of good looking men. The point of the film’s narrative, however, is that they be plain, dull, and, in one instance, downright hideous. They speak in thick, regional Scots accents. They’re shy, awkward, inarticulate.

I kept asking myself is how Under The Skin would have been received if it had been set, not in Scotland, not in a white, northern European country, but somewhere in the Third World. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Scarlett Johansson’s victims, whatever their color, are still the victims of the vanguard of an imperialist takeover. They’re society’s castoffs, dross, raw material for exploitation, meat. The only thing they have in common is that they’re so desperate for female company that they’ll get into a van with a strange woman, who, more often than not, comes off like a contemptuous bully. One again, your mileage may vary. But I found her patronizing manner, her fake posh BBC, Oxbridge accent to be a dead such a dead giveaway about her bad intentions that I would have turned tail and run as soon as she rolled down her window and asked me for directions.

Under the Skin re-imagines capitalist exploitation as sexual hierarchy. The beautiful Scarlett Johansson is as socially removed from the unattractive dupes she lures into her van as I am from the CEO of Goldman Sachs. The promise of sex is the whip hand that keeps the lower-class in line. But it’s the stress of acting as an enforcer that finally leads to her attempt to escape. While she’s a highly sexualized presence who uses her female allure to hunt her victims, she’s not really a woman. She is a proletarian, an alienated worker with a cruel job who finally breaks down under the horror of what she has to do day in and day out for her far-off employer. In the film’s cruelest, and what surely will become the most celebrated scene, she leaves a screaming toddler on the beach to die after its parents had drowned in the ocean and she murdered the child’s would be rescuer. In other words, she has no maternal instincts.

Eventually, however, she feels for the men she lures to their deaths. She picks up a tiny man at a nightclub — Scarlett Johansson is 5’3″ and she’s taller than he is — and harvests him for his meat. She seduces a visibly uncomfortable young man with an obvious line of flattery about how handsome he is. The breakdown finally comes when she picks up a man with a severe facial deformity. He’s 26 but could just as easily been 100. He’s never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t even seem particularly keen on getting into the van. Unlike her other victims, he has no illusions that any woman would ever desire him sexually. She grabs his hands. “You’ve got beautiful hands,” she says, trying to convince him that there’s more to him than his hideously deformed face. “When was the last time you touched anybody?”

The effort it takes to bring the hideously deformed young man back to her apartment causes her breakdown. She’s had enough. She lets him live. What’s more, the amount of emotional warmth she had to show the poor creature to get him to follow her — he has no sexual vanity to play on — leads to genuine empathy. When she interrogates him about the last time he had ever touched another human being, she realizes that she herself has never genuinely touched another human being. She reminds herself that she’s an alien creature wearing the skin of a woman her partner had murdered along the side of the road. Her identification with her victim, in turn, makes her realize how she herself is being exploited. Her job, a gopher for unseen alien overlords who dine on human flesh, is brutal and degrading. The labor is relentless and unrewarding. Indeed, the conveyer belt full of bloody human guts she has to feed almost reminded me of working on the “slime line” in an Alaskan salmon cannery. She’s a predator but she’s a predator who punches a time clock and who doesn’t enjoy the fruits of her labor. She’s an alien proletarian having the surplus value of her work skimmed off by her far off capitalist overlords.

If Under The Skin has a major weakness, it’s puritanism. Sex, the desire for sex, is bad. First it makes you a dupe. I kept congratulating myself on how I never would have gotten into that van with Ms. Johansson. We don’t see any of the actual murders. The only time we see anybody killed is when she bashes a half drowned swimmer’s skull with a rock. What we do see is men being stripped naked. They’re symbolically murdered when they join her in a featureless black room for a walk over what looks to be a toxic lake of black goo. She walks over the surface. They sink. If we see a man’s penis, we know he’s dead. Keep an eye out, by the way, for which penis are erect and which are flaccid. The naked male body is ugly. Seeing it is dirty. Even the naked female body seems less than attractive. Once again, your mileage may vary but I found very little to admire about Scarlett Johansson’s fat legs, bubble butt and short stature.

After Scarlett Johansson’s character runs away from her bloody job, she becomes, not a predator, but a victim of male predation. She walks through a small Scots Highland town without proper clothing. A man feels compassion for her. He buys her a jacket, brings her home, and gives her something to eat. But, inevitably he tries to make love to her. Why? He seemed like a decent sort and she seemed to be in such an obvious state of emotional distress sex should have been the last thing to came to mind. Just as I kept hoping the men in Glasgow would “pass the test” and not get into the van, I kept hoping that this strange man in the Highlands would also pass the test and not try to try to fuck her. He fails. It’s perfectly consensual, but it still feels dirty. I suppose that’s the point. She’s an alien without a vagina. But the man’s sexual attraction feels like a moral failing. We begin to notice he’s almost as plain and unattractive as the men she picks up back in Glasgow. He lives in a crappy apartment and watches vulgar TV comedies. He carries her across some muddy water. It feels vaguely ridiculous. He takes her on a tour of an abandoned castle. Finally, thankfully, she runs away. The gap between men and women is unbridgeable.

By the end of Under the Skin, the film lost its hold over me. I kept hoping the pace would pick up, that it would have some kind of clear cut resolution. It does, in fact, have a clear cut resolution. But the pace remains the same, slow, glacially slow, Bruno Dumont slow. I also began to care about the film’s logic. I was no longer willing to suspend my disbelief. I started to ask questions. She’s terrified of the last man she meets, a would be rapist. But I wondered why. She had already murdered scores of other men. Is a human flesh eating alien no stronger than the typical human woman? Or did she lure the men in Glasgow home so that her partner could murder them. In the denouement, the would be rapist commits such a gratuitously vicious act it almost seems to justify the murder of the innocent men back in Glasgow. Female serial killers? Now rapists? Under the Skin is just so dark you want it to end. There’s no catharsis, just a slow, creepy drawn out shiver of horror.

But I suppose that’s the point.

Soldier Blue (1970)

Soldier Blue, a loosely fictionalized account of the Sand Creek Massacre, is one of the most violent films ever made. I don’t say this lightly. While I’m not a big fan of “trigger warnings,” this film merits one. Don’t see if it you’re easily traumatized by beheadings, graphic rape scenes, hacked off limbs, or the slaughter of children. But keep this in mind. Soldier Blue is fictionalized history, but it’s still history. The United States army under Colonel John Milton Chivington did murder 133 Indians, 105 of which were women and children, near Sandy Creek Colorado on November 29, 1864. This was not the “fog of war” or a desperate battle where American soldiers had to kill or be killed. That Summer, Chivington, in one of the most infamous statements in American history, had made his intentions explicit, genocide.

“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he had said. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

We begin with a small detachment of United States cavalry in Eastern Colorado. They’re guarding a shipment of gold, a paymaster’s detail, and, above all, Cresta Maribel Lee, a white women who, like Debbie Edwards from The Searchers, had lived for years with the Indians. Cresta Maribel Lee, played by a young Candice Bergen, is no teenage girl, and certainly no damsel in distress. More importantly, she’s not very likeable. After she and Private Honus Gent, played by Peter Strauss, are the only survivors when Cheyenne Dog Soldiers massacre the paymaster’s detail and the party of soldiers, she seems blase, unconcerned. Having lived among Indians, she knows how to camouflage herself. But, to Gent’s horror, her attitude towards his dead comrades is cold, matter of fact, callous. She remarks casually that they’ll have to lay low for some time. They’ll be scalping and mutilating the bodies for hours. She loots food and supplies. She takes off her shirt, and parades around in her underwear. She’s vaguely amused when Gent wants to say a prayer for the dead.

Candice Bergen is a horrible actor — and its difficult to express just how bad she is — but it doesn’t matter. At times her emotional detachment is so total it almost seems like the inappropriate affect of a madwoman. But as Private Gent gets to know her, he realizes it’s not about a lack of personality, but about her loyalties. Cresta Maribel Lee had agreed to go back to white civilization to meet up with her old finance, but she still cares more about Spotted Wolf, the Cheyenne Chief she had married two years before. “You’re a traitor,” Gent says when he realizes she’s a white woman who sides with the Indians. But Honus Gent will learn that Lee is not innately unfeeling. Rather, she has seen so many white atrocities against Indians that she’s numb. What’s more, Strauss, not much better an actor than Bergen, seems almost as cold as she does. His “prayer,” Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade memorized, gets him briefly choked up, but, to anyone familiar with the poem, his emotion is awkward and almost silly.

What makes Soldier Blue work in spite of, or even because of the bad acting is how its recreation of the brutality of the American West is so stark and so uncompromising that, at times, it can remind you of the apocalyptic violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Any human emotion would seem ludicrously inadequate. Unlike the stylized gore fests of Reservoir Dogs or Inglorious Basterds, Soldier Blue does not allow you any distance from the atrocities taking place on screen. The film speaks with all the passion its characters can’t manage to express. Honus Gent, Spotted Wolf, Christa Maribel Lee, and Colonel Iverson, Soldier Blue’s fictionalized John Milton Chivington, are pygmies, insects even, set against a primal, gigantic western landscape that strips them of any pretence of civilization and reduces them to savages.

Indeed, as in the historical Sand Creek Massacre, it’s the Indians, not the whites, who maintain some semblance of humanity. Spotted Wolf, like the historical Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, rides out to meet the United States soldiers with an American flag and a white flag. He wants peace. The United States Cavalry certainly do not. After briefly dispatching the small detachment of military age Indian men, Iverson and his 700 soldiers first shell, then destroy the Cheyenne village at the foot of The Rockies. Nothing Oliver Stone filmed in Platoon or Brian De Palma showed us in Casualties of War comes close to what happens here. Even though we know we’re watching a film — Special effects back in 1970s weren’t quite as good as they were in the late 90s when Spielberg filmed Saving Private Ryan — we also feel as if we’re quite literally watching the Sand Creek or My Lai massacres. By taking the film’s violence and sexualized violence so far beyond anything that had been seen before — and remember, the production code had only been repealed in the 1960s — Director Ralph Nelson jars us out of our built in defense mechanisms. The horrific violence in Soldier Blue is profoundly moral because it’s reality. By shoving our faces in the horror and depravity of American history, Nelson makes it impossible for us to be voyeurs. Solder Blue is not entertainment. It’s provocation.

The film ends with Honus Gent handcuffed to the back of a United States Army wagon train. He’s under arrest for having attempted to stop the massacre. Cresta Lee follows along. The real life Honus Gent, a United States Army Captain named Silas Soule, was something of a hero. He did indeed try to stop the Sand Creek Massacre, reported the atrocity up the chain of command, and was murdered by Chivington’s loyalists. Does Gent wind up being murdered by Colonel Iverson’s goons? We don’t really know. Cresta Lee, we assume, would like to go back to live with Spotted Wolf and the Indians, but she doesn’t have that option. They’re all dead. She smiles at Honus Gent but the idea of romance, by this point, just seems a bit silly. The narrative drive of Soldier Blue has overpowered the flimsy characters and the bad acting. It would be hard to imagine an angrier, more passionate condemnation of genocide.

Just a final note: The uncut version of Soldier Blue was only released in 2006. People in 1970 saw an edited version that spared viewers some of the worst violence. Even at the height of the protest movement against the Vietnam War, Soldier Blue was considered too explosive to show in full.