Monday, August 03, 2020

McClane Binge: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is the movie that launched a hundred cinematic knock-offs or so. 

John McTiernan’s blockbuster 1988 so dramatically and thoroughly revolutionized the action genre at the end of the eighties in fact that -- for at least half-a-decade -- virtually every new entry in the genre was described as “Die Hard in a (fill in the blank.)”

Movie-going audiences soon saw Die Hard on a Bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a battleship (Under Siege [1992]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2 [1995), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57 [1992], Executive Decision [1996]) and even Die Hard in a Hockey Stadium (Sudden Death [1995]).

The film is very closely based on novelist Roderick Thorp’s (1936-1999) literary work, Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), which in turn was inspired by the author’s viewing of The Towering Inferno (1974).

The novel concerns a retired detective, named Leland, who visits the L.A. high-rise HQ of a company called Klaxon Oil. He is there to visit his daughter Stephanie, for the Christmas party, when a German terrorist, Anton Gruber, takes seventy-four hostages.  

Many elements in the film, including a barefoot hero, the gun taped to the protagonist’s back, and the use of explosives in an elevator shaft, recur directly from Thorp's written words.

Rich in invention and humor, Die Hard (1988) succeeds on many levels, and remains today much more than a thrilling fusion of disaster film and thriller tropes.

First and foremost Die Hard is absolutely dazzling from a visual standpoint, in large part because director McTiernan eschews excessive and unnecessary cutting, and preserves the space or geography of the action by utilizing tilts, pans, and other, often extreme or sudden camera motions. 

Not only is the space of the action preserved in this fashion, but the rapid camera motion accelerates the film’s sense of pace.  

Our view of the action literally banks, turns and performs barrel rolls. It’s as if we’re seeing through the furtive eyes of the desperate hero, registering everything, everywhere, in an effort to endure and survive.

Secondly, for all its bells and whistles, Die Hard essentially boils down to a battle of wits between two evenly-matched opponents, one ruthless, intellectual and urbane (Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber) and one wide open: Bruce Willis’s John McClane. 

At times it actually feels like a realization of destiny that these two resourceful, ingenious, determined characters should face each other, “mano e mano” at the Nakatomi Plaza. No other place in the world is tall enough for both of their egos and self-confidence, perhaps.

Yet in terms of its pure, psychic appeal, Die Hard is actually something more than a great and eminently satisfying action movie. 

It is undeniably a primal male wish-fulfillment fantasy that was forged in a time when masculinity was facing existential questions about its value and worth in the larger American culture.

John McClane’s battle in this film is not simply to defeat Hans Gruber or rescue the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza, including his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).

No, his battle, as I hope to explain in this review, is to redeem himself as an alpha “male” and showcase his viability as such.  

Some might suggest that this leitmotif renders the film sexist in some way. I’m not here to make any particular conclusions or social judgments about that notion, only to draw your eye and your intellect to the argument the film crafts on both a visual and often sub-textual level.

“Just a fly in the ointment, Hans, just a monkey in the wrench, just a pain in the ass.”

For Christmas, the NYPD’s John McClane (Willis) flies to Los Angeles to be with his estranged wife, Holly (Bedelia) and his two children, John and Lucy. A limousine delivers him to the high-tech Nakatomi Plaza, where Holly works a successful and high-powered career executive.

When John and Holly reunite, they argue about their marriage, and the fact that Holly now uses her maiden name, Gennero, rather than her married name, McClane.

Their personal differences must wait, however, because a group of European terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Rickman) invade the building, cut the power, and take seventy-four Nakatomi employees hostage, including Holly.

John seizes an opportunity to escape the offices, into the larger building. Almost immediately, he begins taking on the terrorists, one-at-a-time, much to the irritation of the erudite, well-organized Gruber.

John also gets a call outside of the building for help, and ends up teaming via walkie-talkie with L.A. cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

Before long, news crews, and the F.B.I. are also on the scene, but McClane is the only man on the inside of the building, the only man who can stop Gruber’s plan. 

That plan involves explosives, a bank vault and much deceit…

“It’s Christmas time, Theo. It’s a time for miracles.”

It is plain to see how Die Hard adopts many key elements from The Towering Inferno. There’s a rooftop rescue that goes awry in both productions, for example, a lot of fire, and the same central location: a Los Angeles high-rise building. In both productions, helicopters are destroyed too.

Die Hard takes that setting and those creative elements, however, and creates something new for the cinema, an action movie in which the hero is an “every man” who is outnumbered, out-gunned, and cut-off from authority He is tested quite egregiously, and must succeed based on nothing but his wits and his cunning. 

McClane is a man alone.

The highest plateau of film quality, for me, arises with the idea of visuals mirroring or reflecting thematic and narrative concepts. We see this idea play out in Die Hard as director John McTiernan deploys a kinetic, almost constantly-in-motion camera. Objects -- like a whirring table saw, for example -- loom suddenly in the foreground. Or the camera suddenly shifts on its axis, and goes plummeting down a basement staircase the viewer has not yet detected.

This approach possesses two virtues.

The first is that this brand of camera motion preserves the space of the battlefield, to adopt a war metaphor. Were the film to feature an over-abundance of cutting, the space (and time) would feel fractured. But by whirling to register objects, or tilting and panning to see things, McTiernan makes us feel like we are trapped in the building with McClane. 

The second virtue is connected to the first. The camera’s movement -- always “discovering” new objects, rooms, and enemies -- recreates the mental state of the film’s characters. Around every corner could be a threat or an opportunity, and the camera work expresses a kind of nervous energy as Gruber and McClane both harness the (same) environment to win the day. 

The camera-work also is adrenaline-provoking. We are never sure what we will see next, and so we start paying attention to every detail, every moment of the action. This is reflected in the character dynamics in so many ways. Hans picks up that McClane is walking barefoot, and in the next moment, orders his henchman to shoot out the glass from a nearby pane, creating an impediment for his opponent. The camera and the characters learn things at the same time, and seize on that learning for their game of chess.

Sometimes, the camera moves brilliantly to  reveal the proximity of danger. At one point, for example, cinematographer Jan de Bont's camera tilts up from a smoldering bullet-hole in a vent shaft to a close-up of a vulnerable McClane, perched inches away. The director could have cut to a reaction shot, instead, of his hero. But that simple tilt tells us just how close McClane came to death.

The whole movie is filled with anxiety-provoking moments such as that one. As a result, Die Hard is fun to watch -- a veritable roller-coaster ride of a movie -- and that’s primarily because of the ingenuity and efficacy of so many compositions. The visuals engage us, and demand attention.

As I noted above, Die Hard is also a primal male fantasy. 

It is about a man who grew up with heroes like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and James Arness (Marshal Dillon) discovering, as an adult, that men like that are no longer called for in American society. 

Those cowboys were protectors and patriarchs, but Gruber dismisses them all as products of a “bankrupt culture.”  Even other 80s male icons such as Rambo are name-checked, and Lee Majors’ The Fall Guy is seen on TV at one point.  The idea, I suppose is that American culture has changed radically in the 1980s, but no one has bothered to tell the movies about that fact. We still raise our boys into men thinking they can be cowboys. They still kill the bad guy, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset.

Yet just consider for a moment the shift in demographics and the economy that occurred in the eighties and how they changed the picture for masculinity in this country. 

By 1985 half-of-all college graduates were women, and women with outside-the-home careers jumped to 49%. Women moved successfully into traditionally-male held jobs in banking and white collar management too. 

On one hand, movies like Working Girl (1988) epitomized the era. On the other, efforts such as Mr. Mom (1983) dramatized the opposite side of that equation: a stay-at-home Dad raising the kids.

Die Hard, very simply, concerns a man, John McClane (Bruce Willis) who doesn’t cope well with this shift in cultural expectations, and what that change means for his ego and self-respect. His journey in the film involves a successful attempt to re-assert his role, value, and place in the American family when he is no longer the primary bread winner or the "hero."

That opportunity occurs at the workplace of his wife, Holly, who has moved out of John’s home in New York with his two children, and earned kudos as an executive at a Japanese-run corporation. Holly is a complete success, and is so confident in that career success that she goes by her maiden name, “Gennero” instead of her married name, “McClane.”  

Several times, the film gives us visualizations of that name, Gennero. We see it in the building registry and on the door to Holly's office. In a very concrete, visible way, then, Holly has separated herself from her marriage, and her husband.

But then John ultimately saves the day, and Holly introduces herself to Al Powell not as Holly Gennero, but as Holly McClane. 

That, right there, is the the punctuation of the whole movie. That’s the whole wish fulfillment aspect in a nut-shell: the idea that John can bring his wife around to his “idea of what this marriage should be.”  

He doesn’t do this by being a good listener, by being a shoulder to cry on, by being a good dad, or by being a partner in the work-force, an equal earner.

He does it by being just like those predominantly cowboy heroes of yesteryear.  By besting the bad guys, getting the girl, and riding off into the sunset.

Yippy-kay-yay, motherfucker.

The sub-text, of course, is that John McClane and other men have been somehow emasculated by the rise of women in the workplace in the 1980s. John is rudderless and alone, and must re-assert himself and his male-ness.  

This idea gets a surprising amount of visual play in the movie because of a nifty little bait and switch trick.  John keeps seeing gorgeous, often naked women, and though he registers them, he doesn’t act on his sexual impulses to conquer them.

What type of shot or sequence or shots recurs in Die Hard quite frequently?  

Well, it is a shot of a beautiful woman who is “seen” by McClane either in the same shot, or in cutaway reaction shot.  Then, he kinds of sighs, and moves on, with resignation, after noticing her allure

This happens again and again in the film, and one must ask why. Why does this composition recur?

Let me give you the examples before I answer that question.

In the airport, McClane sees a women in tight-white pants leap effortlessly into the arms of her boyfriend. Her rear-end appears to defy gravity.

At the party, McClane ogles a woman standing beyond a fountain, in long-shot.  Here we get both the object of his gaze, and a view of his gaze.

Then, in Holly’s office, a sexually available woman bursts in with her lover. John sees her, through the mirror, so that we get his gaze, and the object of his gaze in the same composition.

Immediately after McClane escapes from Holly’s office, John heads to a floor upstairs. He looks out a window, and sees an apartment across the way. A half-naked woman is lounging there, in front of her window. The camera moves in on McClane as he registers her presence.  Again, this encounter features two shots: the object of McClane's gaze, and a view of him gazing at that object.

And, finally, during his chases back and forth through the infrastructure of the Nakatomi Building, McClane twice sees a pin up of a nude woman. She catches his eye on one occasion, and he cranes his neck to look at her. On another occasion, he speaks to her like an old friend.

There are no fewer than six instances, then, in Die Hard, wherein John’s gaze is explicitly connected to the visual of a sexually-desirable woman.

What does it mean? 

Quite simply, there’s the idea here that marriage and society -- and modern convention too -- shackle men, and prevent them from being their true selves. These things hold them back, rendering them impotent, just as new-fangled 1980s ideas about women in the workplace take away their manhood too (by the movie's way of thinking; not mine).

And how does John exert or assert his manhood, if not by conquering these available, luscious women he constantly encounters?

 By shooting guns. A lot.  By killing terrorists.

In Die Hard, McClane asserts his masculinity not by having sex with all the abundantly desirable women he miraculously keeps casting his eyes upon, but by committing bloody violence and re-taking his place as a powerful alpha male.

Now, no man is an island, of course, and John still requires emotional support, even while doing things that a man must do. He turns not to his wife (who is unavailable to support him), but to a "bromance" with Al Powell. McClane finds that for his emotional needs in a time of crisis he needs, simply, another man, and one who is, importantly, a cop like he is.  

Al Powell has been rendered impotent by society too. He’s a desk jockey who hasn’t fired his gun since an accident years earlier.  

How does he get his groove (and masculinity) back?  

Again with a pistol, by killing someone.

Once more, I would like to stress that I’m not rendering any kind of judgment, pro or con for the argument that Die Hard so carefully constructs. However, it is abundantly plain the message is there, and part of a wish-fulfillment fantasy aimed straight at men in the eighties. 

They have been held back too much, and if they want to earn back the respect of women and men around him, they have to be gun-toting heroes in the mold of John Wayne, Rambo, or any of the other heroes that Gruber names.

The appeal in Die Hard, not entirely unlike the appeal of the Dirty Harry films, is the characterization of a male hero -- in a time of change -- reverting to "simple" cowboy form. Die Hard makes that characterization funny by references to Roy Rogers’ sequin shirts, and by McClane’s foul-mouthed but nonetheless immortal catchphrase.  

In other words, Die Hard is a movie that is both primal male fantasy and simultaneously smart enough to be self-aware about it.  

It would be easy to write much more about this film. 

For instance, Die Hard is one of my favorite Christmas movie of all time, because -- again -- it deals so ironically and with such self-awareness about the contradictions between a holiday celebrating love and peace and the bloody violence in the Nakatomi Building. 

This conceit, this juxtaposition, reaches its zenith of brilliance in the film’s final shot. Nakatomi burns and smolders, and the soundtrack plays the song “Let It Snow.” The lyrics, in case you have forgotten, commence with: “The weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful.”

The fire at Nakatomi Plaza is delightful? 

Hell yeah it is. For John McClane, who has won back his wife, defeated the bad-guy, and is horizon-bound.

When I first devised the idea of writing about Die Hard (1988), I thought about all the approaches I could take, and realized just how brilliantly the film fulfills multiple functions.  

It’s an ironic Christmas story. 

It’s a development of the Towering Inferno setting. 

It’s a primal male fantasy about re-asserting manhood according to the Hollywood definition of that term, and, finally it’s an elegantly-shot action film too.  

But the passing of Alan Rickman demands that I add one more paragraph to an already too-long critique of this film.  

His Hans Gruber is, without exaggeration, the perfect movie villain. Not because Gruber can shoot. Not because Gruber threatens people. But because Rickman projects so much intelligent, wit, and cunning.

At one point, Rickman's Gruber quips about the “benefits of a classical education,” and that dialogue makes a valuable point. 

Rickman, a slender intellectual sort is able to project so much cerebral menace as Hans Gruber that we feel the muscular, t-shirt clad McClane is in constant danger from him. 

In short, Rickman proves that not only is smart sometimes sexy, smart is also sometimes damned scary.  

His best scene in the film involves Hans’ on-the-fly adoption of an American accent when he unexpectedly encounters McClane. This scene is rife with tension because we don’t know what John knows, and we didn’t expect Hans to prove quite so…adaptable in the field.

Gruber also gets a death scene that has yet to be topped in the action film genre (pictured above).

So if my description of Die Hard as a primal male fantasy is somehow disturbing or uncomfortable for anyone, there’s no need to focus exclusively on that aspect. 

Die Hard features so many other virtues -- from its stirring fight scenes, accomplished camera-work and great performances to its brilliant Michael Kamen score -- that’s it difficult to choose which one really makes the movie soar.

So the year 1988 and the dawn of Die Hard? 

A “time of miracles” indeed.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: the King Kong Show (1966)

"You know the name of King Kong..."

In the autumn of 1966, ABC TV first aired the American/Japanese co-production called The King Kong Show (1966).  The companies involved were Videocraft, and Toei Animation. Arthur Rankin and Julie Bass served as executive producers.

The series ran for 25 episodes, and was a sort of omnibus show. By that I mean that each twenty minute show featured three stories.  Two were devoted to Kong, and one was devoted to a different animated program called Tom of T.H.U.M.B.

As far as the premise goes, The King Kong Show saw the mighty ape of the movies transformed, essentially, into the friendly over-sized pet of the globe-hopping Bond family.  The family consisted of a father, Professor Bond (Carl Banas), a teenage daughter, Susan (Susan Conway) and a pre-teen boy, Bobby Bond (Billy Mae Richards).  Kong and Bobby were playmates, and especially close.  Bobby was too "young" to consider Kong dangerous, and so became his friend, instead.

Kong, meanwhile, was described as being "ten times as big as a man."

So the Bonds found Kong on Mondo Island, and took care of him, only to become involved in numerous adventures with the giant ape and those who sought to control or dominate him. The adventures concerned aliens ("The Space Men") the evil-mastermind, Dr. Who ("Dr. Who," "Rocket Island") and other challenges.  A supporting character, Captain Englehorn, came straight from the 1933 King Kong.

And, of course, elements of this cartoon re-appeared in the live-action King Kong Escapes (1967), particularly the character Dr. Who (visualized differently in the film), and the Mondo Island setting.

Here's a look at the famous theme song from the series:

Today, I'll look at two six minute segments.  The first is "The Horror of Mondo Island."  in this tale, the discovery of a "rare and important element" known as "Fantasium" -- which can make steel elastic and bendable -- brings a mining crew, and their destructive vehicles, to the island.

Seeing Kong's island paradise spoiled by strip-mining, Bobby warns the workers about "the Horror Mondo Island" in an attempt to scare the out-landers away.  He describes a monster that attacks by night, and then disguises Kong as the fearsome beast, painting him white.

The ruse is successful, and the miners are driven off.   The episode' s highlight is a scene in which Kong battles a bull-dozer or crane, and makes short work of it. Since this is a kid's show, however, he only crushes the vehicle after the driver has vacated.  It's also intriguing that Kong, in disguise, actually resembles the character's son, as seen in the 1933 sequel to the original film.

The episode ends with the miners realizing (thanks to Captain Englehorn) that the island possesses "natural obstacles beyond our control."  In other words, Bobby has saved the beautiful island both for Kong, and future generations.

One can see how this six minute story is simple, and aimed at children. The message, about conservation, is plain, and Bobby is the protagonist, the one who -- independent of his father's wishes and plans -- saves the day.

The second six minute story I'll look at for this special Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging is "Dr. Who." This is the tale that introduces the mad scientist villain to the series.  He is visualized as a very short, bald man in a lab coat. He also wears thick, black glasses, and thick black gloves.

As the story begins, Professor Bond introduces Dr. Who to Bobby. Dr. Who wants to take Kong away from the island, on a two day trip. Bobby refuses to give permission.  Dr. Who then holds the family at gun-point, and launches an attack on Kong.

Helicopters assault Kong, but fortunately Captain Englehorn arrives to help, and Kong breaks out of his prison aboard a ship.  The episode ends with the foreboding (and accurate) observation that "we haven't seen the last of Dr. Who."

This episode does a good job of establishing the friendship and symbiosis between Kong and Bobby. One would assume that Kong is the great protector in the relationship because he is strong and, well, gigantic.  But here we see that Kong must also be protected too, and that Bobby steps into that breach. He is Kong's guardian as much as Kong is his.

Both of these episodes from the 1966 animated series are short and sweet, and filled with adventure. Kong himself is portrayed as a gentle giant, which is appropriate, given the intended audience.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself.  

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops.

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.   

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.   

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface.  

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard.  

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and remains a high point in the artist's great career.

I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless. Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...).  It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years.  It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.

Watching Jason and the Argonauts again today, I liked it better than any of the Sinbad films, except for Golden Voyage (1974), which remains my favorite Harryhausen fantasy because it accounts for Sinbad's ethnicity and features a darker story about the "cost" of black magic.

Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well.  This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.

Jason was the Greek who, in Argonautica, embarked upon a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece.  The men who accompanied him on the journey, including Hercules, Hylas and Orpheus, were called "The Argonauts."  On the journey, Jason fell for the high priestess, Medea, but their lives went rather badly down hill after he brought her you may recall.

In broad terms, the quest for the Golden Fleece forms the basis of the Harryhausen film, directed by Don Chaffey.  Here, Jason of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong) seeks the fleece to help "heal" his war-torn country and assume his rightful place on the throne.  To dp so, he must defeat the tyrannical usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer).  With the help of Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason makes sail with a team of heroes for the end of the world, where the Fleece is reportedly housed (and protected by a multi-headed beast called the Hydra).

En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos.  A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules.  Later, Jason defends  the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece.  The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.

After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack).  She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra. 

But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure.  Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....

If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here.  For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage. 

For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers.  In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends."  And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place.  Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...

And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo.  Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love.  As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.

Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children.  Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities.  The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.

I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight.  It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance.  The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece.  You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries.  None of that occurs here.  The battle seems virtually flawless.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too.  A real show-stopper.

I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods.  Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981. 

But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory. 

It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted. Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.

I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness.  All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency.  The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others.  There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

"When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it's commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you're inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals."

- Ray Harryhausen, in an interview at Bright Lights Film Journal with Damien Love, entitled "Monsters Inc." (2007)


For a certain generation of filmmaker and film-goer, special effects artist and art director Ray Harryhausen remains a seminal influence.  

Talents as diverse as Tim Burton,  Dennis Muren, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, and Sam Raimi count the gentleman as such, and have honored Harryhausen's impressive career and talent in numerous cinematic tributes and homages across the years.  

What is Army of Darkness (1992), after all, but a twisted appreciation of Harryhausen-esque tropes and techniques?

Harryhausen himself has given the world such memorable fantasy films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but for many Generation X'ers, he is also very fondly remembered for his Sinbad franchise: a troika of adventure/fantasy films (spanning 1958 - 1977) that, in many significant ways, represented the best fantasy game in town for swashbuckling kids in an era pre-Star Wars (1977).   

Our topic here today is the first Sinbad movie, titled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  Rated G and lasting a scant 88 minutes, this classic adventure film is a collaboration between Harryhausen, producer Charles Schneer and director Nathan Juran. Harryhausen's first color film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was made on a then-healthy budget of two-million dollars.   Released by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed over six million dollars and was considered a huge hit...and one that led to many further Harryhausen fantasy films in the next decade or so.

Longtime readers of mythology will recognize the name "Sinbad" as having come from Middle Eastern sources.  A Persian, Sinbad the sailor was a mythical sea-goer who countenanced magical and monstrous adventures on the sea and on the land in and around Africa and South Asia.   He was known to have had seven famous trials, or voyages.  In Hollywood, Sinbad appeared in such films as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., before becoming the iconic fantasy hero headlining Harryhausen's trilogy.

In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) returns home from sea to marry lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) and seal the peace between his nation and hers.  

Unfortunately, this love affair is disrupted by the diabolical presence of Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), who needs Sinbad to return him to the island where he was found, and where he lost a magical genie's lamp to a monstrous cyclops.

To assure Sinbad's loyalty, Sokurah uses a wicked spell to shrink Parisa down to the size of a doll, and then informs the sea captain that he can "cure" her, but only on the island of the Cyclops.  Sinbad has no choice but to comply with Sokurah's plan.  With the Princess and his crew in tow, he sets sail for the island of Colossa.  

There, Sinbad and his bride-to-be face challenges from the cyclops, Sakurah's fire-breathing dragon, a two-headed roc, and even an ambulatory skeleton.  To help win the day, Sinbad and Parisa must free the entrapped Genie, who appears to them as a young boy (Richard Eyer) longing to escape his imprisonment.

Short on dialogue and that romantic mushy "stuff" but long on thrilling battle sequences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a spectacle for the eyes, especially if one is an admirer of stop-motion animation, or "Dynamation" as it is termed here.  

In short order, the filmmakers trot out a variety of impressive mythical giant beasts, and the coordination between the live-action components and the film's animated components remains breathtaking.   I can't imagine the discipline and patience required to painstakingly match the two media, least of all to the accomplished degree on display here; one which affords breath, dimension, life and personality to the creatures, most notably the cyclops. 

Here is the up-and-downside of the Harryhausen special effects techniques as I consider them.

Pro: the monsters generally move more convincingly than with CGI, in part because they must obey real life gravity -- just as we must -- rather than some computerized approximation of gravity.  

On the negative side, in terms of color balance and integration in the action, CGI -- at least today's CGI -- may get the nod as superior.  In this film, for instance, it's always obvious that the monster and the humans who share the same shots exist in two separate dimensions, a back one and a front one.  This realization takes away from the overall impact of the effects. 

I fully realize that such a conclusion probably reads much like heresy to a whole generation of dedicated film goer, and I once read the memorable phrase (in regards to The Land That Time Forgot [1975] that Hell hath no fury "like a stop-motion animation fan scorned," but it's still likely the truth.  The special effects in this film are amazing and that's why they inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, but it's foolish and unnecessary to argue that they surpass something like Avatar, for instance.  

Like all films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a product of its time, and must be judged in the context of its time.  And in its time, it was simply the very best.  That fifty-four years later we have moved on from the stop-motion animation triumphs of Harryhausen in no way reflects negatively on what the film achieved, the impact it garnered, or the fervor it provoked.

What The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still possesses in abundance is...innocence.  This is a a good-humored family adventure in the best sense, immensely enjoyable and appropriate for both parent and child.  There's some fun swashbuckling adventure here, most notably in a climactic chasm swing that forecasts a trademark moment in Star Wars (1977).

There's also a subtle "family" message underneath all the action in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  In particular, by film's end, Sinbad, Parisa and the child genie have joined forces to form an unconventional family unit.  They have pulled together, and will face the future together.

Watching the film as an adult, I especially enjoyed Torin Thatcher's performance as the evil sorcerer, and Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, pulse-pounding score, which in a very authentic sense also affords breath and life to Harryhausen's fantastic stop-motion creations.

As a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.  Watching it in again, I enjoyed it, but it certainly seems a bit simplistic in terms of storyline and presentation.  It is what it is: an entertaining screen adventure and spectacle from an age when such films weren't commonplace.  The high point of the movie likely remains the intense, splendidly-choreographed and executed battle between Sinbad and the skeleton warrior. But even that triumph was greatly expanded upon in Jason and the Argonauts.

My favorite Sinbad movie is The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).  That film -- made during the "new freedom" of the 1970s -- is a little edgier, a little sexier, a little darker, and allows Sinbad to actually be a Muslim, rather than simply an American cowboy hero transposed to the Ancient Middle East, replete with nuclear family.  I first saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in theaters back in 1974 as a five year old, so I have an affinity for it as "my" Sinbad. The characters are a little better differentiated in Golden Voyage, and the quest (to assemble a golden tablet out of three segments) definitely captures the attention better than the elementary, nay rudimentary, plot of 7th Voyage.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Dr. Shrinker (1976): "Pardon Me, King Kong"

Sid and Marty Krofft brought Saturday morning television some of its most memorable and unique programming in the 1970's.  Land of the Lost clearly stands at the top of that heap, but there are many others worth recalling, from ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976) to The Lost Saucer (1975) to this series, Dr. Shrinker (1976).

Like ElectraWoman and Dynagirl, Dr. Shrinker aired as a segment of the omnibus The Krofft Supershow for one season, and had a strong science fiction underpinnings. 

In this case, the inspiration for the series seems to be the 1940 horror movie Dr. Cyclops.  There, Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) lured three scientists to his jungle laboratory and miniaturized them. They then were endangered not just by the doctor, but the now colossal-seeming wild-life of the terrain.

Similarly, Dr. Shrinker tells the story of three young adults -- Brad (Ted Eccles), Gordy (Jeff Mackay) and B.J. (Susan Lawrence) -- who crash their plane on the island of a mad scientist, Dr. Shrinker (Jay Robinson) and his minion, Hugo (Billy Barty). He promptly miniaturizes them, and they escape from his laboratory, into the jungle biome.  There, they battle snakes, rats, and other wild-life.

Each week on the series, Shrinker and Hugo also concoct some plan to re-capture the “Shrinkies,” as they are known.  His shrink ray weapon often re-appears in the series too, and often breaks down too.  The Shrinkies hope to use it to be restored to normal.

In terms of visualization, Dr.Shrinker employs the same chroma-key techniques adopted by Land of the Lost. Actors are often matted onto backgrounds which pair them with colossal creatures, in this case the aforementioned wild-life.

Dr. Shrinker, uniquely, appears to have been ripped off to some degree for Hanna Barbera’s Mystery Island, which I reviewed here not long ago.

There, another plane crashes on a mysterious island, and three youngsters (two male; two female, and a brother/sister duo) are confronted by a mad scientist, in this case “Dr. Strange.”  In both series, the villains have minions, and in both cases, the game is always one of capture and escape. 

In the Dr. Shrinker episode “Pardon Me, King Kong,” Dr. Shrinker and Hugo call on Boris the Chimp to help them capture the Shrinkies. Like Kong, Boris takes a liking to a golden haired girl, B.J. and captures her.  Shrinker then holds her captive in a cage in his laboratory, using her as bait.

Sure enough, Brad and Gordy soon arrive at his home, and use a fishing hook and line to climb up a chair and reach her.  They too are captured, but manage to escape before the episode is done.

A few things to note: King Kong (1976), obviously, was a major pop culture event of 1976, and so Dr. Shrinker attempts to exploit that here, in some sense, putting a regular sized chimp up against miniaturized humans.  

Secondly, the “Shrinkies” are not yet very well-defined or developed, but B.J. comes off as down-right cruel in her scenes with Brad and especially to her brother, Gordy.  She is a mean and unpleasant character, which is surprising given that she is one of the series' heroes.  

Finally, the best scenes in this episode belong to Jay Robinson and Bill Barty, who chew the scenery together like nobody’s business.

McClane Binge: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard  is the movie that launched a hundred cinematic knock-offs or so.  John McTiernan’s blockbuster 1988 so dramatically and t...