Scaramouche (1952)

Like many of the archetypal tales of literature or film, Scaramouche is a story of the aristocrats warring against the common man or closer still the common man throwing off the shackles placed upon him by his oppressor.

The dynamic is spelled out in an early scene as that ill-fated debutante (Nina Foch) enlists the help from behind parlor room doors of her dear cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), to find the infernal insubordinate “Marcus Brutus.” The vagrant had the unthinkable gall to litter her very own palace with his pamphlets.

It’s easy to get distracted by the period elegance leftover from the MGM of the late 30s and 40s. The movie wears its opulence well and thankfully there’s a worthy story to prop it up and give it the heartbeat of humor and substance. Although we are on the eve of The French Revolution, this acts as merely a backdrop. As is usually the case, the story is made far more personal.

This could very easily be the story of a rebellious pamphleteer and his loyal compatriot sticking it to the bourgeoisie. However, the young upstart Philippe (Richard Anderson) is killed by the sword at the hands of the lethal Marquis, and now his companion Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vows to seek revenge. In fact, his story from thenceforward is driven by an all-consuming personal vendetta.

Janet Leigh, on her part, is a virginal beauty brimming with a poised elegance. She’s crucial to this story as the queen’s ward and a chosen companion for the Marquis. However, kismet means she also shares a fondness for Andre after a chance encounter by the roadside. Suddenly our two men are tied perilously close together.  Still, there must be time for amusement.

Stewart Granger takes to the part with ease, and it plays to his finest attributes as a leading man. But he’s also able to have a bit of fun donning the visage of Scaramouche the masked jester, a perfect disguise and also a way to cast himself in the likeness of all the great vagabond heroes of Hollywood lore, whether they be Robin Hood or Francois Villon.

Eleanor Parker is vivid and fierce with fiery red hair and passionate jealousies befitting a person of her ilk. She bursts on the screen with an untameable beauty trampling after her love on stage, with all manner of blunt instruments, and malice in her heart. However, he’s the one who plucks her out of the arms of matrimony only to receive her continual ire and consternation in return. It’s only one of the fires lit under the movie.

The bursting palette of the picture and its sense of comic pageantry onstage cannot help but elicit comparisons to Kiss Me Kate. The adaptation of Taming of the Shrew was a musical, yes, but also directed by the very same George Sidney.

Sidney himself felt this material was ready-made for musical treatment. I’m not too familiar with Granger’s singing prowess, but I’m rather partial to how the story develops and part of that might be the dearth of modern swashbucklers. There’s something so invigorating about them even to this day, and the spectacle of the film fails to disappoint. And if Sidney was at all disappointed by the results, he only had to wait a year to get his musical.

What becomes apparent about Scaramouche is how it ably fluctuates between two tones to fit its two divergent worlds. At one time, Andre finds himself dabbling in the royal courts as a traitor and wanted man, sharing covert rendezvous with the pure-hearted Aline de Gavrillac (Leigh). Then, in subsequent moments, he’s the larger-than-life theater vagabond caught up in a perpetual game of stagebound slapstick and ferocious cat and mouse with his most favored acting partner.

However, he also has time to take on a new hobby as he endeavors to become a master swordsman, man enough to take on the Marquis. When the time comes, he takes the troupe to the big stage and bright lights of Paris though he maintains his ulterior motives.

In the name of his good friend, he takes up the mantle of the common man in the national assembly. He handily whittles down the list of deputies who all insult his character for the chance at a duel. Of course, there’s only one name he waits to cross swords against — and it’s the one name he has yet to face.

You see, the two women in his life conspire to keep them apart and, for the time being, keep Andre safe. Alas, they cannot stave off the confrontation forever; it’s an inevitable development. They meet at the theater of all places.

The final rousing show of swordplay has to be one of the finest displays I’ve witnessed in some time. Between Granger’s moderate background and Ferrer’s grace as a dancer, they make the choreography pulse-pounding and totally enthralling while their venue brings in a novel element.

All the spectators rush around as haphazard collateral damage as they thrust and parry their way across the balcony, down the steps, into the first-floor theater seats, and then finally up on the stage. It’s not just a sword fight; it feels like a whole movement with a beginning, middle, and end that plays out in front of us.

It ends with almost an anticlimax and a twist that initially seems to take away from the story, although it just might add one more feather in the movie’s cap. The only matter left to parse through is probably the most important or at least the most troubling. Which leading lady shall our leading man choose? Although they come from two different strata of society, they both boast an embarrassment of riches. In the end, he takes Janet Leigh.

It’s easily forgivable and Eleanor Parker gets the last laugh on him, not to mention a new man on her arm, all but waiting in the wings to tear France a new one. Who needs a strapping vagabond swordsman, when she winds up with one of the greatest military minds of all time? This touch of conclusive irony summarizes Scaramouche at its very best. It manages to harness the drama while never losing its romantic sense of adventure and unadulterated good humor.

4/5 Stars

The Last Hunt (1956) and The Killing Fields

The Last Hunt considers an era that is no more. Once America’s Great Plains ran rampant with herds of bison numbering up to 60,000,000 based on the estimation of this movie. The initial premise of Richard Brooks’ western intrigues for the sole fact that this is a slice of history that doesn’t get much screen time in the cinematic west and, thus, it offers a framework for some potentially pointed commentary.

The onus for the circumstances is placed on both hunters and American Indians for recklessly slaughtering the population down to a mere 3,000. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems much of the blame must be cast on the white men. But this is something to get into later. 

For now, it should be briefly mentioned the movie has a great deal of footage shot in the famed Custer State Park spread out across the Badlands, and if you’ve never had the opportunity to go there, I would certainly recommend it, if only for the chance to see some bison. 

I’ve gotten the exhilarating opportunity to see bison several times in my life and let us just say, there’s nothing quite like it as far as putting you in touch with the sheer majesty of nature. To look at one of those creatures in close proximity, even from the relative safety of an automobile, is breathtaking. It gives one an even deeper appreciation for both the magnitude and the inner turmoil The Last Hunt attempts to grapple with. 

Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) for one, is a big-time hunter who wants to wash his hands clean of the profession. He’s intent on taking one last job and moving on. However,  it’s one of his colleagues, the bloody-thirsty Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), who derives an unseemly amount of pleasure out of his vocation. He stays matter-of-factly, “Killing, fighting, war, that’s the natural state of things” and he wholeheartedly believes it. This mentality bleeds into all facets of his life. 

For one thing, he despises Indians. They’re hardly better than the big-time game he bags, and he’s quick to deride the genial half-breed who joins their company (Russ Tamblyn). Sandy is just as quick to welcome the boy on, and it’s yet another uneasy wedge between the two hunters. 

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Watching the bison drop instantly to the ground as dead weight is in itself a bit perturbing and feels unnatural. Be forewarned, The Last Hunt is not for the squeamish because there is nothing simulated about the hunting throughout the film, actually performed by government sharpshooters who thinned out the bison population. Why it is done this way I’m not quite sure.

Likewise, watching Taylor blast away at the giant beasts until he’s decimated a whole pack for their skins, and then a moment layer cutting away to what feels like a bison killing field leaves a startling impression. The baby bison are left parent-less and a majestic white buffalo — believed to be medicine for the natives — is unceremoniously struck down. 

But this is only a backdrop or even a representation of what is going in the hearts & minds of the two characters as they chafe against one another. The movie would not work without both of their points of view. Charlie continues to exercise his almighty power of life and death over the beasts, relishing every minute, because killing is the only real proof you’re alive. His words, not mine.  Sandy could care less — having his own personal crisis of conscience — even as he extends a courteousness to his fellow man, no matter their creed. 

 Lloyd Nolan, who might best be remembered for character parts in the 30s and 40s, to my recollection puts together one of the most colorful portrayals of his career. His cackling “Woodfoot” holds a foolhardy appreciation for life and the rush of the hunt. It’s a lark to him, but he’s also good at what he does. The resplendent green plains laden with sheets of pine trees capture the sense of rip-roaring adventure out on the trail as the raucous pegleg tears across the territory with a giddy sense of abandon. 

Over time he settles into a good-natured sagacity even as he provides nighttime accordion playing to lighten the mood. He’s a bit of insulation between the men around him while offering the young boy neighborly advice. He softens and becomes more decent as Charlie becomes more and more stricken with his crazed obsession. 

the last hunt

Because there are only a handful of primary characters, each one has a very specific personality put on display and each earns their keep in the movie. The one exception seems to be Debra Padget, no fault of her own. She is an extremely alluring albeit absent beauty. Charlie desires her lustily, despite his bigotry, while Sandy becomes her de facto protectorate. I feel sorry for her because with the part she has to play — as the captured Indian maiden with child — she can’t win. Obviously, there’s a vague sense of her being a love interest, but in a male-dominated arena, she doesn’t have much import, unfortunately.

 Though the picture doesn’t have the best track record with American Indians — this is often the case with westerns circa 1956 — The Last Hunt does make a valiant attempt at some kinds of off-handed commentary. When talking about their customs, Charlie says, “Indians they don’t have religion.” Woodfoot replies with a cynical response of his own, “Indian religion is just the same as ours, except they don’t pass the hat after they pray.”

There’s another moment worth mentioning as a kind of mutual appreciation builds between Sandy and Padget’s nameless Indian girl. He acknowledges that he learned how to ride and learned about life from natives, so he holds them in the highest esteem. Proximity breeds this kind of empathy. 

She comes back around with her own version (by taking care of a toddling infant who is not her own child). She learned babies belong to all people, a sympathetic pearl of wisdom gained from Christian missionaries. It’s in this space where they form a kind of shared understanding built on mutual respect. 

But there comes a point of no return. For Sandy, he goes into town to sell their skins for a hefty sum, but he’s also resolved to get some of the buffalo stench off of him. He’s ashamed and the whole outpost points to his ignominy. Soon he’s brawling over the beasts to the chorus of rowdy honky-tonk and bodies flying over and under the bar.

 Charlie fairs little better as he goes into a continued fit of paranoid delusion leading him toward a chasm of madness. He believes his partner is looking to double-cross him, and he’s prepared to track him down and kill him if he has to (or anyone else who might get in his way). For all his disreputable malevolence, Robert Taylor is undoubtedly the film’s standout totally committing to his demented role. Granger is a necessary foil, but he and most everyone else must play cool and understated only smoldering under Nilson’s provocations. 

Truthfully, the ending feels woefully anticlimactic, or at least ill-gotten, failing to follow the trajectory that the story looked to be paying off. Still, up until this point The Last Hunt has a nervy tenacity in its best moments that might well leave a lasting impression on a willing audience. It remains a contentious indictment of America’s dubious indiscretions even as it also helps to unwittingly propagate a few more. Sometimes the good comes with the bad. 

3/5 Stars

Bhowani Junction (1956) and Racial Identity

Bhowani_Junction

“It’s about time the Lord started making all human beings the same on the outside as well as the same on the inside.” – Stewart Granger as Col. Rodney Savage

“They’d only change it back again, the moment his back was turned.” – Ava Gardners as Victoria Jones

Some will easily take offense with Bhowani Junction for its portrayals. To be sure, it’s working in terms of imperialism, British-Indian relations, and biracial identity. Oftentimes Westerners, and Hollywood in particular, are suspect of taking an oversimplified, superficial perspective when we represent other cultures. It could be the “White Man’s Burden,” The Nobel Savage archetype, or even “The Tragic Mulatto.”

Certainly, a lot of these stereotypes — now decades later — aren’t only indicative of a skewed or misguided sense of portrayal. Rather they get maintained through prolonged underrepresentation. It starts with ignorance and the kind of clumsy cultural shorthand that tries to make sense of other people who are different than ourselves. However, its continued pervasiveness lasts partially because it’s never fleshed out or totally dismantled by a flood of new portrayals. In many cases, we’re still getting over this very same hump in the 21st century.

For this reason alone, Bhowani Junction makes an admirable go at offering a slightly different perspective. It’s hard to say the Indian characters get to reclaim their own story because this narrative is still dominated by colonialism like its predecessors.

Granted, we must also still court issues of whitewashing (if not simply with Ava Gardner). You have both Bill Travers and Francis Matthews playing a mixed-race and a native Indian respectively. It feels especially regrettable since an actor like Sabu was passed over for a role.

Likewise, there is something convenient about Gardner ending up with the strapping white man (her fellow Anglo-Indian dies a sacrificial death). Meanwhile, the kindly Sikh she nearly marries out of gratitude is forgotten in the wake of ensuing drama. Still, these are only a few qualms.

The backdrop of the story is of vital importance in order to contextualize what’s going on. The British Empire’s foothold in India is crumbling. You have the peaceful protests of Gandhi sweeping the country. Meanwhile, more militant riots are being instigated by a local troublemaker named Davay (Peter Illing). Deciphering the socio-political climate is hardly easy and that’s why the conquerors usually got it wrong wherever they wind up.

The curious thing is how Bhowani Junction is not about holding the empire together. One of its main representatives, Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), knows it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles. What gains importance is the process of leaving well. The primary objective is based on creating stability and relinquishing power honorably with as little bloodshed and animosity as possible.

It’s people like Victoria (Gardner) and her childhood friend Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers) who must figure out where they fit into this narrative. However, it’s noteworthy that the dissociation going on inside her own being goes beyond existing as a mere social pariah. Far from being an outcast, she’s a respected member of the British military and not completely rejected by the local Indian population.

Still, she is different than both. It’s reality and she must come to terms with it. What presents itself is a surprisingly unique perspective for 1950s Hollywood and even if it is imperfect, it proves willing to grapple with history in an altogether different manner. Thus, Bhowani Junction is a welcomed contour of 1950s Hollywood filling in and shading a cross-section of society we very rarely see.

Subsequently, the film does is offer up a case study of racial identity with Gardner caught between three men representative of the three “cultures” tugging at her very being. Because Victoria Jones, half-English, half-Indian, has her affections and allegiances split threefold.

However, Bhowani Junction adds a bit more nuance when it comes to the representation of biracial characters. I will dance around these lines gingerly as I know some might vehemently disagree. I can only speak from my own experience as someone who grew up with a similar background. Even if I am rarely accustomed to this kind of racism or private dissonance, questions of my own identity still creep into my mind from time to time. It’s only natural.

Yes, the romance with Granger and the melodramatics might fall within the realm of accepted convention, but under Cukor’s sympathetic eye, Gardner comes at the part with a ferocity — giving it her all. One particularly scarring moment involves a devastating rape scene.

Far from being a mere lynchpin of the narrative, it’s actually suffused with the terror and concern it should rightfully engender. What a horrible experience to be privy to as Gardner struggles for her life by the local train tracks. In truth, it left the actress so affected she had to make peace with her onscreen aggressor (Lionel Jeffries) off-camera. It’s graphic in movement and emotion and that’s terrifying enough.

Amid the foreseeable beats, there is a far more intimate and engaging story attempting to court themes of a far more personal nature. The hubbub and crowded train depots are momentarily diverting, but they are not Cukor’s prime concern nor his forte. He’s no Demille or David Lean. Give him the relationships, person-to-person, and on this scale, he is a wonderful handler.

Cukor also remains vindicated by history. Because the epiphany that his original structure was ruthlessly bastardized by the studio, through hastily constructed voiceover and other such shortcuts, gives me greater faith in the man. It’s only a shame we cannot see his personal cut of the movie. Not only does the thrown-together bookend narration kill the climax, it feels stilted, wrecking the basic integrity of our story. Alas, what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars