Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Its my sworn duty to push too hard"

It is difficult to find any logic in the factors determining exactly which directors become "Cult" Directors. Not in the modern age, where a director can attract a cult following after a single film, if their vision and/or style is distinctive or fashionable enough. But Directors from the classic era, the Hollywood Golden Age, which threw up Directors of every type - from Iconoclastic "Greats" (Hitchcock, Ford), to stylists (Minelli, Ray) and solid craftsmen (John Sturges, Raoul Walsh), mad geniuses (Welles) and underappreciated artists who, over time, found cult audiences. You could list the likes of Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk and Budd Boetticher in that last category. None really seen as a major director while they were at the peak of their working lives (whereas competent hacks like Wyler and Wise were...), each has since been critically reappraised and enjoyed a significant posthumous boost to his reputation. This began with French critics who approached American cinema in the 1950s without the snobbery and received notions of their American counterparts, meaning that they took B-movies and genre pictures just as seriously as Big Budget star-filled issue films, if not more so in many cases.

Why certain directors are chosen for such reappraisal while others are not baffles me. In the case of Cornel Wilde, it may be down purely to his original career as an actor. He was a stolid leading man in films like "Leave Her to Heaven" (1945) and "The Big Combo" (1955), but after his initial emergence from Broadway in the 40s, he never quite became a Big Star. As an actor he had too complex a screen presence for that, obviously intelligent, masculine, but suspiciously European, and slightly wooden. The success he had enjoyed in Swashbuckling roles early on meant that he moved almost exclusively into adventure films during the 1950s. They had vivid titles like "Treasure of the Golden Condor" (1953) and "At Swords Point" (1952) and made use of his virile physicality and square-jawed heroism. But Wilde was a lateral thinker and something of a renaissance man. While working in the Industry as an actor, he became interested in making his own films. He formed a production company and it was responsible for "The Big Combo", one of the best of the late films in the first wave of Noir films. Wilde was clever enough to recognise that he had done some of his best work as an actor in the Noir genre in the 40s - in "Road House" (1948) and "Shockproof" (1949) - and so he and producer Philip Yordan hired some of the greatest talents working in the genre for his return to it. Based on the terrific Kenneth Fearing novel, they chose Joseph H Lewis as a director, spotting a talent which had been largely unacknowledged since the release of the low budget "Gun Crazy" in 1949. Most importantly, legendary Noir cinematographer John Alton was brought on board and did perhaps his greatest ever work, making the film a glorious study in high contrast black and white.

Wilde made his directorial debut the next year, and he stuck to the crime genre with "Storm Fear" (hoods on the run hole up with a family during a blizzard), followed it with "The Devils Hairpin" (1957) (racing car driver finds himself at a sticky point in his career) and "Maracaibo" (1958) (oilfield drama). He stars in each of these films with his then-wife, Jean Wallace. None of them is available on DVD, which is an obvious consequence of Wilde's continued semi-obscurity, even in Cult terms. In 1963, he returned to the adventure genre with "Sword of Lancelot", a serious, technicolor take on the mythic story. He played Lancelot, Wallace played Guinevere. His interest in violence and in portraying its consequences became very evident in his work as a director here. He was a skilled Swordsman, having qualified for the US Fencing team for the 1936 Olympics, and "Sword of Lancelot" only really comes alive during its impressive action scenes. Wilde orchestrates large battles and shows real expertise with his staging of the more intimate combats. The action is always visceral and has a real impact - heads are split open, limbs sliced apart -, a rarity for a film of that era. Wilde makes a point of showing the injuries caused by medieval weaponry with some shocking cutaways. Unfortunately, the screenplay is less assured, and though intent on making this a version of the story aimed at adults, he and Wallace have a bizarre absence of chemistry, and his own French accent is uneven and distracting throughout.

His next film as Director, "The Naked Prey" (1966) would be a big step forward, and is probably his most fondly remembered today. Adapted from the story of the Trapper John Colter and his pursuit through Wyoming by Blackfoot Indians, the film relocates the action to Africa. Wilde is a hunter guiding a party of privileged white men through the Savannah when they cross and greviously offend a local tribe. The tribe attack the party, kill everybody else (in some excrutiatingly inventive ways), and strip Wilde naked before sending him racing off alone, a group of them prepared to hunt after him for sport. But Wilde is not prepared to go so easily, and he fights back as he flees, steadily evening things up. Its an utterly distinctive and interesting film, recently issued on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which is some mark of the admiration for it in certain circles. Once it becomes a chase movie, Wilde strips the narrative down entirely until the action is brutal, the setting somewhat elemental, the characterisation incisive and sparing - everything is cast aside in a rush of narrative momentum. Wilde's character is never even given a name. He is just "the man", an obvious nod to the wider meaning Wilde was searching for. As a director, he had a great eye for action, and the action scenes here are all tense and exciting as Wilde's character steadily eliminates his hunters one by one. And those hunters are humanised - we see them fight amongst themselves, experience doubt and anger - though never anything less than relentless and frightening. The film's early scenes seem to criticise the obvious racism of the colonial ruling class, and its use of the songs of the African Nguni tribe was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of "The Naked Prey" is that it focuses upon the chase at its centre until that chase becomes a subject worthy of such examination. It is revealed as a complex ritual, a metaphor for human survival in the world, for man's relationship with his environment, a testing ground of strength and courage. Mainly, it strips away civilizing instincts, leaving both pursued and pursuer little better than animals. Wilde seems obsessed with man's choice to use violence as a sort of means of expression and the moral consequences of this choice, and the opening narration almost summarises the film's themes : “And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” Its emphasis on this almost dialogue-free, zen-like approach to action as a subject in and of itself has been somewhat influential - Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" is virtually a remake, transplanted to Central America, and the Coen Brothers (who remade the film on Super-8 as teens) were presumably influenced by it in their approach to the aborted "To the White Sea" (there are even similarities with the chase segments of "No Country for Old Men"). Wilde's next film, "Beach Red" (1967) was to prove just as influential, even if that influence would take a few decades to reveal itself.

"Beach Red" is the story of an American attack on a Japanese-held Island in the Pacific during World War 2. It opens with an almost 40 minute long sequence of the preparation for and action of the landing on the Island's beaches by the Americans, then follows one unit as they move inland, sending out various recon patrols and encountering pockets of resistance. This sort of material had been covered in a hundred films before, as well as in such novels as James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and Mailers "The Naked & the Dead". But Wilde avoided the cliches of many of those films while adopting a sensitive, meditative approach suggesting he was aware of the novels. "Beach Red" uses several risky stylistic techniques in its attempt to tell this story differently. Wilde uses first person point of view shots. He throws in moments when we hear the men's musings in brief snatches of voiceover as they think their frightened, selfish, sentimental thoughts. His Captain thinks, a little comedically : "Would there be Wars if clocks were never invented?" Other men ponder their own fear of death, their chances of survival, their loved ones at home. He also features visual flashbacks, generally played out in artful montages of still photos, representing (surprisingly effectively) the memories playing through these men's minds under high stress. Men remember wives, lovers, children, houses. Several key men are given actual flashbacks, always to encounters with women. Wilde's own flashbacks to his wife (Jean Wallace, of course) are poetic and melancholy, the effect lessened slightly by images of his son playing with a toy gun leadenly intercut with shots of men dying on the battlefield.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because Wilde's film seems to have been a definite influence on Malick's sublime "The Thin Red Line".

"Beach Red" features a moment where the advancing Americans troop though a field, passing by a still, ancient-looking native farmer, as does "The Thin Red Line". Both feature cutaways to the Island's wildlife, both treat the Japanese defenders sympathetically, even acknowledging their inner lives (Wilde with flashbacks, Malick with a voiceover). Both feature conflict between pragmatic, stoic Sergeants and liberal, sensitive Officers. "Beach Red" may be Wilde's most beautiful film, it's lovely attempt to capture the play f shadow and light beneath the jungles canopy only slightly bettered by Malick's film. Wilde's film also seems to have influenced "Saving Private Ryan", in the horrible violence of its beach landing scenes (which of course seem utterly tame in comparison with Spielberg's ordeal) and Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" in its even-handed portrayal of the Japanese side of the conflict. Violence and what it morally reveals about mankind was obviously a theme which interested Wilde, since it is central to "The Naked Prey", "Beach Red", and his next film as director, "No Blade of Grass" (1970). "Beach Red" stands out as a memorable and inventive combat film, and again its success is partly down to Wilde's determination to concentrate so singlemindedly upon the action at its centre. We are shown nothing of the wider campaign, and only learn of the men's pasts as they tell one another. Instead we follow them through this primordial jungle and all of the surreal horror of battle together. Distant explosions are picked out by Wilde's camera, but he is only really interested in what is happening inside these men as they deal with the violence closer to hand. Again the idea of violence reducing men somehow, tearing them away from civilization, is suggested. The film's most memorable moment may just be the one which best fuses the interior and exterior worlds of one soldier - as he lies dying by a tree, mentally listing his conquests, Wilde shockingly pours blood in a thick drip down a still photo montage, and the man dies.

"No Blade of Grass" shares this notion. Adapted from John Christopher's novel, it tells the story of a family making their way across England as society collapses into anarchy after every crop - including grass - has died. Here, anarchy means gangs of violent marauders roaming the country, raping and murdering. The family at the centre of the story are forced to become just as feral as those they flee in order to survive, making this probably Wilde's bleakest film. He puts some depressing British locations to great use, his foreigner's eye making for a particularly vivid portrayal. Again, he makes some risky stylistic choices, periodically cutting in flash-forwards, so that we see a shaky snatch of a character's gruesome fate an hour before it actually happens in the story. This doesn't work as well as the flashbacks in "Beach Red" altough it does help to give the film a truly ominous, doom-laden tone, only underlined by the constant cutaways to shots of polluted rivers and ruined fields. This tone leads to a violent, pessimistic climax in which the family, having banded together with another group of survivors, basically become the marauders, attacking a farm and taking it over. It is easily his most violent film, the increasingly lenient standards for screen violence of the era suiting Wilde as a director, allowing him to portray violence of a truly shocking impact, as he includes a couple of brutal rape scenes and some gunplay redolent almost of Sam Peckinpah in its effect.

The film is part of the apocalyptic strain of British sci-fi, a sub-genre the British character seems peculiarly suited to, but it was recut in post-production, and was a commercial failure, basically finishing Wilde as a director. That failure may be due to its dour tone or to what comes across as an unattractively preachy aspect in its portrayal of the ecological consequnces of our modern excesses. He directed only one more film, "Sharks Treasure" (1975), which sounds not unlike a straight version of Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", before seeing out his days acting mainly on television. He died in 1989, never really having received any great credit as a director. Perhaps the recent interest in "The Naked Prey" could signal the start of a re-evaluation of his work, which is certainly worthwhile and definitely long-overdue.



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I feel bad that I saw this post a few days ago and didn't get around to reading it for so long, because I think it deserved a great deal more of my attention. Maybe if you went the tabloid route and outlined alln the interesting bits in the first sentence/paragraph I'd have been hooked sooner.

As it is it took a way down before you mentioned 'Thin Red Line', but I was thinking of it already -and now think of Wilde as I director I want to see more of. I'm sold.

Of Mallick's film...I never really got over the flashback of Miranda Otto upside down on a swing.

11:25 pm  
Blogger David N said...

How do you mean? You thought it was bad? Or good? Because its very very good.

11:30 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Good. Definitely good, like...magical and stuff. Those whole flashback segments with the Ben Chaplin voice-over. Amazing.

11:07 pm  

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