Leave No Trace

(dir. Granik, wr. Granik, Rosellini)

This is marvellous writing. Because there’s so little writing.

Apparently the first thing lead Ben Foster did, after coming on board, was sit down with director Debra Granik and cut out even more of his lines. The first 10-20 minutes of the film, just father and daughter in the wilds – the heroically unshowy Foster, uncomfortable and intense, and the brilliant Thomasin Mackenize – are largely silent. The few exchanges they do have contain precisely no elaborations of emotion – total absence of “that’s my girl”s etc – no elaborations of anything.

There’s a similar lack of melodrama in their interactions with others: the film repeatedly avoids the obvious choices, the obvious conflicts. When we expect the representatives of regular life to be uncomprehending and mean, they’re mostly rather reasonable people trying to do their jobs, and even to be a bit helpful. It locates the film’s tension not in a struggle between goodies and baddies, but in one person’s struggle to survive in the world, and it’s the more powerful for it.

The final scene, a quietly devastating climax for those involved, is silent: we know these characters now, we know what they feel, we know the paths they must follow, and so we don’t need to be told any of it. Silence is the most marvellous writing of all.

The Two Popes

The Two Popes does (/do) exactly what it says on the tin. It features two Popes; no more, no fewer. They are played by two actors who really look rather like them. (Director Meirelles apparently first saw Jonathan Pryce in a meme pointing out how much he looks like Pope Francis.) The two of them talk. Not a lot else happens.

To that extent, it really works. The two performances are as brilliant as you’d expect from these two actors; too often, indeed, over-busy editing pulls away from the faces when we could have done with a bit more of their reactions; feelings felt, not told. A film of two old men talking for more than two hours stays remarkably brisk.

But there’s no more, either. In particular, the film never pushes far from the the stereotypes of the two: Pope Benedict is pitched at the start as cynical, conservative and out-of-touch (the Beatles gag that dominates the trailer), and his later signs of wisdom, wit and humility come too late; Pope Francis is pitched as the coolest of Cardinals (football! tango! discussing oregano with the gardener!) as well as the most humble and humane, and the later attempt to give him an uncomfortable bit of past only makes him more pleasingly human. In Po-faced Pope vs Pop Pope there’s really no contest; and there’s no contest of ideals of the kind emphasized by the film’s blurb. We never hear why the conservative point of view might be meaningful for the Church and supported by so many. And we never get much sense of either man having much influence on the other.

So in the end it’s a pleasing bit of (vaguely) historical re-enactment, two great actors representing two rather interesting men having a relatively deep chat; and nothing wrong with that.

The Lone Ranger

(d. Verbinski, w. Haythe, Elliott)

The constant irritation with The Lone Ranger is that there’s a thoroughly enjoyable film concealed within it, almost entirely obscured by various substantial bits of superfluous nonsense. It doesn’t need anything more to make it better; it needs considerably less. If you popped out to the loo or put the kettle on at the right moments, The Lone Ranger would be a better and more enjoyable film.

It’s not. It’s a heaving, straining, bursting-at-the-seams, over-plotted, over-special-effected, mediocre film instead.

Image result for lone ranger depp

Johnny Depp is enjoying himself, anyway, and his ratty grumbling ninja version of Tonto approximately works, in an unlikely place somewhere between Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans and Baldrick; Cactus Jack Sparrow. Armie Hammer is an effective Lone Ranger next to him, straight man but not fool. The relationship just about works, and the ambiguity about who’s the lead. And the plot’s ok: bit of backstory to hint at depth, bit of bonding, some revenge and some perfidy-thwarting.

And if you cut about half an hour, it’ll be the right length and a satisfactory film. Lose one of the backstories, distracting and over-burdening. Lose the perfidy-by-committee bit, and stick to the core baddies. Lose the final elaboration of the train stunt, where the incredible becomes pure (and not very good) cartoon.

Lose Helena Bonham-Carter. At this point she occupied a bizarre Orson Welles-like place in film, drifting around doing cameos for friends apparently using bits of costume stolen from whatever she’d done the previous week. Her grungy punk fallen woman thing is as enjoyable as ever, but irrelevant here. Sorry.

Above all, lose the totally redundant and maddening framing bit in the museum. Because what the heck is it there for? Middle-aged actors in vaguely convincing ancient make-up stopped being a thing in the mid-80s. I was hanging on, teeth gritted, for the end, purely because there had to be some twist coming – some last-minute heart-warming reveal that would explain this otherwise pointless indulgence – obviously the kid’s going to turn out to be the young JFK or Bruce Wayne or something… But then – spoiler alert! there’s nothing to spoil. It’s pointless. Enjoy your cup of tea.

The Mummy

(d. Kurtzman, w. Koepp, McQuarrie, Kussman, Spaihts, Kurtzman, Lumet)

What’s wrong with The Mummy, actually?
1. It’s a mess.
2. Tom Cruise seems to have stolen a script written for someone entirely different.
3. The only possible explanation for the staggeringly dumb Russell Crowe voiceover that suddenly cuts in early on is bad reaction from an early test screening among particularly stupid people. It’s beyond clumsy, and reveals stuff that would have been much more interesting had Cruise discovered it bit by bit.Image result for mummy cruise
4. It’s not entirely clear what whatsername is trying to do.
5. The whole second half apparently happens in a cellar.
6. It doesn’t get its theology straight before the final confrontation, so it’s not clear who’s trying to do what and what it means when they do. So the confrontation and its aftermath lose most of their interest and weight.
7. See 1.
8. Otherwise it might have been as enjoyable as the Brendan Fraser version, which had characters who were generally engaging, a mostly consistent and entertaining tone, and a clearer sense of narrative.

Morning Glory

(d. Michell, w. McKenna)

Kind of hard to know whether to congratulate Morning Glory for being enjoyable – so dashed all-round pleasant – with such formulaic ingredients, or to condemn it for failing to be much better with ingredients that offered more. Image result for morning glory mcadams

In title and intermittent breathlessness it’s a callback to the screwball comedies of the 30s, but that only highlights how much it misses their sharpness of script.

It doesn’t seem to know what to do with any of the potential narrative trajectories, and ends up offering a kind of taster menu of each without any one satisfying. Whether or not peppy McAdams turns the failing show around may not be much of a surprise, but the pacing of the elements of it is. The relationship with Patrick Wilson – and its signposted points of tension – doesn’t develop in any one direction. The relationship with Harrison Ford – the question of whether he’s right to push serious news, or whether the breakfast pap is legitimate – tries clumsily to develop in both.

McAdams carries the film with surprising zest, irrepressibly perky without being tiresome, principled and determined without being saccharine, able to make a fool of herself without losing charm. But the film’s a tragic waste of her two senior co-stars.

Image result for morning glory mcadamsHarrison Ford’s role as the legendary war reporter who can’t believe he’s reduced to the humiliating depths of breakfast-time lifestyle fluff is perfect for him. He can be obnoxiously grouchy in the safe knowledge that we all love him really; his real-life reputation and star persona make the grumpiness and the underlying fatherly wisdom equally credible, and he enjoys himself by never breaking the humourlessness. But the potential is wasted by episodes that don’t exploit the comic potential, and a storyline that doesn’t give him a clear enough journey. Diane Keaton, meanwhile – enough of a great to have immediate gravity, and a legendary comedienne – just disappears. Her character – its potential as sparring partner or lesson for Ford, or mentor for McAdams – barely exists. It’s as if the producers were so busy congratulating themselves at such a brilliant pairing for the feuding TV anchors that they forgot to write the script for them.

It’s all congenial enough; but it promises champagne and delivers a nice cup of tea.

Oscars 2019: your early tips…

BRThe nominations for the 2019 Academy Awards are out, but the ceremony on February 24th seems a way off, so why not find out now who’s going to win?

The nominations list contains some fascinating battles, and some surprises. Lots has already been written about those who surprisingly didn’t make it (Damian Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man only nominated in technical categories, Mary Queen of Scots likewise despite two in vogue actresses facing off.). And Bohemian Rhapsody‘s already celebrating being one that surprisingly did. From well before shooting started, this was a film that looked properly doomed: stars who wouldn’t star, rumours that the rest of Queen were neutering the story, and then a director getting fired halfway through. Even when it did reach cinemas, reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody weren’t universally good. But lots of people enjoyed the film, and everyone thought Rami Malek’s take on Freddie was extraordinary, and suddenly it was winning Golden Globes and now it’s got a handful of Oscar nominations. Sometimes Hollywood likes to remind itself that it’s in the entertainment business.11-mary-queen-of-scots-flexnocropw1920h2147483647

The biggest – and bizarrest – disappointment is of course that, in a year when unusually the industry managed to fund a raft of impressive films by impressive female directors, none of those films and none of those directors was nominated. It’ll be interesting to see how the widespread criticism of that affects attitudes towards those that did make it.

Best Picture


Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Under current rules the Academy can nominate up to ten Best Pictures, and the fact they’ve only put up eight suggests the experts see this as a non-vintage year. But it’s a really interesting mix. Black Panther is the stand-out story, a superhero picture seen as pioneering because of its black protagonist, and which has now parlayed that renown and generally very positive reviews into a pioneering Best Picture nomination.

It’s a pretty even match-up between a bunch of generally very entertaining films. Sometimes the Academy likes to seem forward-looking (two films with Black in the title), sometimes the Academy likes costume (anarchic Queen Anne romp The Favourite, from a director both hip and respected), and more than sometimes the Academy likes to look in the mirror (A Star Is Born).

This is where any suggestion that the Academy still has something to prove – with #MeToo unsatisfied and a Director’s list that’s woefully old-style – might come into play. I suspect the best hint of the likely winner is that only two of the films are not in some way tongue-in-cheek or comic or entertainment-driven. (BlacKkKlansman really isn’t light, but has been oddly marketed light). Green Book, based on the true story of jazz pianist Don Shirley’s Deep South road trip, has had some criticism for its handling of the material. So let’s guess Roma, a serious and beautiful and almost universally praised film, by a favoured director, and Academy voters getting to feel terribly good about themselves.

Lead Actress

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Schulman-Glenn-CloseAny of these would be a popular winner, one way or another, and in most years could be. Olivia Colman is on the fast-track to National Treasure (final stop: actually becoming Judi Dench, just before beatification), but perhaps not yet for Americans. Surely, surely, it’s Glenn Close year: Hollywood royalty, in a genuinely classy and strong performance. (Otherwise she’ll tie with Richard Burton for seven nominations without a win, Peter O’Toole still out in front with eight…).

Lead Actor

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Another fascinating contest, this. No landmark Lincoln-type performances, no old legends getting their lifetime achievement nod; just five generally popular actors in generally well-reviewed films, delivering in most cases a really distinctive performance. Remarkably, four out of the five are real-life characters (and the fifth, Cooper’s fading star, is so well known after three previous versions of the film that he might as well be).

At-Eternitys-End-Poster-Willem-Dafoe-Vincent-VanLet’s make the same mistake as those making predictions for all the previous awards he went on to win, and say that the many voters who enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance wouldn’t feel right giving him the gong in this company; and perhaps Queen isn’t enough of a treasure for the American-dominated Academy. Christian Bale just keeps on giving extraordinary performances, but his Dick Cheney may seem too understated and too close to impersonation. Bradley Cooper has a good shout for A Star is Born, in lieu of the Director’s award he wasn’t nominated for and because doing a stylish skilful job on this generation’s version of the classic Hollywood fable is something like a community service.

But if the voters go serious in dark times, it’s down to the two lean grizzled warriors playing a little against type. Viggo Mortensen might suffer from the criticism of Green Book, and for a more understated role. So, a sneaky feeling it’s going to be long-shot Willem Dafoe: Hollywood loves her veterans, who pay their dues in everything from experimental theatre to Speed 2, and here’s a distinctive and moving and deeply worthy performance.

Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Anything could happen here, but I suspect it’s down to two. Rachel Weisz (who won this in 2006) always gives the impression of being Oscar-material, a serious actress making interesting choices, but she and Emma Stone (who won Best Actress only two years ago) probably cancel each other out. It was a pleasant surprise that Marina de Tavira got nominated but, especially if they’ve done their bit by giving Roma one of the bigger awards, voters are likely to pick something closer to home here. So it’ll be either Amy Adams, because she’s so good so consistently and keeps being nominated and they’ve got to get it right sometime, or Regina King, as the mother in the under-nominated If Beale Street Could Talk.

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Really interesting mix, this. Ali’s is the most weighty performance on the surface and he won the Golden Globe for it, but he’s conceded there’s controversy over the script (he ‘did the best with the material’), and voters may feel he doesn’t need this award again so soon after winning for Moonlight. The same may hold for Rockwell, who won last year; and these days George W. Bush doesn’t seem as ridiculous as he did when Josh Brolin played him in W, so there’s less mileage in lampooning him. Adam Driver plays a more serious version of the Adam Driver part, which is always popular, and it’s a relatively substantial role – but perhaps not distinctive enough. British commentators have been talking up Richard E. Grant’s louche turn as forger’s accomplice in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (“Maybe she didn’t die; maybe she just moved back to the suburbs. I always confuse those two.”) – largely on the basis of ‘because Withnail’. That may resonate less with American voters, perhaps more likely to reward veteran character actor Elliott, especially if they didn’t give A Star Is Born one of the bigger prizes.


Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

This is an amazingly diverse list of directors, with three of the five non-Americans (not to mention the even balance of X and Y chromosomes), and a wide open competition. Pawlikowski’s Cold War has been highly praised, and Hollywood will have enjoyed McKay’s pillorying of Dick Cheney in Vice, but I guess voters will feel stronger claims elsewhere. With The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos has crowned an increasingly respected career with a film that’s entertaining and stylish. The credentials of Cuarón and Roma are immaculate, and it would be no surprise if he got his second statuette five years after Gravity. But although the Best Picture – Best Director double whammy has become typical, I’ve a suspicion this year might be an exception, with voters giving Roma the former and thus leaving the latter free as an informal lifetime achievement and significance award for Spike Lee (despite a film that, though powerful and genuinely important and generally stylish, is tonally a muddle).

Adapted Screenplay

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Original Screenplay

The Favourite, Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Because this is a Script Hack, a word or two about scripts: no idea. Among the Adapted Screenplays, the longer shots are Buster Scruggs, because the Coens have already won twice and for better work, and BlacKkKlansman, because the studio have pitched it as more a comedy than the still-resonant relatively true story it really is. A Star is Born could win, particularly if it’s lost out elsewhere. Tossing a coin… and predicting the wit, and writing-about-writing appeal, of Can You Ever Forgive Me? over the heritage and worth of If Beale Street Could Talk.

The Original Screenplays are even more of an unknown. By process of 3188elimination/making stuff up… This is where Green Book is most likely to suffer because of complaints about how the characters are represented. And, though a clean sweep is very possible, this might be one award where Roma seems less distinctive. The Favourite, serious-because-history but with a funky/rude modern tone, has perhaps its best chance of a major award here. The same is true of Vice, a story and a style Hollywood will have enjoyed, though it might be seen as more of an actors’ film than a writer’s. So let’s say a sentimental Oscar for the veteran Paul Schrader, four decades after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and still waiting for an Oscar. Who knows?

The Hateful Eight

(written & directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This might be the film where Quentin Tarantino at last Quentin Tarantinoes himself too far. It’s a QT film par excellence, a QT film with a big nudge and a big wink and an extra big bucket of blood – the title nodding to both Fellini and the Magnificent Seven, the artfully episodic structure, the games with time sequence, the old favourites from his acting troupe like Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Roth, the spuriously real violence – and it ends up as a rather unsatisfying and unpleasant mess.


Tarantino’s brilliant strength has also been his weakness: the ability to write individual scenes of astonishing, heart-gripping tension… so much so that they need not, or do not, fit into an absorbing narrative. In his early successes, this didn’t matter so much. Reservoir Dogs had enough narrative and enough novelty to work spectacularly well. Pulp Fiction made a virtue of lack of coherent narrative and over-dominant brilliant individual scenes. The showcase cameos of True Romance were strung into a coherent film by another director.

But the games with narrative structure increasingly feel like they’re just covering up lack of narrative strength. Especially when the scenes start to lose the power to compensate. Inglourious Basterds had its stand-out scenes of tension – mostly those with Christoph Waltz. But each felt like a piece in itself, and with lack of forward momentum it was hard in the end to care about any of the characters. Django Unchained had virtues beyond criticism: Waltz does his thing, again; Di Caprio acts mean; Jamie Foxx is just that cool and sexy. But the stand-out scenes were fewer, and weaker, and the narrative never fulfilled its promise of going anywhere interesting, and the whole ended up a bit drawn-out and… dull.

And so here we are with The Hateful Eight. Lots of scenes – or lots of sub-scenes in one big scene – of anger and conflict, but the suspense is weak now and it’s hard to care. The violence and gore used to be the pay-off, the lurking threat that made the tension so heavy. Now they’re automatic, unconsidered, QT just shouting even louder to prove his credentials. The blood and brutality aren’t shocking in Hateful Eight, or surprising, and they’re not effective in any direction; they’re just nasty.

And within the distaste lurks a deeper discomfort. This film is a brilliant allegory of the American national experience, right? Habitual use of the n-word, that’s ok, right, especially because Samuel L. Jackson does it? Jennifer Jason Leigh getting beaten up more than any of the male characters, that’s a bold demonstration of equality, right? You kind of hope Tarantino really is that woke and feminist and in control of his material, because the alternative is really unattractive.

Broadsword Calling Danny Boy

(or: why don’t they shoot the radio operator?)

wedAn appreciation of Where Eagles Dare at 50


Broadsword calling Danny Boy… Broadsword calling Danny Boy…

Richard Burton’s urgent voice, its insistent velvet rasp. Broadsword calling Danny Boy…

The master-plan of British Military Intelligence is close to triumph, the heroes need a way out, but the Germans are closing in and the castle’s going up in flames and surely Clint Eastwood hasn’t got many more ammunition clips for his machine-pistol…

Broadsword calling Danny Boy!

Where Eagles Dare premiered 50 years ago, on 22nd January 1969. And still its signature line brings a smile, a glow: faintly ridiculous, and oddly heroic, a shorthand for a film that’s melodramatic nonsense and still, somehow, strangely cool and gloriously unforgettably entertaining.

The eerie stirring theme music. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, the Hamlet-and-Hollywood legend side-by-side with the spaghetti western drifter, icon of a new cool. All the grey uniforms against the snow, then the lavish colour of the banqueting hall and the gunshot wounds. Evil Aryan Gestapo man. The cable car. Heidi. The radio operator. The cable car. The school bus. The notebooks. Everything getting blown up with cartoon-style sticks of dynamite. Danny Boy calling Broadsword…

Incredible, yes. But to the British very, very simple.


Richard Burton’s story was that he made the film happen because his step-sons ‘were fed up with me making films they weren’t allowed to see, or in which I get killed’; he asked producer Elliot Kastner ‘if he had some super-hero stuff for me where I don’t get killed in the end’. Kastner commissioned a script from Alistair Maclean, whose Second World War adventure The Guns of Navarone had been made into a high-profile hit a few years before. Maclean delivered a script in six weeks.

By the late sixties Alistair Maclean was a well-established best-selling adventure/thriller novelist. The Gaelic-speaking third son of a Church of Scotland Minister, he had served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and subsequently become a teacher. A prize-winning short story caught a publisher’s attention, and his wartime experience on the brutal, elemental Arctic convoys gave him the background for his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses (1955). Bleak as well as gripping, it’s unlike almost anything else he would write. Something of its depth lingered in his next two or three books, and its harsh context (two were wartime, one a grim Cold War espionage). But thereafter his novels tended to be a little more pop, the espionage and the action more technicolour.

Maclean’s novels fall roughly into four blocks. The first few were darker, relatively deeper and in some cases purely action rather than mystery. The sixties produced his classics, a series of usually first-person books that successfully combine sustained action and engaging mystery; he had a knack for crudely appealing characters and shrewd plotting, parachuting the reader into the middle of things and peeling away the layers of revelation. He was writing the same sort of thing in the seventies, but they were hit and miss, the suspense more perfunctory, the descriptions more overblown; some still work alright, and some don’t. The fourth and final group of books, written in the late seventies and early eighties, are generally dire: he repeats characters and even names in rambling and incoherent plots, and even when the situations get vaguely interesting he hasn’t the patience to resolve them with any kind of tension.am

Maclean also produced short stories, including the competition-winning ‘Dileas’ which prompted his writing career and is published in The Lonely Sea collection. Perhaps prompted by the success of Where Eagles Dare, which began as a film idea, starting in the 1970s Maclean produced several film outlines, including a series based around the United Nations Anti-Crime Organization; a few of them became films and a few of them were worked up as novels by other writers. He lived as a tax exile in Switzerland, and after his death in 1987 he was buried there – almost next to Richard Burton.

Alistair Maclean wrote to entertain. His books have dramatic settings, strong plots, tension and action. Goodies and baddies are clearly and strongly-defined (though one of the former frequently turns out to be one of the latter); women are glamorous, occasionally mysterious and generally passive assistants. The books are almost deliberately cinematic, and indeed by the 1970s he was writing some books with the expectation that they would be films. Where Eagles Dare was a film outline before it was a novel.

So it’s curious that the films of his books are such a mixed bunch. A couple of classics, quite a lot of meh, and some utter rubbish.look like poster

The film Guns of Navarone, like the novel, stands alone in the series, unlike anything that came afterwards. It’s a drama rather than a mystery. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven are all Best Actor Oscar winners. At the start of the 60s, it’s closer in time to the war it portrays, and closer in style to the sober war films of the 50s. David Niven really had been a commando in the war, returning from a comfortable decade-long Hollywood career and doing reconnaissance work ahead of the troops advancing after D-Day; Anthony Quayle really had operated behind the lines in occupied south-eastern Europe. (By contrast, Force 10 from Navarone benefits from period setting, good cast – Robert Shaw, replacing Gregory Peck as the rugged Mallory, was by now married to Where Eagles Dare’s Mary Ure – and a plot that sticks broadly to the original. But, twenty years after Guns of Navarone and ten after Where Eagles Dare, the tone feels a little kitsch. Watching it, we know that Harrison Ford was also in Star Wars, Carl Weathers in Rocky, and Richard Kiel and Barbara Bach in James Bond films.) Some of the films have attractions that make them still worth watching: The Satan Bug is surprisingly successful in shifting the novel’s central England setting to the south-western US, with stylish desert and modernist surroundings; Ice Station Zebra is ambitious in scope and its Cold War message, though over-complicates the plot (which seems hardly possible) and goes off the rails a bit; When Eight Bells Toll does some shrewd slimming down and tweaking of the novel’s plot to work on screen, and benefits from the class of Nathalie Delon and particularly Anthony Hopkins; Breakheart Pass has good production values (especially considering that it’s not merely Maclean’s one pre-Second World War novel, but the best part of a century pre) and sticks pretty closely to the plot while delivering the action well. Most of the rest sank quickly.

Then there were some late TV/straight-to-video films based on Maclean ideas/outlines. (His Air Force One is Down outline hijacked the US President’s plane long before Gary Oldman snatched Harrison Ford in the unrelated Wolfgang Petersen film; when it finally became a film it had an updated post-Bosnian war plot and Rupert Graves snarling a lot as an evil Serb warlord. Death Train and Night Watch had Pierce Brosnan warming up his action hero muscles in the years immediately before he got his second and successful chance at Bond.)

So what’s the secret of the successes?von hapen

Sticking to the plot helps: Maclean’s stories were never strong on thoughtful character development, and the films rarely attracted enormous budgets, so it was better to stick pretty closely to the mysteries. Period helps: Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone – and indeed Breakheart Pass – have dated less than the contemporary attempts at 60s and 70s cool. Music helps, arguably related to period (the contemporary thrillers got contemporary scores which perhaps last less well; When Eight Bells Toll and The Satan Bug aren’t bad): Dimitri Tiomkin’s catchy march for The Guns of Navarone and Jerry Goldsmith’s urgent melodrama-with-wild-west-touches for Breakheart Pass are excellent; and so of course is Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare, with the rising drama of the main theme and the perpetually-lurking moody mystery of the incidental music, all moaning wind and low brass.

Having the right kind of star really helps. Maclean wrote approximately one kind of hero (wrote successfully, anyway): cool, hard, sardonic; ruthless while witty; fallible but unflappable. It took a certain kind of actor to make this work. Gregory Peck gets by in Guns of Navarone because it’s chatty and historical; he was too romantic, too classic Hollywood to have carried one of the contemporary thrillers. Barry Newman in Fear is the Key, Sven-Bertil Taube in Puppet on a Chain and David Birney (reviewed by the Guardian as ‘about as expressive as a constipated owl’) in Caravan to Vaccarès couldn’t really cut it; they’re too vulnerable, too weak, like actual humans in actual mysteries. Donald Sutherland’s the wrong kind of cool – hippy not hard-man – and contributes to the general floppiness of Bear Island. But Richard Harris in Golden Rendezvous, Anthony Hopkins in When Eight Bells Toll and Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass are the right stuff; Patrick McGoohan in Ice Station Zebra is ideal.

And of course Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare is right too. The lingering whiff of theatricality isn’t so bad in the period setting and the plot elaborations. And his legendary son-of-the-pit credentials – plus a lot of cigarettes – give him credible hardness that, say, Gregory Peck couldn’t produce for Guns of Navarone. (For anti-establishment celtic toughness, see also Harris and Hopkins.)


Ironically, given that he’s the most iconic element of the most iconic Maclean film, the one person who’s really wrong is Clint Eastwood. He’s too modern, too laid back, the wrong kind of cool (the wrong kind of hair). But paired with Burton he somehow works perfectly. The story goes that he didn’t like much of his lines, so had them cut, leaving Burton most of the exposition and himself even more laconic. As Burton and the other veteran British character actors exude intensity in all directions, Eastwood lopes around showing everyone how to chill a bit. He speaks for the audience’s bafflement at the labyrinthine plot. While the others pursue the detailed obligations of the double- and triple-crossing, he just blows stuff up and kills everyone he meets.

In style, the two main women in Where Eagles Dare echo the lead men. Mary Ure (Mary) was first distinguished as a stage actress, one of the original cast of Look Back in Anger (and staying for the film version which Burton joined); she was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Sons and Lovers. Her personal life was as melodramatic as an Alistair Maclean plot – she took up with John Osborne when he was still married to someone else, and seems to have had a son by future husband Robert Shaw while still married to Osborne – and her career was increasingly affected by alcoholism. She died of an overdose in 1975, aged only 42, after her new play had opened badly. Her cool brittleness works rather well for the experienced secret agent she’s supposed to be, notably when she’s struggling the remember the topography of Düsseldorf to the satisfaction of the Gestapo; but she sometimes seems aloof from the film. Ingrid Pitt as Heidi, by contrast, though a rather unlikely top undercover agent, is clearly having the time of her life – and is accordingly part of the film’s appeal. One of several cast members with German and Jewish backgrounds, she spent some of the war in a concentration camp, and then had to flee Communist East Berlin. After uncredited appearances in Chimes at Midnight and Dr Zhivago – two of the greatest serious films of the century – Where Eagles Dare set the tone for her buoyant 1970s career in Hammer horrors. While committed to serious issues – the suffering of native Americans, and maintaining awareness of the holocaust – she seems to have thrived on an exuberant willingness to try anything except taking herself too seriously: she produced spy books and ghost books and Dracula books and a script for Doctor Who, compendia such as the The Ingrid Pitt Book Of Murder, Torture & Depravity and columns for magazines including Motoring & Leisure.

hapen ++

Most of the rest of the cast were experienced character actors. Michael Hordern’s warm weary authority works as well here as it did narrating Paddington. In grim irony, Ferdy Mayne (General Rosemeyer) and Anton Diffring (Colonel Kramer) had both fled Germany in the 1930s: Mayne’s family was Jewish, and – further irony – at the start of the war he had been an informant for MI5; Diffring, also with Jewish blood, apparently had to leave because of his homosexuality. Both had to make careers playing the villainous Germans they’d escaped; you’ve seen Diffring’s distinctive sharp features many times – not least in the Michael Caine/Sylvester Stallone/Pelé/Bobby Moore war’n’football spectacular Escape to Victory, as the German radio announcer producing a ludicrously-biased commentary. Derren Nesbitt, golden blond hair and thick lips and pantomime Nazism, turns out like Heidi to be a key part of the film’s style – ripe characters performed with conviction and a certain pleasure. (His TV-dominated career including playing Number Two in The Prisoner; and if you fancy a treat, look out Episode 9 of The Persuaders, in which Nesbitt plays the louche international villain in an electric blue jacket and rouched shirt and more or less for laughs: ‘Zis is not ze way to go!’, he wails at the denouement, ‘Zis is not beautiful; zis is not right!’)

Given the relative skill of the film, perhaps it’s surprising that it was former bit-player Brian G. Hutton’s fourth of only nine films as director; he also helped tweak the script. The only other one you’ve heard of is his fifth, Kelly’s Heroes, for which he kept and developed Eastwood’s Where Eagles Dare cool, and produced a brilliantly tense opening scene and let Donald Sutherland enjoy himself (though the film suffers from the Curse of Savalas, who automatically spoils any film he appears in). Hutton eventually gave up directing to become, depending whom you believe, either a real estate man or a plumber. His success with Where Eagles Dare was probably helped by having the second unit directed by Hollywood legend Yakima Canutt, who’d been a champion rodeo rider more than fifty years earlier and went on to become one of the greatest stunt-men and stunt-directors in cinema history (John Wayne learned his walk from Canutt).

And then the music, of course. Ron Goodwin’s score for Where Eagles Dare would on its own qualify him for war-tune glory; he also composed evergreens such as Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron (as well as Force Ten From Navarone, and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and the distinctive theme for the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples).

The film was shot over the first half of 1968, firstly on location in Austria before studio work in the UK: Major Smith might have been right about no one being up in the hills above Hohenwerfen Castle in winter, but during the summer a couple of years earlier Julie Andrews had been dancing over them – the castle is in the background during the opening scene of The Sound of Music.


The shoot gathered as many anecdotes as famous film shoots tend to, especially ones involving Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who was photographed with her birthday cake surrounded by those striking grey German uniforms. Eastwood called the film ‘Where Doubles Dare’ because of all the stunt-work needed; Burton’s stand-in Alf Joint claimed he had to do extra work when Burton – reckoned by one fellow actor to be drinking anything up to four bottles of vodka a day and periodically disappearing on a spree with fellow legends – knocked himself out during filming. Joint was responsible for the cable-car jump, and it cost him three teeth. Derren Nesbitt was temporarily blinded when an explosive squib malfunctioned. Having agreed to give Eastwood a Norton P11 motorbike as part of his deal, the producers had made it very clear that he wasn’t to use it before the film was finished, because of the obvious risk. Eastwood of course ignored them, and took the bike for a spin at Brands Hatch – with Ingrid Pitt along for the ride. Because you would, wouldn’t you? Especially if you were Clint.

The film received its Royal Premiere in London on January 22nd 1969. It got pretty good reviews – more for action and style than comprehensibility – and was a commercial success. Fifty years on it’s a guilty pleasure that’s just good enough for people – men – not to feel guilty admitting. The affection it attracts is not the stuff of professional criticism; it was better captured in the below-the-line public comments on a recent article about it on newspaper website, which between them quoted most of the film to comic effect and in passing awarded Anton Diffring the prize for best ever movie lip-wobble for the moment when he’s flicking through the notebook. Steven Spielberg’s called it his favourite war film.

Perhaps there’s a hint of the film’s strength in the fact that it’s arguably better than the book it accompanies – perhaps because it was envisaged as a film first. The film-makers somehow got that the droll heroisms of Maclean’s adventure thrillers weren’t appropriate to the darker context of the Second World War. The book’s third person narration was rare in this phase of Maclean’s writing, and without the usual self-deprecating commentary of his first person narratives the Smith of the book is bland and obnoxiously infallible. And perhaps Maclean, a generation older, couldn’t really get Clint Eastwood; the book’s Shaffer is a cruder stereotyped American, wise-cracking cowboy rather than cool drifter. Mary is a wet rag, forever on the brink of tears at the possibility that Smith either doesn’t love her or might be dead; Heidi is even more explicitly a lust object, a buxom-but-brilliant secret agent who has Shaffer gazing after her with his tongue hanging out. The book makes you realize what unique finds Eastwood, and Pitt and Burton were for the film.

behind scenes

There’s a lovely series of behind-the-scenes photos of the four main players relaxing with flagons of beer in what looks like Zum Wilden Hirsch tavern. Richard Burton is in full flow: he could be singing, reciting Dylan Thomas or telling one of the Larry Olivier or ‘When I was in Hamlet’ anecdotes with which he would regale the cast into the small hours. Fragile Mary Ure looks fond, a little wistful. Ingrid Pitt is sitting on Clint Eastwood’s knee, and they both seem about as fine with that as you’d expect. You could spend a book analysing why Where Eagle’s Dare works; it would be as useful and interesting as explaining a good joke. Good raw material? A lucky gathering of production values and professionals? A plot whose madness is performed with such bravado that it becomes magnificent? (Or, as one analysis suggests, because the film ‘employs a radical approach to violence, gender politics and history’?) There’s the strong impression that it works substantially because, behind the sober intensity of the performances and the memorable melodrama of the action highlights, everyone involved was just having a good time.

Child 44

(Child 44 , dir. Espinosa, scr. Price)

What a bizarrely dull waste. The successful Child 44 book had three or four things going for it: a stunningly atmospheric opening in a winter of starvation (here rushed over and its relevance weakened), a big reveal (cut), the evolving relationship between Demidov and his wife as they first realize the emptiness of what they thought they had and then build anew (next to Noomi Rapace’s pained wisdom Tom Hardy’s Leo is a nice picture of inarticulate bewildered loyalty, war hero as premiership footballer out of his depth, but it doesn’t go anywhere) and a reasonable cat-and-mouse/chase plot. Trying to squeeze in most of the narrative of the book, but still dropping a couple of significant facts and incidents, the film manages somehow to be both too long and too rushed. The Demidovs hurry back and forth across Russia having unpleasant train incidents, the commuter experience from hell, and then the mystery gets addressed in a couple of brisk and largely unrelated bits of business at the end. Espinosa worthily films most of the book, but loses its sense and its drama. Child 44 has some vivid styling and performances (largely for decoration – Cassel is intimidating because he’s Cassel, nothing more; Oldman has to resort to maximum shouting-and-spitting to get any drama into his scenes; Dance, as so often, is paraded as a token of film gravity), but it’s otherwise as empty and lifeless as its Siberian wilderness.

The Script Hack: if we’re skipping the plot relevance of the starvation opening, we can skip the whole scene; if we’re dropping the key bits of information gained from the mid-story return to Moscow, we can drop that whole sequence; and we could trim some of the secondary scenes (the last, for example, nicely true to the book, could be 30 seconds instead of five minutes). That would create much more time and space to pace and build the mystery and anticipation and drama of the hunt, and the relationships at its heart, and still leave a tighter more powerful film.

A Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (dir. Rickman, wr. Brock/Deegan/Rickman)

It’s worth it just for one last glimpse of Alan Rickman in full uncomfortable sneer, the pained uncle, so wounded and so wise… And it’s worth it for some other stuff too, including a Winslet somehow more mature, and some truly beautiful images from Rickman as director.

But there’s a sense that – like its late lamented director – the script of A Little Chaos could have given us so much more. Having decided for dramatic purposes to get so chaotic with the truth – in reality Le Notre the head gardener was decades older than the King, not t’other way round, and Winslet’s radical female gardener simply didn’t exist – the writers don’t take much creative advantage.

Perhaps lacking confidence in any of the strands, they try to throw in too much that remains undeveloped: the back-story of Winslet’s family is worthily sad, but neither necessary nor developed into any explanation of her relationship to natural forces; supplanted mistress Jennifer Ehle’s semi-secret court of wounded women is a surprising, haunting and beautiful moment, but basically a digression; Stanley Tucci is wasted; a couple of pat metaphors aside, the tension between order and chaos doesn’t go anywhere.

Structurally, Rickman the writer-director has made Rickman the actor part of the problem. Because from the opening scene we see the fragile warmth behind the monarchical mask – and because it’s Alan Rickman and everyone knows that Professor Snape always secretly cares – he can’t carry the kind of threat required of the capricious absolute ruler. If the King was still a distant authority, his scene with Winslet and the pear tree would be a moment of revelation and transformation; instead it’s just pleasant and a bit poignant. And by then, there’s no chance that he’s going to be anything other than indulgent of the apparent hiccough of the waterlogged garden.

There’s a similar lost opportunity around Schoenaerts. His Le Notre doesn’t develop at all. He’s a bit snooty in his first scene, but after that he’s just sort of romantically moody. The potential conflict and tension between a (much more) austere, order-obsessed Le Notre and a (more) wild and wilful Winslet is never realized. Because Madame Le Notre is such a horror, and promiscuous, and already signed up to an open relationship, there’s no practical or moral obstacle to Schoenaerts and Winslet leaping into the shrubbery. There’s no tension, and no sense of achievement.

(And they don’t even leap into the shrubbery. All that mud, and all that luscious fruit, and they finally get it on indoors, which seems rather a waste – as well as a defusing of the little passion there was.)

Pruned (sorry) and chopped around a bit, the script would have more energy and grip. If Schoenaerts was really uncomfortable about Winslet’s garden planning, and about the idea of betraying his wife, Winslet and the story would have something to aim at and work on. If Rickman seemed capable of ruining lives by banishment from employment in his Eden, the risks and tensions would have consequences and impact. Say Schoenaerts is still uncertain, about the funky horticulture and about Winslet, when the more perceptive Mrs Le Notre ruins the garden to forestall the threat of losing her husband; Schoenaerts and Winslet then have their moment of near-death near-passion in the tempest; Jennifer Ehle’s boudoir then becomes a place of real refuge, from a very grumpy King and from the unknown result of the passion; the nicely-staged Mexican stand-off between the wounded ladies and the King’s posse can then be a moment of real resolution – what if that’s the moment when she realizes that the King who could be about to ruin her is the same mysterious figure she met under the pear tree? – when Winslet’s spirit and argument must convince the King, and when Schoenaerts must decide to follow his heart and speak up for her.

Instead Rickman denies himself a fitting farewell, and we’re left wanting what might have been.