Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

March 20, 2014

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The Criterion Collection has released a restored version of the 1943 British film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. The title refers to a recurring character in the cartoons of David Low: an elderly Army officer who spouts reactionary nonsense. This film’s main character, Gen. Clive Wynne Candy (Roger Livesy), is clearly meant to be associated with Col. Blimp.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tells, in flashback form, the life story of Gen. Clive Wynne Candy, from the Boer War to the beginning of the Second World War. In the film’s early scenes, Candy is on leave from the Boer War, where his courage has earned him a Victoria Cross. On his own initiative, Candy follows a German agent named Kaunitz to Berlin. Kaunitz has been spreading stories about British atrocities in the Boer War, inciting anti-British feeling among the Germans. Candy is determined to stop him. What makes this part of the film a bit icky is the fact that the British did commit atrocities in the Boer War. This is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the film implies that Candy is a bit self-deluded, although this is never made explicitly clear.

However, in the next section of the film, detailing Candy’s experiences during World War I, we learn that his biggest fault is actually that he is too decent. He is reluctant to resort to the ruthless measures needed to defeat the Germans. This problem continues into the Second World War, when everyone around him becomes exasperated with Candy’s niceness. Even his Prussian friend, Theo (Anton Walbrook), lectures him about the need to get tough with the Germans.

At this point, I had to begin to question this film’s honesty. It seems to be saying that the main fault of the British is that they are too nice to their enemies. I suspect that many people in India and Africa and Ireland might beg to differ about this. (No doubt, Gandhi had the British in mind when he made his famous quip about Western Civilization being “a good idea.”) Early in the war, Noël Coward recorded a “satirical” song titled Don’t Let’s Be Beastly Towards the Germans, which also argues that the British are too nice to their foes. This idea of the British being “too nice” to their enemies strikes me as a back-handed form of self-flattery. (Sort of the way we’re often told that the U.S. is “generous” towards its enemies, even though it actually isn’t.)

What the film also seems to be saying is that Col. Blimp – and by extension all the “Blimps” in England – is not really a bad person after all. (The filmmakers apparently did this with David Low’s blessing.) This is in keeping with the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric of the British government during this period.

So, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is actually wartime propaganda, albeit of a subtle and sophisticated kind. What is odd is that this film was the subject of much right-wing criticism at the time of its release. (Churchill tried to prevent the film from being made.) One of their objections seemed to be that the film contains a sympathetic German character. In the U.S. at about this time, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was harshly criticized for the same reason. War demands the dehumanization of the enemy.

This movie is gorgeously filmed. (The technicolor was lovingly restored for the DVD.) I was impressed by the high production values, considering that this was made during wartime rationing. The acting is superb. Livesy is impressive, convincingly aging over the course of the film. Deborah Kerr acts as the Eternal Feminine, playing three roles over the course of three generations. Her characters illustrate how women acquired greater personal freedom during this period.

One other thing that I found icky about this film is that the directors indicate the passage of time by filling up Candy’s house with the heads of animals that he killed while on hunting trips all over the world. At first, I thought this was meant to be satirical, but I gradually had the disturbing realization that this was something that the audience was supposed to find endearing about Candy. Ah, for the good old days when the British upper hunted species to the verge of extinction. Nostalgia can be a bitch sometimes.

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The Ruling Class

December 19, 2013

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After the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole, died, some of my Facebook friends said that his best film was The Ruling Class. This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to watch it. (You can find the whole movie on Youtube.)

The Ruling Class is a 1972 film directed by Peter Medak, with a script by Peter Barnes, adapted from his own stage play.

The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. His will leaves his entire estate to his only surviving son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). The problem here is that Jack believes he is Jesus Christ. He spends his time making speeches about love and hanging on a cross. This scandalizes the Gurneys and their aristocratic neighbors. Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) plots to take the estate away from him. He reasons that if he can get Jack to produce a male heir, he can then have Jack declared insane while having the Gurney line continue unbroken. Sir Charles persuades his mistress, Grace, (Carolyn Seymour) to woo Jack. Jack falls in love with her. They get married, and Grace soon gives birth to a son. Sir Charles’s plan, however, is complicated by the psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), who is determined to cure Jack of his delusion. After several failed attempts, Herder hits upon the idea of confronting Jack with a mental patient who also believes he is God. This appears to work; Jack seems to be restored to his old self. Sir Charles is still determined to have him committed, however, and he arranges to have a court-appointed psychiatrist interview Jack. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, but when Jack begins spouting reactionary and xenophobic political rhetoric, the doctor declares him to be sane.

The Ruling Class should have ended at this point. Instead, it goes into a lengthy coda, in which Jack convinces himself that he is actually Jack the Ripper, and he starts killing people. The joke here is that the “sane” Jack is actually a pathological murderer. This struck me as unnecessary, since it doesn’t build on the film’s previous ideas. What’s more, it makes the movie long: two-and-a-half hours. The characters and the situation simply aren’t strong enough to sustain one’s interest for that period of time. Satire is best done with a light, but sharp, touch. This movie does have many funny moments, though, and it benefits from strong performances. O’Toole is powerful and convincing as Jack.

It no doubt tells us something about O’Toole’s political views that he lobbied United Artists to make Barnes’s play into a film. He even went so far as to agree to do the part of Jack for no pay. The aristocratic Gurneys are portrayed as moral hypocrites. The movie strongly implies that Britain’s upper classes secretly yearn for fascism. Whatever his faults may have been, O’Toole was on the right side of history.

It’s Alive!

July 26, 2013

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I recently received an e-mail on Pinterest that said this:

    Trending on Pinterest…
    Is anything related to the newborn British royal baby. Pinners are continuing the baby-fever with party ideas fit for a prince, souvenirs and – our favorites – boards featuring historic baby pictures from years past.

CNN is still covering the birth of the royal baby. MSNBC has devoted enormous coverage to it. (I guess it saves them from having to discuss Snowden and the NSA.) It seems tactless to point out that the US fought a war to separate itself form the British monarchy.

Despite (or perhaps because of?) our theoretically egalitarian society, Americans tend to be suckers for aristocrats, both real and pretend. You may recall that Mark Twain made this point in Huckleberry Finn. When Erich Stroheim, the son of a Viennese hatmaker, arrived at Ellis Island, he gave his name as Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, which was as shrewd a career move as any man ever made. He had a lucrative film career playing aristocrats (although in an often unflattering manner).

Americans mourned the death of Princess Diana, and they swooned over The King’s Speech, which told us that Britain was saved from the Nazis by Geroge VI and his speech therapist.

We might as well just surrender.

Breaker Morant

April 8, 2013

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Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian film that is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that occurred during the Boer War. Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who are officers in an elite British army unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, have been accused of killing captured Boer guerillas, as well as a German missionary. Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who has no previous legal experience, has been appointed to act as their attorney at the court martial. The film alternates between trail scenes and flashbacks of the events being discussed. Despite his lack of experience, Thomas makes a valiant attempt to defend the men, but it becomes clear that the court is determined to find the men guilty.

Bruce Beresford, the director of Break Morant, once said about it:

    The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.

This film does show that Morant and the others were corrupted by the war. However, Breaker Morant does go out of its way to give the impression that these men were used as scapegoats, and that the British singled them out because they were Australians. (The British officers repeatedly refer to them as “colonials”.) So, it’s perhaps not surprising that some people would interpret it as exonerating these men, even though that’s not what Beresford intended.

Breaker Morant is a good film that has some powerful moments. The scene in which Thomas gives his summing up speech is especially effective. However, as a depiction of the dehumanizing effect of war, it is not as strong as Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.

I should point out that Breaker Morant takes some liberties with the historical record. It changes some of the details of what happened, and it includes events that never occurred. In one scene, for example, the fort in which Morant and the others are being tried is attacked by the Boers. This never happened. In fact, the trial took place in Pretoria, far from the war zone. One can only assume that Beresford included this because he wanted to direct a battle scene. After he directed Breaker Morant, Beresford went to Hollywood. I suspect he wanted to show Hollywood producers that he could direct a “big picture”.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

March 20, 2013

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One of my Facebook friends suggested that instead of drinking green beer and getting violently drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, people should watch The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I decided to take this advice, and I’m glad I did. Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence is a remarkable work. Not only is it a stirring depiction of armed struggle against oppression, but it is also a disturbing examination of the moral dilemmas that such a struggle entails.

The year is 1920. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to leave for London to work in a hospital there. When a friend of Damien’s is murdered by the Black and Tans, his friends urge him to join the Irish Republican Army, but he dismisses their cause as hopeless. At a train station, however, he sees British soldiers beat up some railway workers who refuse to let them on the train. He changes his mind and joins the IRA, where his brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), is an officer. Together, they fight against the British. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Teddy supports it. He argues they have no choice but to accept it, since the British threaten all-out war if it is rejected. (Considering that Churchill was not opposed to genocide, I don’t think this was an idle threat.) Damien, however, sees it as a betrayal of the Republican cause. They find themselves on opposite sides of the ensuing civil war.

It seems that in every revolution, there comes a moment when one group decides that it has gone as far as it can possibly go, while another group is equally convinced that the revolution must go further. The most famous example is the split between the Girondists and the Jacobins during the French Revolution. What is less appreciated is that such a split actually happened three times during the Russian Revolution: first between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, then between Lenin and the Workers’ Opposition, and finally between Stalin and Trotsky. The Wind That Shakes the Barley illustrates how the Irish War of Independence followed this pattern, with tragic results for those involved. This film doesn’t present either side as being entirely right or entirely wrong. Like Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, it presents us with an open-ended question.

Since When is Rape an Organizational Matter?

January 10, 2013

I have always had a strange fascination with the British Left. Perhaps this is because it seems more lively than the US Left, which is sodden with hippy platitudes, conspiracy theories, quack “alternative” medicines, and anarchist posturings.

The British website, Socialist Unity, has posted an internal document from the Socialist Workers Party of Britain. Although I don’t care for SU’s politics, they have a right to publish any document from any organization that falls into their hands. The document in question concerns an accusation of rape against a member of the SWP. Charlie Kimber, the National Secretary of the SWP wrote an e-mail to SU protesting against their decision to post the document, which he as a right to do. SU has posted his e-mail. When I read it, I was troubled by the following passage:

    Organisations [sic] that have to deal with personal cases and allegations of this sort deserve the right to privacy about the details of the proceedings. Do you think that trade unions, for example, should publish transcripts of such cases? [I do, as a matter of fact. – SP]

Whenever a woman is raped, that is everybody’s problem, not just the business of some organization that she happens to belong to.

West is West

May 3, 2012

This past weekend they had the Disorient Film Festival here in Eugene. It is dedicated to films by and about Asian-Americans. The best film I saw at the festival, however, is West is West, which is not about Asian-Americans, but British Pakistanis, but it nonetheless deals with similar themes as the other films at the festival, such as problems of cultural identity and tradition, so its inclusion is appropriate.

West is West is a sequel to a British film titled East is East, which I haven’t seen. You do not, however, need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy this one. The film tells the story of George Khan (Om Puri), a Pakistani immigrant, who, with his wife, Ella (Linda Bassett), runs a fish and chips shop in Salford, outside of Manchester. He believes that his son, Sajid (Aqib Khan), has no respect for his Pakistani heritage, so he decides to bring him along on a trip to Pakistan.

There, George is re-united with his first wife, Basheera (Ila Arun), whom he abandoned thirty years ago to go to England. She has never forgiven him for leaving her, which makes the situation awkward for everyone. What’s more, Sajid rebuffs his father’s attempts to teach him about Pakistani culture. Things get really complicated when Ella suddenly shows up.

West is West is a funny, bittersweet comedy about people caught between two cultures. It gets a bit “feel good” in the second half, but not objectionably so.

At the screening I attended, the film’s producer, Leslee Udwin, spoke. She said she had been having trouble finding an American distributor for the film. One company had almost picked it up, but they backed out at the last minute. They told Udwin that they didn’t think Americans would be willing to see a film about Pakistanis, because they see Pakistan as “Enemy Number One”. I find this sad. I think it also shows a condescending view of American audiences. Surely, the success of A Seperation has shown that Americans are interested in seeing films that show Muslims in a sympathetic light.

The Resistible Rise of Rupert Murdoch

May 1, 2012

A parliamentary commission in Britain has just released a report saying that Rupert Murdoch is “not a fit person” to run a media empire.

Gosh, really?

Back in 1984, when Murdoch purchased the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper’s star columnist, Mike Royko, quit, saying that he would never work for Murdoch. “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper,” he wrote. He also said, “His goal is not quality journalism. His goal is vast power for Rupert Murdoch, political power.”

The British government has finally figured out what Royko knew 28 years ago.

Here is a man with an obvious political agenda and with a reputation for shoddy journalistic standards, who was nonetheless allowed to buy up one major media outlet after another in the English-speaking world. In the US, he has created the Fox News network, which spews far right propaganda to millions of Americans.

The world would be a happier place if more people had listened to Royko.

The Trip

September 24, 2011

In Michael Winterbottom’s film, The Trip, the British comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, play fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan has been hired by the Guardian to do a series of articles about restaurants in the North of England. He plans to bring his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), along on a five-day trip. At the last minute, however, she decides that they need a break in their relationship, and she leaves for America instead. Coogan asks several different people to come along, but they all turn him down. He then reluctantly asks Rob Brydon to join him.

The film doesn’t have much of a story. It is mostly concerned with the give-and-take between two men who are similar in many ways, but nonetheless have very different personalities. Rob Brydon seems perfectly happy with his modestly successful show business career. (He hosts a radio quiz show.) Steve Coogan, a well-known comic actor in Britain, feels dissatisfied with his life. He aspires to become a “serious” actor. He wants to make what he calls “art house films”. Yet he is merely offered a role in a fatuous TV series. Interestingly, Coogan is willing to portray himself in a negative manner. He worries that his girlfriend might be cheating on him, yet he engages in a couple of one-night stands. One senses that he finds these encounters unsatisfying, but he feels compelled to do them anyway. At times, he is a bit churlish towards Brydon. The latter, on the other hand, seems well-adjusted and content in his marriage. As the film goes on, however, one begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that there is some truth to Coogan’s insinuations that Brydon’s approach to life is shallow and complacent. Yet there are moments when Coogan seems to wonder if perhaps Brydon knows something he doesn’t.

This film deals, in an oblique manner, with the age-old question of whether one should accept things the way they are, or strive for something better. The film offers no definitive answer to that question. Instead, it suggests that there are serious consequences for whichever choice one makes.

I’m told that this film was cobbled together from a TV series that appeared on the BBC. No doubt that explains why some of the scenes make no sense chronologically. There are, however, no contrived scenes of the kind that one finds in the typical Hollywood road movie. There are, though, some spectacular shots of the Northern English countryside. (I had no idea that some of these places existed in England.) There is an amazing deadpan scene in a ludicrously pretentious restaurant. The film’s ending seems anti-climactic at first, but then you realize it makes sense. At the screening I attended, there was a moment of silence, then the audience burst out in applause.

I highly recommend seeing this film.