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It should’ve been obvious, the evil dog that all other evil dogs are compared to, sometimes literally.
Cujo is the tenth novel by celebrated horror author Stephen King (counting three under his Richard Bachman pseudonym). Written during a particularly dark period in his struggle with alcoholism, the novel serves as a treatise of sorts on the links between mental illness and violence and the gray area where culpability lies.
The name “Cujo” comes from the alias “Kahjoe” of Symbionese Liberation Army founding member Willie Wolfe. At the height of their violent revolutionary activities, the press often misspelled the name. The SLA and their leader, Donald DeFreeze, served as nightmare fuel for King, with the latter directly inspiring the creation of his recurring villain Randall Flagg.
The plot of the novel and film adaptation are largely the same, though there are distinct differences in resolution that I will not go into here to avoid ruining either. The basic premise is almost too simple. A mother and her panicked son are stuck in their P.O.S. Ford Pinto while the unrelenting sun threatens to give them heatstroke and a rabid St. Bernard (the eponymous Cujo) lurks outside, waiting to rip their throats out.
Other than the ending, the other major deviation from page to screen lies in the subtext. The film deals primarily with the family drama portion of the plot, with Cujo serving merely as catalyst and antagonist, mindlessly rabid and driven almost exclusively by primal instinct. By having a portion of the novel from Cujo’s own perspective, we see firsthand his slow degeneration into rabid savagery and his desire to do what he knows to be right. Alongside subplots of domestic violence and infidelity, Cujo’s plight is a sympathetic one.
“It was a goddam fragile world, as fragile as one of those Easter eggs that were all pretty colors on the outside but hollow on the inside.” — Stephen King, Cujo
Stephen King teaches a harsh lesson. You’re never truly rid of the childhood monster lurking in your closet. That nameless dread just moves with you, from the bedroom to the boardroom, to your own child’s school, into your marriage bed instead of under it.
Admittedly, I have no earthly idea how such themes could be communicated in film. Dog narration would undoubtedly have made the entire affair laughable outside the hands of an avant-garde director like Nicolas Winding Refn or Lars von Trier. The small town suburban life segments would likely have ended up with a decidedly surreal tone, however. Maybe it’s best they kept things simple for movie audiences.
It is uncertain whether or not original director Peter Medak (The Changeling) would have been able to pull off a film with a tone so unfathomably dark. He was replaced after only a few days of shooting by Lewis Teague (Alligator). Looking at their lists of respective credits, I would have thrown my money after Medak, but hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.
Teague had some definite assistance in the form of impressive cinematography by Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister, and The Haunting). Jan de Bont deconstructed a good half dozen Ford Pintos to get the claustrophobic interior shots used throughout the latter half of the film. Luckily, they didn’t need Jaguars, so they got off cheap.
One of the team’s greatest achievements was the construction of dual sets for Tad’s bedroom, a normal sized set when lit and an elongated set for Tad’s fearful slow-motion sprint to his bed through darkness. An innovative overhead shot with the camera flipping upside-down as he dives/falls into the bed makes the brief scene rather iconic and one of my favorite depictions of irrational childhood phobias. The sequence also parallels nicely with later action when Tad’s mother, Donna, must judge the distance from the besieged car to the perceived safety of a front porch or to a possible weapon.
Our film opens with a frolicking bunny, not exactly the paragon of menace, the Rabbit of Caerbannog notwithstanding. The score by Charles Bernstein does a good job of dancing between happy-go-lucky trilling and more sinister tones. The latter hit a crescendo as our title St. Bernard steps into frame, clearly with malicious intent toward the fuzzy bunny.
The exact number of dogs used for the film is unknown with different cast and crew members citing various numbers, ranging from five to a dozen. Thankfully, none were hurt making the film. Likewise, the nimble rabbit escapes harm.
Cujo, however, is not so lucky within the context of the story. He runs the rabbit into a hole and gets his big muzzle stuck right in. Cujo’s frustrated barks rouse a flock of bats, getting him a bite on the snout for his recklessness. Our inciting incident lies less than four minutes in. That’s wasting no time.
Just as the words “Based on the Novel by Stephen King” hit the screen, we cut to a creepy looking house covered in shadows like ivy. Within this sprawling home live the Trentons, Donna, Vic, and their young son, Tad. This trinity forms the core of Cujo.
While working primarily a television actress in the late 1970s, Dee Wallace (Donna Trenton) was no stranger to horror, having appeared as the married daughter in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and as the lead protagonist in The Howling (1981). Before Cujo, she would be best known as the mother in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
With all due respect to author Stephen King, I do not agree with his assessment that Dee Wallace deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance. Not even close. In his novel, Donna Trenton is a complex woman coming to grips with the realization that time is not on her side, that she very well may have to shelve her personal hopes, dreams, and aspirations to adopt the role of dutiful mother and wife.
The film version of Donna is a helpless, incapable shrew, the kind of career dependent who cannot change a tire or even a light bulb without assistance. Her infidelity seems casual, not a cry for help or relevance, but a selfish indulgence at the expense of her loving family. To see her trapped in that car with a screaming Tad validates every Lifetime Network “woman in jeopardy” cliché rather than being the last stand of a desperate woman.
Daniel Hugh Kelly fares better as Vic Trenton, but perhaps benefits from diminished screen time. Kelly was also a veteran of television, the third actor to play Frank Ryan on the long-running ABC soap Ryan’s Hope. Shortly after the release of Cujo, he would play the McCormick half of Hardcastle and McCormick for three seasons on ABC.
Last, but certainly not least, Cujo introduced 7-year-old Danny Pintauro to audiences. As Tad Trenton, “The Tadder”, Pintauro primarily serves as a plot device for his parents’ conflict. Other than obvious emotional scarring, he isn’t likely to walk away from the terrifying events of the film with any kind of epiphany. He doesn’t have any ambivalence or doubt, he just predictably wants a safe environment and a loving family around him. Pintauro’s professionalism, publicly lauded by many who worked on the film, likely helped him land the role of Jonathan Bower on all 196 episodes of the ABC sitcom Who’s the Boss?
Meeting his parents, it’s easy to see how Tad would grow up to be a panicky, neurotic little boy. There are some early hints of a supernatural threat, but Director Lewis Teague would abandon these notions under the idea that there was no way to keep them from appearing “hokey”. Our first obvious threat to this domestic bliss is the arrival of furniture stripper/tennis patsy/trombone player Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone).
Vic thinks him just an element of local Maine color, but, unbeknownst to him, Steve is cuckolding him something fierce. The ironic bit about this relationship is that Stone was Dee Wallace’s husband in real life at the time, and played her character’s husband in The Howling (1981), where he would be the unfaithful one, albeit under the influence of lycanthropy.
When Vic’s Jaguar convertible starts acting up, he is directed to Joe Camber (Ed Lauter), the local shade tree mechanic. Lauter replaced William Sanderson (Blade Runner) at the same time Teague replaced Medak as director. Sanderson would get his shot at a similar role in Man’s Best Friend (1993), #11 on this list and covered almost exactly one year ago. Given the aggressive and abusive nature of Camber, Lauter was the better pick here. I just don’t see Dee Wallace being intimidated by Larry from Newhart.
It is when retrieving the fixed car that the Trenton family first encounters the Camber family dog, Cujo. There’s actually a clever bit of juxtaposition here as Donna first looks on Charity Camber’s matronly lot in life with a mix of contempt and horror then feels true terror when she sees the massive Cujo padding towards her vulnerable son.
Oblivious to the potential danger posed by the oafish pet, Tad is fascinated by Cujo. Despite musical cues and Donna’s trepidation (as well as that of the viewer), there is no evidence of anything untoward here. Cujo is still on his best behavior and doesn’t even muster up a growl at the visiting strangers.
This 1983 TV ad seems determined to keep Cujo’s identity as a rabid dog a secret.
The set of lobby cards and movie poster above also seem designed to keep the antagonist’s identity secret as there isn’t a single solitary image of the title pooch.
The Trenton Family troubles keep mounting as the Sharps Cereal Professor, created by ad-man Vic, is subject to a bit of a scandal. While his slogan is “Nope, nothing wrong here,” there is most certainly something wrong with thousands of people nationwide vomiting potent red cereal dye and fearing internal hemorrhaging. Stephen King does a great job of fitting in the kind of media-fed hysteria that typically ensues after these sorts of scandals, another irrational modern fear. More importantly, plot-wise, it means Vic must leave his family for ten days to deal with this crisis.
Over at the Cambers, an angle grinder does nothing for my own nerves and cuts right through Cujo’s rabies-addled brain. He eventually retreats under the front porch to get away from his noisy family and go gradually crazy in peace and quiet. There are some Camber Family subplots, but they get abbreviated for running time. The short story is that Joe’s wife and son are also conveniently heading out of town.
Despite a few teases, we’re very nearly halfway through the film, and no one has died. Test screenings that got to the car siege quicker reportedly didn’t fare well, however, as audiences just didn’t care about the characters. Admittedly, the slow build proves effective. When Cujo reluctantly retreats through the predawn mist, we know that it is the last time we will see him sane.
The weather posed a particular challenge for Director Lewis Teague. The aforementioned mist had to be manufactured with a naval fogger because the daily gloom took a day off when the scene was scheduled to be shot. The temperature was a greater issue. The car siege is supposed to be held through blistering, dehydrating heat, but, despite references to summer camp and the like, the film was shot during the dead of winter. In a clever bit of movie magic, Jan de Bont held a flame below the camera lens to create the illusion of late summer haze. Glycerine and water created false sweat. And there is, of course, the power of acting.
The end result, sadly, is a film I find to be sorely lacking, but noteworthy for a handful of achievements. Call it a near miss. In the wake of Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), and Creepshow (1982), and with The Dead Zone (1983) and Christine (1983) getting released just months apart later that year, Cujo just doesn’t rate. It is a bit of an unfair comparison, as Lewis Teague just isn’t in the same league as such directing luminaries as Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter.
The influence of King’s story and imagery have proven to be far-reaching. The nickname “CuJo” seemed a natural one for celebrated NHL goalie Curtis Joseph, being a portmanteau of his first name and surname. Despite going undrafted, Joseph was a three time NHL All-Star (in 1994 with the St. Louis Blues and in 1999 and 2000 with the Toronto Maple Leafs). In the XIX Olympic Winter Games, he played goalie for gold medal-winning Team Canada, fifty years to the day since their previous gold medal win. While his goalie mask often bore the visage of a snarling dog, a nod to his namesake, Curtis Joseph was recognized for his leadership and philanthropic endeavors by being awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2000.
A good dog, indeed.
Unfortunately, the coveted Stanley Cup eluded “CuJo” for the entirety of his career. Amongst goalies who have never played on a Stanley Cup-winning team, he has posted the most career wins to date with 454. After playing for six teams in twenty years, posting 30-plus wins on a record five of them, Curtis Joseph retired in 2010. Despite his statistical achievements, Joseph has yet to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and, without a Cup or Vezina Trophy and an unfortunate number two spot on the list of most losses by an NHL goalie, there is considerable debate as to whether he ever will.
We hope you enjoyed our little countdown of “A Dozen Diabolical Dogs”. Twelve dogs in thirteen months, but that was hardly my initial intention. It’ll be a while before I have the hubris to tackle another countdown of this scope, methinks. See ya ’round the kennel club!
He convinced you that the luxurious Chrysler Cordoba (priced at $5,580) was upholstered in “soft Corinthian leather“. As Mr. Roarke, he offered to sell you your fondest wish for a mere $50,000. And as Khan Noonien Singh, he taught you the best way to serve up revenge. But long before all that, way back in the halcyon days of 1954, Ricardo Montalbán showed what it meant to love, lose, endure, and avenge. He was Pietro Donati. He was The Saracen Blade.
This film forms our second entry in The William Castle Blogathon, graciously hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. Directed by William Castle from a screenplay co-written by DeVallon Scott and based on the Frank Yerby novel, The Saracen Blade (1954) was the last of four collaborations between Castle and Scott (along with Conquest of Cochise (1953), Slaves of Babylon (1953), and The Iron Glove (1954)).
Frank Yerby was the first African-American writer to become a millionaire from his work and the first to have a novel purchased by Hollywood for a film adaptation, The Foxes of Harrow (1947) starring Rex Harrison. His painstakingly researched historical romances covered a multitude of time periods. In 1952, the year of The Saracen Blade‘s publication, Yerby expatriated to Europe, citing the specter of racism as his rationale.
The Saracen Blade is the last of three film adaptations of Yerby’s novels, following The Foxes of Harrow (1947) and The Golden Hawk (1952).
Ricardo Montalbán stars as Pietro Donati. Montalbán got his start in acting in 1941 by appearing in dozens of three-minute musicals for the Soundies film jukeboxes, precursors to the modern music video. Arriving in Hollywood in 1943, studios wanted to Americanize his name into “Ricky Martin”. With a leading role in the Mexico-themed film noir Border Incident (1949), he became the first Hispanic actor to appear on the front cover of Life magazine. Many of his early roles were as an “Indian” in westerns or as a “Latin Lover”, but as Pietro, he gets to show his action/adventure chops.
Pietro’s father, the elder Donati, is played by Frank Pulaski. Pulaski served as a liaison between the U.S. Army and the Australian 7th Division during WWII. After the war, he took up acting, playing the tribune Quintus uncredited in The Robe (1953). Changing his name to Guy Prescott after The Saracen Blade, he appeared in another Crusades-era film as an uncredited Arab in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954).
Nelson Leigh had been acting for over a decade before taking on the role of Pietro’s mentor and foster father, Isaac. Along with his fair share of adventure films and westerns, Leigh made a career of playing father figures, from Jor-El in the Columbia Pictures Superman serial (1948) to King Arthur in The Adventures of Sir Galahad (1949). He is perhaps best known for playing Mars Mission Commander Dr. Eldon Galbraithe in the sci-fi thriller World Without End (1956).
William Castle regular Michael Ansara once again threatens to steal the show as Count Alesandro Siniscola, Pietro’s main antagonist. Ansara appeared in an earlier Frank Yerby adaptation by producer Sam Katzman, The Golden Hawk (1952). The Saracen Blade was the fourth of five films Ansara did with William Castle at the helm. They would part ways soon thereafter with Ansara transitioning from westerns and Biblical epics to television and Castle entering his schlock and shock phase.
Betta St. John, born Betty Jean Striegler, plays Pietro’s one true love, Lady Iolanthe Rogliano. As Striegler, she made her film debut at the age of ten, singing in Destry Rides Again (1939). After performing on Broadway in Carousel and South Pacific (part of the original cast in the latter), she appeared in The Robe (1953). She is perhaps best known for her role in the proto-Amicus horror film The City of the Dead (1961) shortly before her retirement.
Carolyn Jones plays her foil, Lady Elaine Siniscola, a far cry from her role as victim-turned-exhibit in House of Wax (1953) the year before. While she makes a fine blonde femme fatale, her striking, batrachian eyes would serve her better as the iconic Morticia on the long-running sitcom The Addams Family. Shortly before her death from cancer, she re-teamed with Montalbán as four different characters on four different episodes of Fantasy Island.
The Saracen Blade (1954)
The year is 1194. In a public square in Iesi, Italy, a crowd waits with bated breath for the birth of Frederick II, Emperor of all Europe. Amongst the onlookers are the blacksmith Donati and his friend Isaac. Isaac explains the dual need for security and transparency to prevent the noble child or his lineage from being compromised.
Bells ring to announce the birth of the Empress’ son. Shortly thereafter, Donati’s own wife, Maria (Nira Monsour), starts going into labor. Panicked, Donati asks a guard to fetch one of the Empress’ midwives. Midwife Gina (Poppy del Vando) besmirches Donati and all other men as useless at such times, calmly escorting Maria away.
After giving birth to Pietro, Maria is stricken with fever. Isaac offers to fetch a man who might be able to help, and Donati insists upon accompanying him. They run afoul of Count Siniscola, called “Count Satan” by Donati in ill-timed mockery. Siniscola, like Isaac earlier but not nearly as gently, takes exception to Donati’s newfound pacifism. He claims the blacksmith ended his vassalage early, and the lack of swords cost him in his feud against Baron Rogliano. Siniscola’s men take Donati into custody by force.
By the time Isaac returns to Maria, she is already dead. With the father captured by Count Siniscola, Isaac offers to raise the newborn son. While Frederick II sits the throne in Rome, receiving tribute from the distant corners of the Holy Roman Empire, humble Pietro Donati grows up in Sicily.
There, we find him dueling with his friend Afghal. Using a trip to turn the tables on his sparring partner, Pietro defeats him in good humor. Afghal wants Pietro to join the Saracens, but Isaac has raised him as a Christian.
Isaac calls Pietro away from his tomfoolery to tell him about a revolt in Count Siniscola’s territory, led by his father. They take a ship to mainland Italy, and we’re treated to some poorly integrated siege footage, tinted from the black-and-white Prince of Foxes (1949). The siege, as depicted, takes place at night while Isaac and Pietro talk and look on from horseback in full daylight. Not sure if they planned to film an actual siege here and the budget fell short or if the planned stock footage was switched unexpectedly or if no one gave it that much thought.
The elder Donati has been captured and Isaac immediately considers ransoming his friend. “The arm of Hercules himself cannot help your father now, my boy, but there is still one power on this Earth that can… Gold. Let’s pray we put away enough of it.”
With the blessing of the Siniscolas (Alesandro and his son Enzio (Rick Jason)) paid for in gold, Pietro approaches the castle to parlay with his father. The rebels reluctantly pull him over the battlements on a rope. Father and son are reunited, and Pietro is eager to fight by his father’s side, not discouraged by the notion that they are all doomed men. When he presses the issue, the elder Donati saves his life by knocking him out with one right hook across his glass jaw.
When Pietro awakens outside the castle walls, he finds that the Siniscolas beat him to betrayal and have hanged Isaac (check out Pietro “Tebowing” in Lobby Card 2, below). He overhears Baron Rogliano (Edgar Barrier) and his daughter Iolanthe tut-tutting about the carnage, vowing to see the Siniscolas repaid in kind one day. Pietro begs to join the lord’s service, giving his curriculum vitae, but the baron is dubious. “For if you are so gifted, why do you seek service? I should think it would seek you.” Based purely on his claims, Iolanthe recommends him.
Pietro proves to be skilled with mace as well as quill, but is visibly smitten with the Lady Iolanthe. While he keeps the records, she flirts with him a bit, questioning his dedication to skill at arms and his thirst for vengeance. “By the stars in heaven, Iolanthe, if you stay I’ll forget I hate the Siniscolas for the rest of time I have nothing in my heart but you. Is that what you want me to do?” This is delivered as a run-on sentence, awkward but strangely sincere.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“With you, nothing, Iolanthe, but I could easily be hanged for this, and you banished to a convent.”
She wants to elope with him, but he has made a vow to her father and cannot violate that, not even for her.
The Siniscolas arrive at that very moment to forge an alliance, shocking Pietro. Baron Rogliano sends for Lady Iolanthe, and Pietro urges her to “smile sweetly for your guests.” Late that night, Baron Rogliano wakes his daughter to deliver the good news. She is to wed Enzio Siniscola and become a countess. His grandson will be heir to the combined Rogliano and Siniscola holdings. After he leaves, she weeps into her pillow.
The Lady Elaine of Siniscola tries to grill Iolanthe on her true feelings, speaking ill of her own kinsman Enzio. Elaine demands a guided tour of the castle and accuses Iolanthe of hiding Pietro when they stumble upon him hard at work.
“He’s a young man, that’s always of interest. I wonder why it took us so long to come upon him. The castle records are usually kept by a… a weezened (sic) oldster with a gray beard.” She is charmed by his wit and easily detects the sexual tension between him and Iolanthe, but he warns that they should not be so familiar with one about to marry Enzio Siniscola. When he confesses his father was a blacksmith, she loses interest in someone so low-born.
That night, Enzio finds his bride-to-be in the gardens brooding. He kisses her and worries he has offended her. Enzio asks if he has a rival, while Pietro looks on from hiding. When Enzio leaves to fetch her scarf, Pietro asks Iolanthe to elope with him. Enzio returns to find her gone.
The young lovers ride through the night, but Iolanthe’s horse eventually tires out. This is the infamous moment when Montalbán bends down and gets his scabbard stuck in the dirt. Castle and company just roll with it. Extra takes cost money. Pietro and Iolanthe give the horses a rest and wander the river bank together.
Pietro grows discouraged. “You will never be the wife of a count, or a baron, or even a knight.”
“But I’ll be your wife, and I’ll be very happy.”
“You will go without many things.”
“But not without you. We’ll starve together. What’s it like to starve, Pietro?”
“I have no intention of finding out, even if it’s with you.”
They are soon found and surrounded by riders led by Enzio. He leaves the decision of Pietro’s fate to Iolanthe, but only after they are wed. After said nuptials, Enzio looks in on Pietro’s cell. The jailer confirms that only the Lady Iolanthe comes to visit him, every day at the break of dawn. Enzio instructs that the jailer will be asleep when she arrives tomorrow. The jailer fears that she will steal his keys and free the prisoner, but that is just what Enzio is counting on.
Emperor Frederick II (Whitfield Connor) has come to visit, and there’s a subtle nod to his legendary falconry skills. Clearly disappointed, he is promised better game for hunting by the Siniscolas. “Cleverer than any stag… faster than even the boar… one seldom hunted.” Shrewd though the emperor may be, he has clearly never read “The Most Dangerous Game”, but that’ll be published about seven hundred years hence, so I suppose I’m expecting too much. Yerby was undoubtedly familiar with the classic short story.
Iolanthe does as anticipated and frees Pietro with the stolen keyes. She implores Pietro to hurry without her, lest she slow him down and he be recaught. Enzio finds Iolanthe closing the cell door and boasts about their upcoming hunt, happy that she has decided his fate as promised.
Pietro flees the hunting hounds through the forest until they tree him like a cat. While they tear his coat to shreds, he drops down and runs away. Coming upon the Lady Elaine, he wades through tall reeds to cross the stream and sneak up behind her, hoping to steal her horse. The riders approach, and he is forced to threaten her with a dagger to insure her silence. Despite her disdain, they quickly get to flirting.
“To think, my cousin Iolanthe has probably given you her lips.”
“So? They’re her lips…”
“I only wonder how she ever made them clean again.”
He kisses her passionately. “Try soap, try perfume, and then try pumice stone and sanding paper. Good day, milady.”
He mounts her horse and rides off as she is left to smile guiltily.
With Frederick II approaching, Pietro dismounts to hide in the thick brush. Still, the Emperor nearly spears him. They exchange words, but before things can be sorted out, Pietro kills an attacking boar with the thrown spear, saving the Emperor’s life. Pietro tells him the circumstances of his birth and their strange parallel lives. “Born in the same hour? We shall probably die in the same hour…”
Frederick II is impressed with Pietro, but not his thirst for bloody vengeance. With Frederick’s inspiration, Pietro asks for Lady Elaine’s hand in marriage, an oblique angle from which to launch his plot for revenge. Emperor Frederick II introduces the Siniscolas to a man held in highest regard, soon to be knighted upon his return from the Holy Land and then to inherit the first barony that falls vacant. It is, of course, Pietro, and Frederick savors the look of disgust on the faces of the Siniscolas.
The Siniscolas call a family meeting where Lady Elaine instructs her kin to mind their manners while she, unafraid of Pietro, gets close to him to discover his plot. This backfires when Pietro asks Lady Elaine to marry him, leaving her practically speechless. Frederick II plays matchmaker, and the two men make light sport of Lady Elaine’s discomfort. When her cousin, Count Siniscola enters, Frederick is excited to deliver the news, but Lady Iolanthe trails behind, and her disdain wounds Pietro and puts doubt into his plan.
On their wedding night, Elaine is beyond reluctant.
“A kiss is one thing even an Emperor can’t make me give you. What, do you have him with you now, dear husband? Is he nearby where you can call on him for help?”
“From now on, I need very little help. Very little…”
He kisses her forcefully, and she pulls him even closer. He lays her down on the bed as she gazes up longingly into his eyes, fluffs her pillow, and leaves, satisfied with his skill at frustrating her expectations. I’m surprised she didn’t throw something at him.
Later, she sees him off to the Crusades.
“Crusaders always write home, and their wives always say prayers for the husband’s safe return. You too, I’m sure, will say a little prayer each day that… uh, I do not come back?”
“I suppose the next request is that I’m faithful to you while you’re gone?”
“You know the kind of man I am. I never ask the impossible of anyone.”
The moment he’s gone, she cozies up to Alesandro, who acknowledges the church’s reluctance to let the two cousins marry. This is our first inkling that there’s clearly some history between the two. Enzio walks in on them to tell that he and Alesandro must join Emperor Frederick on his Holy Crusade. Alesandro is not frightened, and sees this as a welcome opportunity.
“What will happen to me, I cannot say, but one thing I can assure you, your Pietro will not return to you.”
Elaine is strangely charmed. “This jealousy becomes you, Alesandro.” They embrace and kiss.
While Alesandro believes Frederick’s decree is Pietro’s doing, Frederick tells Pietro he needs the Siniscola’s men and that Pietro must confine his fighting to the Saracens. Pietro acquits himself well, and on the field of battle, he saves Emperor Frederick II from a Saracen. He is subsequently knighted for his bravery.
An unnamed prince (Gene Darcy) needs volunteers for a suicidal force to hold the Turks back while the others, including the Emperor escape. Count Siniscola volunteers himself and his son first, then goads Sir Pietro Di Donati into volunteering as well. The prince finds the Siniscolas too elder in knightly service, and they feign disappointment.
“You cannot ask a better death, Sir Pietro, than to die fighting for your emperor and the Holy Sepulchre.”
Pietro is defeated by the Turks and taken as a slave. Enraged by a taskmaster whipping a woman, he wrestles the man to the ground. He is immediately confronted by an Arab who questions his concern and shows that the woman, Zenobia (Pamela Duncan), is being punished for the gouges inflicted on his cheek. Pietro mocks Haroun (Leonard Penn), whose pride is as wounded as his face. Haroun offers to let him take the remainder of the whipping in her stead, and he agrees. Afterwards, Zenobia lovingly tends Pietro’s wounds.
Pietro’s repeated escape attempts, and resultant floggings, tax Haroun’s patience. “If I can’t get value from you as a slave, at least I’ll make an example of you to the others. One more try and you’ll be put to death. Twenty lashes don’t do any good? Give him thirty!”
Zenobia hopes to buy Pietro’s freedom with some jewelry she has acquired (gifts from admirers, perhaps?), but confesses she wants her own freedom as well. Haroun claims her own value highly exceeds that of the Italian. At knife-point, she makes him swear on the Koran (pronounced “Korrin”) that they will be allowed to go.
Meanwhile, the church has granted Count Siniscola permission to marry Lady Elaine, but Emperor Frederick II reminds him that in cases of doubt, the wife should wait seven years for her husband to return. He does concede that he has promised Pietro a barony, but that it shall be the Barony of Rogliano, which Alesandro believes belongs to him by Enzio’s marriage to Lady Iolanthe. Emperor Frederick II has found question in the lineage of Lady Iolanthe’s father, making the barony vacant.
When Count Siniscola returns home, he finds everyone else in ill humor except for Lady Iolanthe. Word has arrived that Baron Pietro of Rogliano is returning home with a Saracen girl. “She wears a veil after the manner of Moslim women.” Lady Elaine tries to share her annoyance by taunting Lady Iolanthe about this prize.
On the evening of his return, Pietro is surprised to find Lady Elaine smiling at him. She tries to charm him, but he sees through to her naked avarice after his newly bestowed title and fortune. After Pietro departs, Count Siniscola confronts her, dagger in hand, and demands that she use it to murder her husband, but she believes she could be very happy with Pietro.
“My position as a baron’s wife leaves very little to be desired. He has wealth. Ooh, not as great as yours, but very near. He stands high in the Emperor’s favor. Those are the cold facts. I see no reason not to face them. Then, consider that he has a certain grace and charm about him, even comparable with yours, cousin. In strength, Pietro is your equal. In age, he’s a much younger man, and from my point of view, superior.”
Alesandro pulls her close, kisses her, and thrusts the dagger into her heart.
Despite Elaine’s flaws, Pietro mourns her loss. He declares war on the Siniscolas. In the heat of battle, Lady Iolanthe warns Pietro that Frederick has decreed that he will pay with his life if he kills the Siniscolas.
Enzio prepares to spear Pietro in the back while he is distracted by Lady Iolanthe’s words, but Pietro’s loyal retainer Giuseppe (Edward Coch) saves him with a well-aimed crossbow. Count Siniscola quickly descends the battlements to engage Pietro in a final swordfight amidst smoke and flame.
Both men lose their shields in turn, with Alesandro nearly proving too skilled for Pietro. Count Siniscola uses the trip maneuver Pietro demonstrated earlier in the film against his buddy Afghal, but Pietro has a counter, and while on his back, as the Count moves in for the kill, Pietro plunges his sword into his foe’s stomach, killing him.
Pietro bravely accepts the punishment for his actions from the Emperor. “Even for you, I cannot make exception in matters of this kind. You must pay for your presumption. Pietro Donati, your lands and titles are hereby taken from you. What was yours when we first saw you, your life, we leave you, but nothing more.”
“I’m still rich, sire. I have my life, my love, and your friendship.”
Pietro and Lady Iolanthe depart for Venice to start again… together.
Reviews of The Saracen Blade, even contemporary to the film, tend to focus upon its low budget and often misrepresent or misunderstand key plot points. Admittedly, the battle scenes, when not composed of awkwardly inserted stock footage, rarely depict more than a dozen combatants in frame. There is also very little of the sweeping landscapes of Europe or the Holy Land, and the whole production could have been filmed in a good sized backyard. Indeed, the interiors were all shot on several sound stages near downtown Los Angeles.
Still, the costumes are appealing and the dialogue is fun, even if the line deliveries are occasionally specious (“weezened”, “Korrin”, “Moslim”). None of the actors come across as openly contemptuous of the material, and everyone seems to be giving their best effort. I believe, given a proper budget, Castle and cast could have delivered an adventure classic. Alas, such was not to be, and The Saracen Blade must stand as a footnote to a number of celebrated careers. It’s solid B-movie fare, but, at the end of the day, that’s an accomplishment in its own right.
Someday, I’ll probably check out the other two William Castle/DeVallon Scott collaborations (Conquest of Cochise (1953) and The Iron Glove (1954)). Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed my humble contributions to The William Castle Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. The Blogathon still has one day left, so be sure to take a look.
Until next time…
“There was no skill to their taking — only overpowering force. He had that feeling again that he had had before: that life was neither good nor pleasant nor worth the living. You started out in blood and stench with the echoes of your mother’s dying screams inside of you somewhere so that unrecognized, unremembered, they were there a part of you; then afterwards you were the hunted, always the hunted, running with that tiredness inside of you that was part of death itself, the knowing always in the end that the running was no good because you’d be pulled down — by the big ones, the strong ones, the ones whose world would crash about their heads if they permitted you, the small the wily, the different, to go on living. Or they worried you to death in small and ugly ways: by telling you what seat you might take at a table, by the epithets with which they addressed you, by forbidding you to wear fur or bear a sword or take to wife a girl of different station. Small ways and ugly, but they killed something inside of you — your pride of manhood perhaps your belief in yourself until you became the beast-thing that they were and lit candles and rang bells and ran weeping and howling to prostrate yourself before the unknown and unknowable because you had to have something to cling to against the onrushing dark even if it were only the gibbering ghosts of other men’s fears labelled god or saint or holy spirit….” — Frank Yerby, “The Saracen Blade”
Sure, that passage is a wall of text, but it’s a POWERFUL wall of text.
EDIT (03/22/15) – Removed broken link to swordfight video clip. Looks like all clips from this film have vanished from the interwebs. I’ll keep on the lookout, though. I’d love to have a trailer, if such a thing exists. Got a tip? Please leave a comment. Much appreciated!
These three words are used to describe William Castle’s peplum epic, Slaves of Babylon (1953), in the poster below. Promising to tell the tale of “The last days and nights of mighty Babylon”, the film is part of Castle’s journeyman era, just a few years before he adopted the Barnumesque promotional gusto that would cement his legacy. Slaves enters the “peplum”, or “sword-and-sandal”, era early, before Kirk Douglas as Ulysses (1954), Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur (1959), or the countless Hercules and Samson films that would define the genre in the decades to come. The most obvious influence on Slaves is the MGM Technicolor epic Quo Vadis (1951), which became the highest grossing film of the year and earned eight Academy Award nominations.
Today, as part of The William Castle Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon, we’re going to take a closer look at Slaves of Babylon. Directed by William Castle from a story and screenplay written by DeVallon Scott, Slaves was the second of four collaborations between the two (along with Conquest of Cochise (1953), The Iron Glove (1954), and The Saracen Blade (1954)). It is largely an adaptation of the biblical Book of Daniel, though Daniel (played by the Yiddish Laurence Olivier, Maurice Schwartz) appears only sporadically. The bulk of the narrative is driven by the minor prophet Nahum (Richard Conte), depicted here as a student and contemporary of Daniel.
Richard Conte as Nahum
Richard Conte was discovered by John Garfield and Elia Kazan while working as a singing waiter at a Connecticut resort. While many Hollywood actors were off fighting the good fight in WWII, Conte signed a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox, groomed to be the “New John Garfield”. He began his career playing mostly soldiers, but by the late 1940s, he had transitioned to film noir. Conte’s Jersey accent occasionally creeps through here as the kingmaker Nahum.
Linda Christian as Princess Panthea
Born Blanca Rosa Welter, Linda Christian was given her screen name by then lover Errol Flynn after Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian. Flynn convinced her to give up her medical studies and move to Hollywood. She was quickly spotted by MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer and offered a seven-year contract, nicknamed “The Anatomic Bomb” by the studio. Her best known work before Babylon was Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), Johnny Weissmuller’s last Tarzan film.
Shortly thereafter, she became more famous for marrying actor Tyrone Power than any of her film roles. While they never ended up working together, Christian and Power were offered the leading roles in From Here to Eternity (1953), but Power turned the project down. Eternity would go on to win eight Oscars. Neither Christian nor Power would ever take home that prize.
Linda Christian’s Princess Panthea is a bit of a biblical femme fatale, putting her own interests first and foremost and mercurial in her moods and affections. She is a natural seductress and manipulator, a character very much at home in the sword and sorcery fiction of H. Rider Haggard or Robert E. Howard. Unlike most of her ilk (spoiler alert!), she does not suffer from her opportunistic nature, emerging entirely unscathed.
Perhaps because she is a true polyglot, able to speak six languages fluently, Linda Christian’s accent fluctuates wildly as Panthea. Most often, it comes across as Shakespearean, with a languid, breathy delivery. At other times, though, she sounds vaguely Eastern European, like a Russian tsaritsa. Your mileage may vary.
Terry Kilburn as Cyrus the Great
Terry Kilburn achieved film fame at a very young age, appearing as Tiny Tim in the MGM production of A Christmas Carol (1938) and four generations of students to the title teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Kilburn would appear in a wide variety of adventure films, from Swiss Family Robinson (1940) through Only the Valiant (1951) and often as a sailor in swashbucklers such as Song of Scheherazade (1947), Tyrant of the Sea (1950), and Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950). He also played the cub reporter Seymour in four Bulldog Drummond mysteries from 1947-1948.
While 26 at the time of the film’s release, Kilburn appears much younger. This helps him portray Cyrus as an uncertain ruler, prone to youthful indiscretions and easily steered by the savvy Nahum. This contrasts rather harshly with most historical accounts that place Cyrus as one of the great military leaders of the ancient world, but Nahum’s the star here, the power behind the throne just as Daniel was to King Nebuchadnezzar.
Leslie Bradley as King Nebuchadnezzar
Leslie Bradley had uncredited roles in Prince of Foxes (1949), which would provide footage for Castle’s The Saracen Blade (1954), and the highly successful biblical epic Quo Vadis (1951).
Michael Ansara as Prince Belshazzar
Syrian-born Michael Ansara appeared in the western adventure Only the Valiant (1951) with Terry Kilburn and in the Castle peplum Serpent of the Nile (1953) along with Michael Fox, Robert Griffin, and Julie Newmar. Ansara followed Slaves with dramatically more successful biblical epics, taking uncredited roles in the Oscar-winning films The Robe (1953, as Judas) and The Ten Commandments (1959). How do you not credit Judas?
Ansara, in a mere supporting role, practically steals this film away from its stars. His Belshazzar is delightfully wicked, and his line delivery reminded me of an angry William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes). Ansara would be no stranger to science fiction television, playing Klingon commander Kang in three separate Star Trek series as well as Kane on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Slaves of Babylon (1953)
We open with a reading from the “Book of Daniel”, narrated by Michael Fox, who previously appeared in the William Castle pelpum Serpent of the Nile (1953) and who would go on to narrate another William Castle/DeVallon Scott collaboration, The Iron Glove (1954). For the historically and/or geographically challenged, Babylon was located some 53 miles south of Baghdad and was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem. The titular Hebrew slaves were taken back to Babylon to build the fabled Hanging Gardens (represented here by some gorgeous matte paintings) and the Temple of Bel-Marduk, but they refused to worship at the latter, even under penalty of death.
Daniel, however, has found favor with King Nebuchadnezzar, who relies upon his sage counsel. Prince Belshazzar takes strong exception to his father’s tolerance, claiming “He has bewitched you!” and “It is Daniel who really rules Babylon!”
“I rule Babylon!”
“But Daniel sits at your right hand. Why do I not sit at your right hand?”
“Soon you will sit on the throne itself, my son.”
Daniel seeks an audience, and while Belshazzar is insulted, his father welcomes the interruption to end their ongoing quarrel.
At the house of Rachel (Ruth Storey), Daniel’s rebellious student Nahum finds refuge and a tender kiss while soldiers search for him outside. She urges him to flee Babylon with her, but he refuses to leave Daniel. Daniel himself then enters to tell Nahum he must go to the ruins of Jerusalem, which Nahum has never seen. Afterwards, Nahum must seek a shepherd boy named Cyrus who has the power to overthrow Babylon, but if he never uses this power, Cyrus will die a shepherd. Knowing his pupil’s limitations, Daniel urges Nahum to be wise and controlled, as he is. Nahum eagerly takes up this noble quest, leaving Rachel to lament her loss.
Exiting Babylon undetected is no easy feat, however. Nahum recalls a way out from his childhood. Some unexpected underwater photography highlights Nahum’s escape, squeezing between bars blocking a conduit to the River Euphrates and the shore outside the city.
In the Kingdom of Media, Nahum makes inquiries about the shepherd boy Cyrus. Stopping to drink at a river bank, he hears a shepherd’s flute and wanders over to ask his tired question. He is surprised (but we shouldn’t be) to find that he speaks to Cyrus himself.
Cyrus doesn’t like strangers, dismissing Nahum out of hand. Nahum won’t be so easily turned away, however, and resorts to force to subdue Cyrus. At the shepherd’s home, Cyrus’s father (Wheaton Chambers) offers hospitality to the visitor from Babylon. Undaunted by propriety, Nahum calls Cyrus’ parentage into question and asks his mother (Beatrice Maude) to speak the truth, but is horrified to find she has no tongue.
Cyrus’ father knows not how she lost it, and she cannot tell him, but it happened while she was heavy with child and Cyrus’ father was off in the mountains. She served in the palace at the time and perhaps insulted someone important. While the menfolk speculate, she produces a woven cloth that tells the story of Cyrus.
Nahum examines it and tells the tale. “The visit from the king’s men, the child swathed in royal purple, given to you to expose in the wilderness to die because they were afraid to kill a king’s son. Your own child, stillborn. The dead child put out on the hillside, the living child raised as your own, and you could never tell him because of what the soldiers had done to you.” This story, as written by Herodotus, is but one of many legends of abandoned children of noble birth returning to claim their royal birthright, putting Cyrus alongside such luminaries as Oedipus the Greek and Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
Cyrus wishes to die a shepherd and wants nothing to do with the kingdom of his grandfather, King Astyages, but when Nahum indicates that he would be free to marry whoever he chooses, Cyrus suddenly shows interest.
Nahum has the tapestry brought to Cyrus’ mother, Mandane (Ernestine Barrier), as a gift. When she tracks Nahum down, he shows her the Talisman of Mithra that was found around the infant Cyrus’ neck. King Astyages orders Cyrus killed, but his daughter stays the execution and spares the boy she now knows to be her only son.
Cyrus is quickly accepted as a prince in the court of Astyages, and Nahum is tasked with teaching the new ruler of Persia the ways of kingship. Before leaving for his new lands, Cyrus wishes to wed the Princess Panthea, but he is skittish about speaking to her and betraying his humble origins. He asks Nahum to play John Alden to his Miles Standish and speak on his behalf instead.
When we are first introduced to Princess Panthea, she is lounging about her luxurious chambers petting her leopard. Sometimes a leopard is just a leopard, I suppose, but the way Linda Christian vamps it up here is captivating. She has only the scantest interest in Cyrus, his title, and his messenger Nahum.
To gild the proverbial lily, Julie Newmar has a brief cameo as our forbidden dancer du jour. Nahum tries to goad the distracted Cyrus into making war on Astyages, even suggesting that Princess Panthea may wed someone else if he waits too long. Suddenly, Nahum catches the dancer by the wrist before she can plunge a blade into the heart of Cyrus. She immediately fingers King Astyages as her employer, convincing Cyrus to give the attack order against his own grandfather.
Best known as Catwoman in television’s Batman starring Adam West, Newmar was still going by her birth name of Newmeyer when she played the would-be assassin. Earlier that same year, she had been a feature dancer clad in gold paint for the William Castle peplum Serpent of the Nile (1953) and later in the widely panned sequel to The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).
The campaign goes poorly for Cyrus, and in the very first battle, he is saved from certain death by Nahum. He swears to reward Nahum with whatever he desires, but Nahum insists he will only redeem his wish once Babylon is taken. Cyrus can’t see that happening any time soon, since he’s lost three battles in a row to his grandfather.
In Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar has been pressured into making a decree that anyone who prays to a deity other than Bel-Marduk for the next thirty days will be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel, predictably, defies this order and is arrested. He is taken into custody peacefully, even when stoned in the streets by angry mobs.
King Nebuchadnezzar begs Daniel to pray to Bel-Marduk. When Daniel refuses, Nebuchadnezzar tells him that he has doomed himself. “Release the lions. We will return at daybreak.”
When Nebuchadnezzar returns, the lions are lying around Daniel, docile. The guard thinks it a trick, so Nebuchadnezzar shoves him into the cell to be devoured. During his time with the lions, Daniel has had an epiphany and now knows how to help Cyrus.
Back in Media, Nahum tells an envoy from King Astyages that tomorrow, at the ninth hour after sunrise, the entire world will grow dark unless Astyages’ men throw down their arms. During the battle, a solar eclipse vindicates the prophecy, presumably delivered to Nahum by Daniel but historically attributed to Thales (an opponent of Cyrus) and the King of Lydia. The soldiers of Astyages drop their weapons in fear, and Astyages surrenders his throne to his grandson. Cyrus spares his grandfather’s life but reduces him to a lowly shepherd.
Nahum tries to keep Cyrus hungry, but the young king is done with conquest and just wants his Panthea. Princess Panthea receives Nahum, but says she’s not interested in him, the throne of Persia, or Media. When Nahum offers the throne of Babylon, that finally piques her interest. Rather than offer up the hand of Cyrus as was requested, Nahum claims that Daniel will spread word in Babylon of Panthea’s beauty, intriguing Prince Belshazzar into arranging their marriage.
Meanwhile, Belshazzar is busy burning Hebrews, but they walk out of the flames unscathed. This is a dramatization of the tale of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, though the men are unnamed here and it is the cruel Belshazzar not Nebuchadnezzar who orders the execution. Neither are the guards burned who cast them in. It is perhaps the weakest of the miracles depicted in the film and should really have been given more oomph than some cheap rear projection.
Cyrus is angry that Nahum has not disbanded the army as commanded. Before it can be done, Nahum reveals that Panthea is en route to Babylon to be betrothed to Belshazzar. As Nahum cheekily gets ready to disband the army, Cyrus stops him, now wanting to march on Babylon.
Cyrus’ forces intercept the caravan of Panthea, and she consents to be his queen, but only if he succeeds in taking the throne of Babylon, a kingdom worthy of her stature. Cyrus entrusts Nahum to escort Panthea safely behind his army, but warns that if she complains about his stewardship, it will mean his death. Sounds like nothing could go wrong there, right?
Nahum confronts her in her pavilion, angry that she did not wait in Tarsus as instructed, but she has clearly seen through his scheme and is working her own angle now. “Cyrus or Belshazzar… I must win with either. You must lose with both.”
Over the five-day journey to Babylon, she tries to seduce him and is surprised to find that this well-spoken statesman used to be a slave. He tells her stories of his people, such as that of Ruth and of Joseph, Son of Jacob. This seems to satisfy her need for attention and affection… for now.
As King Nebuchadnezzar grows senile and enfeebled, Belshazzar believes that his father has been bewitched by Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar seeks forgiveness from Daniel, who passes this request along to God, and the stricken king receives clarity of thought briefly before expiring. Belshazzar walks in to find his father dead at Daniel’s feet. Before he can act, word arrives that Cyrus has reached the city walls with his vast army.
Belshazzar shouts from the walls, telling the Medians that they will starve during a siege while his people eat heartily from their stockpiles of food. “Babylon will live forever under the protection of the all-powerful god, Bel-Marduk!”
Elsewhere, Panthea dances seductively for Nahum, eventually coming to rest her chin suggestively on his thigh. After he tells her the tale of Joseph, they kiss. “In all my life, they taught me only one thing, that I should one day be a queen, but I want to be a woman… with you.” Nahum spurns her advances just as Cyrus walks in, seeking his counsel. Without explaining her ire to Cyrus, she angrily vows to decide Nahum’s fate after Babylon has been taken.
Inside the city, Belshazzar is warned about the danger of the slaves, who might open the gates to the invaders, and is encouraged to put them all to the sword. Rather than spark open revolt in the streets, Belshazzar tells the Hebrews that they are free to return to Jerusalem by the east gate that night.
Daniel interrupts Belshazzar’s revelry to ask for the return of the sacred vessels from the temple at Jerusalem. Belshazzar and his advisers mock this humble request. The sacred vessels are brought to Belshazzar, who, along with his general, drinks wine from them. Inexplicably, a spectral hand writes out Hebrew script (right to left, as is proper), the oft-cited “writing on the wall”, shocking all in attendance. Daniel translates it into a long prophecy of doom for Belshazzar.
Clearly rattled, Belshazzar responds with vicious bravado. “It is not I that am doomed, but your people, all of you. Even now they are being destroyed.”
This is no idle threat, as the departing Hebrews have been trapped in a high-walled ravine where the surrounding brush is set alight by the Babylonians, leaving the Hebrews to burn to death. A sudden, miraculous rain spares them, but Belshazzar does not know that, and he proclaims Daniel’s god false.
Outside, Nahum suggests that Cyrus’ men use cover of night and fog to re-enter the city through his escape path, the river gate. Before Belshazzar can slay Daniel, a thrown spear buries itself in his back, cast by brave Nahum. The forces of Babylon, sodden with wine, spiritually shattered, leaderless, and taken unawares are summarily defeated.
Victorious, Panthea broods on the throne of Babylon alongside King Cyrus. Cyrus announces that he is ready to redeem his two vows, one to Nahum, the other to Panthea. Nahum regifts his favor to his mentor Daniel. Daniel asks for freedom to return to Jerusalem with his people.
Panthea decides Nahum’s fate. “Yes, he shall die… but in his own land, surrounded by his brothers. For your god will surely visit you and bring you out of the land of exile back to the land of your fathers, and from this day on you shall never again look on Babylon.”
Leaving Babylon forevermore, Nahum is reunited with Rachel, his one true love, and they wend their way toward a distant rainbow. And Jerusalem knew happiness and peace for the rest of days. Well, not really, obviously, but that’s “THE END” for now.
Savage? Sinful? Spectacular? Sadly, no.
Tame. Tepid. Tolerable. All would be better descriptors. William Castle’s direction is competent but lifeless. The various miracles depicted in the film are given little to no weight, the score doesn’t swell, and the actors mostly respond as if it’s just another day at the office, especially the Hebrews walking out of the furnace and, presumably, directly toward craft services.
Still, it’s not a terrible film by any stretch, and as far as adaptations of the Book of Daniel go, I’m sure you can find far worse. Certainly, it’s not enough to scare me away from tackling another William Castle/DeVallon Scott collaboration in two days’ time, their last, The Saracen Blade (1954). Hopefully you won’t be scared off as well and will return to check out Ricardo Montalbán buckling his swash.
Be sure to click the banner above for more of The William Castle Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. Castle was a prolific director, and with five days of coverage and dozens of participating blogs, there’s sure to be something for everyone. Until next time…
“I created the peplum so you can eat in it.
You can have a dessert, you can have another sandwich.”
– Fashion designer Alber Elbaz in 2012
Pretty sure the ancient Greeks invented the peplum. Just sayin’.
“…Is but a dream within a dream.”
– Edgar Allan Poe
Dreams are the source of inspiration and terror in William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964), starring Barbara Stanwyck. The Night Walker stands as a milestone at the end of an era. It was the last black and white theatrical feature released by Universal and the last feature film in Barbara Stanwyck’s long and storied career.
The Girl with the White Parasol is hosting the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon this week, and I’m proud to be participating with our little discussion today. Be sure to check out some of the other offerings at the link. Stanwyck had an incredibly diverse film career, and there’s sure to be something for everyone.
“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” — John Barrymore
In the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, Director/Producer William Castle was primarily known for his promotional gimmickry, often so outrageous that it overshadowed the films themselves. For The Night Walker, he attempted a more sedate approach, focusing attention on the pedigree of his screenwriter and stars.
Robert Bloch was already well known as the writer of the novel Psycho, adapted by Alfread Hitchcock into a wildly popular, record-breaking thriller. The success of the film led Bloch to move to Hollywood, racking up assignments in the wake of the Writers Guild strike. The Night Walker was Bloch’s second screenplay for Castle, after having written the Joan Crawford vehicle Strait-Jacket (1964) earlier that year.
A recurring theme throughout this period of Bloch’s oeuvre is the focus on psychological terror rather than supernatural bugaboos. His characters are often afflicted with a mental condition that makes their perceptions suspect if not outright delusional, and can be used to direct the actions of either antagonist or protagonist. Barbara Stanwyck plays our distressed protagonist in The Night Walker, a wealthy woman whose recurring dreams turn dark and potentially deadly after the untimely death of her blind and jealous husband (Hayden Rorke).
Stanwyck’s failed marriage to co-star Robert Taylor formed another angle for Castle’s publicity efforts. An Associated Press news story describes a Universal Studios party held in their honor on May 5, 1964 to promote the film. Stanwyck was asked if she had any objection to re-teaming with her ex-husband. “Of course not,” she said, “but you’d better ask Mr. and Mrs. Taylor.” Robert Taylor reportedly said “It’s all right with me if it’s all right with her.” By contrast, when Taylor’s then-current wife, German actress Ursula Thiess, was asked as well, she replied with “Not necessarily.”
Stanwyck and Taylor first collaborated on His Brother’s Wife (1936), a melodrama chock full of love, loss, betrayal, mobsters, and spotted fever. The film couple soon began living together, setting the rumor mill spinning. They reunited a year later for This Is My Affair (1937), with Stanwyck and Taylor reprising the moll and honorable man roles, respectively, but substituting bank robberies for jungle fevers.
By 1939, despite Stanwyck’s reticence in the aftermath of one deceased fiancé and one failed marriage, MGM insisted upon their wedding with studio chief Louis B. Mayer personally arranging the event. Their marriage lasted a little over a decade until Taylor filed for divorce in 1950 for unspecified irreconcilable differences. The chemistry between the two leads in The Night Walker is palpable and contains just enough grit and tension to give it depth without devolving into bickering or swooning.
The Night Walker (1964)
We open with a five minute reading from the “Book of Dreams”, voiced by the accomplished voice actor Paul Frees and accompanied by Twilight Zone-style visuals. If you have ever asked yourself the question, “What do The Manchurian Candidate, The Abominable Doctor Phibes, and Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey have in common?” the answer is Paul Frees. With over 300 performances over 4 decades, most of them uncredited voice-overs, Frees was beyond prolific and sets the tone very effectively here.
After our introduction, we find blind millionaire Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke) and his attorney Barry Morland (Robert Taylor) talking over brandy. In the face of a world composed almost exclusively of sound, Trent has begun recording his surroundings. He has caught his wife Irene (Barbara Stanwyck) talking in her sleep, having the same dream night after night, and believes it suggests an affair. This leads to some none-too-subtle accusations that Barry might be the dream man in question.
After Howard Trent retires to his upstairs laboratory, Irene confides in Barry and, while insisting upon her innocence, she also flirts shamelessly with him before he leaves. This just seems to confirm Howard’s suspicions, and he confronts her directly afterward on the stairs. Tired of his jealousy, she just lays into him.
“I know why my dreams seem real, because when I’m awake my life with you is like a nightmare!” Howard demands the truth, but he clearly can’t handle the truth. “All right, here’s the truth! My lover is only a dream, but he’s still more of a man than you!”
Outraged, Howard assaults her viciously with his cane until she flees the mansion. Inexplicably, smoke begins rolling out from under the door to his laboratory. After he enters, shutting the door behind him and obstructing our viewpoint, an explosion rocks the house.
The next day, Irene is questioned by an arson investigator. Howard’s remains were not found, and the investigator chalks it up to the intense heat. He condemns the lab as unsafe and padlocks the door to what is now a crime scene.
A clacking noise, reminiscent of Howard feeling his way along with his cane, disturbs Irene’s sleep. She gets up and wanders the house, calling his name. Noises draw her to his laboratory, now curiously unlocked and filled with smoke. The door slams shut, seemingly of its own accord. Unable to see through the dense smoke, Irene feels her way to the door and is horrified to find Howard’s burnt, motionless body alongside it. She screams in terror and revulsion. As her screams turn to choked sobs, he begins slowly walking, stalking towards her, tapping with his cane. Pretty chilling stuff. Stanwyck has an impressive shriek, worthy of a “scream queen”.
Irene awakens, confused, and throws on her robe. She rushes to the lab to find it soundly padlocked. It was all a horrible nightmare.
She drives over to Barry’s office for the very first time. He’s been going through Howard’s files. Irene wants to sell the house, but Barry indicates that it’ll take six months to go through probate. She can’t wait that long. She tells him about her nightmare and vows to move out that very day if she can’t sell it. She still owns a beauty shop with an apartment in the back where she used to live and decides to relocate there for the time being.
There, new employee Joyce (Judi Meredith) has seen to Irene’s apartment, setting up her furnishings and wardrobe. Irene tries to get comfortable, but it’s clearly no longer the home she remembers. Lying down exhausted, she falls fast asleep.
A tapping awakens her, but this time it’s different. A voice calls her name from outside the curtained window, pleading for her to let him in. We meet her recurring dream man (Lloyd Bochner), in suit and tie. He enters, a wry smile on his lips. “Surely you’re not afraid, not of me? We know one another too well for that.” He takes her in his arms, pulls her close, and kisses her.
“You have been warned!”
A worried Joyce wakes her at eleven, having let her sleep in all morning. Joyce tells Irene that Barry Morland has requested an appointment. He left a message that he’ll pick her up at six.
At a swanky jazz club, Barry and Irene talk over dinner. She puckishly inquires about his personal life, and Barry gamely plays along. Irene then tells him about her dream visitor. When Barry suggests a psychiatrist, Irene is insulted. A flaming kebab skewer halts her in her tracks, and she’s surprised to find herself suddenly pyrophobic. Barry drops all pretense and plainly asks if she murdered Howard, earning an indignant slap across the face.
Just after midnight, Irene takes some pills and tries to get some sleep though she’s clearly still distraught. Her mystery visitor wakes her up with his deep, sonorous voice. “Better hurry, it’s past nine.” A glance at the clock reveals it’s 9:20 to be exact.
After some champagne and banter, he takes her to a chapel, ignoring her pleas to head back. “We can’t. They’re all waiting.” When she asks who is getting married, the shocking answer is that they are. “You and I can do anything we like.”
Irene is appalled to see the priest and witnesses are actually all wax mannequins, even though she can hear the priest’s voice quite clearly. Despite never saying “I do,” the ceremony proceeds just as if she had. Once the ring is on her finger, the chandeliers start spinning and everything takes on a somber tone.
She rushes to the door and manages to pull them open, only to be confronted by a burned Howard. She retreats, screaming and shouting “No!” in denial. The ceremony is repeated, with Howard now serving as the groom. Instead of “I do” or mute silence, Irene’s reaction this time is a blood-curdling scream.
She seems to awaken, only to find her dream man looming over her. “I can’t wake up!” she sobs.
I found the whole sequence to be creepy and effective in that subtle fashion that has seemingly gone out of style. I’ve long argued that just a touch of the inexplicable added to the mundane taps into the purest terror. Movie monsters and cackling madmen, while often entertaining, tend not to unnerve me, but put something seemingly innocuous where it should not, could not be, and I’m shivering. Mannequins clearly don’t belong in wedding chapels. It also doesn’t hurt to have a top-notch actor or actress sell the piece, and Stanwyck’s growing anxiety is surely contagious.
The next day, Morland comes to check on her and apologize. They reconcile over some coffee, and she asks for his help with her nightmares. She recalls a landmark from her trip with the mystery dream man, a statue of a woman spinning on a silver dollar. If anyone has any idea what landmark this may have been from, please comment below. I couldn’t find hide nor hair of it anywhere.
Anyway, they manage to locate the apartment where her mystery man first took her for champagne, convincing Irene that it was no dream. All of the furnishings inside are covered, however, and the paintings on the wall are all gone. “It all looks so different, so un-lived in.”
Barry lets her in on the fact that her deceased husband Howard owned the apartment in question. When questions put to the landlady fail to identify her mystery beau, Irene starts to question her sanity. She and Barry next try to locate the nightmare chapel.
They find it, also vacant, as well as condemned and up for lease. Barry uses the leasing option as a pretense to get the groundskeeper to let them in. Just as she’s about to give up convincing Barry of the reality of her visions, Irene finds the wedding ring lying discarded on the floor.
What is real, what is dream? Who is alive and who is dead? Such are the questions facing Irene Trent and, by extension, the viewer. I’ve probably given far too much away already, but I’m not going to spoil the last third of the film, which unravels the twists and turns to provide largely satisfying answers to those queries.
Ms. Stanwyck isn’t the only one bringing their A-game to what was traditionally B-material. All of the performances are exceptionally tight, with Robert Taylor and Lloyd Bochner anchoring the film on either side of Stanwyck’s Irene Trent, bookending her character with reality and fantasy, respectively. Bochner had previously starred in the iconic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (1962) and headlined the King Solomon’s Mines rehash Drums of Africa (1963) with Frankie Avalon. He manages to be at turns seductive and menacing, aloof and enigmatic. By contrast, Taylor’s Barry Morland is earthy and pragmatic, a lawyer to the core, but drawn to the frantic widow perhaps despite his better judgment.
The set design is also worthy of distinction. While most of the set pieces have that staged feel of studio-bound dramatic film and television productions, some of the choices highlight rather than hinder the script. From the Trent mansion, with a wall covered in ornate clocks, all ticking and chiming in unison, to the beauty parlor, all functional and sterile, and, of course, the chapel, sparse and Kafkaesque, shot from rapidly changing angles to disorient and unnerve.
Lastly, a word about the music. Some have stated elsewhere that the title theme does bear a striking resemblance to “Food, Glorious Food” from Oliver!, but overall, the bombastic score by The Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy does its part. I found any chuckling it invoked to be WITH the film, rather than AT it. In a 2009 interview, Mizzy tells of a screening of the film at the Hitchcock Theatre for Universal Studios chief Lew Wasserman where Wasserman only gushed to William Castle about the score.
Now, admittedly, before viewing this film, I had only seen Ms. Stanwyck as the quintessential femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944). Still, it’s such a memorable performance that I knew there was more to Ms. Stanwyck than an anklet, a strategically placed towel, and some breathy innuendo. I’m glad I was able to participate in the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, and many thanks to The Girl with the White Parasol for graciously hosting. If you’re looking to broaden your Barbara Stanwyck horizons, you couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than that link. Take a look, then feel free to come back and let me know what you’ve found. I’m always open to suggestions.
Until next time, then, folks… Sweet Dreams…
…Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello took to the beach for the first time together on film.
The initial script for Beach Party (1963) was a tale of typical teens getting into typical trouble, but Director William Asher agreed to helm the film on the condition that it be turned into a more lighthearted musical with trouble free teens. At it’s heart, it is a story of three couples, though they don’t all start that way. In this respect, it most resembles Shakespearean comedy or commedia all’italiana (the film’s initial inspiration). Our feature couple, and the first characters we meet, are Frankie and Dolores (Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, respectively, but I hope I didn’t need to tell you that).
The single “Venus”, released in 1959, became Frankie Avalon’s first number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it spent five weeks at the top and sold over a million copies. His musical success was fleeting, however, and by 1960, he transitioned to bit parts in films such as The Alamo (1960) with John Wayne. His first starring role was in Drums of Africa (1963), just one of many African adventure films using recycled footage from King Solomon’s Mines (1950).
By contrast, Annette Funicello was already a star. At age 12, she was personally selected by Walt Disney to be the last of the original “Mouseketeers” for The Mickey Mouse Club television show. Her work for Disney landed her high profile guest spots on both Make Room for Daddy and Zorro in February, 1959. Disney also transitioned her into feature films with supporting roles in The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Babes in Toyland (1961), both alongside Tommy Kirk, her future Pajama Party (1964) co-star. Beach Party was conceived with Funicello in mind, to play opposite teen heartthrob Fabian, but he was under contract to 20th Century Fox.
Being established properties, Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone actually receive top billing on the promotional materials.
Charles Clarence Robert Orville “Bob” Cummings plays Robert Orville Sutwell. While Sutwell struggles to out-think the waves, Cummings was a surfer by hobby and Sutwell flies a plane later in the film, likely a reference to Cummings’ own aviation interests, fostered by his godfather, the pioneer Orville Wright. The first licensed flight instructor in the United States, Cummings was issued certificate #1. He briefly studied aeronautical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and his family’s subsequent financial woes forced him to drop out.
Cummings transitioned into acting primarily because it afforded him a $14 per week salary while studying drama in New York City. He made his Broadway debut in 1931. Because British actors were in demand at the time, he traveled to England and learned to mimic the accent, eventually posing as an Englishman under the name of Blade Stanhope Conway.
After headlining the Ziegfeld Follies alongside Fanny Brice, he moved to Hollywood to begin a film career under the alias of wealthy Texan Bruce Hutchens. From the mid 1950s through 1962, he starred in a self-titled sitcom, first for NBC then CBS.
Dorothy Malone plays Sutwell’s assistant Marianne. Malone had been acting for twenty years before appearing in Beach Party. Mostly known for westerns, she took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a spoiled nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind (1956). She’s considerably more sedate here, and while playing clearly the most sexually experienced member of the cast, she doesn’t don a bikini or surf.
Harvey Lembeck played Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953). His Cpl. Rocco Barbella was right-hand man to Sgt. Bilko, on The Phil Silvers Show and Lembeck kept the role through all 4 seasons. Here, he’s leather-clad lout Eric Von Zipper.
Eva Six was already an established property in her native Hungary before appearing here as “Hungarian goulash” Ava. She made her film debut at age ten and was a national folk dance champion by fifteen. In 1956, she fled the new Communist regime with her husband, eventually opening a Hollywood deli where she was encouraged by Frank Sinatra to resume acting.
Six (real name Eva Klein) made just three movies, all released in 1963. After touting her as the hottest new Marilyn Monroe clone, AIP stuck her under a black wig for the surreal Operation Bikini, also with Frankie Avalon. She finished the year in the Rat Pack western, 4 for Texas, but, while stunning, was upstaged by fellow bombshells Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg. By 1964, she was shilling Wate-On Condensed Food Tablets in magazine ads and disappeared from the scene shortly thereafter.
Beach Party (1963)
Our film begins with aerial photography of the coast which is subsequently revealed to be from a Piper Cub’s point of view as it lands on the beach. We then cut to Frankie and Dolores, en route to the beach for some sand, surf, and song, as described in the first musical number, the title tune “Beach Party”. Frankie is alarmed to find that their secluded beachside bungalow is inhabited by the entire gang, including “wall-to-wall girls”.
After some examples of fun and frolic, we’re introduced to Professor Sutwell and his assistant, Marianne. Sutwell is busy surveilling the beach goers for his new book, “The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes”. Marianne has a better title, “Teenage Sex”. She openly flirts with the professor, but he is predictably oblivious.
Sutwell’s activity would probably constitute a felony today, but it’s played here for giggles, and provides an excuse for another musical number, this one by the legendary Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (“Secret Surfin’ Spot”). We are party to the professor’s eavesdropping, witnessing the confidences of both Dolores and Frankie as they gripe to their respective peers. Frankie comes upon the dubious notion of making Dolores jealous by “putting her down” and making time with Eva at Big Daddy’s later that night.
The manager of Big Daddy’s, “Cappy” Kaplan (Morey Amsterdam), reads a poem that feels like it was ad libbed on the spot. For all I know, that was part of Amsterdam’s gimmick, but it seems suitably beatnik. While Dick Dale and the Del-Tones perform “Swingin’ and a-Surfin’”, I had to do a double take while Frankie and his boys pass around a joint. I don’t think that ever made it to television rebroadcasts. After all the swingin’ and shakin’, Frankie gets the attention of the waitress Ava and asks her for a dance during her next break.
With a look inspired by Marlon Brando’s signature style in The Wild One (1953), Eric Von Zipper arrives at Big Daddy’s with his motorcycle gang, the Rats, and their women’s auxiliary, the Mice. Not remotely menacing, Zipper’s crew are played for laughs, with Zipper himself frequently referring to one or more of his thugs as “you stupid”.
Recording his observations under his breath, Professor Sutwell arrives overdressed in a suit, bow tie, and Panama hat. A roll of bongo drums and a round of applause bring Ava bouncing down the stairs for her big dance number. As Professor Sutwell describes, “Something’s about to uh… hrm.”
She spurns a handful of eager young men who try to accompany her, finally selecting Frankie per their prior arrangement. While they gyrate and seemingly defy physics, Frankie sings the catchy little ditty “Don’t Stop Now”. The song and dance routine seem to have their desired effect on a sour Dolores. Frankie quickly makes his way through a succession of female dance partners, eventually ending up shimmying along with a whole trio of blondes before getting reunited with Ava. It isn’t long before the whole joint is jumpin’ with the notable exceptions of the bikers and Dolores.
On her way to confront Frankie, Dolores trips and falls into the lap and mitts of Eric Von Zipper. Eric proves difficult to escape until Professor Sutwell politely intervenes. A punch from Eric manages to break Sutwell’s tape recorder and very nearly Eric’s hand as well. In a display of nerd respect long ahead of its time, Sutwell proceeds to humiliate the biker gang leader with a combination of “complex pressure point and applied force”, creating “time suspension”, or paralysis.
Sutwell offers to escort Dolores home. While the crowd oohs and aahs at Sutwell’s handiwork, Frankie is left fuming about his backfiring plan. Sutwell’s description of his research to Dolores sounds like innuendo, but she ends up charmed by his distinguished earnestness. Inexplicably, she name drops (albeit mispronounced) Nobel Peace Prize Winner Doctor Albert Schweitzer as a point of comparison.
In a clever reversal, Frankie and his boys listen in on their conversation from a nearby changing tent. The night ends with Dolores ecstatic for what she clearly believes to be a romantic rendezvous scheduled for noon the next day. Deadhead (Jody McCrea) suggests Frankie grow a beard to get Dolores back. McCrea’s simpleton character would prove popular enough to reappear (sometimes under the name “Bonehead”) in five more beach party films.
The next day, just as Marianne is about to convince Professor Sutwell to discard his academic distance and enter the wild world of romance, Dolores shows up in a bikini for their date. Her appearance here lays to rest the widely circulated myth that Disney did not permit Funicello to wear a bikini or bare her belly-button. His beachwear is not nearly as flattering, including a fireproof and waterproof kimono that was presented to him by the chief of the Tokyo Fire Department. Dolores tries to get him to refine his look, but only has limited success before Sutwell puts his foot down.
Dolores gives the professor a quick lesson in surfer jargon before they’re interrupted by a surfing tutorial from Frankie’s boys. Their attempts at embarrassing the old boy eventually backfire. After some calculations (remember to carry the two) and a few learning experiences, he proves to be a natural at “jazzing the glass”. In a combination of cultural reference and braggadocio, Sutwell makes an off-hand reference to having swum the Hellespont, a feat first performed by Lord Byron.
After his surfing stint, Sutwell chats with Cappy over at Big Daddy’s. He confides that he was the youngest professor at university and grew his beard to avoid being written off as a kid. Now, he’s having difficulty recapturing his youth. Frankie storms in and confronts the professor, accusing him of “brainwashing her” with his beard. He proclaims Dolores as his gal and demands that Sutwell steer clear.
Night falls, the bonfire’s lit, and it’s time for more shakin’ and groovin’. Frankie catches up with Dolores, who claims to love “Ol’ Pig Bristles” while Frankie only loves Dolores. As they kiss, reconciled, Ava interrupts and reminds Frankie that he said “I love you” to her first. With those three short words, Dolores and Frankie are quits once again.
Dolores heads to her room to pine and consider where she went wrong. “Treat Him Nicely” is her advice to herself, told in song to the mirror and cleverly harmonizing with herself.
Meanwhile, Professor Sutwell foolishly arranges for Marianne to observe and record his interactions with Dolores. She asks him who made his ridiculously elaborate straw hat, “Lilly Daché?” I have to admit I was forced to look that one up.
The boys prank Sutwell by lighting his hat on fire, much to the amusement of everyone except Dolores and the confused professor. She convinces him to shave off his beard to change his look then tells him a story of a “ghost plane” that was spotted landing on the beach. Sutwell takes her to see the “ghost plane”, his Piper Cub. Having never flown in a plane, Dolores makes him promise to take her for a ride, but at 3 a.m. when the beach will be otherwise deserted.
Marianne sings along with a recording of Funicello herself singing “Promise Me Anything (Give Me Love)” while listening in. When she hears his exchange with Dolores, she is hurt. Sutwell returns to their bungalow to find a note from her, “I’ve heard enough.” He seems delighted at the prospect of a jealous Marianne.
Eric Von Zipper runs into Ava, angry at Frankie for spurning her advances. They hit it off immediately, but Zipper has to take a rain check as he’s set on revenge against Sutwell. He accidentally crawls through Dolores’ window and promptly gets battered by her while she howls for help. Sutwell rushes to her rescue. The Rats and Mice flee from “The Finger” as he’s now known. Zipper tries to climb back out the window and manages to knock himself dizzy on a surfboard.
Frankie and the gang arrive to see Sutwell consoling Dolores and immediately think the worst. Dolores and Sutwell discuss the incident during their plane ride. He tells her about his stint as a flight instructor for the Army during World War II and the nature of combat aerobatics (both part of Cummings’ own background). A demonstration leaves Dolores literally green in the gills.
The next morning, Marianne chastises the professor for getting too close to his research. He cuts off her protests with a series of kisses initially designed to discourage Dolores upon her arrival. He continues his ruse well after Dolores’ furious departure.
When Dolores returns home heartbroken, Frankie and his boys set out to take “Father Time” to task. Frankie wants to know if Sutwell has plans to marry Dolores. Seeing the surveillance equipment, Deadhead accuses Sutwell of being a spy. Frankie reads some of the notes and gets to the truth of the situation. This gives Sutwell and Marianne time to flee the scene.
They take refuge at Big Daddy’s, where Cappy and Ava are conveniently setting out some cream pies to be served with beer later. Sutwell convinces Dolores to confess that she didn’t actually fall in love with him, that she was just spending time with him to make Frankie jealous, much as he was doing with the “Hungarian goulash”, Ava. With that sorted out, Eric Von Zipper shows up with his army of leather-clad goons.
Frankie responds with the dubious tactic of “Ring around the rosie, keep professor cosy, we will break your nosey with a rubber hosey.” A brawl ensues, breaking chairs and tables, and with the professor employing his paralyzing finger to great effect. When Ava proclaims “My hero” of Eric Von Zipper, Dolores has had enough. Ava is the first victim of a pie to the face, but certainly not the last, including a tour guide and businessman who wander into the fray.
Seeing his “army of stupids” stuck like statues, Eric Von Zipper calls for a “palaver”. He wants to learn the Himalayan Time Suspension Technique, and in demonstrating, manages to paralyze himself.
Big Daddy, whose identity has been obscured by his straw hat for the entirety of the film, is finally revealed to be none other than AIP icon Vincent Price! Big Daddy gives them the word, and the word is “The Pit”. “Bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin’.”
We catch up with the gang around the bonfire and our respective happy couples, even Ava and Eric Von Zipper, who vows to return. And he would, in five subsequent beach party films, seven if you count Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Fireball 500 (1966). While not beach party films per se, both featured Frankie Avalon and were heavily marketed to the same audience.
Frankie and Annette would team together for nine more films (Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), Ski Party (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), Fireball 500 (1966), Back to the Beach (1987)), some released mere months apart in summer. In a few instances, one made only a cameo in the other’s film.
Beach Party is surprisingly literate, with references to historical figures and some impressive vocabulary. The language of the film is likewise ambitious, boasting an average shot length of 7.1 seconds, comparing favorably with Romeo and Juliet (1968) at 7.2s versus Grease (1978) at 5.85s and That Thing You Do! (1996) at 4.99s. Sure, there’s some hokey bluescreening for the surf scenes and broad sound design, but it’s still hardly as lowbrow as one would expect.
The end credits finish with energetic go-go dancer Candy Johnson shaking her hips and special thanks to Vincent Price, “soon to be seen in Edgar Allan Poe’s Haunted Palace”, his next film for AIP, released just over a month later.
Last year’s tribute to Marty Feldman, covering three of my favorite performances, proved to be our most popular post to date here at WeirdFlix. This year, I thought we’d break new ground and examine a Feldman film I hadn’t yet seen. The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) was written and directed by Feldman with perennial musketeer Michael York in the title role and Feldman as his “identical” twin brother, Digby Geste.
The title references the many adaptations of P. C. Wren’s adventure novel Beau Geste, first published in 1924. There are three earnest adaptations and one BBC serial, each with its own variation on Beau’s exploits in the French Foreign Legion. Last Remake joins such comedy luminaries as Laurel and Hardy’s Beau Hunks (1931) and the Carry On film Follow that Camel (1967) in spoofing the tale of derring-do.
The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)
Marty Feldman made his feature film directorial debut with The Last Remake of Beau Geste, after directing an episode of the Mel Brooks Robin Hood parody When Things Were Rotten (1975) for the ABC Network. By the late 1970s, Marty was already a veteran of Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder farces, having appeared in Young Frankenstein (1974), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), and Silent Movie (1976). All three were very successful, especially given their modest budgets.
As The Last Remake opens, it becomes apparent that Marty Feldman was a great influence on his former collaborators Graham Chapman and John Cleese of Monty Python fame. Feldman indulges in not only parodying the adventure genre, but in deconstructing the tropes of film itself. Quite literally, in the case of the opening credits. This is perhaps zanier than even Mel Brooks’ fans are accustomed to, if one is not familiar with the Python style.
“The place: North Africa. The year: 1906.”
A rather amusing opening song explains the mercenary nature of the French Foreign Legion to the uninitiated. But first, we must backtrack some years to Merry Olde England and stately Geste Manor. Sir Hector Geste (Trevor Howard) eagerly awaits the birth of his son Beau, having already named him and proclaimed him an epic hero. When the child born proves to be a daughter, the enraged Sir Hector is forced to seek out the offerings at Wormwood & Gall Boys Orphanage.
Sir Hector has very specific requirements. “He’s got to be tall, blonde, and, per my specifications, he must have an aristocratic bearing and the necessary blue eyes. A lad to whom I can confidently bequeath my own noble features. I shall eventually need him to reach a height of six-feet-one and, naturally, he will be brought up with an English gentleman’s attitude and love of slaughter. That seems to cover the essentials.” He soon spies a curly, towheaded boy laying into the other ruffians with not a speck of dirt upon him. Young Obadiah Spittle is immediately rechristened Beau Geste.
Miss Wormwood protests, however. For a mere twelve guineas, she’ll throw in his identical twin brother, Digby. Sir Hector, envisioning two epic heroes, agrees sight unseen. Where they got a child version of Marty Feldman, I’ll never know, but it works.
The idyllic childhood of Beau, Digby, and Isabel Geste is disrupted when Sir Hector is called off to war. Before he can leave on his grand escapade, he shows Beau the Geste family treasure, the legendary Blue Water Sapphire, a gem of such beauty, the Hope Diamond and the Koh-i-Noor pale in comparison. Sir Hector puts it in rather cruder terms, but I’ll take the high road here.
While Sir Hector is off to war, the Geste children grow to young adulthood. Digby is now played by Marty Feldman while Michael York takes the title role of Beau. York was no stranger to swashbuckling, having previously appeared in Director Franco Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare adaptations, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). In the latter, he played the flamboyant swordsman Tybalt. It isn’t much of a stretch from the “Prince of Cats” to the role York is most often associated with, that of D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
“And what of the lovely Isabel? She practiced and practiced and became an accomplished… virgin.” Primarily a television actress, Sinéad Cusack takes on the role of the adult Isabel. She had debuted with an uncredited role in Rocket to the Moon (1967) with Terry-Thomas (Geste‘s Governor), then appeared with Michael York in the costume drama Alfred the Great (1969). She performed alongside her father, respected Irish actor and “The Man Who Would Be Who”, Cyril Cusack, in Roddy McDowell’s The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970) for AIP.
Sir Hector returns from the Sudan with a chest full of medals and a trophy wife, Flavia (played by the voluptuous Ann-Margret). It may seem hard to believe in retrospect, but Ann-Margret had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Carnal Knowledge (1971), then nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Tommy (1975). She was perhaps born to play “Lady Booby” in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the costume comedy Joseph Andrews (1977), and, though Geste was released just a few months later, it feels like she just reprises the role of the lusty widow.
Indeed, Flavia proves “too much for a man of his age,” and Sir Hector suffers a heart attack while in the throes of passion with his new bride. “He overcame himself.” Flavia gets an early start on grieving and arranges a nunnery for both Isabel and Digby, while she has other plans for handsome young Beau.
When she openly plans to sell the Blue Water to gentlemen from Cartier’s, the lights go out and the sapphire disappears. This plays out in an extended sequence that overstays its welcome but finishes strong for fans of Ann-Margret. A subsequent letter from Beau reveals that he has left for North Africa with the family treasure to keep it out of the hands of his wicked stepmother.
Digby keeps Beau’s secret and takes the rap for the theft. He is sentenced to hard labor, “956 years or life… whichever is the longer.”
When we catch up to Beau, he is “somewhere in Morocco…”
The new recruits to the French Foreign Legion are ready for inspection by Sergeant Markov (a bombastic Peter Ustinov). The veteran actor previously teamed with Michael York in Logan’s Run (1976) and played a charlatan in the Disney adventure Treasure of Matecumbe (1976), the first feature-length movie filmed on Disney’s Florida property. He will teach his little “fledermauses” how to die with dignity in the French fashion.
Meanwhile, Flavia visits Digby in prison and tries to get him to tell her where Beau has taken the Blue Water Sapphire. Digby rather vocally refuses to speak, forcing Flavia into the bed of the Governor (Terry-Thomas). There, she convinces him to arrange Digby’s “escape”, figuring he will lead her right to Beau. “It’s been a business doing pleasure with you,” she says with a wicked smile.
Here, the film takes a cinematic detour, paying homage to the 1926 silent film adaptation of Beau Geste, starring Ronald Colman. Soon, despite his inept efforts, Digby is free and reunited with his twin in Morocco. While they think they’ve seen the last of mother, Flavia is in hot pursuit and making good time with the delightfully foppish General Pecheur (Henry Gibson).
Gibson was already a veteran TV actor before Geste. He voiced the beloved pig Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (1973). He also appeared in Director Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), getting a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the latter.
Pecheur introduces Flavia to Sergeant Markov. For 200 francs, Flavia hires Markov to retrieve the gem from Beau, using whatever means necessary, and deliver it to her at their next destination, Fort Zindeneuf. Markov’s assistant, Boldini (Roy Kinnear) lays the groundwork for betrayal by revealing that the paste gem she seeks is no mere trinket, but the fabled Blue Water Sapphire.
En route to Fort Zindeneuf, the Legionnaires are assaulted by Arabs, and the Geste Boys get an opportunity to test their mettle. Inexplicably, a brown-faced Ed McMahon shows up to give us the score and take us out to a commercial break. Avery Schreiber does double duty as an Arab raider and as Honest Hakkim, a used camel salesman. When we return to the action, the Brothers Geste save the regiment banner and the dignity of the Legion.
When the march resumes, Digby finds himself separated from the unit and wandering into a “Mirage Area”. Here, we have another cinematic detour as Marty “Gumps” himself into footage from the 1939 Paramount adaptation of Beau Geste with Gary Cooper. If this scene is to be believed, Cooper’s trademark lackadaisical speech pattern is the result of “Moroccan Gold” cigarettes. Sounds canonical to me.
While Digby negotiates exit from the earlier film and the “Mirage Area”, we catch up with the Sheikh, leader of the Arabs. He enters a tent, and suprise # 1 is that he’s there to meet General Pecheur and Flavia Geste. Surprise # 2 is that when he unwraps his keffiyeh, we see he is none other than James Earl Jones. Surprise # 3 is that he’s a very proper British gentleman, not at all the desert savage we would expect.
Star Wars (1977) was released just two months prior to Geste, but Jones would not be widely associated with the Darth Vader role for some time, primarily because his voiceover work was uncredited at his own request. He starred in Swashbuckler (1976) with comedian Avery Schreiber, who plays his Sheikh’s Aide here.
The subsequent scene reveals a sadly underdeveloped plot twist, the fact that Pecheur is actually financing both sides of the conflict and expects better results from his Arab ally. He demands an attack on Fort Zindeneuf in which everyone is killed.
At Fort Zindeneuf, a regimental ball is held to celebrate the Legion’s victory. Attempts by Boldini to locate the Blue Water Sapphire, vulgar though they may be, prove fruitless. Empty-handed, Markov deftly avoids Flavia, leaving her to dance with her stepson Beau.
General Pecheur exits the ball early, aware that the Arabs are soon to beseige the fort. As they ride by, we find Flavia and Beau in the midst of a moonlit rendezvous. She lets slip some pillow talk that she doesn’t want to go back to the fort since it will be attacked at dawn. This restirs Beau’s passions, and they arrive on horseback in the midst of the Arab charge.
Beau reveals that the Legionnaires have been supplied with blank ammunition. The men voice their support for Beau Geste and offer to “die to the last man” behind him, but the supposed epic hero is aghast. “No, you can be free! So, for your own sakes, desert! Get out of here! Go and be rotten to people, but do it for a decent living wage!”
Digby and the Sheikh seem to be the only ones horrified by this turn of events. “How can I lead you if you won’t wait for me?!” The Sheikh rides off into the sunset with Rudolph Valentino (Martin Snaric), off to Hollywood and silent film. This leaves Markov and Beau to duel over the Blue Water and a pugilistically adept Flavia to save Digby from Boldini.
Beau honors what seems to be Markov’s last request, to reveal the hidden location of the Blue Water. He takes a saber to Markov’s wooden leg and the sapphire tumbles free from the hollow inner compartment. Markov and Boldini flee with “the Geste family fortune”, but Beau confesses it’s a fake. The real Blue Water has been in a safety deposit box in Paris the whole time.
As the last man alive in Fort Zindeneuf, Digby is hailed as a hero and reunites with Isabel at Geste Manor while Beau and Flavia retire to a posh beach resort.
As is common with these sorts of spoofs, The Last Remake of Beau Geste is wildly uneven, but still quite amusing. Re-cut by Universal while Marty was touring Europe to promote the film, his version never made it to theaters. Though performing well in test screenings, Universal sticked to their guns and, sadly, it remains unavailable.
In Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974), Mel Brooks managed to make decent, if light-hearted, examples of the genres he parodied, filled with endearing characters. Broader spoofs such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Airplane! (1980) filled the running time with non sequitur gags to account for their large ensemble casts of largely undeveloped characters. Sadly, the extant cut of Geste fails to achieve either effect, but it still contains enough laughs to be worth watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Though it may not be the film he intended to release, it was great to spend time with the late, great Marty Feldman once again. We’ll be sure to do it again some time.
Now, I just have to find the supposedly serious 1966 adaptation of Beau Geste starring Doug McClure, Leslie Nielsen, and Telly Savalas. That’s sure to be a hoot.
As Hollywood films shifted away from “men-on-a-mission”-style war films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), so did the “macaroni combat” films of Italy. In the mid-1980s, gung ho Vietnam revenge fantasies were all the rage. Missing in Action (1984) was released first to get the jump on its competition, essentially copying the James Cameron story treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). While it may have struck first, generating $22.8M on a paltry $1.5M budget, the Stallone/Cameron film managed to strike best with over $300M on a $25.5M investment.
All the poor reviews, critical disdain, and Razzie Awards couldn’t discourage international markets from wanting a piece of this particular pie. Soon, it seemed like you couldn’t set foot on the shores of the Philippines without stumbling across an Italian, Turkish, or Filipino knock-off in production. In honor of “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture” and the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, we’re going to take a look at one such knock-off, Ferdinando Baldi’s intriguingly titled Warbus (1985).
Indeed, when I told my lovely (and patient) wife the title of this film, her eyes grew wide with grindhouse fervor. “Is it like the bus from the Dawn of the Dead remake, but in World War Two?”
I’m sure she was envisioning something like the Landmasters in Damnation Alley (1977), and I didn’t want to disappoint. “Better,” I said. “It’s set in Vietnam.”
Her grin faltered. “Wait… How do you drive a tricked out bus through the jungle?”
I just smiled. If you’re worried about logic like that in a flick like this, you are already lost.
Co-written with John Fitzsimmons, Warbus is the work of Ferdinando Baldi (billed here under his Americanized alias of “Ted Kaplan”). Baldi is infamous for the 1980s 3-D action spectacles Comin’ at Ya! (1981) and Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983), both starring Tony Anthony. A third 3-D film, a space opera starring Anthony, was set to follow, but never got off the ground.
Our opening credits are shown over footage of The Three Soldiers memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating those American servicemen who served in the Vietnam War. Patriotic music takes us to the thick of that conflict, some twelve years before or so. At first glance, the Viet Cong seem to be using mortars to shell a waterfall. What the waterfall did to them is anybody’s guess.
Finally, we see some ARVN soldiers guarding an elementary school at the top of the waterfall, an irresistible target, I guess. Civilian missionaries are hastily evacuated via school bus, and we’ve got our first glimpse of the title MacGuffin, though it’s far less impressive than the bus in Dawn of the Dead (2004) or the RV in Stripes (1981) or, hell, even the Sweet Pickles Bus.
The bus is soon halted by a trio of G.I.s separated from their unit. Led by Sarge (Daniel Stephen), they commandeer the bus to head south for a rendezvous with their fellows, ignoring the protests of missionary Anne (Gwendolyn Hung). The driver, it seems, is actually working for “Charlie”, and driving them due north. Found out, he flees into the bush, only to get tracked down and shot by G.I. Ben (Urs Althaus).
Daniel Stephen was a stuntman and extra in Warrior of the Lost World (1983) and Joe D’Amato’s 2020 Texas Gladiators (1984). Warbus (1985) clearly wasn’t the starring vehicle Stephen had hoped, pardon the pun, and he only acted sporadically through the 1990s and 2000s. Granted, he did do some modeling work. Here, he looks like a Baldwin/Estévez cross-breed, though Warbus (1985) predates Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) by about a year.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the 6’1″ Urs Althaus was the first black model ever to appear on the cover of the American fashion magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly (now GQ). He worked primarily in Italian comedies and dramas, often for television. Althaus appeared in Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982) as an uncredited “sex show performer” and as one of the mercenaries in Warrior of the Lost World (1983).
Our three G.I.s are a cinematic representation of The Three Soldiers statue, with the white Sarge, the black Ben, and the hispanic Gus.
Stopping to ford a river, Gus (Romano Kristoff) butts heads with the willful Anne. SVA Major Kutran (played by prolific Filipino actor Ernie Zarate) tries to warn them that the VC will surely have mined the opposite bank, which proves to be true, injuring Gus. Having gained their confidence, Kutran tells of a bridge further down river which, if it still stands, will take them to the Sa Tien Pass, and eventually to an American supply base (possibly Da Nang).
We get to meet some of our other passengers. Benito Stefanelli plays an Australian entomologist, reminiscent of Joachim Fuchsberger’s “Professor” in Commandos (1968). Stefanelli was a stuntman on Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). He also served as unofficial English translator and go-between for Clint Eastwood and the Italian cast. He subsequently appeared in all three installments of “The Dollars Trilogy” and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as well as many derivative rip-offs.
Gus also makes the acquaintance of a madam who runs two brothels in Saigon, here to fetch her daughter from the mission. A runaway, perhaps? Hard to say.
After Anne’s husband Ronny (Don Gordon Bell) shows them how low they are on fuel, it doesn’t look like they’ll make 50 of the 100 miles to Da Nang. Major Kutran has noted an American supply base on the map, but Sarge explains that their orders are to leave nothing behind when they move out. Kutran hopes there’s some fuel left behind just the same and encourages them to seek a defensible position to rest overnight.
Romano Kristoff, Gwendolyn Hung, and Don Gordon Bell were part of a roster of supporting actors from Jun Gallardo’s Filipino action/exploitation films, including Rescue Team (1983), Mad Dog II (1983), Intrusion: Cambodia (1983), and Slash (1984).
Kristoff is purportedly an ex-Foreign Legion Spanish actor with a black belt in karate. He played a helicopter pilot in Antonio Margheriti’s ‘Nam flicks The Last Hunter (1980) and The Last Blood (1983, aka Tornado), though appearances in the latter may just be recycled footage from the former.
Gwendolyn Hung was born Elizabeth Gwendolyn Cook in Long Beach, CA. She took a break from acting to attend college, but was disabled while heroically working as a rescue volunteer during the 1990 Luzon earthquake. She is now mostly retired, residing in the Philippines where she enjoys SCUBA diving.
Prior to Warbus, Don Gordon Bell had a few bit parts in bigger films. He was a soldier in Apocalypse Now (1979) and a henchman in Enter the Ninja (1981). He also helped write both Rescue Team and Intrusion: Cambodia.
When it looks like his newfound madam friend is going to wander off, Gus seems to assault her, grabbing her by the hair, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s saving her from a booby trap triggered via tripwire. My copy of Warbus appears to be cut right around here because I have none of the dialogue in the Danish video trailer below (starting at right about the 2:00 mark with Ben’s creepy “Hi there”). His delivery of the line and the way the daughter initially reacts led me to believe it was a rape scene that was cut, but Sarge doesn’t seem to address it as such, and it doesn’t jibe with her later interactions with Ben. You never can tell in these grindhouse exploitation flicks, though, so fair warning.
to leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake.”
While the three G.I.s scout the supply base, Ronny (Don Gordon Bell) refuels the bus from a secret stash, but is interrupted by Kutran, who puts a pistol to his head. There’s also some missing footage here, methinks, since I’ve seen a fight between the two referenced elsewhere. Disappointing.
Despite being warned earlier by Kutran to not play hero, the G.I.s sneak into the back of a truck to smuggle themselves into the enemy-held base. Standard commando hijinks ensue, including sentries taken out with thrown knives and negotiating barbed wire barricades. The men steal a jeep, but seem incapable of avoiding loud empty metal drums, the kind that are ubiquitous in First Person Shooter video games and that usually explode when shot.
You would think that a bunch of alarmed VC with higher ground and cover would have the advantage over an open jeep with three unarmored targets, but you would be so wrong. The guys just lay waste to the opposition with volleys of lead, not even pausing to aim. Their primary evasive maneuver appears to be a forward somersault roll that makes them impossible to hit before they come up shooting.
Eventually, however, their luck runs out, and Sarge is pinned down. Ben and Gus are shocked to see headlights from beyond the compound. The Warbus, driven by the Aussie, has come to their rescue! It barrels through the gate and drives right through the support pillar of a guard tower, sending it toppling to the ground. While the guys load up some fuel, Sarge lets ‘er rip on those barrels, and the whole place explodes in a fiery inferno.
Back at camp, Gus strings up the treacherous Ronny. He begs not to be left behind, but even his wife is unsympathetic. Sarge finally relents and has Ben cut him free.
When they reach the bridge, Ben tells a story about a stolen car and a police roadblock that informs their ruse. They act like the bus is broken down, even going so far as to pop the hood. Sputtering along, they creep towards the crossing. With Sarge firing through the windshield with his machine gun, the Aussie puts the hammer down and zooms across. Gus, meanwhile, sneaks around under the bridge and comes up behind the Viet Cong bunker. With Ben lobbing a grenade, the three G.I.s don’t seem satisfied until every enemy is dead. Victory appears to get the ladies all worked up such that, afterward, Anne openly flirts with the Aussie while her husband rides topside, mom paws at Gus, and her daughter tends to Ben.
The bus ends up at a literal dead end with canyon walls on three sides and dead Americans staked out. Sarge warns that it’s a booby trap, and when Gus sets them off with his rifle, it’s really just an excuse for explosions and maudlin music. Sarge sends the bus back to a cave for safety and sets off to scout with his boys.
They spot a train carrying bamboo, and Ben nearly misses it by pausing to take a dump. No, seriously. They hitch a ride, hopping off when they spot an American helicopter touching down amidst the Cong. The old “grenade down the chimney” routine gets them entry to what turns out to be a torture chamber where they find the chopper crew dead.
Meanwhile, the bus has been discovered and surrounded. After an extended firefight, the G.I.s come to the rescue. Using grenades and the tactic of leaping from high places in slow motion, they blow up a bunch of stuff.
They load up and set out, stopping at a river bank 20 miles west of Da Nang. With Sarge exhausted, the Australian volunteers to reconnoiter with Gus. Major Kutran gives him a flare to fire when it’s safe, otherwise they’ll set out for Da Nang at dawn. During the night, Ronny has an epileptic seizure. As Anne informs Major Kutran, he also suffers from schizophrenia. Embarrassed and angry, she lashes out at Kutran and his so-called civilization with a speech that would do Conan proud.
The flare goes up and the group heads into the abandoned camp. Here, they jazz up the radio and wait for rescue. Predictably, as is common in “macaroni combat”, the film takes a dark and nihilistic turn at its climax and is far more downbeat than American fare of its type.
Character development in this film is admittedly pretty shallow. Many characters aren’t even addressed by name more than once or twice in the film, making it difficult to sort out who’s who at times. Sarge and Kutran are obvious exceptions. There are also a high volume of significant glances that would convey more, or at times, any meaning if delivered by more capable actors.
Still, much like its WWII predecessors, Warbus is action-packed and a good bit of fun. This blogathon has been a good bit of fun as well. Thanks to the Nitrate Diva and all the other contributors. Until next time, ciao!
It’s Week 4 of the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, celebrating “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture”. Here at WeirdFlix, we continue our exploration of Italian war film, affectionately known as “macaroni combat”.
When you talk about macaroni combat films, one name inevitably comes up. Writer-director Enzo G. Castellari has been called “the poor man’s Peckinpah.” While he may not achieve the cynical greatness of that particular auteur, he certainly knew how to make action movies on the cheap. His crowning achievement is perhaps The Inglorious Bastards (1978), not to be confused with the similarly titled Quentin Tarantino homage. Indeed, Tarantino’s appreciation for Enzino borders on the embarrassing, but it did manage to bring Castellari’s films and the whole macaroni combat genre to the fore.
The Inglorious Bastards (1978) stars Bo Svenson, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani, and Jackie Basehart as the titular “Bastards”, but they get some help along the way from Raimund Harmstorf, Michel Constantin, Debra Berger, and Ian Bannen. The literally hundreds of German soldiers that get shot up, blown up, knifed, and run over by a train are nameless fodder for the most part, but they do a great job of flying through the air or wiggling morbidly as they get riddled with pretend bullets.
6’4″ Swede Bo Svenson is perhaps best known for portraying real life Tennessee tough guy Buford Pusser in two Walking Tall films and an NBC television series (1981). These made him the highest paid television personality at the time, eclipsed only by Johnny Carson. A 6-year stint in the U.S. Marines gives him credibility as a soldier, and his athletic accomplishments are considerable and varied. He was a U.S. Armed Forces Far East Heavyweight Division Judo Champion in 1961, won silver in the 2009 USA Judo National Championships at the age of 68 despite suffering three broken ribs just a few days earlier, and was subsequently inducted into the Martial Arts Masters Hall of Fame later that year. He’s a licensed NASCAR driver and played in NHL Celebrity hockey games against the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins Legends teams. Admittedly, his cinematic accomplishments aren’t nearly as impressive, but he’s always gotten work and continues to perform into his 70s.
After playing in Super Bowl I and retiring from the NFL, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson starred in a string of blaxploitation films, many with titles too racially charged to list here, others alongside fellow blaxploitation icons Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. While filming The Inglorious Bastards, Fred used the equipment and crew to shoot his own movie, Mr. Mean (1977), without the producers’ knowledge. Bastards was later re-cut and rereleased as G.I. Bro to capitalize on his appeal.
Peter Hooten was primarily a television actor with the notable exception of a supporting role in the Dino de Laurentiis debacle Orca (1977). Hooten has a difficult role with the largely unlikeable loudmouth Tony. With considerably more hair and a moustache to make a porn star jealous, he would appear in the little-seen TV pilot for Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange (1978). We’ll certainly get to that one someday.
Michael Pergolani debuts here and really shines as the thief with the long hair and impressive moustache, a kind of Italian take on the anachronistic hippy Sgt. Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes (1970). Jackie Basehart made his acting debut back in 1967 alongside his father, Richard Basehart, in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea television series. Though born in Santa Monica, he appeared in a number of Italian television and film productions.
Raimund Harmstorf was primarily a veteran of German television, but appeared in the Jack London adaptation of The Call of the Wild (1972) with Chuck Heston. This likely contributed to his casting in Lucio Fulci’s White Fang films. Michel Constantin appeared in one of the first Italian Dirty Dozen rip-offs, Dirty Heroes (1967). Both went on to appear in a wide variety of Italian films.
Debra Berger is the daughter of spaghetti western veteran William Berger (Ringo’s Big Night (1966), If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968), Sabata (1969)). She appeared in three films with him, Terminal (1974), The Marvelous Visit (1974), and Parapsycho – Spectrum of Fear (1975). Though nominally the love interest here, she isn’t afraid to get her hands (and hair) dirty as French partisan Nicole.
Lastly, as Col. Charles Thomas Buckner, Ian Bannen is certainly the most celebrated actor in the cast. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). After Bastards, Bannen was originally slated to replace David Niven as Miller in the Alistair MacLean sequel Force 10 from Navarone (1978), but clashed with a producer and was, in turn, replaced by Edward Fox. With a long list of credits that includes such British genre stalwarts as Fright (1971), Doomwatch (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974), I’m sure this won’t be the last time we talk about Mr. Bannen.
The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
France 1944. Our opening shot is straight from Tarantino’s own playbook. From total darkness, a canvas covering is lifted away so that we can see out the back of a truck where military prisoners are being loaded towards our viewpoint.
Our first two “Bastards” are a nervous Berle Hayes (Jackie Basehart) and the more resigned Canfield (Fred Williamson). As one MP describes, “Hayes went AWOL and the black guy’s a killer.” Up next are Tony (Peter Hooten) and the gloriously mustachioed Nick (Michael Pergolani). Tony is our resident clown and smooth talker. A pal hurries up to lay twenty bucks at three-to-one odds that Tony avoids court martial yet again, but considers his bet lost when Tony confesses that he’s up for murder this time around. Nick is a thief and pickpocket, displaying his sleight of hand skills by lifting the watch right off the lead MP.
Last, but certainly not least, is an officer. Lt. Robert Yeager (Bo Svenson), U.S. Army Air Force, may be a great fighter pilot, but jaunting off in his plane to visit his girlfriend in London was frowned upon by his superiors. After two warnings, the third time was the charm and landed him a court martial. In his brown leather aviator’s jacket and sunglasses, Yeager is a tower of swaggering insubordination.
With our cast of misfits assembled, we get a good look at the impressive motor pool before heading out to division HQ. There are some other prisoners in the truck, but they might as well be wearing red Starfleet uniforms because those unnamed grunts are clearly doomed. While changing a tire, the truck comes under fire by a German Stuka. Canfield is the first to flee and dive into a ditch, but the MPs gun down the next two prisoners to follow his lead. During the multiple strafing runs and execution of fleeing prisoners, Canfield is able to sneak around and choke the lead MP out from behind. This gives Yeager the opening to secure a submachine gun of his own and get the MPs to surrender.
Once the “Bastards” are free of their shackles, Yeager force marches the MPs back the way they came at gunpoint. He motivates them with bullets kicking up dust at their heels. He offers the enlisteds the MPs’ jeep and takes the truck, but, since he seems to have a plan, they race to jump on board. His plan involves a run for the Swiss border, only 160 miles away. Canfield likes the idea since, “them Swiss banks have mucho dinero.”
Subsequent scenes reinforce the roles of Nick as one-man supply depot, Yeager as take-charge leader, Berle as cowardly mechanic, and Tony as a loudmouthed gambler. After a German mortar team forces them to flee their truck, they take shelter in a gutted farmstead. There, Tony, perhaps out of boredom, tries to goad Canfield into a fight using racist rhetoric. He also claims to have worked for “Big” Mike Banion back in Chicago, but that’s likely just bravado. Yeager puts an end to the shenanigans with his SMG.
As they’re planning their next move, Canfield uncovers a lurker in the hay loft. It seems Adolf Sachs (Raimund Harmstorf) was an escaped prisoner himself, only from the other side. Yeager speaks fluent German and is opposed to Tony’s idea of summary execution. Instead, he believes Sachs can guide them to the border and freedom.
While Canfield seems comfortable laying low during a German ambush, Yeager can’t help himself. Duty calls. Soon, both he and Canfield are ambushing the ambushers. All goes well as they cross the forest until they run afoul of a German convoy, complete with halftracks. The only play is to let Adolf take them prisoner. There is a surprising amount of German spoken in the film, all without subtitles, but body language and inflection make it clear what is being said, if not the exact words being used. It’s actually very well done and keeps the authenticity high in the face of over-the-top action and silly schemes.
Once separated from the majority of their foes, the “Bastards” drop the ruse and overpower their would-be captors. Adolf even tosses the Lieutenant a submachine gun, validating his status as an honorary “Bastard”. Victory is short-lived as they find themselves cheering for Allied bombers up until the bombs start dropping a little too close for comfort. The sequence ends with an impressive matte composite shot of the bombed out convoy. Our erstwhile “heroes” are forced to pick through the wreckage to find a salvageable vehicle. In doing so, they manage to score a veritable arsenal’s worth of small arms and some German uniforms.
Tasked with forging some paperwork, Nick invents correction fluid seven years early, but, given his reputation, it’s easy to see why he would be unable to take credit. Both the paperwork and uniforms are insufficient to get past the first checkpoint, especially once the Germans get a glimpse of Canfield, but the rearmed “Bastards” shoot their way out with ease.
Stopping at a river to wash and rest, Nick is astonished and overjoyed to see some German girls skinny-dipping. Keeping up their charade as German soldiers, the boys frolic in the spray until Canfield blows their cover. The girls prove to be heavily-armed, and send the would-be Casanovas packing under a hail of submachine gun fire.
While the “Bastards” hide under a bridge like a band of trolls, their truck out of fuel, Canfield spies a truck with seven Germans on the other side. Adolf asks to be allowed to parlay with them to hopefully get refueled. Tony warns Yeager against trusting the German deserter.
Once Adolf converses with the seven, he turns and shouts “Americans! Americans!” It’s deliberately vague who opens fire first, but it’s crystal clear that Adolf is the first to get gunned down. The ensuing firefight leaves all seven dead, along with Adolf, and Berle injured. Tony is smug in his “I-told-you-so” attitude.
As the gang rests and tends to the wounded Berle, they find themselves surrounded by the French Resistance. The armed partisans ask for Lt. Sykes, so the “Bastards” all point to a confused Yeager, who plays along and meets with their leader, Veronique (Michel Constantin).
Veronique thinks their mission was suicide with seven, but will be nearly impossible with only five, especially since one of them is clearly black. Yeager is still at a loss. Tony soon figures out that they made a horrible mistake and killed their own men. Adolf wasn’t ratting them out, he was trying to tell them the Germans were also disguised Americans, a misunderstanding Adolf paid for with his life.
Berle is shown to Nicole (Debra Berger), the closest they have to a proper nurse. Believing him to have volunteered for Sykes’ mission, she thinks he must be very brave. He’s immediately smitten with the young lass. When Tony starts harassing Berle about her, Canfield takes a very physical exception. Once again, their altercation is interrupted by Yeager, who explains that their assumed mission is to attack a train.
Tony feigns injury to get some quality time with Nicole. He proves to have the gift of gab when he wants to, and sweet talks her into sympathy, but not much more before Col. Buckner’s arrival is imminent. Bonfires are lit, and Buckner makes a hell of an entrance via late night parachute drop.
Col. Buckner can tell immediately that the Lt. Sykes he’s supposed to rendezvous with is not the blonde giant standing in the glare of headlights. Yeager gets the Colonel to keep his cover, drawing him off to parlay off-camera. By the time the story thus far is told, it’s the next morning, and Buckner is beside himself with anger.
The Colonel is unimpressed with the “Bastards” before him, but Berle offers that his brother was a railroad man and he can run a locomotive. Yeager offers that he can speak fluent German and his men have proven themselves in combat. When Buckner promises a firing squad for all of them, Yeager pulls a pistol and tells him about the promise he made to the “Bastards”, to get them to Switzerland.
Yeager sets out to raid an SS Command Post in a nearby castle for a working truck with Canfield and Buckner playing prisoners. The sequence, though picturesque, is primarily played for laughs and without gunfire since the Italian government had suddenly banned all firearms on set, even those that fired only blanks. What few prop guns are used in the castle raid are never fired. Instead, the “Bastards” use a slingshot, a halberd, a dagger, and a crossbow to effect their plan. With the tone of the other related hijinks, it makes for a surprisingly fun and lighthearted diversion.
a gang of deserters… cutthroats… and thieves?”
Once the truck is secured and the SS Command Post disabled, Buckner is clearly impressed. Briefing the team on their mission, he explains the main objective is a rail car laboratory carrying a prototype of the new V-2 rocket warhead. The aim of the mission is to capture the gyroscope in the rocket’s guidance system. Buckner and Yeager will disguise themselves as rocket experts and smuggle the device off the train.
Berle and Tony will blow a bridge on the train’s route, forcing it to back up and shunt down a side line. When the train has stopped to reverse direction, they will board the train and uncouple the armored car carrying the escort. Canfield and Veronique’s partisans will attack the train and drive it towards the Allied lines.
Nick inquires about his role in the operation. Aside from forging a stack of documents, he’ll be in charge of signalling to Rene that the train has been successfully boarded by Buckner and Yeager, or else Rene will blow the bridge with the train on it.
At high noon, the partisans intercept the command car carrying the two rocket experts. Nick uses it to drive Buckner and Yeager, in disguise, to the rail yard to board the train. Nick watches with glee as his forged papers pass muster. He sets out to covertly signal Rene, but the car’s door is knocked shut, breaking the radio.
Nick is forced to steal a motorcycle and race to the bridge in advance of the train to keep it from being blown up with Buckner and Yeager on board. Meanwhile, Tony, Berle, and Rene all wait at the river bank, trying desperately to hail Nick on the radio while preparing for the worst. Jumping a machine gun nest, Nick’s motorcycle takes a round in the gas tank, but the Macaroni MacGyver seals it up with a comically large wad of chewing gum.
Looking over the blueprints in the mobile laboratory, Col. Buckner identifies a self-destruct mechanism that will blow the whole rocket and take the lab with it. When the door to the lab unlocks, Yeager creeps in and takes out the remaining rocket scientists.
Within sight of the bridge, Nick runs afoul of a patrol and is shot down. He still manages to crawl his way to the bridge and, with his dying breaths, gives the word to blow the bridge according to plan. As expected, the train stops, and the armed escort gets off to address the situation. During the onslaught, Berle and Tony sneak onto the train and take command of the engine. Tony uncouples the escort car while the Colonel starts dismantling the warhead.
At Pont Mossons, Nicole, Veronique, Canfield, and the rest of the partisans take over the depot. They are soon met with an unpleasant surprise, however. The next locomotive to arrive is not the one they expected with the mobile laboratory attached, but a whole new train full of German reinforcements. Some dismount to retake the station, with Veronique getting a live “potato masher” grenade dropped at his feet.
The rest keep on rollin’, with Canfield and Nicole in pursuit. They split up, and things start happening very quickly like a cinematic runaway train. Berle gets shot in the back while feeding the engine, but finally musters the courage to turn and fire back. Finding him already dead, Tony jumps from the roof of the train onto a signal tower to escape. Buckner gets the gyroscope out, but accidentally activates the self-destruct mechanism. Yeager blocks the trigger with a pencil. Canfield reaches an overpass and drops down onto the train.
He reaches Yeager and warns him about the Germans waiting at the station just before getting shot up by a guard. After eliminating the threat, Yeager checks on Canfield and throws him off the train. “See you in Switzerland!” he shouts.
After bidding farewell to Yeager, Buckner jumps off the train with the gyroscope. Yeager is en route to blow up the rocket when he is shot in the back by a German hiding under a desk. As the Germans lurk in ambush at Pont Mossons, Yeager pulls the pencil free and blows up the train. It derails and crashes through the station in spectacular fashion. The ensuing HO scale destruction is a far cry from John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964). Still, there’s some cool shots of German soldiers running around on fire, and the music gets suitably dramatic to make the big finish satisfying, if admittedly silly-looking.
Nicole catches up to Tony amidst the flames to give us our supposed happy ending. Despite the romantic musical cues and his heroic actions, I can’t be won over. He’s a jerk. More appropriately, I guess, he’s a real “Bastard”. Roll credits.
In all, a super fun time. The film is no Saving Private Ryan (1998) and certainly not meant for WWII purists, but in the vein of war comics like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, there’s worse ways to spend 99 minutes. Some day, I’ll probably take a look at Enzo’s other big macaroni combat epic, Eagles Over London (1969), but first, we’re going to see how macaroni combat changed with the times. The 1980s were the era of Rambo and rampant historical revisionism, and Italian genre film wasn’t going to let low-budget American actioners have all the fun. Warbus (1985) will be rolling into this blog real soon. Don’t miss it.
Also, be sure to click on the poncho above to explore some of the other entries in the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva. There’s some great work being done to honor “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture”.