Archive | August 2012

StarChoice 10: THE FIVE MAN ARMY

(Aka. Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini  / Die Fünf Gefürchteten – Italy – Colour – 1969)

In July 1969 when the U.S Astronaut Neil Armstrong (who died last week) landed on the Moon, Italian film director Dario Argento was in his initial foray into movies through his appealing stories and screenplays that derived into movies such as “Every Man is My Enemy”, “Heroes Never Die”, “The Love Circle”, “The Five Man Army”, … – an interim period before he embarked into directing thriller movies such as “The Cat O’Nine Tails”, “Deep Red”, “Suspiria”, etc and went on to establish a career that would leave an indelible impact on modern horror films and popular culture.

Back in 1968, a movie titled “Oggi a me…. Domain a te” (Today It’s Me…. Tomorrow You!) co-written by Argento with Tonino Cervi came out and met with moderate success. Starring Montgomery Ford (born Brett Halsey) and Bud Spencer and shot in Manziana (in the Province of Rome), it had characteristics of Japanese Samurai films – a fount of style from which directors like Sergio Leone onwards drew ideas for their western films shot mainly on locations in Spain.

By late 1960s, Italian producer Italio Zingarelli (who would later show industry wisdom in bringing the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy duo together) had tried his hand in almost all genres (sword & sandal to westerns) and was engaged in the production of two screenplays written by Dario Argento “La rivoluzione sessuale” (1968) (co-written with Riccardo Ghione) and “La Stagione de sensi” (1969) (with Barbara Alberti).  Argento had completed his collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci on the story for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, and was preparing for his directorial debut “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), a landmark giallo film that would be nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award for best motion picture. Argento had also prepared a third treatment “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” (The Five Man Army), in collaboration with Marc Richards, an interesting premise of cowboys and samurai that followed the adventurous path of movies such as “The Magnificent Seven” series, “Kill Them All and Come Back Alone”, “The Deserter”, “The Dirty Dozen”, etc.

The direction of “The Five Man Army” produced by Zingarelli and presented through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is credited to American actor/director Don Taylor (actor: “Stalag 17”, “The Men of Sherwood Forrest” – Director: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”) but a small mystery surrounds the identity of the director of this film. Though Taylor is confirmed as the director by Dario Argento and Peter Graves, other sources, including actress Daniela Giordano, remember that Taylor did the direction only on the initial few days and the remaining part was done by producer Zingarelli himself who is also credited in some Italian posters and sleeves of DVDs. Anyhow, this contradictory opinion and why Taylor left is yet to be clarified.

To determine requisite economical locations in Europe, quite similar to the geographical formations of Mexico where the story is set, the natural choice was Spain, then known in the movie circles as “the west of Europe”, which offered sun and proper range of accessible locations – relatively ideal conditions for film making. The locations ranged from Almeria (where Zingarelli’s last main hit, the western “Johnny Yuma” was shot) to Madrid to Barcelona where hordes of film makers were exposed directly to the kind of places they were supposed to be portraying. Further enticement was the railroad and farmhouse sets of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) which was still in good condition. Only the remaining scenes were to be shot at Incir de Paolis Studios near Rome which Zingarelli had used earlier to produce “Ciccio Forgives, I Don’t” (1968). The Spanish crews are no less generous, warm, and enthusiastic like the Italians who worked in team spirit – at times charged with sambuca and coffee. Yes, there is something very special about Spain.

As the story goes ……: It’s 1914. Mexico is caught in the middle of the revolution. The country is reeling under dictator Jose Victoriano Huerta Marquez, the Military General who became the President of Mexico in a coup d’état by executing the Constitutional leader, President Francisco Ignacio Madero Gonzalez and his vice president during La Decena trágica (The Ten Tragic Days). By circumventing the great fighting and other “encounters” of the Mexican Revolution, the story of “The Five Man Army” is set few months prior to Toma de Zacatecas (the Battle of Zacatecas) when on June 23, 1914, the Division del Morte of Pancho Villa defeated the troops of General Luis Medina Barrón at the last stronghold of Victoriano Huerta’s forces which led to the resignation of Huerta on July 15. To set the mood of the historical background, the film’s opening credits are shown intermixed with illustrations in black and white depicting the tragedy of the ferocious Mexican Revolution (including a disclaimer citing the events of the movie as fiction) enriched by the melodious music of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” which will take the hold on you from there and never let go.

The main protagonist of the film, the Dutchman has planned to assemble a group of four acquaintances who are specialists in their individual fields, to assist him to rob a heavily guarded military train carrying a shipment of gold valued at $500,000/- which is being sent as a fee to General Vertbas (meant to be Huerta?) by his friends in Europe to protect their interests in Mexico – literally to finance the Mexican Revolution. Each man of the group will be rewarded with $1000/- on successful completion of the job.

A former circus acrobat, the outlaw Luis “Flying” Dominguez (played by Italian actor Francesco “Nino” Castelnuovo who acted as the white-clad, whip-slinging sadistic Junior in “Tempo di Massacro” (1966)) who attacks his opponents with his lethal sling shots, was send by the Dutchman to Texas to round up the remaining three men which are shown in three interesting episodes. Luis had been locked up many times for robbing banks until he escaped by killing two guards that earned him notoriety with his face plastered on every wall in Mexico.

On the casting side, the 6-foot-2 blond American star Peter “Aurness” Graves was roped in to play the Dutchman, the leader of the group. From 1967 onwards Graves had been portraying the cool spymaster in the American television series “Mission: Impossible” (1967 – 1973) for the remaining six seasons when he was offered the lead role in this film. Besides, Graves knew director Don Taylor from his role in the WWII movie “Stalag 17” (1953) in which Taylor was also a star.

For the role of the hunk Mesito, the Italian actor Carlo Pedersoli (Silver medal winner for Swimming at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics) popularly known as “Bud Spencer” was signed. Spencer who sported similar facial features of producer Zingarelli, had finished his appearance in the second installment of his friend Giuseppe Colizzi’s “Cat Stevens” spaghetti western trilogy “Ace High” (I Quattro dell’Ave Maria) and Giuliano Montaldo’s “Dio è con noi” (The Fifth Day of Peace). Interestingly Spencer’s own voice was allowed in the English version of the movie while his voice for the Italian version was dubbed. Mesito was an employee of the Kansas City Railroad before he was kicked out when he stole a train load of market-ready beef and tried to sell it back to its original owner. He broke loose from the prison he was locked up and was secretly working in a farm “feeding chicken” when Luis recruited him. Mesito is a great lover of food (especially cooked beans or a chunky leg of lamb – the bigger the better) who likes knocking baddies down by crashing his chubby fist on top of their heads.

Popular American TV/stage actor James “Firman” Daly was cast as Capt. Nicolas Augustus who gets his kicks out of blowing up anything with dynamite. Daly had won an Emmy in 1966 for supporting actor in the then popular Drama series in the Hallmark Hall of Fame show “Eagle in a Cage.” Augustus was recruited right from the middle of a card game with coalminers.

And the last of the five, the Samurai was portrayed by Japanese actor Tetsurô Tamba (born Shozaburo Tanba). The selection of Tamba was easier since he was already famous as “Tiger Tanaka” in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” (1967) and for appearances in “Bridge to the Sun” (1961) and “The 7th Dawn” (1964). Unlike Tatsuya Nakadai who starred in “Oggi a me…. Domain a te”, Tamba, in his one and only appearance in a Euro-Western, spoke English and didn’t require an interpreter. However, in the role of samurai, he was hardly expected to display verbal brilliance. The Samurai who had once escaped from his native country and wound up slicing six men in three seconds, was located at a circus sideshow flaunting his expertise with knives aiming at a lovely “lotus flower”. One of the great samurai swordsmen, his mastery in handling the sword will be revealed later as the movie progresses.

As the story unfolds, the four of the group, dirty, sweaty and dusty, ride to the Mexican town of Sierra Morales to keep rendezvous with the Dutchman to constitute the five man army. They found the townsfolk gathered in front of the church to witness the Mexican army prepare for the execution of the rebels’ leader Manuel Esteban (Claudio Gora). For them, it’s either a bullet or hanging. A bullet ended things quickly.

As the condemned man was brought to the square, the townsfolk, suppressing their anger and humiliation, but in deep bereavement, broke into a poignant song (Muerte Donde Vas). Soon after the visitors recognized the Dutchman amongst the crowd, they made the move to save the condemned man. Before the firing squad of four could pull the trigger at the “traitor”, they were shot at and killed by the five man army. In the ensuing shootout and commotion, Esteban was injured, but the soldiers present there were either shot or mauled to death collectively by the protagonists and the enraged crowd. The Mexican Revolution is certainly based on popular participation.

Once Esteban’s bullet wound was found not serious and he was left to recuperate in the safety of a room, they indulged in the modest extravagance of the womenfolk of the town who, keeping up with the Mexican custom of eating the main meal at midday, served them a fine feast. One of the generous Mexican women, Maria (Miss Italia 1966 Daniela Giordano), always sporting a joyless expression, was evidently more interested in the Samurai. No less behind, Samurai himself had noted her lazy feline grace and her physical magnetism.

Mesito, always ravenously hungry, was happy at the sight of the food, especially the cooked beans and a jug of red wine. In this room, the four were introduced to each other by the Dutchman and the nature of the mission is revealed. He informs that Estaban, the leader of the revolutionary forces is their paycheck, knows from where they can pluck half million dollars of gold – from a bank on wheels – a big fat juicy train. The gold is to be handed over to the revolutionary forces to support the revolution but he never explains why he is in league with the Revolutionaries.

A dreamer by nature, Mesito was only interested in the prospect of sharing that enormous loot with his comrades in arms. The Gold Fever….. he would buy 200 heads of cattle – honestly this time. Things are surely looking up for Mesito. But the gambler Augustus who believed in the Dutchman, with whom he had spent five years in the army in Cuba and had gone hiding after he blew up the safe of the Cuban army during the Cuban War, nevertheless had doubts and qualms about the viability of the plan.

Sometime later, fearing retribution from the soldiers for killing their comrades, the peasants were leaving Sierra Morales to a safer place. Before their exodus started, Estaban let two of their young women, Perla (earthy Annabella Andreoli) and Maria, accompany the five men in a horse cart.  Should they be stopped, it’s better to have a family. They camped for the night in the quite of an abandoned building, but were subsequently captured by the Mexican soldiers and produced before the sadistic and ambitious Capt. Gutiérrez (effectively portrayed by Carlo Alighiero), in whose jurisdiction they have been captured.

In a parody reminiscence of the interrogation scene in director J. Lee Thompson’s “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), they are lined up in the Comandancia Militar of Gutiérrez (named after Eulalio Gutiérrez Ortiz, Mexican President between Nov. 1914 – Jan. 1915?) for questioning. Having found them embracing the cause of the rebels, they will be shot except for American Luis who will be hanged, very slowly, because he is an outlaw on the run from the Mexican army.

In order to go free they must reveal their names, what they are doing in Mexico and who send for them and gave them hospitality. That’s all. Having met with silence, Gutierrez decided to wait until they cracked. While they were led to the prison, another fiasco was unfolding in the courtyard where the Mexican soldiers were preparing for the execution of a batch of rebels. On seeing the Samurai, Maria ran to him and secretly slipped a knife under his right elbow before they were taken away.

This leads to their daring escape from the prison cell through a trap door on the roof. As Maria and Perla were being interrogated by Gutierrez, the Samurai bursts in and makes some expert carvings with his sword that would thrill the audience and quicken the yen in Maria’s heart for him. In the ensuing shoot out the soldiers were killed and the ARMERIA is cheerfully blown up by Augustus well after securing sufficient dinamita sticks from the arsenal for later use. They escape from there with Maria and Perla in the horse cart and before the five man army headed for the mission, they send off the two women to rejoin with their people. This unwished for separation was a quick and sad parting for the Samurai and Maria (in a role devoid of dialogue like the Samurai). Love happens when you least expect it. They had been granted only few moments of paradise and then cast into the darkness of frustration. But, Maria would be waiting for him.

Riding at an angle away from the chasing soldiers scouting for them, they soon gave the slip to the soldiers on their trail with the help of revolutionaries. Soon, the Dutchman provides his men with their first view of the target train. They were by now convinced of the importance of meeting with success in the mission, but getting their hands on the gold appeared to be impossible considering that the train was guarded by a good number of heavily armed soldiers, a cannon and a work train that would travel ahead of the gold train by twenty minutes to ensure the tracks are clear and safe from assault. Besides, there was military corps stationed at six mile intervals along the railway track to ensure the safe passage of the real train.

Once an army truck is hijacked for their later use, the Dutchman took them to an isolated railroad station house ideal to settle down and fine tune the finer details and prepare to pull off the job within three days. What follows are the thrilling action sequences featuring their ride under the train from Puebla Railway Station, their raw skills aboard the train, the Samurai running for the departing train, the daring robbery, and………….

Being an Italian- American co-production, “The Five Man Army” has high production values.

The excellent Cinematography by Enzo Barboni (“Django”) in Metrocolor/Deltavision reproduces a real atmosphere of Mexico and U.S in the Spanish locations by capturing the beautiful solitude of vast desert regions; panoramic views of lush country side; the enchanting mood of the isolated, dusty village; the well-crafted interiors by art director Enzo Bulgarelli and set decorator Ennio Michettoni – all of which are masterfully framed, blended with appealing trolley and crane shots.

Notwithstanding the ablest performers chosen for the film, the thrilling action scenes (about twenty two minutes) aboard the train makes our attention glued onscreen, tracking the skillful maneuvers of the protagonists in a series of sequences as they take on whatever hair-raising perils were necessary to defuse the guards and complete the mission, proclaim great film making without the help of back projection or computer graphics.Then the music really takes its thumping rhythm (Una Corsa Disperata) when the Samurai speeds after the train (sequence of about four minutes). The rousing and melodious score by Morricone is a perfect accompaniment for the film. Morricone had skillfully left certain scenes devoid of music (especially the train sequences), leaving the action to carry the story forward at its gripping pace and suspense, which unmistakably relate to Dario Argento’s contribution.

Backed by the brisk and cutting-edge editing by Sergio Montanari, the script by Argento and Richards never allows for a boring moment by keeping the action fast-paced and dotted with humour (especially the boy peeping at the Dutchman hanging under the train; the waving of the hands of the dead soldiers), shifting the characters quickly from one sequence to another, and most of the time, never letting a scene run longer than necessary.

The film portrays the protagonists as believable human beings and the chemistry between them as they plan and successfully complete their mission weathering all the great obstacles is fantastic. The interesting romantic angle between the Asian Samurai and western Maria has credibility and “sparkle” – offering ample scope for improvisation. But this is hardly a movie about love. Besides, the story is devoid of brutality by many prowling tigers, but limited to the villainy and absolute power of the Mexican Capt. Gutierrez, the baddy who is sliced up by the Samurai even before the five men embark on their mission.

By underlining Mesito’s colourful and immature character with his dreamy sequences, greed for food, gimmicks in fighting the baddies, makes him appealing to the general audience while at the same time paved the way for advancement of a style that will be fully utilized in Spencer’s later films, starting with the slapstick western comedy “They Call Me Trinity”, the directorial debut of Cinematographer Enzo Barboni under the pseudonym E(nzo).B(arboni) Clucher, and the sequel “Trinity is Still My Name!”, which Spencer co-starred with Terence Hill (born Mario Girotti).

The Dutchman depicted by Graves has come across effectively as a solitary man, a loner without a home though, curiously, the leadership of the Dutchman is asserted by the avertable scene in which his old friend Mesito is slapped on the face as he spread his arms to greet him. Likewise, the scenes depicting execution of the rebels, the townsfolk who mournfully sang during the execution of Esteban while the soldiers abuse and brutalize them in their attempt to end the song, are emphasized as catalysts to generate easy displeasure in the audience towards the Mexican army and thereby to elevate the five men to the status of heroes. It’s a wonder that the film, which was a hit, didn’t spawn a sequel or a series like “The Magnificent Seven”.

A harmless entertainment, The Five Man Army is a western film full of “sunny” adventure, of getting people together and remembering. It’s about heroes – and heroes need to be remembered. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

(PS: This review is my special tribute to all those brilliant talents who made this wonderful movie possible. JS)

StarChoice 9: ZARAK

 ZARAK (aka: Zarak Khan / Zarak le Valeureux – Colour – 1956)

Yesterday I watched a movie in which the music teacher of a school held a chronometer in hand to measure how long her students could hold their breath. That stint was pretty short compared to the few months required for the decks to be cleared and a new chapter in the life of the British spy James Bond will be revealed. The media is abuzz with news about the upcoming movie “Skyfall” which is the twenty-third installment of the Bond movie franchise of Eon Productions founded in 1961 by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, a Canadian producer working in England who had options on all available James Bond novels.

But a decade before “Cubby” Broccoli ventured into Bond’s territory, he had formed another production company in 1951 called “Warwick Film Productions Ltd” in collaboration with the Polish-American producer Irving Allen, a partnership that launched about 24 independent feature productions until they went their separate ways in 1961. So far, so familiar.

Warwick Film Productions kick started its activities when American actor Alan Ladd, who had left Paramount Pictures over contractual disputes, signed with them for a three picture deal. Ladd’s regular scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was brought in to co-write with Frank Nugent the script for Warwick’s first movie “Paratrooper” (The Red Beret – 1953). This film, the first one directed by Terence Young for Warwick, is the debut movie of Broccoli as a producer. (Young would later direct three James Bond movies for Eon Productions of which most of the production crew would be from “Paratrooper”.)

They gave emphasis to make films of solid production values, on international locations, with British crew featuring American actors. The films were contracted for release through Colombia Pictures with whom, in 1956, they negotiated a deal for producing 13 pictures in a period of three years. They also took advantage of Government grants to film producers under the British Empire development schemes to promote shooting of films on location in British Commonwealth countries.

Back in 1949, author A.J. Bevan published a book “The Story of Zarak Khan” about an arrogant and deceitful Afghan brigand called Zarak Khan who fought the British across the great tract of the North West Frontier (a British invention) for nearly twenty years. He was later captured, convicted and deported to the Andaman Islands from where, for leniency obtained for obedience, he was allowed to fight for the British, and gave up his life for them. Adventure and action being the mainspring of Warwick Films, the book was chosen for adaptation into an epic scale movie to be made under the direction of Terence Young assisted by Yakima Canutt and John Gilling since Terence Young had finished direction of the adventure film “Safari” at Kenya and in England which starred Victor Mature and Janet Leigh.

The film Zarak stands a bit outside the accuracy of history. Though Cubby Broccoli didn’t believe in messing with the original storyline of books, reportedly at Allen’s insistence, the historical accuracy of the story is compromised to provide emphasis to the human element under in-house scriptwriter Richard Maibaum who would later find fame for writing more than a dozen scripts for James Bond vehicles. Zarak went into production in early 1956.

Presented through Colombia Pictures, the film opens as the entourage of merchant Akbar (Alec Mango) is passing through the dangerous terrain of the North West Frontier to the village of Haranzhai located amidst lush and rugged countryside. Haji Khan (Frederick Valk), the despotic Chieftain of Haranzhai tribe, though at first reluctant to see Akbar, changed his mind to give him audience. To suit this purpose, he sends Salma (Anita Ekberg) away from his tent. Salma was the most beautiful, youngest and favourite of Haji’s many wives.

Grabbing that opportunity, Salma slips out of the village into the depths of the mountain to meet her secret lover Zarak, who is Haji’s eldest son. But unbeknown to her, she had been observed by one of Haji’s sons and the visiting merchant Akbar. A little later, she cozies up with Zarak in the seclusion of his mountain den and implores him to either take her away from the village or take her back to her own people. The dynamics of their interaction emphasizes the notion that up till then she had enjoyed the adventure of adultery without forfeiting the security of monogamy and she had no intention to jeopardize their safety in that closed community. Zarak disagrees to her appeal on reason that she’s one of his father’s wives and leaving Haji would bring him shame and also to Zarak. She countered him with the fact that she’s also shameful for having been sold to a man she hates.

When Zarak, her ray of hope, forbids her to visit him or talk to him anymore, she grabs his dagger and tries to stab him. Though Zarak easily managed to thwart her attack, the ensuing struggle between them merge into a maze of illicit passion that progresses into a passionate embrace and high-charged kiss. Just then the needle stuck in the groove.

A love affair of this nature doesn’t run smoothly. Unaware of his wife’s exploits, but certainly tipped off now by his son and Akbar, Haji Khan together with his sons, Akbar and some henchmen walk right into the fervor of the lovers. The consequences were predestined and predictable. Disgraced and furious with rage, Haji Khan orders his son to be killed immediately before his eyes. The offense is so serious that only bloodshed can wipe out the shame. However, he quickly changed his mind and instructed his men to flog Zarak to death as a knife is too quick, too merciful. Horrified with dread and fear, Salma could only protest as they took Zarak away, but she pleads to her husband that it was she who is to be blamed. Cast with the stigma of a promiscuous woman, her husband condemns her to death by throwing her down to the rocks from the hills of Chamin. Instantly, Akbar, who hungered after her, proposed to Haji to sell her to him.

While Zarak was being flogged, the holy Mullah walks in to the village on his way back from Mecca. Mullah who considered Zarak as “the eye of an eagle” was distressed at the sight of Zarak being flogged in the village square, in front of the women. He promptly requests for the life of Zarak which was denied. However, when the elderly Mullah persisted with his intervention, Haji Khan, in a tone of high morality and out of reverence to the holy man, agrees. But he declared Zarak as an outlaw and ordered that he be stoned out of the village. As is common with the people of these tribal areas which the contemporary British officers called Pathan (Pashtun), life is led almost according to the tribal customs and follows a rigorous code of behaviour. Zarak was stoned and expelled from his village.

In a sudden upsurge of confidence, his two brothers, Biri and Kasim, disgruntled by the tyranny of their “honourable” father, decide to follow their elder brother. But the great virtue of that disaster that befell Zarak was that it gave him the possibility of demonstrating his fire before the British. Zarak becomes the head of the brigands he had formed to fight the British forces. Soon they travelled the bumpy path to notoriety, leaving a trail of fire and destruction along and beyond the strategically vital Khyber Pass.

Due to increased insurgencies led by Zarak, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) declared a reward of Rs.5000/- (a sizeable amount at that time) for information leading to the capture of Zarak Khan of Haranzhai. These lands were annexed to the British East India Company in 1849 following the Second Anglo-Sikh War and many conflicts took place to protect the land from Russian expansion, which also resulted in conflict with the frontier tribesmen.

Some twenty miles from Fort Abbott, the provincial fort of the British forces in the tribal territory, a horse driven Royal Mail Coach (HMC 1476) was rolling through the rugged mountain path. It carried Major. I.P. Ingram, a military specialist of the British army with secret assignment to capture Zarak Khan and put an end to the insurgent activities in the area and to keep the whole provinces safe. With a price set on his head for opposing the British, but handy with the information about the arrival of Maj. Ingram to finish him off, Zarak decides to play a prank on the British Major, The coach was blocked by a camel squatting in the middle of the stony road, with its master settled next to it. When the soldiers tried to get them off the path the master of the camel (Zarak) signals his brigands to attack.

A fight between Zarak and Maj. Ingram erupts and Zarak rides away with the Mail coach which was soon lost over the cliff into the steep rocky slope. Maj. Ingram, seemingly incapable of bitterness, had to walk almost twenty miles to the town of Ziarat where he is assigned to take charge of the Political Agent’s office. In fact, Ingram’s valiant reputation had preceded his arrival to Ziarat. There is talk among the British Frontier Corps that when the new Major takes over as the Political Officer, there will be no more bandits within a hundred miles of the Khyber Pass, especially no more Zarak Khan who’s first on their list. As the Major immersed into the official activities, his wife Cathy surprises him with a sudden visit.

Meanwhile, at Peshawar (one of the most important bases on the frontier), Zarak learns that his father Haji Khan has died and being the eldest of the sons, the tribesmen expected him to be their new chieftain which is promptly declined by Zarak. He visits an entertainment tavern where, unbeknown to him, the beautiful houri Salma is the main floorshow attraction. They meet after Salma sends for him and renew their passion for each other in her private quarters inside the tavern. Zarak learns from Salma that Akbar the merchant was kind and had saved her. Akbar had let her buy back her freedom – and, no, she’s not married, yet. She refuses Zarak’s proposal to marry her claiming that it’s written “to do not marry the same woman as your father married.” She wouldn’t budge even though Zarak proposes that they would make their own laws.

On the rebel front, Zarak and his men were on a rampage disseminating a reprehensible panic among those thought to be made of sterner stuff. The British army soon increased the reward amount on his head to Rs.50,000/- which would lead to further bloody encounters and develop an unseen bond between Zarak and Major Ingram…

The film “Zarak” strikes a note as a curiosity considering all those upcoming landmark people of show business involved in making it. Even author A.J Bevan rendered his services as a technical advisor.

The role of Zarak was originally intended for Errol Flynn, who was then going through a bad phase of personal financial difficulties. Besides, owing to commitments to a string of movies such as “Let’s Make Up” (Lilacs in the Spring), “The Warriors” and “Istanbul”, the role ultimately went to Victor Mature.

Even though adventure stories (especially Biblical movies like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Samson and Delilah”, etc) were exclusive vehicles of Victor (The Hulk) Mature’s road to stardom, he had also captured the imagination of the audience with his roles in movies such as “My Darling Clementine”, “Million Dollar Mermaid”, “The Last Frontier”, etc. Mature, freelancing after expiry of his contract with 20th Century Fox had earlier starred in Warwick’s “Safari” (1955) directed by Terence Young. A man of some style and a sense of humour, Mature had finished acting in director Richard Fleischer’s “Violent Saturday” in Bisbee, Arizona and was available. Mature was signed to play the role of Zarak Khan even though he considered doing his own stunts as an impediment to his performance, something renown from the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” when he declined DeMille’s request to wrestle the tame lion of M.G.M.

Actress Claire Bloom in her memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House” relates Mature once saying “I wouldn’t walk up a wet step”. The matter was solved by assigning the stuntworks to the legendary wham-bang stuntman Yakima Canutt and his team of daredevils. With the stunts taken care of, all Mature had to do was act the way he always did. According to the biography of another reputed actor, Mature once made a remark about his acting to a director: “….. I got three expressions – looking right, looking left and looking straight ahead. Which one do you want?” However there was also a kind of passion he brought to his work that held on. Besides, the directorial skill of Terence Young also figured to establish the real character of gallant Zarak which proclaim the nobility of the human spirit.

For the grace and sensuality of the role of Salma, the alluring beauty of 25-year old former Miss Sweden 1951 Anita Ekberg (Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg) was found most appropriate to decorate the film with. She had no qualms to flash her voluptuous body during the two skimpily clad erotic dance scenes choreographed by Tute Lemkow. The scenes of glamourous Ekberg gyrating her hips to the invigorating tunes of classical Pashto music accompanied by scantly-clad girls and men in a room filled with heady smoke (meant to be sweet scented fragrances of Persian tobacco, herbs and spices, coarse sugar, oudh, …) drifting from hookahs certainly appear exotic to the senses. These provocative scenes of Ekberg depicted in British film posters generated protests from the House of Lords. Unfortunately, this tall pin-up who was reportedly once promoted as “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe”, would show some improvement only later in Federico Fellini’s“La Dolce Vita” (1960). After her marriage in 1956 to the tall and dashing English actor Anthony Steel in the huge square outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (with no hat, no gloves and no stockings) following the release of “Zarak”, Ekberg would take a breather before she would co-star once again with Mature in Warwick Productions’ “Pickup Alley” (1957).

The English gentleman Michael Wilding, hailed at that time as another David Niven, did a realistic portrayal of Maj. Ingram in bright scarlet (Red Coat) of the British military uniform, in spite that in 1956 he was going through a wretched personal crisis. Though he was slated to act in M.G.M’s “The Scarlet Coat”, the film didn’t work out for him since his contract was not renewed. On the domestic front, though his wife Elizabeth Taylor had accompanied him to the locations of Zarak in Spain and Morocco during early spring of 1956, their marriage, which was going through a bad patch then, would finally culminate in their separation by July that year.

Finlay Currie as the Mullah, and bejeweled Eunice Gayson (attired in beautiful Victorian costumes designed by Phyllis Dalton) as Cathy Ingram, provide fair performances in the supporting roles. In addition to music by prolific British composer William Alwyn (played by Sinfonia of London and conducted by Muir Mathieson), to add more spice to the film, it features the hit song “Climb Up the Wall” sung by British singer Yana. Snippets from Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” (An der schönen blauen Donau – 1867) and Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” (1788) for the couples swishing on the dance floor during the New Year Ball for Armed Forces, proclaim the elegance of a life in the past.  The studio scenes, primarily of the town tavern and the colourful bazaar full of flavour of the East, by Art directors John Box and Bill Andrews were filmed at the M.G.M Studios, Elstree, England. The titles are shown on colourful paintings depicting the ensuing scenes from the movie. For authenticity, the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket is mostly used as arms for the British soldiers in the film.

Cinema communicates through emotions, behaviour and relationships which are related to in many memorable scenes in the movie, viz. Zarak playing the flute on pretense to get the camel off the road; the pole dances (may be the first of its kind in a movie) by Salma; the rapport between Maj. Ingram and Cathy; the Pashtun’s Khattak dance at the court of Ahmed Khan’s Citadel in Afghanistan, etc. The factual errors include the constant changing of the sky from plain to cloudy in consecutive scenes.

The action scenes breathe instant authenticity: the cavalry swirling across open plains; the rip-roaring battle scenes (shot in CinemaScope on locations in Morocco and Spain by Ted Moore/John Wilcox and Cyril J. Knowles); the daredevil stunt-works are ample evidence of Yakima Canutt’s gift of skill (thank heavens) to create the chaos and arrange it into a semblance of order. Then there is the exotic Anita Ekberg, the potent ingredient to certainly provoke the viewers’ level of admiration for her. So sit back, relax and watch Zarak as a quite joy. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

(PS: The character of Zarak has nothing to do with the 1963 Italian movie “Zarak der Rebel” (Original title: Il Pirata del diavolo) starring Richard Harrison. – JS)

StarChoice 8: THE VISIT

 THE VISIT (La Visita del Rencor – B&W – 1964)

Has anyone told you lately that you lead a cherished life? Maybe, yes – but not to the townsfolk of Guellen, a small, economically depressed town on the continent of Europe. With their Mine, Foundry, and factories shut down, they are out of work and poor, but very headstrong of their blood-bond of being a Guellenite.

As the film “The Visit” opens, the mayor, the pastor, the professor, the proprietor of the general store Serge Miller and his wife Mathilda “Kovach” Miller, the Police Chief Dobrik and his secret lover Anya, the young pretty maid, to say the least, the entire townsfolk are excitedly preparing for the arrival of a long lost daughter of their town. She has made it big and she will be generous to them with financial aid.

Karla Wechsler is coming to her hometown for a visit – after nearly twenty long years. She’s now Karla Zachanassian, ‘the richest woman in the world.” But unknown to the townsfolk, she has a secret agenda. Serge Miller, slated to be the next mayor, is the main consultant of the town for the welcome arrangements as he was once her “wild panther”, Karla’s lover when she was a teenager. Before they could be ready to welcome her, Karla arrives with her entourage consisting of her councilor, bodyguards, enormous amount of luggage, a Rolls Royce and a pet leopard, one of her ideas of excitement.

During a banquet that night, Karla (hair so superbly arranged, dazzled with Bulgari jewels) offers the indigent people of Guellen two million – one million for the township and one million to be divided equally among the citizens of Guellen. But there is one condition: after twenty years, three months and two days – she wants justice. She wants her former lover Sergie Miller to be tried in court and legitimately put to death. When she was 17 and in love with him, he had seduced her which resulted in her pregnancy. He had not only refused to marry her but also denied the paternity of her child. In order to cast her out of the town, he had ruthlessly deceived her by bribing two men with bottles of brandy to deceptively testify that they had slept with her many times, and branded her as promiscuous. With her fairy tale gone haywire, she had fled in disgrace from the town. To substantiate her claim, Karla presents the two testifiers, Joseph Cadek and Ludwicg Darvis, and her legal councilor Bardrick, who was the presiding judge of the Paternity Court of Guellen before which Karla was tried. All three of them are in her private employment now.

Judith, her child had lived less than a year and Karla was forced into professional prostitution. She had met a wealthy man in a whorehouse at Trieste, married him and became a “Zachanassian” who owned “5% of the whole world” She was a woman wronged. How could the townsfolk tolerate for so long that the perpetrator of such heinous crime goes unpunished? Her plea for justice is outrightly rejected by all those present. Soon, the affirmation of the support of the townsfolk to their old friend Miller created a situation wherein people started buying things on credit from Miller’s store, pushing him into financial decay.

Karla was prepared to wait. Yes, her wealth can extract their sympathy and support. For the price she had offered they would betray their own siblings. Soon truck loads of clothing, home appliances, cars and whatnot articles started to arrive in the town. These articles can be bought by any citizen of Guellen on a credit plan – available just for their signature – without money. The change in the attitude of the townsfolk was astounding – even Miller’s wife was running after the luxury items. As people gradually became indebted to Karla, she watched from the sidelines and saw them grow happier and affluent. All Miller could do was protest as he lost his family and friends to the bribery of Karla, obsessed by a great vendetta.

When Karla’s pet leopard escapes, it was Miller the townsfolk were actually hunting for. Miller’s terrified pleas to Karla to call everything off fell on deaf ears. Even his attempt to leave the town secretly was craftily stopped by the townsfolk as they considered him their ticket to prosperity. Seeking Karla’s patronage that had become the civic necessity, the Councilors amended their statutory rules and reinstated the capital punishment which immensely delighted Karla. They requested Karla to stop her persecution of Miller and invest in the dying Guellen. Karla just laughed it off and informed them that she already owns all the property in Guellen. She revealed to them that it was she who was responsible for pushing the town into this desolate state. She would not settle for anything less than the death of Miller. Resigned to fate, Miller agrees to stand for trial in justice towards Karla, but he flatly refuses the Council’s suggestion to “show some community spirit” and commit suicide and save the town from the trial. Blinded by the glitter of money and of prosperity to come, the citizens of Guellen had no qualms to unanimously convict their friend Miller and sentence him to death. Karla had conquered them all!

Focusing on the idea that man and justice can be bought, the remaining part of “the visit” comprise the outcome of “Karla’s final revenge against the townsfolk” and “Anya’s salvation from her illicit affair with the captain of police,” which I better leave to the viewer who will have the opportunity to see this lovely movie.

Despite too-vociferous at times, the radiant and stately Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman in the role of Karla (attired in elegant costumes by René Hubert and executed by Nina Ricci, hairstyle by Giorgio of Rome and special make-up by John O’Gorman) is superbly malicious as the lady toying with the life and death of her lover. In 1959, Bergman was reportedly offered a four picture deal by 20th Century Fox and the choice of 14 greatest directors who ruled Hollywood at that time. She turned that offer down, and opted for the choice for selection of good scripts for her. Later, she came across “The Visit” amongst a pile of scripts at her then husband Lars Schmidt’s office and the work on the script quickened once Darryl F. Zanuck returned to the helm of Fox in 1962.

The role of Miller is fortified with the exemplary vitality and glowing warmth of the ever versatile Anthony Quinn. Quinn and Bergman became good friends during making of this movie and would once again reunite in “A Walk in the Spring Rain” (1970), a Stirling ‘Dale’ Silliphant romantic drama about extramarital affair. Their co-stars Irina Demick (of “The Longest Day”, “The Sicilian Clan”) and Valentina Cortese (of “Barabbas”, “Jesus of Nazareth”) are fine as Anya and Mathilda respectively. The film was shot in CinemaScope by Armando Nannuzzi at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios and on location at Ponte Galeria, Caprancia, some 55 kms northwest of Rome.

The Visit produced by Julien Derode, Darryl F. Zanuck and Anthony Quinn, is directed by Bernhard Wicki, who was nominated at 1964 Cannes Film Festival for the “Golden Palm”. The film also received a nomination for Best Costume Design (René Hubert) at the 1964 Academy Awards. While the music by Hans-Martin Majewski and Richard Arnell is gratifying, the Screenplay by Ben Barzman (“El Cid” (1961), “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964)), was criticized for being a bit glum, uneven and heavy for the average viewer and not cut for the talents of Bergman or Quinn.

The Visit is based on the play “Der Besuch der Alten Dame” by Swiss writer Friedrich Düerrenmatt. It was adapted for the stage in English by Maurice Valency and staged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York in 1958 starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the lead roles of “CLAIRE Zachanassin” and “ANTON SCHILL”. The Lunts had toured with it in England in 1957 under the title “Time and Time Again” and had it re-titled “The Visit” when they brought the play to New York. Even though the original ending was altered for the movie, it nevertheless packs the punch of the original play. The film was remade as “Hyènes” in 1992. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

StarChoice 7: Salammbò

 Salammbò  (Aka: Salambò  / The Loves of Salammbò) (Colour 1960)

During the 1960s, an Indian-born actress of patrician good looks and earthy allure adorned the American and European cinema – an upcoming actress who shone her own starry light. Born in Bombay in 1934 to an Indian surgeon and English mother, she had a smile that would set your heart racing. Regarded in film circles as an “exciting star material who displayed tremendous impact”, director William Wyler cast her in a sexy role in the biblical epic “Ben-Hur” but that part was cut out from the original film because the role was “too sexy” for the development of the story. Likewise, versatile movie director Mervyn Le Roy wanted to cast her in his disaster film “The Devil at 4 O’clock” but found her “too beautiful” to suit the role. While playing in the Apache warrior movie “Geronimo” on location in Durango, Mexico in 1962, she stole the heart of “Rifleman” actor Chuck Connors whom she married in 1963. She’s Kamala Devi who, a year after she was cast in “Ben-Hur”, would act in a pivotal role as the chief maid to the legendary Princess Salammbò in a fictional peplum based on historical facts directed by Italian director/screenwriter Sergio Grieco.

A Fides-Stella Films Production starring French actress Jeanne Valérie, Jacques Sernas, Edmund Purdom, Raf Baldassarre, etc, “Salammbò” features a story that reverberates passionate romance with intrigue, with spectacular action set during the Mercenary War that followed the First Punic War.

The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage has been featured in many Italian epic movies, the famous among them being “Hannibal” (1959), “The Siege of Syracuse” (1960), “Carthage in Flames”. “Salammbò” opens in the second century BC as the “Council of Elders”, a kind of senate of the Republic of Carthage is in session in their Council Chamber. It happens that the mercenaries hired to defend Carthage against the Romans, have not been paid for their services in the Battle of the Aegates Islands (Aegadian Islands) off the western coast of the island of Sicily which concluded the First Punic War (241 BC) and resulted in the victory of the Romans. As an adverse consequence of the war, a raging economic crisis gripped the republic throwing the state coffers barren as Carthage was compelled to pay (over a period of ten years) compensation to the tune of 3,200 gold talents to Rome and also heavy ransoms for their prisoners. Hence, Carthage was unable to pay to its army consisting of about 20,000 mercenaries (according to the Greek historian Polybius (Polybe)) belonging to various ethnic origins whom the exhausted Republic had allowed to settle near the city. Finally, the mercenaries laid siege to the city, threatening to destroy it.

To pacify the situation, Salammbò, the High Priestess of the Goddess Tanit and the daughter of General Hamilcar Barca (Riccardo Garrone), the leader of Carthaginians, intermediates and a pact is sealed between her and Mathòs, the devil-may-care chief of the mercenaries. The mercenaries are to withdraw to a neighbouring valley and soon afterwards will receive their chests full of gold as full payment of wages due to them. After this pact, Salammbò falls in love with Mathòs who was already under the charms of Salammbò whose beauty is renowned throughout the Mediterranean.

Sadly, the pact is not respected by Narr Havas (Edmund Purdom of “Herod the Great, “The Prodigal”), a greedy and notorious member of the Council of Elders who dreams of ruling power and longed to possess Salammbò. He craftily switches the chest full of gold with stones, keeping the booty to himself. The Gallic mercenaries, betrayed of fair game, and wild with rage at the injustice of Carthage, once more march against the city. Ignorant of the treachery of the cunning Narr Havas, Salammbò believes that it is Mathòs who violated their solemn pact. Her love for him soon turns to pitiless hate. During the turbulent course of the events, Mathòs barges into the Carthaginian palace and gets away with the veil of Tanit, which the vestal of the Goddess Tanit and her followers believe is the shield that protects them. But before he escapes from the palace, Mathòs couldn’t resist the urge to declare his love to the sublime Salammbò. What follows comprises the fate of the kingdom of Carthage and the romantic tangle between the erstwhile lovers.

Gorgeous Jeanne Valérie in her bloom of youth and grace breezes through the title role of the Priestess of Tanit with an easeful elegance. She had just completed her roles in Roger Vadim’s “Les liaisons dangereuses” and Claude Chabrol’s “A Double Tour” (Leda), before she went over to Germany in 1959 to appear in “Salammbò”, a film that earned her the title “The Most Censored Star”. The star of a cycle of sword-and-sandal epics such as “Maddalena” (1954), “Helen of Troy” (1956), “Sheba and the Gladiator” (1959), “The Nights of Lucretia Borgia” (1960), the Lithuanian-born French actor Jacques Sernas, with his athletic physique displays the necessary courage and valor of the role of Mathòs. The romantic scenes between Jeanne Valérie and Jacques Sernas, though stylish and tastefully staged, were considered a bit steamy during the time of the film’s release.

The lush camerawork in CinemaScope by Piero Portalupi details panoramic scenes of spectacular battle scenes that pack a real punch. The rousing music of Alexandre Derevitsky, picturesque settings, colourful costumes, vivid hairstyles and likeable performers by the cast overcome the occasional insipidness. The film was cut down by 20th Century Fox to a length of about 70 mins. for the American audiences but the copy in my possession runs to the full “Director’s Cut” length of 94 mins.

Adapted (original dialogue) by Andre Talbet from the book “Salammbò” (1862) by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), the release of the film in 1962 marked the 100th Anniversary of the novel. Author of works such as “The Temptation of St. Antony”, “Madame Bovary”, was criticized for “Salammbò” – for meticulously weaving historical detail around an exotic story. The character of Salammbò is sometimes referred to as a prototype of “the woman and the serpent”, Lilith, Eve and Satan,….. Different representations of Salammbò can be found in illustrations by Gabriel Ferrier, Gaston Bussiere, Rich Lobel, Alfred Lombard, Alphonse Mucha, etc.

Even though this production is the fifth version of the novel (excluding the Opera and comic book versions), 20th Century Fox intended to create spark and fire with their own version of the novel casting either Gina Lollobrigida or Sophia Loren, the then ruling Italian icons, but had to drop the idea due to the production of Elizabeth Taylor-vehicle “Cleopatra”. The film was released on DVD with optional soundtracks in Italian and Spanish language but without subtitles. It is reportedly available only with a few dealers/collectors. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)



The origins of Toledo in Spain are a mixture of mythology and historical fact. According to the local tradition it has been founded by the Trojans and later became the capital of the Visigoths. In 1577 a painter called Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614) of Cretan origin who had learned about the use of colour and composition at the studio of Titian in Venice and later befriended Michelangelo in Italy came to Toledo to paint The Assumption of the Virgin, a high altarpiece of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Known popularly as El Greco (the Greek), he had enjoyed fame as a flamboyant painter and portraitist with commissions earned from the court of King Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598). However, it would be only after he moved to Toledo where he lived until his death with his common-law wife Jeronima de las Cuevas that he would develop an overwhelming emotional power in rapturous paintings showcasing the great religious fervour of his adopted country. His paintings of traditional religious subjects and portraits of elongated, luminescent figures in tortured postures were rich in colour accentuated with darker, somber shades – rather hauntingly graceful to catch the imagination of generations of artists and art lovers, and a Spanish actress-turned-director called Icíar Bollaín (María Icíar Bollaín Pérez-Mínguez) who would highlight his painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” as a decisive cursor in her third directorial movie, Te Doy Mis Ojos (Take My Eyes).

A winner of 7 Goya Awards in all categories and many other awards (San Sebastián International Film Festival, Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival, Cartagena Film Festival, etc), this poignant drama based on Bollaín’s short “Amores que matan“, stars Laia Marull, Luis Tosar, Nicolás Fernández Luna, Candela Peña, Rosa María Sardà, etc. Mainly set in the heart of Toledo and Madrid and written by Bollaín and Alicia Luna, it tells the story of domestic violence in an elementary family consisting of Antonio (Tosar), Pilar (Marull) and their seven-year old son Juan (Luna) and its implication on the people around them.

Trapped in a marriage riddled with abuse and violence, the woman of the house, Pilar, had more harried moments in her daily life than tranquil ones. As the movie opens, one winter night, Pilar decides to take time to step outside her sphere of hell and flees from her marital home in Toledo with Juan and few personal possessions and take refuge at her sister Ana’s (Peña) home. Clearly foxed by her sudden departure, her husband Antonio confronts her at Ana’s door step, professing eternal love: “that she’s his sunshine, that she had given him her eyes, that he will change his ways, he will surprise her….” Though mindful of her hope that he would change, Pilar was clearly scared of retaliation from Antonio whom she dearly loves, the only love she has ever known.

Though she was surrounded by her kin, Pilar was still in a dilemma as the past held her captive, forbidding restoration of her equilibrium. Despite all her best intentions, Ana refuses to understand Pilar and her mother Aurora (Sardà) condoned the situation, trying to silence the problem as she had always done, while Pilar’s friends were unaware of the problem since she maintained that her most prized possession was her privacy. In the midst of all this was the son who saw everything but says nothing. Laia Marull, a beautiful actress who creates a spell around her, is excellent as the ever suffering faithful wife who does not say what she thinks or feels but exhibits such blatant fear at Antonio’s fits of rage that it’s no wonder that the film is devoid of violent scenes except for one scene.

To support herself and her son, Pilar obtains a job as a substitute cashier in a museum at Santo Tomé. Meanwhile, in a clear attempt to amend his ways and to get over his quick temper, Antonio not only attends to therapy sessions for spousal abuse but also sends her presents to win her over. He even visits her in her sister’s house to the displeasure of Ana to whom a relationship gone bad was like a flower, torn petal by petal, impossible to reconstruct. Ana wanted to help her sister get a separation from Antonio, and had her own justification for her attitude against the relationship since she had seen the hospital records for Pilar’s injuries sustained from her husband. Eventually Pilar moves in back with Antonio and tries to save her marriage, re-igniting their yearning for each other. She had taken up a course in art to help her become a tour guide in an art museum. It was during this time Antonio transpires into one of his temperamental fits, the only one episode of physical violence in this movie, in which Pilar suffers the most dreadful humiliation in her life. The incident which reflects the dynamics of power and control by her husband awake in Pilar the realization that with her economical independence gained from her employment as a tour guide, she can take care of her life and was no longer dependent on his approval. Spanish actor Luis Tosar, with his dark features and deep-set eyes, portrays the role of Antonio with acute professionalism. Refraining from demonization of Antonio, Tosar at times focuses on Antonio’s insecurity and inferiority complex and also displays his human side with the maxim “a man’s best possession is a loving wife”.

During the course of the movie, the director takes the liberty of showing many prominent paintings of Toledo including Luis de Morales’ “El Divino: La Dolorosa”, the iconic painting of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar: the name given to Virgin Mary for her apparition during the beginning of Christianity in Spain) from which the protagonist’s name is derived; Titian’s “Danaë and the Shower of Gold” and El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” about a wealthy philanthropist Knight who had contributed generously to the welfare of the church on whose funeral day, according to the legend, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended from the heavens to provide him a holy burial. It is a tour guide’s narration about this painting and how El Greco’s art found a way to unite both heaven and earth that provides Pilar with a path to decipher the meaning to her misery.

Although “Te Doy Mis Ojas” generates tremendous empathy and tension as the couple attempt to rebuild their marriage, the movie refrains from exploring the personality of Pilar more intensely. However director Bollaín can be rightfully proud to bring out a film that offers great performances and depict all sides of the situation as it reveals in great detail why Pilar is not the heroine of her own story; why she still loves such a man; why she endures for such a lengthy time and wants to continue to stay with an abusive husband; and the way insecurities and loyalties of different characters unfold at various points in the story line. It also reveals the root of Antonio’s anger and insecurities, and why he inflicts such fury on his wife. With the little games they play in privacy and later shown prominently through a guileless sex scene, the film draws attention to the sexual bond between Pilar and Antonio (a name derived possibly from Adonis) as the raison d’être for her longing for Antonio despite the humiliation and emotional abuse she suffers from him. As Pilar becomes the heroine of her story and sets out to seek the rainbow of salvation for the second time, the fact still remains: One can never change the past, only the hold it has on you.

The movie is available on DVD in Spanish language with English subtitles. (© JS/Manningtree Archive)

StarChoice 5: The 25th Hour

As I sit before this computer and trace my life back to some 40 years, I recall that admirers of English movies in Cochin were able to enjoy movies of French director Henri Verneuil such as “Guns for San Sebastian”, “The Sicilian Clan”, “The Burglars”, onscreen at the Sridar Talkies. But amongst the many movies that didn’t make it to the theaters here at that time was the war drama “The 25th Hour” (La Hora 25), starring Anthony Quinn, Virna Lisi, Serge Reggiani, etc – a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Carlo Ponti Production, shot in France and Yugoslavia. This movie, being unavailable with many regular sources, was on my lookout in various countries until I finally found it on a display rack in a shop near the famous flea market of Madrid: El Rastro.

It features the tragic real-life story of simpleminded Romanian farmer Johann Moritz who is arrested and dragged off to forced labour to work on a canal after being falsely tagged as a Jew by a local police captain so as to get rid of Moritz from his wife Suzanna (the magnetic beauty Virna Lisi) whom the policeman secretly coveted. Anthony Quinn, who had returned from Spain where he had filmed the war movie “Lost Command” in 1966, delivers a worthy performance as the victimized protagonist Moritz. Quinn would once again team with director Verneuil for “Guns for San Sebastian” in the following year.

The 25th Hour”, a moving saga of brutal behavior of aggressive and demeaning forces and human endurance, opens on March 15, 1939 in Fantana, a small village in Romania, where Moritz and Suzanna were celebrating the baptism of their second child. From there, the story advances to Moritz’s arrest and his senseless plight through a multitude of ordeals that run parallel to the then political and military situation under German, Soviet and American occupation of Central Europe during World War II, and culminates in the poignant tableau of Moritz’s final re-union with his wife and sons after eight years of separation. The tears welling in the eyes of Moritz as he posed with his family before the journalist’s camera in the final scene endorse the dictum that the delay of our dreams does not mean that they have been denied – that the dry seasons in life do not last. The spring rains will come again.

The selection of Mortiz as an ideal specimen of the heroic Aryan race for German propaganda and his trial before the Allied forces in Nuremberg for assisting Nazis, are ironic factors projected in this film, which reveals the devastating effects and the absurdity of war and helplessness of displaced people trapped in its walls of barbed wire. It’s a pity that a worthy theme like “The 25th Hour” was not shown here in Cochin.

This movie is now available at, and I like to think that, to avoid versions inflicted with sterner diktats, an uncensored edition would do justice to the movie. The music is provided by Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre (uncredited) in Westrex Recording System and the script is faithfully based on the novel La vingt-cinquième heure by Romanian diplomat/writer Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu (translated by Monique Saint-Côme). The film has no relation to Spike Lee’s movie of the same name. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

StarChoice 4: Run for the Sun

Having played notorious characters in popular movies such as “Coma” (the cynical Dr. George A. Harris), “Kiss of Death” (the psychopath Tommy Udo), etc, American actor Richard Widmark might not be the kind of actor to be typically cast as the adventurous “Rambo” or treasure hunters “Indiana Jones”, or “Allan Quarantine”. However, according to the autobiography of his “Cold Sassy Tree” co-star Faye Dunaway, Widmark is a pro and a perfectionist in acting – someone who would “go and walk the scene the day before we shot it so he knew everything he had to do and what his lines were, and exactly where he would be when he said them”.

In “Run for the Sun” directed by Roy Boulting, Dick Widmark is perfectly cast as Michael ‘Mike’ Latimer, an adventure novelist in exile in a fishing village in Mexico who was tracked down by New York “Sight” magazine writer Katherine ‘Katie’ Conners, played by stunning brunette Jane Greer (aka. Bettejane Greer). On their way to Mexico city, their small plane crash land near the jungle hideout of Nazi criminals (Trevor Howard and Peter van Eyck) where Mike and Katie were detained to cover up the Nazis’ hideaway domain (shot on location at the ruins of the 16th century Atlacomulco Hacienda/sugar plantation of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) near Cuernavaca, Morelos, Meixco). With their plane destroyed and caught in an helpless situation, Mike and Katie manage to break loose from the hideaway and struggle through the deadly path of the jungle (shot some fifty miles from Acapulco, Mexico) chased by criminals and a vicious pack of Dobermans.

Their survival from this terrifying ordeal to freedom forms the rest of the story of this taut, fast paced movie.

Run for the Sun” has its strengths and weaknesses, nevertheless it surely is absorbing and fun to watch and still holds up well today. This film is the third official version of “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932), based on the classic suspense short-story written by Richard Connell, though there is much dissimilarity between all the versions (A Game of Death (1945)). The film was produced by actress Jane Russell and Bob Waterfield, her then-husband, under their banner Russ-Field Corp. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

StarChoice 3: The Secret of Santa Vittoria

In an illustrious career spanning more than 30 years, American film producer/director Stanley Kramer (1913 –2001) made many hit films which include “The Pride and the Passion”, “The Defiant Ones”, “Judgment at Nuremberg”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, etc. But the one I like most is “The Secret of Santa Vittoria”, a Stanley Kramer production shot in the tiny Italian village of Anticoli Corrado near Rome.

Set in the summer of 1943, just after the fall of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, it tells the story of the simple people of the wine-producing hillside village of Santa Vittoria who desperately attempt to hide 1,317,000 (more or less) bottles of wine from the German army who are coming to occupy their village and commandeer the wine which constitutes its wealth. Starring my favourite Anthony Quinn (in a performance that somewhat equals the one in “Zorba the Greek”), his old friend volatile Italian actress Anna Magnani (La Magnani), sultry Virna Lisi (her second teaming with Quinn after their outing in The 25th Hour), and German actor Hardy Kruger (Hatari!), it is a wonderful movie that’s not to be missed.

Following their sterling performance of fleshed-out characters in “Wild is the Wind” (1957), the combination of Anthony Quinn as Italo Bombolini, the bumbling, drunken Mayor and Anna Magnani as his shrewish, nagging wife Rosa Bombolini is so hilarious at times, that this comedy drama has now gained a cult following. Who could forget the antics of Quinn on top of the water-tank; the fight scene of flying utensils, rolling pins and cooked spaghetti between Rosa and Bombolini; Rosa explicitly explaining about sex with a stalk of celery and two apples; the final transformation of the village clown into great esteem as the village’s hero; and the wonderful dance riot of the village folk?

An extraordinary fictional story that resonates with realism, no wonder this film was nominated for two Academy Awards (Editing and Best Music Scoring). It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Comedy. The musical score by Ernest Gold is so fantastic that it will hang around you long time after the movie is finished.

For a detailed storyline of this charming and inspiring movie, read the book “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” by Robert Crichton (Carroll & Graf Publishers – 1966).

This review is based on my book “A Visual Documentary on the Making of The Secret of Santa Vittoria” (Feb. 2011). Enjoy this bumbling, hilarious movie with a glass of red wine.

(© JS/Manningtree Archive.)Image

StarChoice 2: Interrupted Melody


MGM’s production Interrupted Melody (1955 – colour) starring gorgeous Eleanor Parker, Glenn Ford and Roger Moore, is one of the films I inadvertently lost when I left Yemen for good where I was staying with family for almost a decade. Luckily, I recently found this little gem amongst the collectables of a serious movie collector in Madrid who was generous enough to sell it to me.

The movie depicts events from the life of Australian farm-girl Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who rose to stardom as a great Operatic soprano in spite of her fight against polio. With excellent cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg/Paul Vogel), fine art direction (Cedric Gibbons/Daniel B. Cathcart), realistic make-up(William Tuttle), fabulous costumes (Helen Rose), and direction by Curtis Bernhardt, this melodramatic biography features many opera segments/arias (Carmen, Samson et Dalila, La Bohème, Il Trovatore, Götterdämmerung, Tristan and Isolde, ….), sung by 1940/50s soprano-legend Eileen Farrell (uncredited in this movie) since Marjorie was physically unable to do it though she wanted to record the song for the movie herself. Though Farrell’s vocal performance is brilliant in the movie including the aria from Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, the aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly unfortunately didn’t rise to the level of the version by our darling Maria Callas – an aria which has never failed to pull at my heart strings every time I listen to it – which is almost daily.

Eleanor Parker, for the third time, was nominated for an Oscar for her role of prima donna Marjorie (she lost to Italian actress Anna Magnani for her role in The Rose Tattoo), a role for which Geer Garson, Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson were initialed considered by MGM.

With great music, wonderful operatic scenes, emotional performances, this romantic classic film from MGM library screams for reappraisal. How sad, they really don’t make them like this anymore.

(© This review is in tune with my project to promote my favourite movies from a bygone era. The past asks only to be remembered. JS/Manningtree Archive.)

StarChoice 1: La conjura de El Escorial (The El Escorial Conspiracy – 2008)

I added another 181 films from Madrid to my collection which included the movie La conjura de El Escorial (The El Escorial Conspiracy – 2008) by Spanish director Antonio del Real starring Jason Isaacs, Julia Ormond, Jürgen Prochnow….. A Spanish-Italian co-production co-written by Antonio del Real and mainly shot on location at the Monasterio de el Escorial San Lorenzo de el Escorial, Toldeo Cathedral (both of which we visited last month) and other places in Spain, it portrays a partly fictionalised story line of deceit and betrayal in the court of the “Prudent King” Filipe II of Spain (1527-1598), the only son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal. With excellent performances by Juanjo Puigcorbe (Felipe), Julia Ormond (Ana of Mendoza/Princess of Eboli), Antonio Perez (Jason Isaacs), Blanca Jara (Damiana) and superb Costume Design (Javier Artiñano/Delfín Prieto), Cinematography (Carlos Suárez), Production Design (Luis Vallés), melodious orchestral score (Alejandro Vivas Puig), and made in both Spanish and English version, the film was a joy to watch last night. The film earned Goya Awards for: Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Make-up and Hairstyles (José Quetglás and Nieves Sánchez), Best Production Design, and Best Supporting Actress (Rosana Pastor in the role of Doña Juana de Coello).








Check this movie out.This movie was earlier filmed by director Terence Young (James Bond fame) in 1955 titled “That Lady” starring Olivia de Havilland and Gilbert Roland, based on For One Sweet Grape by Kate O’Brien (Publisher: Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & company, inc., 1946).


(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)