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Staying Power of “The Horsemen”

Concluding installment of the two-part serial: “Catch-as-Catch Can”

In my mind’s eye, artist Said Atabekov’s solo show reminded me of “The Horsemen” (Les Cavaliers), the 1967 best-selling novel written by the French writer Joseph Kessel (1898-1979). Enriched by the extraordinary gifts of characterisation and narrative of Kessel, it was the kind of book that cast a spell over the reader, and when you finished it, the experience preys on your mind to think back over the whole plot and rediscover the many priceless pearls from a bygone era which are littered in it.

The Horsemen told the gutsy saga, in contemporary setting, of family conflict between Uraz, a proud and ambitious Afghan horse rider and Tursen, his father, the Master of the Horse at the stables of the regal Osman Bey and the bravest Buzkashi chapandaz of the time, renowned for his highest degree of horsemanship, physical strength, courage and competitive spirit.

By the time producer/writer Edward Lewis and his constant film collaborator, director John Frankenheimer decided to turn The Horsemen into a movie (the films rights of which they had purchased jointly), two of Kessel’s novels were already lauded as popular films: The Lion (1962, D: Jack Cardiff) which is a marital drama of an American lawyer who goes to Africa to deal with his child and animal interest; and Belle de Jour (1967, D: Luis Buñuel), a fascinating fact and fantasy tale of a surgeon’s wife who took a liking to afternoon work in a brothel.Lewis and Frankenheimer contracted with Colorado born screenwriter (James) Dalton Trumbo’s (1905-1976, Spartacus, Exodus, Papillon), to adapt Kessel’s book. Joseph Kessel, who considered Trumbo in the first rank of screenwriters, was delighted by the news. According to a book on Dalton Trumbo, they agreed to pay him $125,000 for the completed script and another $125,000 in ten equal instalments.

Although Lewis questioned Trumbo’s depiction of the lead character’s motivations, Frankenheimer found the finished script “perceptive” and “damned good.” However, when made into an old-fashioned action-adventure movie of the same title, the studio executives demanded that the rough cut be reduced from slightly over three hours to two hours.

A co-production of John Frankenheimer Productions and Edward Lewis Productions, Inc. with the cooperation of Afghan Films, Colombia Pictures released The Horsemen in mid-1971, the year the studio turned to look back rather than forward – releasing movies such as Nicholas and Alexandrea (D: Franklin Schaffner), The Last Picture Show (D: Peter Bogdanovich), 10 Rillington Place (D: Richard Fleischer), The Anderson Tapes (D: Sidney Lumet), etc.

Similar to film directors such as Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Marty Ritt, Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill, director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), took the road out from television to Hollywood, where, retaining only the most useful elements of his earlier style, he became one of the most versatile directors in the American cinema.

He made dramatic hits such as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), Seconds (1966), although the movie that catapulted his name to fame was the satirically angled political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). A demanding director, whose hallmark was working well with most actors, Frankenheimer’s work projected a fascination with the mechanics of visual story telling.

A reporter once noted in a newspaper: “You won’t find much romance or many complex leading ladies in a Frankenheimer film: For the most part his characters are men, real men, fighting each other or some outside force trying to destroy a way of life. His films are known for their biting look at this country’s political and social times.”

Director Frankenheimer’s flair in games and sports were evident in his Grand Prix (1966) and The Gypsy Moths (1969). The Horsemen (Cavalieri Selvaggi), made just before Frankenheimer’s career went into sharp decline in the 1970s, was the first film ever made in Afghanistan during a period when it was a popular destination all the year round for Western tourists to enjoy its rugged mountains and valued relics of ancient civilisation.

The production received plentiful cooperation from the government – and according to a magazine article, the authorities even allowed Frankenheimer to bring in a helicopter to shoot aerial scenes.

The film featured a spectacular tale of human drama giving emphasis to the skill, violence, and great courage of man-and-horse rivalries played out in the ancient equestrian tradition of buzkashi, an amalgamation of dirty polo and open rioting which brings to one’s mind the legends of the Golden Horde of the times of Mongol king Genghis Khan, whose warriors slipped into enemy camps and without dismounting from their horses, swooped up goats, sheep, etc., and rode away undetected with their pillage.

Having realised that he could no longer play in buzkashi, the valiant chapandaz (specialist buzkashi rider) Tursen’s (Jack Palance) mind was clouded over by his son Uraz’s (Omar Sharif) youth and prowess. For Uraz, like his father before him, is reputedly the greatest chapandaz in the three provinces of Meymaneh, Mazar-e Sharif and Qataghan.

To prove his machismo and to challenge the code of behaviour by which he had been raised, as well as to please his imperious father who refused to give up the values and beliefs of his native land and had chosen Uraz to ride on the newest and finest purebred stallion, Jahil, Uraz had decided to compete in the king’s Royal Buzkashi tournament on the field of Bagrami in Kabul. Winning the game would ensure that Tursen would deed Jahil to Uraz – which was Tursen’s challenge to secure Uraz’s victory in the Buzkashi competition (1).

The game featured in the movie, where the horseman with the carcass is fair game for an all-out assault, was played at its roughest when the leather whips were applied with devastating effect on challenging riders.

Although Uraz’s boldness and fierce competitive spirit was evident throughout the game, in an unfortunate incident during the game after he had grabbed the carcass off the ground, Uraz fell and broke a leg. But then, in the last moment, his colleague Salih had leapt onto Jahil to win the tournament for their Meymaneh clan.

Later, escaping from the hospital where he was admitted, Uraz was forced to journey back home to the province of Meymaneh to face his father. Disgraced and humiliated in failing to measure up to his father, Uraz imposed severe ordeals on himself – eventually suffering terrible tribulations from the amputation of one of his legs infected with gangrene. Accompanying him through the treacherous old Bamian Road across the mountains were his faithful syce Mukhi (David de Keyser, uncredited) and a crafty nomad woman called Zareh/Zereh (Leigh Taylor-Young sporting a new gold nose ring) with her greedy eyes set on to acquire Jahil.

Having allowed to join Uraz in his journey  as Mukhi’s woman and having seen Uraz sick and weak, Zareh’s mind was devious to realise how a good buzkashi horse like Jahil would play for as long as twenty years and would bring glory and wealth to her. Encouraged by the knowledge that the prize-horse Jahil’s ownership would pass on to Mukhi upon Uraz’s death, Zareh took upon herself to convince Mukhi that they could go to the land of Hazarajat and make a fortune by racing the swiftest Jahil in the great annual fair.

As Uraz progressed on his passage home with his animal powers of endurance and survival, it didn’t take long before Zareh found out that, although Uraz liked women, he liked horses even better.

The great old film stars are everlasting. They live on in the hearts of all who have adored their looks and performances, and anytime is a good time to view their films repeatedly.

Star of Doctor Zhivago (1965, D: David Lean) and Funny Girl (1968, D: William Wyler), the dark-eyed Omar Sharif (1932-2015, born: Maechel Shalhoud in Alexandria of Syrian-Lebanese descent) whom actor Peter O’Toole irreverently dubbed “Cairo Fred”, needs no introduction. Following his dramatic entrance from the sands of the Sahara into screen stardom in the opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia (1962, D: David Lean), the flamboyant American actor became a whirlwind which brought him adulation, riches and hearts of millions of female movie lovers in particular. He frequently appeared in dashing leading man roles, relishing the honour of being a social idol, a superstar and a worthy successor to Rudolph Valentino.

The Memoirs of Roger Vadim quotes Omar Sharif as “a charming man and exciting friend, but he had a very particular style with women. In spite of the passionate lover that he played on the screen, he was rarely romantic.”  Sharif had remarked during the filming of The Horsemen that he welcomed the opportunity to play a straight role. It  is a provocative film role in which he shared something in common with the character of Uraz – the ambitious chapandaz dressed in a thick caftan and high-heeled boots, leather whip gripped between his teeth, his head adorned with a hat lined with astrakhan fur and the emblem of a chapandaz fixed on it.

As a racehorse owner and breeder himself who, during that time, paid US$50,000 to send his mares to America to mate with wonder horse, Canadian-bred Nijinsky, (about which he was asked to narrate a French documentary in 1970,) Sharif did not shirk some tough riding in The Horsemen – at times holding the reins in one hand and the sand-stuffed, 120lb. carcass of a goat in the other, sequences which were added in Spain.

During production, he spoke of his understanding of horses. At the age of four he had begun by riding on tourist horses trotting around the pyramids: “It’s not all that difficult, really… I have ridden horses since I was a child in Cairo and I can hang on to a horse.” Then again, Sharif who had brought along an American masseur to Afghanistan to ease his muscle strains from the game, was, on tricky bits, obliged to indorse assistance of a double for some of his buzkashi riding scenes.

According to an article, the required footage for the film was canned by Frankenheimer by making the teams play every day for 30 straight days. Just like artist Said Atabekov, director Frankenheimer with his Polaroid would, at times, shoot interesting pictures of the men and horses in action. To complement the game scenes shot at Aranjuez in Spain, about ten chapandaz (including leading buzkashi riders, Jalal and Habib, who had tremendous riding and game-time experience in buzkashi) were flown from Afghanistan for filming a third of the movie over a parched Spanish playing-field. A Spanish army helicopter was also engaged for this.For the role of Tursen, the filmmakers wanted a star with enough physical presence and regional look to match Sharif. Movie audiences have seen Omar Sharif and Jack Palance together in Che! (1969, D: Richard Fleischer) although they were criticised as miscast in the roles of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Maybe the filmmakers had hoped to derive a better result from this combination from their roles as Uraz and Tursen.

The hard, villainous skull-faced one-time boxer Palance was the heaviest Heavy Hollywood knew in the old days before he deserted Hollywood for Europe. The lantern-faced Palance chews the scenery as a “mean as dirt” gunslinger imported by cattle interests to confront former gunfighter Alan Ladd in Shane (1953, D: George Stevens), Paramount’s splendid outdoor drama of the Old West.Moviegoers may also remember him as a disillusioned film star in The Big Knife (1955, D: Robert Aldrich) and in a good number of films made in Europe such as: The Mongols (1961, D: Andre de Toth/Riccardo Freda), Barabbas (1962, D: Richard Fleischer), The Professionals (1966, D: Richard Brooks), Justine: Le Disavventure della Virtu (1968, D: Jess Franco), Vamos a Matar, Companeros! (1970, D: Sergio Corbucci), Chato’s Land (1971, D: Michael Winner), etc.According to a biography of actress Joan Crawford, during filming of the solid suspense thriller, Sudden Fear (1952, D: David Miller), Crawford was disturbed by Palance’s “moodiness and particular techniques, such as racing around the studio stage to incite his emotion.” Quite possibly, Palance, in his first starring role and an actor whom Crawford once fired, was nervous and apprehensive about acting as the new husband of Crawford, the legendary star who had shared screen space with biggest film icons such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, etc. In The Horsemen, one will find Palance mellowed, put on weight and smiles as if he meant it.Beautifully filmed in Eastmancolor and Panavision (2) in Afghanistan and Spain, Cinematographer Claude Renoir brilliantly succeeds in recapturing the look and feel of the period. The original cinematographer James Wong Howe (nicknamed Low Key Hoe) who had worked on many Frankenheimer movies was replaced.According to the book The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Howe admits having worked two or three weeks on his last picture, The Horsemen, but left over a disagreement with director Frankenheimer for refusing to use a particular lens rented for the movie. (3)

The 23-year old, fresh-faced, Leigh Taylor-Young, when contracted to play the leading lady role in The Horsemen, which took about two and a half years to make, had a repertoire of film appearances credited to her career.

Debuting in the Broadway play Three Bags Full (1966)  under the name Leigh Taylor-Young, she progressed with appearance in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, following which she went on to make five major motion pictures in a row.The Horsemen also features: British general purpose actor Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal), George Murcell (Mizrah), bald-headed Viennese character actor Eric Pohlmann (Merchant of Kandahar), Vernon Dobtcheff (Zam Hajji), Saeed Jaffrey (District Chief), John Ruddock (Scribe), Mark Colleano (Rahim), Salmaan Peer (Salih), Aziz Resh, Leon Lissek, and Vida St. Romaine as the Gypsy woman. Some websites identify actor Srinanda De in the role of Mukhi.

The crew also consists of: Costume designer: Jacqueline Moreau; Production Designer: Pierre Louis Thevenet; Music composed and conducted by: Georges Delerue.

Following the filming, director John Frankenheimer had joined Harold F. Kress to edit the film in Paris and also devoted part of the nights attending cooking classes for three months at Le Cordon Bleu which was followed by a tour of Europe studying the great chefs. Undeniably, the film’s production had occasioned a learning experience for Frankenheimer in the traditional game of buzkashi which inspired in him the thought of holding buzkashi tournaments in the USA.

As for Sharif, whose interests thrived on bridge games, globe-trotting, dating girls and owning horses, among others, his movie days in Afghanistan acquired him a new buddy to share his Rolls-Royce and his new Penthouse overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris: a majestic Afghan hound named Baz (Bazo), a gift from the King of Afghanistan (4).

Until next time, Jo

PS: This here Second installment of the two-part serial “Catch-as-Catch Can” would have appeared earlier, had I been able to go ahead with my scheduled visit to Dubai in April-May for research work for that post. Unfortunately, I had to forego that trip and sustain subsequent delay due to urgent engagements.

Notes:

  • Please refer to the first part: “Catch-as-Catch Can” for more details on Buzkashi.
  • The film’s Trailer states “Super Panavision
  • For the benefit of minimal content in this post, many finer details re. the production of this film, readily available in numerous websites, books, etc, is not incorporated.
  • A chapter in “No Better Friend: Celebrities and the Dogs They Love,” by Elke Gazzara features an interesting narration about how the last king of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007; Reign: 1933-1973) presented one-year old Bazo to Sharif, through his emissary, while Sharif was already inside the aircraft waiting to take off to Paris after having spent more than five months location shoot there for The Horsemen.
  • Books, DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  • DVD sleeves/posters credits: Wikipedia, amazon, imdb and from my private collection.
  • This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • In memory of John Frankenheimer who died on July 06, 15 years ago.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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Lovescapes of Hearts

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Have you ever looked for love in the petals of a rose…. or a tulip? If the answer is yes, then this write-up is for you.

Just as in real life and in literature, opera, poetry and in lyrical music, love’s tenderness, beauty, joy and fall out has been eulogised in fantastic depictions on the silver screen. To many movie-goers, most of those vintage movie magic by renowned film personalities are like love letters, though short of handwritten in ink, but visual illustrations of romance set amidst glamour and mystery – joy and melancholy. Made to touch heart strings and to stay with the viewer long after it ends, few are nevertheless unabashedly sentimental and manipulative or even cheapo exploitation flicks.

Here below are representative posters of some renowned movies heralded in the romantic genre made in a span of 50 years during 1930s to 1970s:

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Until next time, Jo

Note:

  1. I have limited the selection of movies to those only forming part of my cinematic collection of 6,000 movies plus. The omission of many fine representations including details of the movies are simply due to lack of space.
  2. Most of the movies in the pictorial section above are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  3. Posters/DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  4. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to movies of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Telly Savalas in the Limelight

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Part II of Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…., Please!

Kojak hoisted the 49 year-old Savalas to superstardom, bestowing on the Greek the status of a sex-symbol, whose trademark quip in his Graeco-Yiddish-Brooklyn accent: “Who loves ya, baby?” engaged wide attention. The title role also brought the actor with a mole on his left cheek an Emmy and two Golden Globes. (Telly revived Kojak in some TV episodes during 1985-1990.) image

As film after film came his way, his commitment to his career not only remained progressive, but Telly had also acquired a taste for wealth and the lifestyle that went with it – savouring the attention his fans bestowed on him. They fed his ego, reaffirming the appeal of Savalas the Star. Like in all aspects of his life, his self-indulgent lifestyle reflected on his stylish images, airbrushed to perfection, on the cover of glossy magazines to the licence plate of his car which flashed “Telly S”.

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He met friendly receptions wherever he went for shooting movies or not. He had a great time in southwest Africa in 1975 shooting Killer Force (aka. The Diamond Mercenaries, D: Val Guest, 1976). Likewise, the German fans were happy to see him in West Berlin for the location work of Inside Out (aka. Hitler’s Gold/The Golden Heist, D: Peter Duffell, 1975). In Berlin, the children rolled up their sleeves to have their arm autographed by him while the girls greeted him with fresh red roses and handful of lollies which he often gave away.

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Keeping up with the then trend in Hollywood for racehorses, Telly ventured into horse racing when actor Walter Matthau turned down an offer to invest in a racehorse. With producer/director Howard W. Koch taking half interest, Telly acquired the other half at $3000 in an American thoroughbred racehorse whom he named Telly’s Pop (either after the lollipops he devours or his late-father who took him to his first horse race as a boy in New York).

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Although Telly later admitted on his CBS-TV show that he does not know anything about horses, audiences who had seen The Scalphunters, Mackenna’s Gold, etc, know that he could handle a horse.

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Telly dipped his toes into championship gambling and promotion of brand products. Lifting himself into the line-up of singing stars of stage and screen such as Mae West, Ethel Merman, Noel Coward, Robert Mitchum, Jayne Mansfield, Harry Belafonte, Christopher Lee, he forayed into the music industry and had some chart success – tunes that would make Duke Ellington tap his shoes seven-feet under.

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By the age of 54, Telly had won over audiences with his nightclub act in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas where one of the highlights was a bouzouki dance he performed with his brother Constantine. In November 1975, at the wish of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Telly sang at her Royal Command Palladium concert where celebrities like Count Basie, Charles Aznavour, etc performed in spite of the bomb scare that autumn. During that time, the media reported him playing golf with world’s top golfer Tom Weiskopf on the Ailsa golf course at Turnberry in Scotland.

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Often things in life simply don’t go according to set decisions. Telly never forgot the break he got from Burt Lancaster into movies which he reciprocated to the career of others. A 1975 newspaper reported actor Gene Hackman talking on the Douglas show about how Telly, while preparing to move from New York to start out his acting career in Hollywood, suggested to Hackman to “get his skates on” and head for the West Coast where the real action is – which resulted in Hackman’s entry into films on the Coast. Like Telly, the film Mad Dog Coll also marked the debut of Gene Hackman. Telly also played an active part in philanthropy and philhellenism. However, as always, there are different perspectives about Telly bordering on arrogance and rudeness I have also come across during my research.

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For the Greek-American icon who once said that he carried his Hellenism like a badge of merit, the opportunity to play a real Greek on Greek soil came in 1978 in the WW2 POW adventure film, Escape to Athena (D: George Pan Cosmatos, 1979) which had an all-star cast including Roger Moore, David Niven, and Claudia Cardinale.

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In his autobiography, actor Roger Moore wrote about his location days for Escape to Athena on the isle of Rhodes when he brushed up on his gambling at the tables of the local casino which were also frequented by Telly. Stuntman Vic Armstrong’s autobiography also contains interesting pieces about the location shooting of this movie – about how, in the early hours, a bored Telly would phone him to play a game of poker.

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Telly visited Greece again in early 1982 for location shoot in Laconia for My Palikari (American Playhouse, D: Charles Dubin). He turned this into a family affair and had his young son Nicholas from Los Angeles christened at the church in the village of Anogia, the birthplace of Telly’s mother.

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Meanwhile, his career progressed with movies including Capricorn One (D: Peter Hyams, 1977), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (D: Irwin Allen, 1979), Border Cop (aka. Blood Barrier, D: Christopher Leitch, 1979), Hellinger’s Law (D: Leo Penn, 1981), Fake-Out (aka. Nevada Heat, 1982), Alice in Wonderland (D: Harry Harris, 1985), The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1987), The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (D: Lee H. Katzin, 1988), Mind Twister (D: Fred Olen Ray, 1994), Backfire! (D: Dean Bell, 1995), etc.

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Augmenting his taste for the international high life, he was regularly featured in forgettable European movies shot across the Atlantic. Some of them were as dull as a wet Good Friday but made pots of money. Having worked with European moviemakers earlier, Telly was at ease with the European way of shooting schedules and locations all over Europe. In the movie business, one gets to work closely with a lot of people. His further outings into Continental productions also gained him good rapport with more moviemakers as well as with industry professionals and eminent personalities.

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A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971) and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (D: Tonino Valerii, 1972) were shot in spaghetti film locations in Almeria and Madrid. His repertoire of European productions also included the Charles Bronson-Jill Ireland vehicle Città violenta (aka: Final Shot/The Family/Violent City, D: Sergio Sollima, 1970), Crime Boss (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972), Senza Ragione (aka Redneck, D: Silvio Narizzano, 1973), Faceless (aka. Les prédateurs de la nuit, D: Jesús Franco, 1987).

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Besides Telly’s appearance in Horror Express (1972), Italian director Mario Bava and producer Alfred Leone cast him in Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo, 1973 – re-edited into The House of Exorcism (1975)) as the devious butler Leandro, the Devil who lured Lisa (Elke Sommer) into the Spanish villa of a blind Contessa and her deranged son. It is in this masterpiece of Mario Bava, mainly shot during the latter half of 1972 in Toledo, outside Madrid and Barcelona that Bava showed the lollipop sucking Telly to great effect, and the sucker became Telly’s trademark in Kojak by late 1973.

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While his continuous interest in Continental filmmaking extended to the 1991-93 TV series  Ein Schloß am Wörthersee shot in Austria and Italy, Telly had also appeared in faraway locations like Australia where he shot Rose Against the Odds (D: John Dixon, 1991).

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Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame awarded him his Star in 1983. The following year, Telly and his third wife Julie Hovland were married. Having promised to be together for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, they remained married until his death.

On Saturday July 23, 1988, the tragedy struck. Christina Savalas, Telly’s mother and a leading American artist whose “Picassolike” work received local and international exhibitions, died of heart failure at age 84 at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Burbank, California.

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On Saturday, January 22, 1994, one day after his 72 birthday, surrounded by wife Julie Hovland and family, Telly died of Prostate cancer at the suite he kept at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, Universal City. According to the death certificate, the cause is stated as Renal Failure/Metastatic Disease/Transitional Cell Cancer of Bladder.

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After services at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, Telly was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, on January 25, 1994. The large marker on the lawn of his grave contains the header “Telly Aristotle Savalas” (a) followed by the quote from Aristotle:

The hour of departure has arrived,

and we go our ways –

I to die and you to live.

Which is better God only knows.

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Telly has gone. Has he fulfilled his aims and ambitions? The question brings to mind a letter the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, when quite a young man, wrote to his sister about his aims and ambitions: “….. I have two and only two passionate desires – to be famous and to be loved. Will they ever be satisfied?”  As for Telly, maybe none may dispute that he had fulfilled both the desires Balzac was referring to.

Until next time, Jo

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Notes:

  1. The spelling of the middle name on the marker and the Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt. 22-1-1994 shown in a website differs.
  2. This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
  3. Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are marked in bold.
  4. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  5. DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  6. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movies and performers of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Mr. Telly Savalas, Back to the Limelight…, Please!

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Part I

Life with many beginnings and endings is a progression of cycles. Just like the years before, the New Year arrived in the cyclical order – ushering in the divisions of days, weeks, months, various seasons, in conjunction with personal social relationship events such as the dates of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, etc. Within the past three weeks of January in the present calendar, there were few birthdays (including mine on 18th) and anniversaries of people I have had the privilege of knowing – and also a reminder of more to come as the year progresses – a good number of which must be reinforced by remembrance.

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Those with nostalgic longing for movies of the second half of the 20th century would not have to jog their memory much to remember the late Telly Savalas, the Film/Television actor, TV show host and Singer. Telly shared his birth and death in January – on consecutive days of 21st and 22nd. In many of us, the image of Telly Savalas was moulded not only from the characters he portrayed in a string of movies or from his presentations in Television, or the music albums but also from the wide attention he generated to himself by display of his images in a wide range of American-International magazines.

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Of those movies featuring him in a succession of devious characters, one could easily think of the box-office hit, The Dirty Dozen (D: Robert Aldrich, 1967) which presented Telly as a convict and brutal rapist; he was an earthy renegade killer whose frumpy mistress (Shelley Winters) described him as having “as much feelin’s as a bald-headed hog” in The Scalphunters (D: Sydney Pollack, 1968); a black marketer in Battle of the Bulge (D: Ken Annakin, 1965); a no-good army sergeant in Mackenna’s Gold (D: J. Lee Thompson, 1969), a sadistic bandit leader in A Town Called Hell (D: Robert Parrish, 1971); a crooked narcotics agent in Clay Pigeon (D: Tom Stern, 1971); the cold-blooded assassin in L’assassino… è al telefono (D: Alberto De Martino, 1972)….. and so the list goes on until he came across his alter ago Kojak.

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Like the bald headed Hollywood actor Yul Brynner, it is difficult to fully fathom the real story of Telly Savalas since he told a different story in every other interview – a phenomenon I had noticed while researching for this article.

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Aristoteles Savalas (a) was born in Garden City, New York, on January 21, 1922 (b). He was the second son of artist Christina Kapsalis (a former Miss Greece beauty queen from the Greek village of Anogia) and to Nicholas Constantine Savalas (originally spelled Tsavalas – hailing from the village of Gerakas), who made a fortune in tobacco, lost the lot and made another fortune in the bakery business. As teenagers, both his parents had emigrated to America in the early 1900s.

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The second of five children (three brothers: Constantine Socrates, George Demosthenes, Theodore Praxiteles and sister: Katherine), in his earlier days, Aristoteles who spoke fluent Greek, had to sell newspapers, shine shoes and work as a lifeguard to help support the family. Somewhere along the way, he became regularly known as Telly. Having enrolled in the army in 1941 and following four years of service during the World War II he was discharged duly decorated with a Purple Heart for injuries sustained. How he was wounded in the war is unclear – quite similar to the ambiguity about how his left index finger got slightly mangled.

7With the intention to pursue a career in the diplomatic service, Telly graduated in psychology from Columbia University where he had met Katherine Nicolaides. After his father’s death, Telly married Katherine in 1948 and together they had Christina. Following few years work with the Near East Information Services branch of the U. S State Department as host of the Your Voice of America series, ABC (American Broadcasting Company) News hired him as a producer. Having left ABC in January 1959, he had his first TV acting role in And Bring Home a Baby, of Sunday Armstrong Circle Theatre (1950–1963). Burt Lancaster saw his work and drew him to California to appear in episodes of the CBS TV series The Witness (1960-61).

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About the age of 39, Telly had forayed into acting in feature films, debuting with Mad Dog Coll (D: Burt Balaban, 1961) which chronicled the career of the Irish American gangster, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Telly portrayed the role of another Lieutenant in the crime drama film The Young Savages (D: John Frankenheimer, 1961), the first of Burt Lancaster’s four picture deal with United Artists (the other three being Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Train (1964) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965)).

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Luck played into his hands when, impressed by his performance in the roles of Al Capone and “Lucky” Luciano in The Witness in which the life and crimes of America’s notorious rogues are investigated at a committee of inquiry; and also in The Young Savages shot in New York, Lancaster provided him the important role of the solitary row prisoner Feto Gomez of Leavenworth Prison in the prison biography, Birdman of Alcatraz. This breakthrough role earned Telly an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Following his divorce from Katherine, in early 1960s when his film roles were mainly villainous, he got married for the second time to Marilyn (Lynn) Gardner.

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When director George Stevens’ cameo-packed dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) was announced, many eyebrows were raised at the parade of famous actors in unexpected roles. The casting of Telly as Pontius Pilate drew smiles from those who thought that a Brooklyn accent has no place in a Biblical epic.

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Stevens thought that the 6’1” Telly would look more virile and powerful in the role of the Roman prefect (governor) of Judaea if he shaved his head. Telly found the proposition extremely attractive and decided to go on with life as it was before retaining his signature bald look he took for his role in this Bible epic. Whyever not?

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He simply chose to shave his head for the look. By the way, men generally don’t grow beards because they dislike shaving – but because they think their whiskers make them look better and give them a distinctive image.

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He is on record in an interview as saying about the time Telly told his mother Christina vis-à-vis his casting in The Greatest Story Ever Told. She had rounded things off with the remark: “You are joking!” and she continued, “You’ll make a Marvellous Jesus!” She must hold the world record for being the world’s most optimistic mother.

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Telly had a memorable role as James Bond’s notorious arch-rival Ernest Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (D: Peter Hunt, 1969) in which stuntman Joe Powell nearly got killed doubling him in the bobsleigh in Switzerland. Two of his co-stars of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Donald Pleasance and Max von Sydow also played Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (D: Lewis Gilbert, 1967) and in Never Say Never Again (D: Irvin Kershner, 1983).

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Of his bald head, he once said that “everyone’s born bald.” In spite that Telly was typecast as a villain for being entirely bald, audiences took him to their hearts – believing that in the baddie they saw onscreen rested a sweet nature. His strong features and ethnic look came handy for the role of Shan in Genghis Khan (D: Henry Levin, 1965).

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The success of that film gave his career further fillip earning him roles in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (D: Melvin Frank, 1968), The Assassination Bureau (D: Basil Dearden, 1969), Kelly’s Heroes (D: Brian G. Hutton, 1970); Pretty Maids All in a Row (D: Roger Vadim, 1971), etc.  For the title role of Pancho Villa (1972), the bald look was vindicated by the shaving of his head in prison during the opening sequence.

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Since 1974, after a long separation Telly and Marilyn were divorced. According to the mini documentary “Telly Savalas: The Golden Greek”, he had met the beautiful Sally Adams while working on the movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service  (c). In 1973, Cojack with ‘c” hit the TV screens and his luck seems to improve.

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Although the bald-headed, deep, gravel-voiced Telly had been acting since the late 1950s, real popularity came looking for him in the title role of the famous CBS TV series Kojak (October, 1973-April, 1978) which was a spun-off from the made-for-TV pilot, The Marcus-Nelson Murders (D: Joseph Sargent, First American Broadcast: March 8, 1973).

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Few initial instalments showed him wade through a stereo-typed routine of law-and-order claptrap. But soon Kojak became a prime program as the series turned tough and reasonably true – taking on the look, sound, feel, taste, and smell of the New York crime investigations.

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Working out of a Precinct of Manhattan, Telly’s Lieutenant Theo Kojak, in fabulous three-piece suit, displayed a more credible human being. Much of the vicious power and toughness Telly had displayed in his earlier villainous roles were there. But the exception was that, in his new persona as the stubborn and tenacious good guy Kojak with a deep concern for people and justice, his wrath was targeted against the crooks, spooks and killers. Audiences related to Kojak’s passionate belief in equality and fairness and his vehement opposition to police bureaucracy. Well, you know the rest.

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While Telly reigned supreme in the role of the chrome-domed streetwise cop’s cop with a sweet tooth for sucking lollipops and a penchant to wisecrack snazzy lines, Telly soon became indelibly identified with the character of Kojak. “Telly and Kojak are one and the same,” Telly said in a TV interview, drawing a parallel between him and Kojak.

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His love for the suckers, I mean, his serious attitude towards the lollipops, reportedly to replace Telly’s addiction for long thin cigars, was initially featured in Episode eight “Dark Sunday” of Kojak in December 1973. This addiction for suckers could have its origins in Toledo, Spain and to Italian director Mario Bava, the father of Italian horror films.

This concludes Part I.  Part II will follow. Jo

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Notes:

  1. The spelling of first name is based on Certificate of Death: 39419004248 dt.22-1-1994 shown in a website although the name on his tombstone differs;
  2. The date is based on his death Certificate;
  3. Some sources maintain that Telly met Sally while working on the movie, The Dirty Dozen.
  4. This article owes its source to various newspapers, books, magazines, visual media, etc.
  5. Films forming part of the collection of Manningtree Archive are highlighted in bold.
  6. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  7. DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia, imdb and from my private collection.
  8. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movies and performers of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

WHAT FATE MAY BRING

The 240th anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America went past on July 4, 2016 with traditional fireworks displays, parades, concerts, barbecues, etc. Watching the celebrations on TV brought to my mind the bicentennial celebrations of U.S.A on July 4 forty years ago, when yet another jubilation rang out in some parts of the world related to an incident that lasted one week and ended with a daring rescue at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda which was featured in many print and visual media including the following three streams:

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1: VICTORY AT ENTEBBE (telecasted on December 13, 1976)

Scarce anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty – wrote Dr. Samuel Johnson (The Idler, 1758). The hijacking of the Air France flight 139 and rescue of hostages at Entebbe in 1976 had all the right spice and human drama to inspire more than 15 U.S film production units/studios to cash in on the events quickly. Emmy Award-winner screenwriter Ernest Kinoy quickly drew up a 200-page treatment for David L. Wolper Productions, 50% longer than most scripts, since it was originally planned as a three-hour telecast on ABC Television. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky with music score by Charles Fox, it was also made into a theatrical film for overseas distribution. This moderate telefilm was originally shot on videotape and transferred to film for convenience in shooting and editing. Shot at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California, its stellar cast consisted of Helmut Berger, Linda Blair, Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hayes, Anthony Hopkins, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Julius Harris, etc. However, the film suffered owing to a script laden with clichéd dialogues and characterization which should have been reworked. According to the biography of a crew member, few days into the shooting, actor/comedian Godfrey Cambridge, cast in the role of President Idi Amin, died on the filming stage from a heart attack and was replaced by Julius Harris.

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2: RAID ON ENTEBBE (telecasted on January 9, 1977)

Made for television, this was written by Golden Globe award winner Barry Beckerman and directed by Irvin Kershner (The Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Of the two telemovies that came out five months after Operation Entebbe, this is considered a better paced dramatization of the hijacking and rescue and stars Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, John Saxon, Sylvia Sidney, etc. American actor Yaphet Kotto appears as Idi Amin. The factual production had already started in late June 1976 while the hijacking incident was in progress. Telecasted by NBC, it won a Golden Globe as the Best Motion Picture Made for Television in the 35th Annual Golden Globe Awards. The film which originally ran 152 min. but cut to 113 min. for theatrical release was earlier released in theatres of Denmark on December 26, 1976.

33: MIVTSA YONATAN (ENTEBBE – OPERATION THUNDERBOLT) (released on January 27, 1977)

Nominated for the Best Oscar for Foreign Language Film, this story of the daring commando raid at Entebbe is presented in a simple narrative of good versus evil and concentrates on the rescue of the hostages, the main issue, without dwelling on hijackers’ motives, etc. Crackling with action, the film was directed by leading Israeli producer/writer Menahem Golan. According to a book, Golan had originally requested and was denied permission to accompany Israeli forces to shoot a documentary film, should any orders were given for a rescue attempt. The film was mainly shot at the specially constructed full-size replica of the Entebbe Airport terminal. The cast featured Israeli singer/actor Yehoram Gaon, Assaf Dayan, son of military leader/statesman Moshe Dayan, stage/screen actress Gila Almagor, etc, besides Israeli military personnel and equipment, some people who had actually been on the hijacked plane, including footage of some key Government officials of Israel of that time. German actor Klaus Kinski appeared as the fair-haired Wilfried Böse while Austrian actress Sybil Danning is notable in the role of deeply macho Halima. Kinski’s presence as leader of the hijackers and Dov Seltzer’s music (performed by Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) elevates this adaptation by American screenwriter Clarke Reynolds, above the two rushed-out TV versions. Golan had later told in an interview that the movie depicts exactly how Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu was hit.

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The much analysed  and debated Entebbe rescue operation has also spawned books, documentaries, movies, web articles, etc, most of which I have virtually gone through, leading me on to specific or general knowledge on this subject based on which a recap is drawn below (1):

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The hostage-rescue operation at Entebbe: Just before 9 a.m on Sunday, June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 with 228 passengers on board left Lod Airport (Ben-Gurion Airport International Airport) near Tel Aviv, Israel, bound for Paris, France with an unscheduled layover at Athens, Greece. This commercial flight was hijacked by 4 passengers barely eight minutes after it took off at 12:25 p.m from Ellinikon International Airport, Athens from where the 4 hijackers (transit passengers travelling on fake passports who had arrived that morning from Bahrain on Singapore Airlines without any intention of going to Paris), boarded the aircraft with concealed guns and hand grenades taking advantage of the lax in security measures. Since 38 passengers had alighted and 56 boarded at Athens, the flight was then carrying 246 passengers plus the crew of 12. The passengers were informed that the flight was under the command of the Che Guevara Group and Gaza Unit of the PFLP. It was the first hijacking in the history of Air France.

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Cutting across the Mediterranean Sea, the hijacked Airbus A300B4S aircraft’s wheels brushed the tarmac of Benina International Airport, Benghazi, Libya, and seven hours later, it took off from there after topping up its fuel and leaving behind a British-born Israeli citizen with symptoms of a miscarriage. No sooner had the flight set on a different course and the radio transmissions ceased from the Airbus, the alert and first reports reached Israel where the Cabinet was in its weekly meeting. While a liaison office to co-ordinate with the hostages’ families was arranged at the Lod airport, intelligence officials were frantically collecting all information and as more developments became known, various possibilities and steps for the release of hostages were being explored.

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After a five hour flight, and having been refused permission to land at Khartoum, Sudan, the twin-engined Airbus finally trundled to a standstill on the landing-strip of the Entebbe International Airport at about 0330hrs (Monday, June 28) where the hostages had to wait nearly nine hours inside the aircraft before they were hustled into the main lounge of the disused old terminal building which was soon securely surrounded by the Ugandan troops.

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The woman, who was left at Benghazi and flown to England by evening, confirmed that the Airbus was taken over by two South Americans and their two accomplices. It would be later established that the blond-haired man checked-in as Peruvian A. Garcia, was in fact a German called Wilfried Böse, a member of a German Revolutionary cell, while the Ecuadorian woman travelling as Ortega, was Böse‘s former German lover Brigitte Kuhlmann (2) of RZ. Their comrades were of Middle East origin. At Entebbe, the hijackers reinforced their team with the arrival of more associates which would also allow them to work in shifts. President Idi Amin of Uganda, after visiting the hostages, made it known that he offered his services in the sympathetic role of a mediator and hoped the wishes of the hijackers would be accepted.

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The demands for the exchange of the hostages was the release of 53 political prisoners held in jails in Israel (40), Kenya (6), France (1), West Germany (5) and Switzerland (1). To deliver the prisoners to Entebbe, the deadline was set for 11.00 am GMT of Thursday, July 1.

On Tuesday, June 29, having moved the Israeli citizens/Jewish passengers of other nationalities to an adjoining room, the captors released 47 non-Jewish passengers, allowing them to fly to Paris on Wednesday on an Air France airplane.

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As the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) looked into the feasibility of several alternative military options, they were grappling with the lack of fresh, credible and reliable intelligence information. For starters, specialists of the planning group had prior knowledge about the Entebbe airport and the merits of the Ugandan troops. Not only had Israeli experts helped train those troops, constructions in the Entebbe airport, including the old terminal building, were done by an Israeli construction firm and they had detailed architectural drawings. On the surface, the impending odds lay in the difficulty of retrieving the large group of hostages which would occasion an eight hour flight through the radar range of other countries and the inevitable refuelling of the aircrafts for their trip back home.

Meanwhile giving in to the mounting plea from the families of the hostages, the captors were made known of the intention of Israel to talk. To facilitate arrangements for the exchange, the deadline was postponed to 11:00 a.m. GMT of Sunday, July 4. Soon, selected 101 non-Jewish hostages were allowed by the hijackers to fly out to Paris. The Air France Flight Captain Michel Bacos, claiming responsibility for all passengers of his flight, chose to stay with the remaining 94 Jewish hostages, a decision welcomed voluntarily by his crew (3).

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A passenger, who was amongst the 101 hostages released, provided valuable information about how the hostages were kept under guard and the strength of the Ugandan guards at the airport. It was also welcoming to know that the rest of Entebbe airport was operating normally and scheduled flights were still flying in and out.

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Intervention through a possible military option called for the element of surprise, an absolute necessity to deny captors any time to harm the hostages. Opportunities don’t happen, you create them. The possibility of sky-dropping troops into Lake Victoria, spread wide at about 69,000 Sq km and touching on Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, had to be abandoned owing to the lake’s shallow waters (only 100m deep) infested with crocodiles and rampant of Bilharzia. Besides, its shores were then hide-outs for snails which are the host for the parasitic flukes harmful to the body.

Before long, a suitable but daring ‘long-arm option’ for rescue was found feasible to rescue the hostages remaining in the terminal. Named: Operation Thunderbolt, the mission will be under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Dan Shomron. Two days before the deadline, a British-Israeli hostage named Dora Bloch had to be removed to Mulago General Hospital in Kampala when a piece of food accidently stuck in her throat.

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With preparations for military option on, a 100-strong rescue team was drawn up from several IDF units including the elite troops. To support the intricate planning and rehearsal drill for the operation, a partial replica of the Entebbe terminal building, based on the blueprints from the construction firm, was immediately constructed. As weapons and gadgets for operational efficiency and safety were decided upon and coordinated, the disembarkation and embarkation procedures were rehearsed on a Hercules aircraft.

Four tactical Lockheed C130 Hercules transport aircrafts, recently purchased from the United States, which have the manoeuvrability and the range, would be deployed with specific assignments. Each soldier all sparked up and in full webbing, would play a critical role.  The first Hercules would carry a black Mercedes car, two Land Rovers, a paratrooper force and IDF’s elite Special Forces assault team led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the unit’s recently appointed commander.

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Rolling off the back cargo door of the Hercules, the “break-in crew” riding in the Mercedes and Land Rovers with Colgate air of confidence were expected to pass through the Ugandan airfield without resistance assuming they would be taken for President Amin and his entourage. Through access doors 3 and 4 of the seven points of entry of the old terminal they would storm the lounge where the hostages were held. Once inside, they will eliminate any resistance, free the hostages and secure the building. At the same time, unit members will also neutralise the control tower, its radar room and the machine-gun nest near it.

The other three Hercules aircrafts scheduled to land in close succession five to seven minutes later would be accorded protection on the ground by the units of the first aircraft, Upon landing, the specific assignments of the units of the three aircrafts included providing cover to secure the aircraft and keep Ugandan troops away; secure the new terminal, the new runway, the refuelling station and the adjoining airfield, and also to destroy the squadrons of MIGs parked on the far side of the airfield. They would also facilitate on-board emergency medical treatments, evacuate any casualties and help hostages to emplane the aircraft. Of the two Boeing 707s forming part of the operation, one would act as an airborne command and control equipped with superlative communications and monitor the on-ground mission and simultaneously maintain link with Tel Aviv where the communication equipment would be tuned to the operation’s wave-band. The second Boeing would serve as a full-fledged infirmary unit.

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At 14.30 Saturday July 3, the rescue operation was approved. Operation Thunderbolt commenced that late afternoon at Sharm el-Sheikh, the operation’s “jump-off point” at the southern tip of Sinai where the planes had refuelled, having arrived earlier during the day from Ben-Gurion. To escape detection by radar the formation of C130 Hercules aircrafts equipped with American radar jamming devices flew over the Red Sea at very low altitudes (100 feet above the water and at some places at much lower altitude) and then turned inland over Sudan, flying past Ethiopia and above Kenya to approach Entebbe from over Lake Victoria, covering a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km), the first 1000 miles of which was accorded fighter cover by their Mirages and Phantoms.

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Wheels on ground at Entebbe at about one minute past midnight Uganda time, things went wrong even before the team could reach the old terminal 2.4kms away. Two commandos of the front vehicle had to shoot down an armed Ugandan soldier with their silenced .22 caliber Berettas. When the wounded soldier unexpectedly got back on his feet and took aim to shoot, reacting to a perceived threat, a commando in a Land Rover neutralized him with a long burst from his Kalashnikov. The resultant sound of the gunfire sacrificed the much required element of surprise. However, in less than an hour from touchdown of the first Hercules, the mission was successfully achieved liberating 102 hostages and crew and finally the last of the rescue aircrafts had wheels up and departed from Entebbe, marking a dramatic victory in the operation.

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The casualties included the death of all the hijackers and their accomplices, at least twenty Ugandan soldiers and three hostages.

The best men are so often the first to be killed, because they are in front. Fatally shot in the back by a Ugandan soldier from the control tower, Lt. Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu was declared dead (4) by the time the rescuers reached Nairobi, Kenya, from where, after refuelling, they all flew back to a military airfield in Tel Aviv for a rousing reunion with their families.

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Dora Bloch (age 73), the passenger on her way to New York for her son’s wedding who was admitted to hospital in Kampala earlier was reportedly killed in Uganda later (5) in reprisal to the successful rescue operation planned and effected within a short space of time surmounting many odds amidst tremendous tension. Fair enough, the operation was subsequently re-named: Operation Yoni (MIVTSA YONATAN) in honour of Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu.

On July 11, the Sunday following the rescue, Ms. Rina Messinger, a 20-year old aerodynamics instructor was crowned as Miss Universe 1976. Coming on the wake of the victory at Entebbe airport, a source of pride and inspiration, she was happily dubbed “Miss Entebbe” by her jubilant countrymen. From pictures I could see that she certainly looked really pretty when she smiled.

Until next time. Jo

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20Note:

  1. Several authoritative books are available about the Entebbe rescue operation.
  2. The woman hijacker is named as Gabrielle Kroecher-Tiedemann in some films and in the book Counter Strike Entebbe by Tony Williamson.
  3. Captain Bacos was honoured with the Legion of Honour while his crew were awarded with the French Order of Merit.
  4. Yonatan Netanyahu was buried in Mount Herzl National Cemetery, Jerusalem
  5. The remains of Dora Bloch, recovered near a Sugar Plantation 20 miles east of Kampala, were shifted to Israel on June 3, 1979, and were buried with state honours in Mount of Quietudes, (Har HaMenuchot Cemetery) Jerusalem.
  6. The subject is featured in the documentary Operation Thunderbolt – Entebbe (2000) and in movies Follow Me – The Yoni Netanyahu Story (2012): and in The Last King of Scotland (One Episode in 2006)
  7. Most of the movies and books referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  8. Books/DVD sleeves credits: amazon.com, en.wikipedia and from my private collection.
  9. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to movies of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  10. This article is dedicated to the defenders of peace – the fallen and the living.

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Bruce Lee – Chop, Kick and Valour

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This day, July 20, marks the 43rd year since American martial arts actor Bruce Lee bid adios to the world. His meteoric rise to become one of the major movie phenomena of the 70s showed its first glowing signs with the release of Kung Fu actioner, The Big Boss (US: Fists of Fury, Dir: Lo Wei, 1971), a huge commercial success for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Productions. The film was followed-up with Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury (The Iron Hand, US: The Chinese Connection, 1972).

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Riding on the success of the above two ‘chop socky’ films and by then considered as the Numero Uno Kung Fu star, Bruce Lee himself directed The Way of the Dragon, (US: Return of the Dragon, 1973) – shot in Italy.

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However, Lee’s popularity would hit sky high and elevate him to cult status only after the release of the mind-boggling actioner, Enter the Dragon (The Deadly Three, Dir: Robert Clouse, 1973), his last completed film, in which he directed the stunt sequences and acted as the main protagonist, amongst an all-star cast of karate champions who gathered for a quadrennial Karate championship contest on a Chinese island which is the sinister fortress hideout of the evil Han.

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Unfortunately, having not seen the final product which he had been eagerly waiting to see on its United States premier in August, Lee died on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32 at Kowloon Tong. At that time he was working on the movie, Game of Death.

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The prime factor for the growth of interest in the Asian martial arts and Hong Kong movies in international box-office is attributed to this first Chinese superstar of Hollywood with his undeniable charming screen charisma. Born to a Hong Kong family in Chinatown in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, he was given the Americanised-name Bruce Lee by a hospital nurse.

At the age of six, Lee made his appearance in the Hong Kong movie, The Beginning of a Boy. As he went on to appear in twenty movies, he also took up studies in martial arts from the age of 13, in the process developing his own form of attacking style in karate, Jeet Kune Do, based on street fighting techniques.

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By the late 50s, back from Kowloon to United States for his higher studies, he appeared in supporting roles (1966-1967) in the TV series The Green Hornet as well as in Batman, etc. He was cast in director Paul Bogart’s Marlowe (1969), a slick update of author Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister with actor James Garner in the role of the private eye Philip Marlowe. This movie, in which Lee’s character (also stunt supervisor) reduces Marlowe’s office to rubble, was his American début. By then, this muscular young man had become popular in the Far East film circles, eventually paving the way to showcase his brilliance in the martial arts tournament in Enter the Dragon.

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Enter the Dragon, which has endured all these years, also featured many other martial arts experts: John Saxon (Long time student of oriental martial arts of karate and tai chi chuan); Jim Kelly (the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Champion); Robert ‘Bob’ Wall (1970 United States Professional Karate Champion); Peter Archer (1971 Commonwealth Karate Champion); Yang Sze (Bolo Yeung) (South-East Asian Shotokan Karate Champion), and Angela Mao Ying (Black Belt Hapkido Champion of Okinawa), etc. An Uncut version of Enter the Dragon issued later features interviews, comments about incidents on the set and more footage unseen in the original released version.

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Enter the Dragon was Hollywood’s first major involvement in a movie rooted in the Martial Arts scene and no doubt, it was Bruce Lee’s international popularity and his niceties of the martial arts that made the rebirth of these Asian arts worldwide possible. Until next time, Jo

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Notes:

  1. Movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  2. DVD sleeves credits: Wikipedia, amazon.com, and from my private collection.
  3. The illustrated scenes are from the movie: Enter the Dragon.
  4. This article is an affectionate nosegay to movies of the past. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)