Tag Archive | entertainment

StarChoice 12: The Wrath of God

(Aka: La ira de DiosZum Teufel mit Hosianna – La collera di Dio – La colère de DieuColour – 1972)

A woman’s dress should be like a barbed wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view”. That is a quote attributed to Italian actress Sophia Loren. Anyhow, that citation does not categorically affect the Hollywood sex symbols of the Forties: Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Gloria Grahame, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. These exotic women were personification of beauty of that era and did not need nudity to further their glamour. However, by the mid-Fifties, theywere challenged by tough competition from another set of actresses who, though active and having a mind of their own, flaunted the “lady” look – a combination of beauty with breeding, elegance and a tinge of Hauteur. It was a challenge Hayworth took head on.

Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) was groomed by her first husband Edward C. Judson (1937-42). He willfully made her lose weight, change the colour of hair and presented her to Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios. I have read in the autobiography of Debbie Reynolds, about how Cohn told aspiring actress Joan Perry who was signed to Columbia during the same time as Hayworth, that he is going to make Joan his wife and Hayworth a star.  Once a replacement for actress Dolores Del Rio, and often cast in tempestuous roles, Cohn’s intense promotions would broaden Hayworth’s horizon and uplift her to superstardom earning her the sensual label: Love Goddess.

Remember, remember, Rita Hayworth “hot babying” in Charles Vidor’s film noir “Gilda” (1946), while singing the sizzling “Put the Blame On Mame”(originally sung by Anita Ellis)? After her enormous success in the role of the ultimate femme fatale, she had commented “Every man I knew had fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me”. From the popularity of “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947) made by her then husband Orson Welles (1943-48), she would be eventually idolized as Hollywood’s first Royal Princess when she married Prince Aly Khan (1949-53). She was simple, unsophisticated, coupled with an intense desire to please others. Then again, she would become notorious for her romantic relationships with the likes of Victor Mature, Gary Merrill, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Howard Hughes, Porfirio Rubirosa…. Before long her life was riddled with personal problems, encouraging her to hit the bottle and propelled her sliding down the slippery path into the gray twilight of downfall. This was further instigated by Alzheimer’s disease, symptoms of which had surfaced in early 1970 but was not diagnosed until 1980.

 

Hayworth had finished acting in director William Grefe’s “The Naked Zoo” (1971) when her friend actor Robert Mitchum, with whom she had co-starred in “Fire Down Below” (1957), well aware of the pathetic condition of a star that once immortalized beauty and sensuality, suggested that Hayworth be cast in “The Wrath of God”. Though Mitchum was not aware of her undiagnosed sickness, director Ralph Nelson (1916-1987) wouldn’t have minded having the presence of “Rita Hayworth” to top up the appeal of his movie. Seeing that her house behind Beverly Hills hotel was rented out due to financial difficulties, Nelson had to locate her in a low-cost rented Brentwood home where the discussion of the movie script was held with her in the dark of the room. However, none of this would deter him from casting her in the movie.

Ralph (Leo) Nelson (“Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), “Lilies of the Field” (1963)) had a history of conceding to special factors for the betterment of his movies. Actress Candice Bergen’s memoirs touch upon an incident related to the pre-production of “Soldier Blue” (1970) directed by Nelson. In order to retain Bergen in the role of the strong-willed, busty and lusty Cresta (according to the script), Nelson had sought the help of make-up men to make flesh-coloured rubber breasts to glue onto Bergen’s bosom so that she could measure up to the physique of busty actresses like Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield. Fortunately, in the last moment she was saved from frontal nudity due to modifications of the script.

While Nelson set about putting together the cast and crew for his movie, Mexican locations were considered appropriate allowing for the generous budget and the theme of the story that revolved around a Revolution. Mexico was not unfamiliar to Hayworth. At the age of fourteen she had gone there with her family to surmount the liquor law that prevented underage girls like her from employment in American nightclubs. Similarly, Nelson was also familiar with Mexico for having shot location scenes for “Soldier Blue” in which he was also a supporting actor. As for Robert Mitchum, it was not only one of his favourite locations for many films, but also a place where he used to take off with his friends for days of drinks and fun.

Co-produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Cineman Films, Ltd and Rainbow Productions, Inc, “The Wrath of God” is based upon the novel by James Graham(pseudonym of prolific British novelist Harry Patterson who also wrote as Jack Higgins and Hugh Marlowe). It was written for the screen by Nelson.

As the story goes: The Mexican Revolution literally came to an end in 1920 when the one-armed revolutionary general Álvaro Obregón Salido was elected the president of Mexico, the first stable presidency since the beginning of the Revolution in 1910. However, Mexico would suffer another decade of violence and the story of “The Wrath of God” is set during November, 1922.

The movie opens in a Mexican town where executions of three counter-revolutionaries by the firing squad were taking place in the courtyard of the military barracks, while the townsfolk joyously celebrated the “Day of the Dead” (Día de los Muertos). Emmet Keogh, an Irish vagabond, impatiently waited before Hotel Casa Grande for the proceedings to finish. As the bodies were being cleared, he rushed over to the ticket counter in the railway station to book a ticket to anywhere there is peace. A toss from his coin settled the destination he would take  – up North!

 

Moments later, joyous for having obtained the ticket out of this hellhole, Keogh danced merrily down the cobblestoned streets with a fairy-tale charm. Meanwhile, melodious Latin American music played as accompaniment to the credits of the movie that flashed one after the other onscreen. Presently, he stumbled upon soldiers bringing up another three men into the courtyard in preparation for one more execution which has sadly become a regular affair here. He saw a black, dusty Mercedes car with hood down pull up before La Cabaña and a priest in a shovel hat and dirty Cassock step out of it. Inquisitive about other people’s affairs, Keogh went over to check the automobile. He was well pleased to strike up a match and help the priest light his long black cigarillo, an act that would institute an acquaintance between them.

Upon seeing the priest, all at once, one of the condemned men ran over and knelt before him. Keogh watched in amusement when the priest restrained a soldier who tried to interrupt and led the condemned man back to the line up in order to provide absolution to all the three men. Just before Keogh turned to leave, he saw the priest bless the three men after they were shot down.

Back in the patio of Keogh’s hotel, he was invited for drinks by Jennings, a fat jovial businessman who owned the hotel. Jennings was interested to persuade Keogh to wheel a truckload of good Scotch whisky about 100 miles north to Huila since his driver was shot dead that morning. The pay will be 200 dollars which Jennings promptly raised to 250 at the first sign of disinterest from Keogh who considered the job very risky. Given that Keogh appeared a trifle busy in getting out of this bloody country, Jennings dubious mind was already exploring ways to convince Keogh to shed his contagious enthusiasm and happily run his cargo up-country to meet his business obligations. His solution was simple: arrange with his mestizo to steal Keogh’s passport and other valuables while he took his bath. The plan went smoothly until Keogh, lying in the worn out bathtub filled with brownish water✺, caught the mestizo in the act. Stark naked and wet he was, giving chase to the thief, he shot at and wounded his leg though the culprit managed to escape into the crowd outside. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Jenning’s ploy had worked. To Jennings great relief, Keogh grudgingly agreed to transport the consignment for 500 dollars and the return of his valuables. Jennings was sure that they would get along famously.

Later, driving the truck-laden bootleg whisky down the rocky trail, Keogh was surprised to chance upon the priest standing next to his car parked by a rocky patch. Apparently, his car had a flat and hit the rock. Keogh was only happy to fix it for him and shortly they pushed the car off the rock, ready to roll. The priest happily introduced himself as Father Oliver Van Horne of the Boston Diocese, down here on a fund raising trip for the authorities back home. He shared the priest’s whisky and decided to meet up at the way-station in Huerta, some 40 miles away. It was there Keogh was supposed to coordinate with Gomez vis-à-vis the delivery of the cargo, which unbeknown to Keogh, was a consignment of rifles, pistols and grenades intended for the Counter-Revolutionary forces.

The night had worn on when Keogh’s delivery truck pulled into the courtyard of the way-station. He could hear the sound of laughter and someone merrily singing to the strums of guitar…“Humpa, humpa…..”✽Suddenly, he was accosted from the back by a stranger and was taken inside the inn. Luis Delgado, the singer and the leader of the rurales (the country police) assembled there, checked his papers and politely invited the señor for a drink. From Delgado, Keogh learned that Gomez of Huila to whom he is suppose to deliver Jenning’s letter has “committed suicide”, but Colonel Santilla, the leader of the Revolutionary Forces, would be interested in that letter.

 

All at once, the groups’ attention was diverted by a native Indian girl the rurales had found on the upper floor. Despite objections by Tacho, the frightened old man at the bar who claimed that she is dumb, the fascination for their object of amusement set off a string of merriment and abuse by the rurales led by Delgado which was ineffectually thwarted by the girl until Keogh interfered. But his challenge was short-lived, only long enough for the girl to move over to his side. Once again he was accosted from the back by yet another rurale. Keogh was soon roped and hung up on the wooden beam above. It was then the priest came in with his Gladstone bag, and put up one hell of a defense in a homicidal manner. God works in mysterious ways.

 

Violence resides every where in the world and arises at unexpected moments. Having decided to leave the place quickly to avoid soldiers who are sure to be informed by the sole survivor of the massacre who had escaped; it was decided to let Chela, the Indian girl, accompany them. She too was on the run and wanted to rejoin with her “aimara” (Aymara: an indigenous ethnic tribe) on the other side of the mountain. Tacho had confided to Keogh that Chela had stopped talking when she was a kid, when she witnessed her parents being killed.

 

Driving towards Huila up the bad roads running through the rugged range of mountains and waste land, they accidently stumbled upon an encampment of the Federal cavalry who eventually captured them after a breakneck chase. At this point, Van Horne and Keogh were provided with adequate torture by the lieutenant of the federales before, charged with the offense for dealing in arms with counter-revolutionaries, they were imprisoned in Col. Santilla’s prison in the small town of Hulia. In here, they would meet Jennings, already locked up and awaiting the firing squad. But Santilla, the military governor of the region, had other plans.

 

Given that Col. Santilla intended to prepare them for a mission he had in mind, the following day they were subjected to further humiliation before a mock-up firing squad, only to be saved in “the nick of time” by the Colonel who invited them to enjoy his hospitality. The Colonel’s knowledge about the “unholy trinity” he now held “in the hollow of his hands” was very creditable. Firstly, he knew that the totally corrupt Jennings, formerly Capt. Jennings, was censured by the British army for the misuse of regimental funds. Earlier he had assumed the role of Jameson, an informant for the Black and Tans (Irish: Dúchrónaigh) in Ireland, a paramilitary unit formed to suppress the Irish Republic Army but also attacked the civilian population.

While Emmet Keogh has a price on his head in Ireland for being a member of The Squad (a special intelligence unit created by Irishman Michael Collins, the originator of modern urban terrorism) and performed political assassinations; the good shepherd Padre Oliver Van Horne (a defrocked priest), is more interested in robbing banks, payrolls, rich. Curiously, he carries an automatic machine gun in one compartment of his Gladstone bag while the other section holds a princely treasure of 53,000/- American dollars in assorted currencies. Santilla had selected them for one particular reason: to kill a psychotic named Tomas de la Plata, who had created a reign of terror over Mojada and its inhabitants some 40 miles from his headquarters.

A deeply troubled man with a frenzied state of mind wrought from having to witness the atrocities committed to his family, De la Plata had banned the Catholic religion from his land. Jennings had more than a foggy idea about De la Plata due to business dealings done through agents, and only knew too well that he had been trying to raise money. De la Plata had been venturing to wheedle mining companies in the idea of working the old silver mine outside Mojada on a partnership basis. In consideration of that, Santilla had already written to him, on behalf of Jennings, informing that, being a representative of Herera Mining Company of British Honduras, Jennings would be arriving in Mojada tomorrow with two mining engineers to inspect the drift mine that hasn’t worked for years.

Most importantly, the people of Mojada are in desperate need of a priest since the last one sent by the church was hanged by De la Plata and the one before that was found wandering in the desert, stripped of his clothes, quite out of his mind. Van Horn will take with him the wooden statue of San Rafael de los Mineros, the patron saint of Mojada, which was rescued before De la Plata desecrated the church. Tomas de la Plata is a man who never allowed a challenge to his power to go unpunished, and his death will collapse his empire and free the people from repression. The remuneration for their work, if they survive, would be their lives and equal shares in 53,000 dollars in the priest’s bag.

 

That night, Chela secretly met up with Keogh and placed a silver amulet around his neck, symbolically laying her claim on him as per the custom of her tribe. As Keogh was getting used to their passionate encounters, Chela was concerned of Keogh’s knack of running into trouble. Through her chieftain Nacho, she vainly tried to stop the stony Irishman from going to “a bad end”.

Three lives for one. But survival has become something of a habit for Keogh. He would be part of the unholy trinity going to Mojeda to kill Tomas de la Plata who hates the sight of priests……

Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (1917-1997) had tried his hand as an author, composer and singer before he became the No: 23rd greatest male American screen legends of all time – a position he earned by mainly starring in roles of anti-heroes. Even though Mitch got $150,000/- for his role in Joseph Losey’s “Secret Ceremony” (1968) in which he co-starred with Mia Farrow and the million-dollar star Elizabeth Taylor,  by the late sixties, his heroic style had started to take the plunge even though, now and then, he had portrayed good acting.

 

Mitch’s Van Horn is assertive, aggressive, yet tender and moral. A role initially offered to Trevor Howard, it is similar to the one Mitch had played as a preacher with a gun hidden in his Bible in the 1968 movie “Five Card Stud”. He not only sports a casual acting style (especially the scenes when he couldn’t resist playing the priest awaiting direct confrontation with De la Plata) and his trademark drooping, bedroom eyes but also carry a machine gun and a switchblade cross, that also contributes to the action scenes.

 

Rita Hayworth had to struggle in her role of Senora de la Plata, which is a variation from the characters in the novel. At the doorstep of Alzheimer’s disease, her face had turned into that of a matured woman who had gone through many hardships in her life. Supportive to Hayworth, Mitch had considered her casting as an opportunity to renew their friendship. When Hayworth strived to remember her lines, the crew believed her to be in a state of intoxication from alcohol intake, and they were helpful to her, especially hairstylist Lynn Del Kail. But none of that could assuage her memory lapses, or reading from large cue cards, which is common practice in Hollywood. Even experienced actors like Marlon Brando (maybe due to dyslexia) frequently used them, albeit director Bernardo Bertolucci refused to have it written on actress Maria Schneider’s back for Brando to read conveniently during filming of “Last Tango in Paris”.

At this point, with Hayworth frequently caught in the “drift”, nervous and phobic, even refusing to do normal things, eventually, certain scenes had to be either shot from behind her head or with doubles and piece it together effectively by editors J. Terry Williams, Richard Bracken, Albert Wilson. Unfortunately, Hayworth couldn’t help but to turn in a feeble performance that would be an unfortunate finale to a great career in Hollywood. Anyhow, the marigold will lose its yellow, spring will not last forever – that’s life.

 

American leading man Frank Langella, an experienced stage actor, carries out a commendable performance as Tomas de la Plata, the psychotic who hated priests. He came into feature movies with “Diary of a Mad Housewife” which earned him a nomination for 1970 Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year (Male). He did two further movies (“The Twelve Chairs” and “The Deadly Trap”) before he was cast in “The Wrath of God”. The Bulky character actor Victor Buono, a good friend of Mitchum, stars as the white suited businessman Jennings.

 

Scottish born actor Ken Hutchison, a Robert de Niro look-alike, starred as Emmet Keogh, the Irish patriot who is loved by Chela. Keogh’s love for the native Indian girl reflects his inner desire to attain peace with Mother Earth and to mend his aimless life of violence. Wonderful actor that Hutchison was, his career reached nowhere due to his incoherent lifestyle. His reputation suffered when, the previous year, consequent to a heavy drinking bout with him, director Sam Peckinpah was hospitalized while filming the movie “Straw Dogs” (1971).

Sexy Paula Pritchett as Chela, the Indian girl who had not spoken for 20 years, will make you long to kiss the air near her cheeks. Apart from this film, Paula had acted in only two more films: “Chappaqua” (1966) and “Adrift” (1970) though she would be in popular media when her nude pictorials appeared in the July 1972 edition of the Playboy magazine.

Greek-Canadian stage actor John Colicos (1928-2000) as the cultured Col. Santilla displays an aura of importance about him. His performance effectively portray a man vested with immense power but was compelled to begrudge a civilian who inadmissibly brandishes enormous power. Colicos came over to regular movie acting with “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1970) which did not tap his potentiality.  Three of his movies released in 1971, including “Raid on Rommel”, would set the trend for his brief appearance as Col. Santilla.

The film also features a good number of Mexican actors, known to Nelson for their supporting roles in “Soldier Blue”. Associate producer William S. Gilmore. Jr was also the co-producer of “Soldier Blue” and “Flight of the Doves” The film’s cinematography (in Panavision and Metrocolor) is done by Alex Phillips Jr., son of Canadian cinematographer Alex Phillips who went to Mexico to shoot that country’s first sound film after working in Hollywood in the 20s. Phillips. Jr. learned his trade from being an assistant to his father, and would become the official photographer of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, the president of Mexico from 1958 to 1964. While Hollywood occasionally sought his services, Central American locations such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic were his main field of operation. Being very active in his work, six of his films were released in 1972 itself including Sergio Olhovich’s “Queen Doll” (Muñeca reina) and his friend Sidney Poitier’s directorial début “Buck and the Preacher”. His classic camera work for Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974) is a noteworthy contribution which elevated that film to a cult classic.

The interiors where shot at Estudios Churubusco Azteca in Mexico City, the venue forsome sequences of movies such as “Kings of the Sun” (1963), “Licence to Kill” (1989), etc. On location shooting was done in different places in Mexico: Cuernavaca, Morelos (“The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” (1969), “Clear and Present Danger” (1994)); Guanajuato (“Guns for San Sebastian” (1968)), Los Órganos and Taxco (Guerrero) and La Luz.

Western location shoots had a men’s club ambiance that offered opportunities to enact childhood games of Cowboys and Indians and their hell-fire tactics. These high-adventure westerns featured hard-drinking macho men with guns holstered at crouch level and the fastest draw always rode off triumphantly with the woman into the sunset. According to a biography of Mitchum, Ralph Nelson ran a loose ship as the production was plagued by trouble. Riddled with many problems, mainly rooted in the indulgence of hard-drinking and drugs, Nelson was in a terrible turmoil. Aside from Rita Hayworth, Victor Buono’s behaviour proved to be anomalous. But none of these were severe enough to grind the production to an indefinite halt caused by a freaky accident suffered by Ken Hutchison about one and half months into filming. His arm was cut open from elbow down to the wrist by some broken glass and he had to be hospitalized for an indefinite period throwing the production schedule into total disarray. The situation also brought in the control of the insurance company and took away the equilibrium of the movie which shows in the final product.

Notwithstanding the above issues, the movie features many exciting action scenes staged by action coordinator Everett Creach together with assistant directors, Mario Cisneros and Jerry Ziesmer. The panoramic scenes shown with sweeping helicopter shots that emphasize the expansive spaces of the Mexican sierra when the cavalry sped in hot pursuit of Van Horn, Keogh and Chela, as well as the final battle scenes are notable. The interiors festooned with local colour, by production designer John S. Poplin, Jr. and Set decorator William Kiernan, look genuine and impressive.

Argentinean composer Lalo Schifrin (“Kelly’s Heroes”, “Dirty Harry”), winner of five Grammys and twenty-two nominations was once the concert-master of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colon. Schifrin provides an admirable score evoking melodies of his Latin American background mixed with traditional Hispano-American regional forms and rhythms. It features an instrumental ensemble of quena (a rustic flute), charango (a five-stringed guitar), siku (Bolivian panpipes), piano/organ and a wide variety of regional percussion instruments. The action scenes are augmented with rousing score noteworthy for musical tones that would elevate Schiffrin’s future soundtrack for director Robert Clouse’s “Enter the Dragon” starring Bruce Lee and sexy Ahna Capri.

For the Requiem Mass scene, Schifrin had used excerpts from Ariel Ramirez’s “Misa Criolla”✣ with Liturgical texts adapted in Spanish. “Gloria” is the Argentine variety of the carnaval, which is one of the most widespread dances of the high plains of north-west Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. “Molly Malone” (aka “Cockles and Mussels”, “In Dublin’s Fair City”), a popular Irish song which has become the unofficial anthem of Dublin City, is presented by Schifrin at the beginning of the movie:

In Dublin’s fair city, Where the girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone, As she wheeled her wheel-barrow, Through streets broad and narrow…….

Yet another folksong is featured for the rurales leader Luis Delgado at the way-station inn:

“Humpa, humpa… We like to kill each other, We love to hate our mother, But there is still my brother, He always wish to hop on, hop on – humpa, humpa..

My father was a midget, My mother was too tall, As far as I remember,…………humpa, humpa…”

Despite the flaws of the film, “The Wrath of God” is full of memorable moments and simple one-liners. It is all about the restoration of order and faith while focusing on power and powerlessness.

The film was released simultaneously with German director Werner Herzog’s cult film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” starring Klaus Kinski. Nelson’s film may not be confused with the Italian-Spanish production “Wrath of God” (L’ira di Dio – 1968) by director Alberto Cardone (as Albert Cardiff) starring Montgomery Ford and Fernando Sancho.

(The sleeve of our copy of the novel “The Wrath of God” shown here is a Grafton 1972 edition)

(Ariel Ramirez’s “Misa Criolla” in our possession is a version by Spanish Catalan tenor José Carreras recorded in the Santuario de la Bien Aparecida, Cantabria, Spain in July 1987.The CD sleeve is shown above)

(This review is dedicated to director Quentin Tarantino for his relentless efforts to promote the movies of the past.)

(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)

Viva Britannia – 3: Leicester Square, Londres

Happiness is where we find it. When you travel abroad to different cities, you look for attractions which are unique to that place, part of what provides character to it. During our days in London, life moves pretty quick. You would miss it if you don’t stop and look around once in a while. The way forward is to think things through, endeavour to search and seek – measure and weigh those missing links such as, a series of right things that was not yet done; the places that we have failed to visit ….. so many worlds and everything in between. Open Sesame! The most glorious fact in my experience is that the right links which belong in our cycle of life will eventually come to us and stay.

 

Of all the places of interest we have visited in London, the global city of finance, one Public Square had evaded our attention –a missing link. Then one day, after a late breakfast at The Old Swan Restaurant in Kensington Church Street, Notting Hill, it rolled out exactly as it needs to – we went to a cinema house in that picturesque and historic place – Leicester Square, our missing element.

Located in The West End within the City of Westminster, Leicester Square, part of which was once known as Leicester Field, is adorned with a small English garden, surrounded by Victorian-style black railings, and festooned with mature trees, plants and full length statues of William Shakespeare (situated in the central concourse) symbolizing the Square’s connection with the theatre, and of the comic actor Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin (1889-1977) with his trademark bowler hat and walking stick touching a rose pinned to the lapel of his coat.

The garden also hosts four marble busts on granite plinths of artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) by J. Denham; scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) by Calder Marshall; portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts) by H. Weekes and Scottish Scientist John Hunter (1728-1793the father of scientific surgery) by T. Woolner. The inscription on the white marble pedestal of the “Stratford” statue of the Bard and Fountain by G. Fontana rightly proclaims “This enclosure was purchased, laid out and decorated as a garden by Albert Grant Esq. M.P. and conveyed by him on the 2nd July 1874 to the Metropolitan Board of Works to be preserved for ever for the free use and enjoyment of the public.”

North from Trafalgar Square and east of Piccadilly Circus, the Square, which can be accessed on foot in less than five minutes from Leicester Square Tube Station, is named after English diplomat Robert Sidney (1595-1677), 2nd Earl of Leicester (Fourth Creation) who, in 1630 had the mental alacrity to acquire four acres of land in St. Martin’s Field and built Leicester House (demolished in c. 1791-2) on the site of the Swiss Centre. Though the Earl was busy serving as ambassador in Denmark and later in France from 1632 to 1641, he agreed with the Privy Council of King Charles I to provide St. Martin’s parishioners with a tree planted public area around which grand houses eventually sprouted up.

When this public garden, the launching point that set off the Square on its long path to popularity, fell into poor repair, it was purchased by Baron Albert Grant (born Abraham Gottheimer – 1831-1899) and the deeds were gifted to the Metropolitan Board of Works on July 2, 1874.

Grant commissioned architect James Knowles (who designed the Aldworth house of poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson) to lay out the garden and provision to position the statue of the Bard. The Square has had other plusses and minuses. During the Edwardian era when many areas in London became famous as places of public entertainment as theatre and musical hall culture blossomed, Leicester Square, which was long renowned as haunts of prostitutes and Turkish baths, also became prominent for its show-business institutions. The Alhambra was then the most popular music hall there, catering to the lower classes with acts ranging from singing to magic. The downfall of the already loss-making music halls came with the increasing popularity of radio and cinema.

 

Nick named Theatre Land, the Square’s movie houses Vue Cinema, Empire (also house “The Casino at the Empire”) and Odeon Leicester Square with its looming tower, regularly hosts red-carpet European premieres of movies (limited to the invitees or ticket winners of competitions). These cinema houses offer large variety of movie options including impressive facilities (fitted with Infra Red Hearing Systems compatible with most hearing aids) that reflects in the ticket prices, though there are half-price ticket booths, too. Here you may catch a glimpse of the famous and glamorous stars to the like of Brad Pitt, Kristen Stewart, Leonardo diCaprio, Bérénice Marlohe, Katherine Heigl, Daniel Craig….. treading the red carpet as they promote their movies and often indulge in posing for photographs or sign autographs.

 

 

An added attraction is that the pavement around the Square is embedded with bronze hand-casts of prominent screen actors, studio emblems, etc made as part of the celebrations during British Film Year 1985, etc. Leicester Square has provided us with many wonderful opportunities to enjoy movies and also, owing to my wife’s fondness for steaks, we could drop in at the Angus Steak House in the Square, as well – “Ok, I will have what she has.”

 

The restaurants and pubs dotted around the Square offer many options to suit all tastes and budgets for “eating out”. There is Chiquito (Mexican) Restaurant, TGI Friday’s, “Bella Italia” serving Italian cuisine and fast-food joints like McDonalds and Burger King.

For enthusiasts of Gelato there is Häagen-Dazs, and also “Rendezvous”, a popular spot offering a super range of Gelato, Sorbets and Yogurt in exciting flavours inspired by Italy. Not far away is another landmark, The Radisson Blu Edwardian Hampshire Hotel. Many souvenir shops thrive through sales around the vicinity and you can watch the world sail past or the street painters at their work earning the admiration and possible sale from a passerby. During the night, the Square becomes a hubble bubble of lights and activity.

London, whose histories focus on a legion of monuments, public centers, roads and squares, the essence of the city’s soul, has always been in a state of transformation, though there is a shortage of space. On the strength of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – occasions for grand manifestation of patriotic fervor when throngs of extra tourists were expected to enjoy the dynamo of enthusiasm and energy of the West End, this green jewel in the center of London also underwent a massive 18-month renovation project initiated by the City of Westminster which commenced in December 2010 at a cost of £15.5 million.

 

Back in 2008, the Swiss Glockenspiel, (an astronomical clock and a procession of 23 farmers herding their cows to Alpine pasture, installed in the Square in 1985 as a gift to the City of Westminster on its 400th anniversary by Switzerland and Liechtenstein as a token of centuries of friendship), was demolished to redevelop the land where the Swiss centre was situated. Redesigned by Swiss artists and rebuilt by clockmaker Smith of Derby with the combination of traditional elements and new wireless technology, the musical clock with new music was reinstalled on November 28, 2011 on a 10m (32 ft) high free-standing steel structure sponsored by the Swiss Tourism Office featuring 11 moving wooden figures representing traditional farmers forming part of a rotating Swiss Alpine backdrop beneath 27 bells. (Read the book “’A Curios Colony’: Leicester Square and the Swiss” by Peter Barber which portrays the deep-rooted connections between the Swiss émigrés and the area around the Square.)

 

On May 23, 2012, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, his eyes probably set on No: 10, re-launched the Square/garden terming it “an urban oasis” in a lively ceremony inside a make-shift stage, just in time for the May 31st premiere of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” starring Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron.

 

 

As we look through the handprints of the actors on the pavement, a medium through which people could experience a bit of movie history, certainly we will find many missing names of stars including that of Daniel Craig. It occurred to me that, with the year 2012 commemorating the London Olympic Games, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Eon Productions’ 50 years of James Bond celebrations and release of the 23rd Bond series at cinemas in the Square, with the best will in the world, it would be a grand gesture to endorse the hand-prints of Daniel Craig to cut a dash with the other A-List celebrities on the pavement which would provide a new feature of fame to the intimacy of this beautiful Square. Perhaps some can live without Craig’s handprint, but there are also some who don’t want to…. Maybe the point is that it was always so.

 

 

The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses,” wrote Hanna Rion ver Beck (1875-1924). Promoted as “Your Square, Your Choice!” the revamped Square has a water feature that jets recycled water two meters high into the air. Perhaps influenced by minimalism, the aide-mémoire busts of Hogarth, Newton, Reynolds and Hunter that have stood at the four corners of the Square were removed during the renovation as they were “fairly weather-beaten and fragile” may be reinstated or housed in museums or libraries. Nothing is more real than nothing. However, it’s comforting to learn that the removed bronze statue of Chaplin which consecrates the Square to cinema and theatre will be returned, cleaned and repaired. As the Square entered its new phase, a friend is enthusiastic about the outcome of the renovation observes that the levels of popular fascination for the gated Square is in “good form”, both relatively and absolutely.

 

In the stylish and coherent new look designed by architects Burns & Nice, the Square is bordered by polished stainless steel railings and hedge plants (for colour and form all year round), and, the pathways to demarcate the spaces within the re-landscaped gardens, adorned with the natural flair of trees and ornamental plants, are ingeniously paved with granite blocks. It is also surrounded by a white (to reflects light and colour) granite ribbon seating arrangement (with special coating to deter chewing gum) which runs undulating around the Square where you can sit and get revitalized –think happy thoughts, cajole stressed spirits. This ribbon seating could be ideal for drunks to rest their feet and nurse their stupor (inexpensive and pragmatic) considering that, according to a book, the British allegedly drink more than any other people in the Western world unless they are Keralites who soak in it.

 

If you note your diary for a visit to Leicester Square for its restaurants or bars or casino or for diverse entertainments, be sure to mark the garden for relaxation or for a meander on the lawns. No, the Seed Fairy doesn’t live in it. It’s just a special English garden, simple but vibrant – that merits a visit. Ciao, Jo

(PS. Photos of Italian food/ice cream for representation purpose only)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Photos: © JS-CS/Manningtree Archive)

VIVA BRITANNIA – 1: LONDRES

Brace yourself! The Hollywood propaganda machine is already spinning to rake in the harvest from the success of the upcoming 23rd James Bond vehicle “Skyfall” slated for release in UK on October 26 this year. With the first ever 007 fragrance already launched, the posters, trailers, advertisements, even star promotions are all going to emerge in full swing. Conversely, as in the previous years, countless Dick-Tom-&-Harry of the media are going to come up with their versions of promotions through reviews, magazines, interviews, music albums, as well as books like “James Bond, The Authorised Biography of 007” by John Pearson (author of “The Life of Ian Fleming” (1966)), a fictional biography constructed from bits and pieces of Bond’s personal history littered in Ian Fleming’s novels.

Not unlike Superman, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, etc, the merchandise, collectables and mementos related to Bond films had invaded the market early since the first Bond movie “Dr. No” (1962) produced under the banner of Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli hit the screen. Commercial product placements, video games, jigsaw puzzles, toys, swimming fins, holiday tours worthy of James Bond, by-products licensed to thrill the iconic British spy such as Aftershave to underwear to drinks, skiing gadgets, spy-phone; limited collection of fashion trends from sunglasses to stilettos to fishnet tights; window displays – all of these have appeared through the course of the longest running Bond film series.

As Eon Productions celebrate 50 years of Bond this year and also with the impending excitement of Christmas and New Year, more novelties in this field bearing 007 trademark can be anticipated. At some stage in this phenomenon, certain careers will be made, some destroyed – all linked to one thing: financial success. Nobody does it better than James Bond.

In 2006, when “Casino Royale”, the debut film of Daniel Craig as James Bond came out, the upmarket London store Harrods (in Knightsbridge) put up a beautiful display in all their frontage windows featuring gadgets and styles from that movie. Some of those lovely scenes in London, photographed by me, are presented below for your enjoyment….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Text and photos © JS/Manningtree Archive)

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 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