Tag Archive | James Bond

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)

The Galloping Riders of Almería

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International superstardom finally started to cast its glare on American actor Charles Bronson in the late sixties – essentially since his appearance as the half-breed gunslinger l’uomo dell ‘armonica in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western “Once Upon a time in the West” (C’era una volt ail west, 1968). In the mind of filmgoers, the gristly face of Bronson with his sleepy eyes and drooping moustache had become distinguished as an image of a ‘tender tough guy’ with an explosive air of elemental violence about him, drawing audiences to his movies shown across Europe over to Asia. The Italians nick-named this stone-faced and powerful personality, their “Il Brutto” – The Ugly One.

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While Bronson’s films never received wide release across America where he remained an unknown actor, his leading parts were confined to European products such as Guns for San Sebastian (1967), Farewell Friend (Adieu I’Ami, 1968), Villa Rides (1968), etc.

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Born to Lithuanian parents settled in the bleak mining town of Ehrenfeld (known locally as Scooptown), Pennsylvania, USA, “Shulty” (nickname of Bronson as a boy) was initially a coal miner who led a life full of deprivation. Charlie served the army from early 1943 to early 1946, following which he went on to do short stints as bricklayer, waiter, baker’s helper, etc before venturing into the theatre where his face and figure could draw only bit-parts of heavies and ethnics.

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Without any film-acting experience other than a year of learning at the Pasadena Playhouse, he had headed for Hollywood where, from his film debut in You’re in the Navy Now (initial title: U.S.S. Teakettle, 1951) till director Robert Aldrich’s Apache (1954), he was known as Charles Buchinsky, his birth name. With Drum Beat (1954) he changed his name to Bronson after the Bronson Gate at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios which derived its name from Bronson Street in Los Angeles.

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Having met actress Jill “Dorothy” Ireland in Bavaria, Germany, in 1962 during the filming of The Great Escape (then married to Welsh actor David McCalum whom she divorced in 1967), Bronson (divorced from his first wife Harriet Tendler in 1965) and Jill married in October 1968, which was few months after Bronson left Hollywood for Europe where he travelled from 1969 to 1973, making various movies.

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He soon fitted himself into a world infested with immigrant western actors such as Steve Reeves, Clint Eastwood, Cameron Mitchell, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Van Heflin, John Ireland, Ty Hardin, Woody Strode, Rod Steiger, Jack Palance, etc, who had taken trek to Europe to join the European actors (most of them given Western-sounding names) to star in Peplums as well as in Euro-Westerns mostly shot in Almería which provided a perfect match for the deserts of Arizona.

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Impressed by Bronson’s performance in Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), French actor Alain Delon had by then developed an interest to work with him. Conveyed to Bronson through French producer Serge Silberman while Bronson was on location in Spain (at El Casar de Talamanca, Guadalajara, Castilla-La Mancha for director Buzz Kulik’s “Villa Rides”), the outcome was Bronson in the role of Franz Propp in Adieu I’Ami (Farewell Friend/Honor Among Thieves).

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When the film came out, his pairing with Delon earned them lavish praises from the critics, spiralling progress in Bronson’s career through a series of European productions including director Richard Donner’s Twinky (Lola/Statutory Affair, 1970) and French director René Clément’s chilling suspense piece Le Passager de la pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1970), the role in which, according to a book, had come seeking Bronson with a bit of urging of Alain Delon.

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In the late 1960s, with the sensuality of facial features that made Alain Delon a beautiful leading man still intact, Delon retained his physical presence and stylish, enigmatic look in domestic productions such as The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), La Piscine (1969), Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan, 1969), Borsalino (1970), etc.

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Earlier in 1966, he had acted as a hitman clad in a trenchcoat and sporting a felt-hat in French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s cult classic Le Samouraï (The Samurai, 1967) which had kindled his interest in Japan where he had recently earned a large number of fans and commercial success that extended not only to his iconic status, his screen muscularity and sex appeal, but even to the sunglasses branded with his name. According to IMDB, at that time, Delon even kept a samurai blade hanging on the wall of his bedroom.

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Producing films since the 1970s under the name of his own production company, Adel Productions, and in a position to attract investment from across Europe and USA, Delon was then very active in filmdom and given the scale of his popularity as a global style icon, no doubt he would have gladly welcomed any interesting story angles of diverse genre to revamp his image, including a proper role where elements of Japanese culture are interestingly featured.

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The box-office success in Japan of more than a dozen films that director Akira Kurosawa made between 1950 and 1965 and other elements of Japanese film culture were already fanning their influence on the American filmdom. Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (1950) came out as “The Outrage” (1964), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) was based on “Seven Samurai”, while “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) which invented the spaghetti Western was inspired by “Yojimbo” (1961) (1).

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Simultaneously, “You Only Live Twice” (1967), the fourth James Bond starring Sean Connery, predominantly set in Japan, featured prominent roles for Japanese actors Tetsurô Tanba, Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. Director Richard Fleischer’s “Tora, Tora, Tora” (1970) about the Pearl Harbour attack featured a fusion of West-Orient actors and crew and Kurosawa was originally slated to direct the Japanese half of the film which did not materialised due to technical issues.

The West had also taken note of Toshirô “The Wolf/The Shogun” Mifune’s strong, monolithic screen presence. Mifune had built his career on several wonderful classics of Kurosawa which included Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965), and The Hidden Fortress (1958), which was Kurosawa’s personal favourite.

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The power of Mifune’s screen presence engendered the strength of character through silence, together with quick and deadly dynamism in action sequences. In “Something Like An Autobiography” Kurosawa wrote that, in Mifune he had come across “a kind of talent he had never encountered before in the Japanese film world.”

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Toshirô Mifune, himself a producer on several samurai films, was no stranger to roles in Hollywood products. Referred to as Japan’s John Wayne, he had appeared in Grand Prix (1966) and later with Lee Marvin in director John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), a World War II drama of two adversaries, an American pilot and a marooned Japanese navy captain Tsuruhiko Kuroda, on a small uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean. The film offered good contrast in acting styles of Marvin and Mifune (both actually served in the Pacific during World War II) as the two men of opposing countries who cease their animalistic confrontation and come to terms with peace and cooperation in order to survive.

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It was during this period that the American producer Ted Richmond decided to create a Shogun-type Western, with a fusion of Japanese folk legends. Jo                 (To be continued)

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Notes:

  • According to A New Guide to Italian Cinema, Leon has insisted that the source of A Fistful of Dollars is a play by Carlo Goldoni Arleccchino il servitor di due parroni/The Servant with Two Masters (1745)
  • Books, DVD/Blu-ray of the books/movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  • DVD sleeves credits: Wikipedia, amazon.co.uk, and from my private collection.
  • 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)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (StarChoice: 25)

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The sun is down, darkness covers the land – and Dracula lives!”

January 9th, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the initial release (UK) of Hammer Films’ Dracula, Prince of Darkness”, the second instalment in their colourful Dracula series with Christopher Lee in the title role.

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Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys (1911 – 1985) at an estimated budget of £100,000 (according to imdb)(1) and presented by Seven Arts and Hammer Films, the story centers around two couples finding shelter in the night in a dark and mysterious castle situated in the forest outside the village of Carlsbad. They had been traveling through the Carpathian Mountains of central Europe for climbings and sightseeings, and were forced out of their hired horse-carriage at the crossroads of a mountain track by their coach driver terrified at the approach of the sunset.

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Taken to the castle by a mysterious driverless coach and having arrived at the very plaace which was the subject of a cautionary advice of a Father Sandor for them to stay away from it, they were surprised at the hospitality extended to them by the sinister Klove, the manservant of the lord of the castle, Count Dracula, who apologised for the absence of his master since he was dead for the past ten years. A crackling fire burns in the grate, dinner table set for four created the impression that they were expected. Indeed Klove’s master had left instructions that the castle should always be ready to receive guests… The couples drank a toast to the master of the castle: “To Count Dracula!”.  

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As if he was convinced that the new arrivals would spend the night in the castle, the mysterious Klove had already prepared their rooms, had their luggage secretly brought in from the carriage and placed neatly at the foot of the beds before he had gone to greet them. Once the couples had retired to their respective rooms following their dinner, sometime soon in the dead of night, the occasion appeared auspicious to Klove to set out to implement his plan. Many years ago, he had faithfully collected the clothes, signet ring, dust, etc, of Dracula after his master’s body had disintegrated into a pile of human dust. The set of scenes that would unfurl during that night in the underground vault depicted the resurrection of Dracula – by intermixing Dracula’s bodily grey ash with the blood flowing from the corpse of Alan Kent suspended on a rope above the sarcophagus. And therein, blood fired the ashes and Dracula, the Lord of the Darkness, fully restored, rose to go about his single-minded pursuit of blood and ghastly deeds!

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When Welsh scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster was assigned to re-write the old script (The Revenge of Dracula), by prolific screenwriter Anthony Hinds, based on characters created by novelist Bram Stoker, none of them had known that the incongruity of the final product would allow them to attach only their noms de plume, to it, viz., John Sansom and John Elder respectively. In his late thirties, Sangster kept abreast of the pulse of Hammer’s target audiences. He would spend four decades at Hammer, in the capacity of production manager, scriptwriter, producer and director.

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Sangster was then known for brilliant ideas and sudden shocks which, as a rule, he sprinkled into the storylines of scripts; often linking the ideas to traditions related to vampires however minor they are – as, in “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”, when Charles and Diana escape from Dracula’s castle, he leaves Diana near a hut at the crossroads before returning to the castle. It was deemed that she would be safer there from vampires. I would have imagined such a scene is in tune with the European tradition that if a suspected vampire if killed or buried at a crossroads, he will be unable to rise again.

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As for the resurrection of the Count for this sequel, a convincing method was drawn up to use blood as the ingredient since the Count was destroyed into a pile of dust in Hammer’s “Dracula” (1958, U.S. title: Horror of Dracula), the first Dracula film in colour with thrilling visual treats of vampire violence, blood and sexuality. This method of resurrection with blood would be repeatedly used by Hammer to revive the Count in their subsequent Dracula films.

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Christopher Lee as the pale-looking Count Dracula topping gray streaked hair with a widow’s peak and eyebrows that join across, appears around 46 minutes (based on DVD edition of 86 minutes. Theatrical duration is 90 minutes.) into “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” (DPOD), clad in his long black cloak (now lined with blood-red lining), at times, with red contact lenses that covered the whole ball of the eyes, except for the cornea and iris, and of course, with the trademark pair of canine fangs intact (“long, but not too long, sharp but not sabre-toothed”, as a writer wrote). The Count’s character traits of commanding manner, fit constitution, cold austerity, penetrating eyes, icy sadism, tremendous ferocity, fiendish snarls and charismatic sex appeal are all there but short of dialogue to which Jimmy Sangster later claimed that the script was written without any lines for the Count. Alternate opinions to the contrary exists, including Lee’s own assertion in an autobiography that he did not use the dialogue as it was impossible for anybody to write convincing lines for him. Lee is reputed to have read Stoker’s “Dracula” many times over and over and, given the opportunity, always ventured to provide his personal view of its interpretation. There is another reference in a book which relates that when Lee finally consented to star as Dracula in 1965 he had become an expensive commodity and his services were being charged on a daily basis which resulted in his scenes being brief and without dialogue. Anyhow, short of dialogue, Dracula hissed and snarled and menaced in the movie, emphasising the vampiristic elements of Dracula.

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For Hammer, Lee’s mere appearance as the good-looking Count Dracula was enough to click the box-office and create fans for Hammer which had increased ever since the 6’ 5” Lee first appeared as a silhouette before he came out of the shadows and glided down the long baronial stairs of his castle and introduced himself as “Count Dracula” in Hammer’s “Dracula” (HOD).

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Following Lee’s marriage to the Danish model and painter Birgit (Gitte) Kroencke in 1961, the couple had moved to Switzerland. Hammer was happy to see Lee move back to England in 1965, and agree to appear in “DPOD” since afraid of being typecast as the Count, he had refrained from starring as Dracula for nearly seven years, venturing into other films, which had pushed Hammer to bring out different vampires as antagonists, viz., blonde-haired Baron Meinster (David Peel) in “Brides of Dracula” (1960) (2) and Doctor Ravna (Noel Willman) in “Kiss of the Vampire” (1963) while retaining Dracula for enactment by Christopher Lee whenever he is ready. Although Lee went on to become admired as an actor of vast experience and wide-ranging acting talents, like Sean Connery got docketed to James Bond, Lee’s career was always popularly tagged with the “old toothy”, and had gained him great financial success and international stardom.

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Barbara Shelly, the auburn-haired English beauty with her bewitching brown eyes, makes a very exciting vampire in “DPOD”, her initial style of attire of the Victorian wife Helen giving way for a seductive outfit when, in the dark of the night, the process of her initiation into the realm of vampires gets underway. Director Terence Fisher had rightly divulged Shelly’s capacity to aptly showcase the mannerisms of the spitfire vampire she had turned into, quite contrasting to her initial portrayal of the shrewish wife who seemed strangely fearful of something bad she had sensed present in the castle in which they had taken shelter.

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Lovely blonde Suzan Farmer appears as Diana Kent, the brave wife of Charles, notable for her liveliness and attitude to take things as they come. It was Diana who had the presence of mind to initially grab the gun and shoot at Dracula on the frozen moat which led to the discovery that running water is a deterrent for him – a realization that would add to an earlier instance when she accidently discovered that the crucifix on the chain around her neck could stop the evil although, at a later scene, under the demonic influence of Dracula, she would submissively take the crucifix off her neck and stand unprotected before Dracula ready to oblige to his demand to taste the blood flowing from his chest.

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Peter Cushing, who first appeared in the title role of Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), shot to international stardom as the indomitable vampire-killer Dr. (Prof.) Abraham Van Helsing in “Dracula”, a role which represented the force of goodness, making him an integral part of the Dracula cycle and a perfectly matched team with Christopher Lee. I have read somewhere that it was Cushing’s idea to make Van Helsing run along the refectory table and hold Dracula back with the glare from two metal candlesticks used for a cross until the Count desiccated into a heap of dust in the closing scenes of “Dracula”. According to one of Peter Cushing’s memoirs, when Anthony Hinds found that Cushing could not appear in “DPOD” due to contractual commitments, Hinds had obtained his consent to use the ending scenes of “Dracula” as opening scenes of “DPOD” for which Cushing was subsequently remunerated by Hammer Films.

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DPOD” featured a new adversary for Dracula, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), the Abbot of Kleinberg who, on his way to Kleinberg, accidently meets the four English travellers at the wayside inn and warns them to avoid travel to Carlsbad or stay clear of the nearby castle which the couples disregarded opting to keep up with their schedule only to meet with dire consequences. British TV actor Philip Latham, who had earlier appeared in Hammer’s 1964 films “The Devil-Ship Pirates” and “The Secret of Blood Island”, comes across very effectively as Klove, the quiet and sinister manservant of Count Dracula – soberly clad in black, devoid of gesticulations – a tool of the forces of evil.

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b16 Terry-FisherAustralian born British television heart-throb Charles Tingwell (Alan Kent), and television star Francis Matthews (Charles Kent) appear as brothers and husbands of the visiting English ladies. The cast also includes: Thorley Walters (monastery calligrapher Ludwig), Walter Brown (Brother Mark), George Woodbridge (Landlord), Jack Lambert (Brother Peter), Philip Ray (Priest), Joyce Hemson (Mother), John Maxim (Coach Driver), etc.

DPOD” tenders some excellent visual treats under the directional chores of Terence “Terry” Fisher (1904 – 1980). Starting as a clapper boy in the film industry at the age of 28, his first directorial assignment was “The Last Page” (aka. Man Bait, 1952, based on a 1946 play by James Hadley Chase) from where he rose up to become one of the best known directors to work for Hammer and one of the virtuosos behind the success of their films like “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), “Dracula” (1958), “The Revenge of Frankenstein” (1958), “The Mummy” (1959), “The Phantom of the Opera” (1962), etc.

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Consistent with Hammer’s reputation of using the major chunk of a film’s scanty budget on its production design, sets, models, costumes, photography, editing for stunning visual impact, “DPOD” has impressive sets and lavish-looking production values. It was from the brilliant talent of Bernard Robinson, the Set Designer for Hammer’s first two Dracula films that earned Hammer their signature looks for stunning backdrops and sets of the Dracula movies. Although in this official sequel, the story of “DPOD” takes place ten years after the end of the first movie and supposedly happens in the same castle of “Dracula“, Robinson’s ingenuity shows through in the difference of the interiors and exterior of the sets of Castle Dracula, everything dusted and polished. The coffins used for Dracula and Diana in the film have gold covered hinges to contradict with the old custom of Transylvanian coffin-makers using silver nails as a protection against vampires.

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Entirely shot in Technicolor  from April 26 through June 4, 1965 at Bray Studios, Down Place, Oakley Green (Berkshire); and on locations at Black Park in Slough, Iver Heath (Buckinghamshire); and St Michael’s Church, Bray, Berkshire, England, the crew consists of: James Bernard (Music), Michael Reed (Director of photography), Chris Barnes (Film Editing), Don Mingaye (Art Direction), Roy Ashton (Makeup), Frieda Steiger (Hair stylist), Rosemary Burrows (Wardrobe), Bowie Films Ltd (Special effects), among others.

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The special effects team of Les Bowie did not have to deal with “Kensington Gore”, the fake theatrical blood (stage blood) manufactured in England, since both the final scenes of “Dracula” and “DPOD” are devoid of blood,  though there is massive amount of fake blood shown during the resurrection of Dracula in “DPOD

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According to a magazine, for the complex shooting of scenes depicting the final destruction of Dracula, Bowie’s team had tried many techniques to get the scene right: they tried real blocks of ice in a swimming pool for few close shots; wax moulds at another time as it floats on the water; and for the final shots, a circular section of plaster mounted on pivots. At the same time, Christopher Lee has written in a book that he slid down a piece of wood on a hinge, painted white to look like ice.

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Part of the many trivia is about an incident while shooting the last scenes when one of the contact lenses of Lee fell onto the salt-covered wooden board (made to look as block of ice) which was retrieved and re-fixed to his eye without properly cleaning off the salt causing acute agony to Lee. An unfortunate incident would have intervened the production and turn fatal for Eddie Powell, Lee’s stunt double and husband of wardrobe mistress Rosemary Burrows, when he was trapped in the freezing waters of the castle moat during enactment of the scene when Dracula finally sank through the layer of ice into the water, but was rescued in time from drowning. However, as the story goes, Dracula will lay trapped in that icy grave until Hammer decided to allow him to be resurrected in 1968 in “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave”, ironically, with the blood of a wounded priest.

Besides “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave”, Hammer Films’ Dracula series continued featuring Christopher Lee in the role of the Count in “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970), “Scars of Dracula” (1970), “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972), and finally in “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973).

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It is undisputed that so many old manor houses in England have their ghost story. The legends of vampires (Vukodlak for Serbians/Murony to Wallachians) have always been there and will survive and flourish on print and visual entertainment in future also. As the viewers, we enjoy the choice to discern whether they are good, bad or indifferent for us – or for horrorsceptics to reassert their sense of rational control. When Hammer Films were first shown, they were sometimes reckoned as objects of derision and censure in some quarters. Now they are treated as classics of their kind. Since 2012, starting with “Dracula Prince of Darkness”, Hammer’s classic library of films are being restored/re-mastered into HD for Blu-ray and future media formats under the restoration project initiated by StudioCanal in coordination with major studios.

I have enjoyed some of those movies on several occasions, including “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” – and although sadly Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are no more, I would imagine many would have gladly watched another Hammer movie in which Lee reprised the role of Dracula in the period and Gothic ambiance of Stoker’s novel. No doubt, Hammer Films, at its finest, were truly distinctive.  Jo

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Notes:

  1. The budget is projected as £220,000 by BFI screenonline.
  2. For more on “Brides of Dracula”, please refer to my reviews of May 10 & 14, 2013
  3. Dracula, Prince of Darkness” was initially released as double bill with Hammer’s “The Plague of the Zombies
  4. Books, DVD/Blu-ray of the books/movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
  5. DVD sleeves credits: Wikipedia, amazon.co.uk, and from my private collection.
  6. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  7. This is in memory of director Terence Fisher who was born on 23rd of February. May his soul rest in peace.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

StarChoice 22: THE TAMARIND SEED

THE TAMARIND SEED  (1974)

1 2While in Bangkok recently, I once hopped over to the enormous Saphan Khao Fruit Market, mainly to take some photographs of the Dragon Fruit (Gao Mung Gorn) and other exotic and unfamiliar fruits you will come across in Bangkok. Now Saphan Khao Market is a fruit lovers’ paradise where most fruit-lovers can come across their requirements. Having feasted on a delicious breakfast with cheeses, cold meats, small bowl of salads and an assortment of wheat breads, and a hassle-free taxi ride from our hotel in the infamous morning traffic of Bangkok, we were not in a hurry to leave this market.   Amongst the huge crowd of customers on that day was a group of tourists from Singapore tasting and buying a fruit called “Makham wan” (Scientific name: Tamarindus indica), a sweeter variety of tamarind available in Thailand which is generally eaten fresh after peeling, while it can also be boiled in water to make a refreshing fruit drink. Native to tropical Africa and widely grown in India, the long, bean-like pods containing sweet and sour pulp of the tamarind fruit and shiny Spanish mahogany-coloured seeds is not alien to us as it forms part of the culinary usage in this part of the world just as in Latin American countries. 3 Next to the Singaporeans savouring the tamarind fruit (Puli, in Malayalam), I could see a tall plastic container with holes around its lower rim, positioned by the drainage to the side of the stall, where customers could discard the tamarind seeds and pod shells and its strings. Those holes acted as lower outlets for the dirty water to flow out when the water tap above the container is occasionally opened to cleanse the contents in it. Considering the numerous nutritional and health benefits of these seeds and pods, they were eventually collected and transported elsewhere for processing. The seeds are also a popular snack amongst the rural population as an emergency appetizer. Due to its medicinal qualities, they are roasted, soaked and eaten whole to expel intestinal parasites or added with other ingredients to make substitute for coffee. I was told that the extract of the seeds is also used in eye drops for dry eyes while these seeds are also powdered and used as starch in the textile industry. 4 At that moment, I was reminded of a curious legend told in the 1974 Blake Edwards’ film “The Tamarind Seed” in which the seeds play a pivotal role in the culmination of the love affair between the characters played by Julie Andrews and Omar “Cairo Fred” Sharif. As the legend of The Tamarind Seed goes: “A slave on Hayward’s plantation, St. Peter, accused of stealing a sheep, was hanged from a Tamarind tree. He protested his innocence, saying that the tree would vindicate him. Since then the Tamarind tree has born a seed in the shape of a man’s head.” 5 Although we longed to see that film once again, our copy was in our library in India. I stored the thought away for fulfilment at a later date. That later date turned up only after I learned of the sad demise of its male star in the central role. 6 Blake Edwards (born William Blake Crump), as we know was originally a writer and actor before he turned director of movies under the titles: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Days of Wine and Roses (1962); What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966); 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981); Victor Victoria (1982); The Pink Panther series; etc. 7 8He is also the director of Darling Lili and The Tamarind Seed, which was the second of seven films made with Julie Andrews (born Julia Elizabeth Wells) by Blake Edwards since his marriage to her in November, 1969.   The first film, Darling Lili (1970) featured Andrews as a World War I spy against the English posing as a London music hall performer who turns a dance performance into a striptease. The film failed to generate audience interest at its release but the role of Lili Smith transformed Julie Andrews as sexy from the sweetened screen image she earned from the title role (her film debut) in Mary Poppins (1964, D: Robert Stevenson). 9 The second film, The Tamarind Seed was based on the 1971 book by Evelyn Anthony, faithfully adopted for the screen by Blake Edwards, effecting modifications on the geographical details of the romantic storyline from Washington, D.C/New York to Paris/London and supplementing with scenes such as the action sequence at the London Heathrow Airport. The Tamarind Seed featured a contemporary love story with spy elements of the Cold War. 10 Now in this review of The Tamarind Seed, we are talking here about a time when KGB, Lubyanka prison, Iron Curtain were constant reminders of dread. The attractive British widow of the movie, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) whose husband had died in a car crash, is on holiday in Barbados to find herself after failure of a six-month affair with a married British group-Captain Richard Paterson. 11 The small hilly island of Barbados, shaped like a loin pork chop, with its large sugar cane plantations, elegant resorts, hotels, many miles of silky white beaches, and, of course, sun, has been the most favoured travel destination for sun-seekers for several centuries. Here, by sheer coincidence, Judith is strangely drawn to a tall, dark, ‘very kind, knowledgeable and generous man” called Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif) staying in a neighbouring villa, here on vacation “to get away from people”. 12 No sooner their friendship became known in official channels, their activities were closely monitored. What on earth is she doing with a Russian spy? From Judith, Feodor learned that she is a personal assistant to a man called Sam Neilson of the Home Office in London. Feodor let her know that he is employed as a military attaché at the Soviet embassy in Paris. During the time they have been seeing each other, they had developed simple, satisfying routines: two dinners, an early morning swim, a dinner at the Colony Club and sparkling conversations. While on a visit to the Bridgetown museum, they came across “The Legend of the Tamarind Seed” and a seed in the shape of a man’s head. Impressed by the legend, she wished she would find such a tamarind seed. 13 Ever since they met, Feodor had been full of life, energy, and mischief and let her know of his desire for her. Although she found him affectionate and harmless, she was always thinking defensively. All the same, she told him about her failed affair with Captain Paterson, a mistake she admitted to Feodor later. Feodor too was not far behind in telling her about his unhappy marriage to a woman back home, who is a very good judge of everything and knows exactly what is right and what is not right. He didn’t find it a great mistake in letting her know that he did not feel anything for the socialist revolution anymore. The following day, as Judith wanted, they went looking for the tamarind tree at Hayward’s plantation. 14 Later, en route to London, Judith’s flight was over the Atlantic Ocean when she found a tamarind seed, in the shape of a human head, in an envelope given to her by Feodor when he bid goodbye at the hotel. She was happy so now had her tamarind seed. 15 In Paris, Judith was interrogated by Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle), the British Intelligence officer located at the Paris embassy, which Judith found irritating, but felt helpless. 16 Her friendship with Feodor has put her in a cloud of suspicion and she is considered a security risk. Questions were raised at her. Was their meeting really accidental? Why did this man choose Judith out of the whole island? Was Feodor trying to recruit Judith as spy? The way Judith was, she would be a brilliant gift to them. Anyhow, Loder would take the issue in stride and directed her to inform him of any specific developments. Jack Loder had other worries, too. He worked in a world of political loyalty, betrayal, murder and professionalism. He had discovered that an unknown Soviet spy under the code name “Blue” existed within the British government. 17 Arriving back in his Paris office, Feodor spoke of his friendship at Barbados with his Russian boss, General Golitsyn (Oscar Homolka). The General, who listened with perceptible interest, was led to believe that the woman in question has a very confidential job at the Home Office in London and could be very useful. Feodor also suggested that he could recruit Judith. In fact, Feodor secretly believed that this ploy would enable him to meet Judith again, the inspiration and object of his love, and he can continue with the affair blossomed at Barbados. 18 In time Judith met up with Feodor for a dinner and let him know about Loder’s interrogation. Feodor advised her to “try to tell the truth as long as possible, that way when time has changed and you have to lie, there is a great chance that you will be believed.” Although in the beginning Judith was wary of starting a new relationship, things are different now. Later, based on warning from Judith, Feodor decided against returning to Russia but elected to seek political asylum in Canada with the help of Captain Paterson and Jack Loder. Feodor will not go empty handed to Canada. In exchange to set up home there with the usual guarantees, Feodor will be a very worthy acquisition to Britain. His offer to the British would be magnificent: the identity of the unknown British traitor “Blue”. For that prize, he knew Loder would plan everything for Feodor down to a “T”. 19 Subsequently, Feodor stole an ultra-secret file from the Soviet embassy for the British intelligence – an action which would set off the bulls and bears of the good old days of the Cold War lashing out dangerous repercussions in the lives of Judith and Feodor. 20 As the character of actor Donald Sutherland spoke in the 2003 version of the movie, The Italian Job: ‘There are two kinds of thieves in this world: the ones who steal to enrich their lives, and the ones who steal to define their lives.’ Well, Feodor’s reason is obvious. 21 Produced by Ken Wales with music by John Barry, the American-Britsh romantic drama, rated PG, has an impressive line-up of crew: Ernest Walter (Editor – The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)); Harry Pottle (Art Direction – You Only Live Twice (1967)); Maurice Binder (Main title designer – earlier James Bond movies); John Briggs (wardrobe supervisor – Isadora (1968)) and Academy Award-winning cameraman Freddie Young (Doctor Zhivago/Lawrence of Arabia). Young had worked in Barbados earlier for the 1957 film Island in the Sun (Dir: Robert Rossen) 22 British-born Julie Andrews in the role of the British Home Office functionary has the role tailor-cut for her. Julie is always worth looking although in this movie she does not wholly delve beneath the surface of her character. Julie Andrews’ clothes in this film are by Christian Dior and co-ordinated by Emma Porteus. 23 With his dark Egyptian features and smouldering eyes, Omar Sharif (born Michel Demetri Shalhoub) as the Russian spy lover displays a masterly flair in liveliness and chivalry, and, of course, very persisting with his wanting for Judith ever since he met her. Sharif was a very popular heart-throb during this period with a string of romances and a steady row of films prior to The Tamarind Seed: The Last Valley (Dir: James Clavell), The Horsemen (Dir: John Frankenheimer) and The Burglers  (Le casse, Dir: Henri Verneuil). 24 In 1973 when he appeared as Le capitaine Nemo in six episodes of the TV-Mini-Series L’île mystérieuse, he had purchased a huge mansion on the Spanish island of Lanzarote (in the Canary islands off the coast of West Africa), calling it Casa Omar Sharif. In May, 1973, The Tamarind Seed started initial filming at locations at Barbados’ west and east coasts before the unit shifted to London for further filming. Meanwhile, in early June, Omar Sharif won The Ladbroke World Master Bridge Championship, when he beat the former champion Latvia-born Boris Schapiro in London. 25 Under Blake Edward’s intelligent and sophisticated direction, the film also features an impressive line-up of supporting cast: Anthony Quayle; Oscar Homolka (Final film); Irish actor Daniel O’Herlihy (Fergus Stephenson, the British minister in Paris); David Baron (Richard Paterson); Celia Bannerman (Rachel Paterson); Bryan Marshall (George MacLeod); live up to the roles of their characters. Also in the supporting role is English actress Sylvia Syms (Sylvia May Laura Syms OBE) as the unhappy diplomatic wife Margaret Stephenson with desire for unholy carnal pleasures and an energizing passion for dominance. Syms, who would act as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in The Queen (2006, Dir: Stephen Frears), earned a BAFTA nomination for The Tamarind Seed. 26 Other members of cast: Roger Dann (Colonel Moreau); Sharon Duce (Sandy Mitchell); George Mikell (Major Stukalov); Kate O’Mara (Anna Skriabina); Constantin de Goguel (Dimitri Memenov); Alexei Jawdokimov (Igor Kalinin); Janet Henfrey (Embassy Section Head); John Sullivan (1st KGB Agent); Terence Plummer (2nd KGB Agent); Leslie Crawford (3rd KGB Agent). The film is also known under the titles: La semilla del tamarindo (Spain); Il seme del tamarindo (Italy); A Semente de Tamarindo (Portugal); Die Frucht des Tropenbaumes (West Germany); Sementes de Tamarindo (Brazil). The Soundtracks are: a) “Play It Again” sung by Wilma Reading (uncredited) – Music (John Barry), Lyrics (Don Black) and b) “Man with a Monkey” Music (Sam Fonteyn). 27 The Tamarind Seed was filmed through facilities of Samuelson Film Service Ltd, London. Besides locations at Eaton Square, Belgravia, I remember having read somewhere that more location shooting was facilitated at the London Zoo, at scriptwriter George Axelrod’s house in Mayfair district and at a Jazz Club. In Paris apart from Champs-Élysées, and other streets, locations included France-Amériques, Orly Airport, etc. 28 The film never fully explores the attractions of Barbados which retains its Old World charm which is British. On a historical note, this is the place where George Washington brought his brother, Lawrence, in 1751 to recuperate from tuberculosis (now known as the George Washington House) – the only land outside North America Washington ever set foot. Apart from the scenic beauty of the sandy beaches and the horizon, people lazing under coconut palms, parts of cultivated countryside, and interior of the museum, hotels, etc, the heritage monuments and picturesque sights of the island are not shown – such as the bronze statue of Admiral Lord Nelson (erected on 22 March 1813) at Trafalgar Square (renamed National Heroes Square) in the picturesque capital city of Bridgetown, which is older than the Lord’s statue in London. 29 With a good script, charming performances, haunting score, this is a lovely movie for those who love ingenious espionage thrillers and mature romance – a mellow way to end the day. Jo. 30 Notes: 1.. The DVDs of the movies referred in this article are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

2.. This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of this movie. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details. 31

3.. The book Judith is reading when she first met Feodor is a hardback edition of Kingsley Amis novel The Riverside Villas Murder, published in 1973 (read elsewhere that this dust jacket was designed by illustrator and children’s author Ian Beck.)

4.. Darling Lili gathered Academy Award nominations for Best Original or Adaptation Score and Best Original Song (Whistling Away the Dark – sung by Julie Andrews) for Henry Mancini (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics); and for Best Costume Design for Jack Bear and Donald Brooks.

5.. Evelyn Bridget Patricia Ward-Thomas (pseudonym: Evelyn Anthony, Anthony Evelyn, Eve Stephens) born on July 3, 1928, and convent educated, wrote ten successful romance/historical novels before turning to genres: Mystery/Crime/Suspense. She lives in Essex, England.

6.. Those of you who liked the novel “The Tamarind Seed” may like to check Evelyn Anthony’s “The Defector” for their similarities. Further books by Evelyn Anthony currently in Manningtree Archive:  32 33 34 35 7.. Sharif divorce his wife, Egyptian film and television actress and producer Faten Hamama in 1974, the year this movie was released (Faten Hamama died on January 17, 2015 at the same age Omar Sharif will join his former wife at the grave in less than six months later.)

8.. Julie Andrews is the second Julie to become Sharif’s heroine following Julie Christie of Doctor Zhivago. Julie Newmar was his co-star in Mackenna’s Gold.

9.. The movie’s links to month of July: Author Evelyn Anthony was born on July 3 (1928); Director Blake Edwards born on July 26 (1922); Omar Sharif died on July 10 (2015).

10.. This article is in memory of Omar Sharif – May his soul rest in peace. 36

(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

CHRISTOPHER LEE – A TITAN OF CINEMA

Is Count Dracula one of your favourite book/screen personalities? Well, the 6 feet 4 inches veteran British actor/musician/Opera singer/author Christopher Lee will not be reincarnating in the form of Count Dracula anymore. Lee of horror characters such as  Kharis the high priest/Mummy (The Mummy, 1959), Count Dracula, Dr. Fu Manchu, Rasputin the Mad Monk, Lord Summerisle (The Wicker Man, 1973), sadly died on Sunday 7th June at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in London, after suffering heart and respiratory problems. Chris-3

Lee, who belonged to the Carandini family, one of the oldest families in Italy dating back to the first century AD and to Emperor Charlemagne, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s tallest leading actor amongst Clint Eastwood and others. He was also a step-cousin of the late Ian Fleming, author of James Bond novels. According to reports, Fleming had recommended Lee for the role of Bond’s nemesis in Dr. No (1962) but the role went to Joseph Wiseman. Finally, Bond in the form of Roger Moore faced him in the role of the three-nippled, million-dollars-a-hit assassin Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

From early on, Lee’s flair for acting was evident when he appeared as the evil Rumpelstiltskin at Miss Fisher’s Academy in Wengen, Switzerland. In spite of his five-year stint in the Royal Air Force and Intelligence during World War II he was rejected for a role in the war-movie The Longest Day (1962) on the grounds that he didn’t command the look of a military personal. Chris-4 After his retirement from the RAF by the end of the war, taking heed from the suggestion of his cousin Count Nicolò Carandini, he obtained a seven-year contract with Rank Organisation in 1946. Lee debuted in the psychological drama Corridor of Mirrors (1948), the first film directed by Terence Young. In the following decade, despite that he was remonstrated for being too tall, dominating the frame, he appeared in many films. Chris-1

Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula

Then came his Hammer years. At the age of 35, Jimmy Carreras’ Hammer Film Productions cast him in the role of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (Dir. Terence Fisher, 1957). This successful role earned him the mantle of Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian bloodsucker Count Dracula in Dracula (aka. Horror of Dracula, 1957). Under the master direction of British film director Terence Fisher, Lee portrayed the fanged Count as the most attractive and virile of all screen vampires. How can one forget that striking first entrance of Lee’s Count Dracula at the doorway and his descent down the stairs? Lee would go on to feature the stature and presence of Count Dracula in further eight movies including Dracula Prince of Darkness (Dir. Terence Fisher, 1965), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Dir. Freddie Francis, 1968), El Conde Drácula (Dir. Jesús Franco, 1970), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (aka. Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride, Dir. Alan Gibson, 1974), etc. Chris-6 With British studio Hammer specialized in the production of screen horror, Lee’s name was for many years synonymous with the best in horror films. He was part of the four iconic horror film stars: Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and they acted together in House of the Long Shadows (Dir. Peter Walker, 1983).  While Vincent Price shared his birthday with Christopher Frank Carandini Lee (born on 27th May 1922 in the upmarket Belgravia area of London), Peter Cushing was born a day earlier on 26 May. Although Lee set up his own production company, Charlemagne Productions Ltd, he diverged from his horror image to mainstream film roles. Nevertheless, it is an unwritten fact that, just as Sean Connery will be indelibly associated with James Bond, the image of Count Dracula will always be correlated to Christopher Lee. Chris-7 Fluent in a variety of languages, the English-born actor Lee was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II (15-Jun-2001 Queen’s Birthday Honours) and Knight of the British Empire 2009. He is also a Commander Brother of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. In 2002, Lee was awarded the prestigious World Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vienna, etc. Lee was also presented with the Academy Fellowship at the BAFTAs in February 2011. Chris-2

Lee as Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula

Sir Christopher launched his singing career in the 1990s, with an album of Broadway tunes. During his illustrious career, the veteran actor appeared in over 250 films, some of them the most iconic of our times. Watching the innumerable films of Christopher Lee in my collection was always joyful for me – especially those of 1950s to mid-70s. Chris-8   Endings are usually sad and we will miss Sir Christopher Lee. Nevertheless, there always will be the comfort in knowing that I can sit with a couple of soft pillows and a glass of red wine and watch the legendary actor come alive through one of his movies, his deeply melodic basso voice booming.

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NB: The DVDs of the above movies and music albums of Sir Christopher Lee are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

StarChoice 20: KINGS OF THE SUN

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(Aka: Könige der Sonne, Os Reis do Sol, Solens konger, Los reyes del sol, Auringon kuninkaat, Les rois du soleil, A Nap királyai, I re del sole, Królowie slonca, Günesin krallari, Könige der Sonne – and (Initial working title: The Mound Builders) – Color – 1963)

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If there was one Hollywood actor who had the exotic mien, the boundless charm, the piercing eyes, masculine authority, and the range of acting talents which magnetized him to audiences – Yul Brynner (1920-1985) could well take that honour. Complex and unpredictable, he would always be the king.

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Although there are different accounts about Brynner’s name, date and place of birth, bulk of the specifics indicate that he was either born Taidje Khan or Yuliy Borisovich Bryner to Boris Bryner and Marusya Blagovidova on the island of Sakhalin off the coast of Siberia or in Vladivostok, Russia where there is a memorial plaque marking it as his birthplace. I leave this at that.

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5Consequent to a serious back injury in France which curtailed his 5-year career as a trapeze acrobat with the famed Cirque D’Hiver company, and subsequently, having received training in acting with Russian teacher Michael Chekhov (1891-1955), Brynner’s decision to pursue a film career for a living, led him to appear in the thriller “Port of New York” (1949).

6It was his appearance as the proud and supercilious King Mongkut of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical movie “The King and I” (1956) which established his film career and won him an Oscar for Best Actor. The role also brought to him impeccable stage discipline from performing eight times a week on Broadway since 1951 to screaming, standing ovations.

Besides, it also earned him immense popularity by spawning “The Yul Brynner Look” when he shaved his head in 1951, a revolutionary look back then which I understand was suggested by Irene Sharaff (The King and I), one of the major costume designers of the period forming part of the “Couture on the Screen”. It was a bodily feature he would sport throughout his life although he made few performances wearing wigs, namely, “The Buccaneer”, “Solomon and Sheba”, “Villa Rides”, etc.

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His status as a major star of Broadway could not salvage him from the adverse impact of his accent and looks for which he was at times “considered too exotic a type to play the lead in any important film”. However, after seeing Brynner’s dynamic Broadway performance in “The King and I”, Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) went on to cast him as Pharaoh Ramesses II in his last film “The Ten Commandments” (1956). DeMille was right. Brynner’s vaunting arrogance and baldness captured the essence of the Pharaoh’s personality. According to a quote attributed to DeMille, Brynner’s powerful personality is “…a cross between Douglas Fairbanks, Snr., Apollo, and a little bit of Hercules”.

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Brynner’s meteoric rise continued through performances in: Anastasia (1956); The Brothers Karamazov (1958); The Journey (1959); The Sound and the Fury (1959); The Buccaneer (1959); Solomon and Sheba (1959); Surprise Package (1960); The Magnificent Seven (1960); Once More, With Feeling! (1960); until the scale started its downward trend….. “Testament of Orpheus” (1962); Escape from Zahrain (1962); Kings of the Sun (1963). By that time, he was not only a well-known superstar, a good still photographer, author, guitarist, and a Special Consultant to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, appointed in 1960. He was living fast and high. He drove a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster and smoked many packs of black Sobranie cigarettes a day “just to appear macho”. “Yul Brynner was an unusual, interesting, and intelligent man. ………. He was an absolute self-invention”, wrote English film and stage actress Claire Bloom in her memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House”.

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Even though Brynner’s initial work for the production company, The Mirisch Company, Inc., was “The Magnificent Seven”, he will reunite with Mirisch once again for “Kings of the Sun” directed by Bristol born Scottish director/screenwriter/playwright/former actor J. (John) Lee Thompson (1914-2002). Fresh from the huge box-office success of his “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), Lee Thompson was the finest film-maker to emerge from the British studio system after the Second World War. Having gone to Hollywood to direct “Cape Fear” (1962), he had decided to stay behind, turning down the offer to direct “The Longest Day” (1962) in England in spite that London was at that time considered to be an ideal and exciting place to make movies.

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In its place, he accepted United Artists’ invitation to direct Harold Hecht’s epic production of “Taras Bulba” (1962) starring Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis and Christine Kaufmann. Finally raised to the platform of directors commanding highest remuneration and enjoying big budgets and box office success, United Artists was only pleased to offer him another epic production, “Kings of the Sun” concerning the Maya civilization in pre-Columbian Mexico. Similar to Lee Thompson’s “Woman in a Dressing Gown” (1957), “Tiger Bay” (1959), “Cape Fear”, “Taras Bulba”, etc, this story also explored how people respond to and can be shaped by their environment.

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Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil under the banner of Mirisch Company for a budget of US$4 million and based on a story by Elliott Arnold, “Kings of the Sun”,  which turns 50 this year, was released through United Artists (like all the other 67 productions of Mirisch) in December 1963, a year noted for many momentous events. It was the year the First flight of Boeing 727 jet took off; British Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigned over sex scandal; Cardinal Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was elected Pope Paul VI; Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I have a dream” speech at Lincoln Memorial; Valium hit the market; US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas, Texas….. That year, the movie-world saw the release of “Cleopatra”, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, “The Birds”, “Charade”, “From Russia with Love”, “The Great Escape”, Mirisch Corporation’s “Irma la Douce”, etc, featuring some of the most distinctive and eloquent faces in Hollywood cinema. It was also a time when parents in our part of the world used to put their children to sleep at night with bedtime stories unlike contemporary times when the children come in at bedtime and tell stories that keep the parents awake all night.

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Underlining Elliott Arnold’s story of “Kings of the Sun” was the exodus of the Mayas to a new land and the final abandon of the practice of human sacrifice. The film opens with a panoramic view of the great pyramid at Chichén Itzá (c), the large pre-Columbian city of the Mayans where rows of Mayans have assembled as their Chief, “Balam. The Jaguar. Eight times King”, and Balam, the Crown Prince, (d) with headdress of high plumes of the quetzal adoring their royal heads, were brought to the crest of the pyramid to perform an important religious ritual. Following the credits, a voice-over narration is heard:

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Long ago there lived a people unique in all history – the Mayans. Greece and Rome had become ancient legends in ancient books and the European civilizations had entered into the age of the barbarians. But in the tropical jungles of Central America, a civilization had burst into full flower without metals, without horses, without wheels. These incredible people built roads, pyramids, temples worthy of ancient Egypt; they charted the heavens, devised the highest system of mathematics than the Romans and created the calendar as accurate as the one we use today.

But despite the maturity of their art and their science, in the most important part of their lives, the worship of their gods, they remained primitive.

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To their minds, their gods were demanding gods, fierce and greedy, granting nothing except for a price and that price was blood. In their profound desire to win favour from the deities, the Mayans made human sacrifice, the keystone of their religion. To die as a bearer of a message to the gods was the most exalted honour a man could experience. When he was selected to be sacrificed, in that moment he himself became a god. He was worshipped as a god, granted any wish that came into his heart, until the moment he was put to death.

For centuries in small scattered kingdoms these people lived in peace with themselves and their gods. But then came conquerors from the West, with metal swords which made them invisible against the wooden weapons of the Mayans. One by one, they swallowed up the little kingdom until the last, the final stronghold – Chichén Itzá was theirs. And their leader, Hunac Ceel, already as cool as any god now felt himself as powerful as one….”

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Thus begins “Kings of the Sun” with ceremonies leading to the sacrifice of a youth to bring prosperity to the Maya land. But it was a time when the stars were moving in a chaotic manner. It was in that dry season, when men were free from agricultural tasks to fight in wars that Hunac Ceel, intent upon destroying Maya civilization, attacked them. As hordes of Ceel’s ferocious warriors (possibly Toltecs) swept the Mayan land from the north and rushed up the steps of the great pyramid, the leaders of Mayas had fled into its interior chambers, locking the huge door behind them. At the sound of a heavy cedar log ramming on the secured door, they went deeper into the inner chambers where, before the corpse of their King Balam, his son, crown prince Balam was chosen as the new king, “Balam, the Jaguar. Nine times King”.

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Mindful of their meagre chance of survival with their obsidian bladed swords, the new king found common ground in the proposal of the elders (Al Haleb, Ah Min, Pitz, Ah Zok) to retreat with their tribe to a safe place by the coast – at the fishing Village of Polé. As they headed for the trap door of a tunnel at the ground level, high priest Ah Min carried the small stela from their temple.

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At Polé, before Hunac Ceel and his armed warriors wielding hard metal swords could attack them, Balam had to swear before the local chieftain to marry his daughter Ixchel in the new land. This was necessitated in order to convince the villagers to lend him their long cedar log fishing boats and to accompany Balam and his people to flee from the coast to a faraway land (e) where Balam hoped to settle them down, raise a new civilization and find golden opportunities. However, they will not keep old losses a faded memory. They will grow stronger in the new land and then they will return.

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Barely had they managed to row some boats loaded with people into the sea before the first of Hunac Ceel’s horde burst onto the beach, shouting and launching spears. In less than no time, Balam and his people had fled in their boats to a greater distance before Ceel could catch them although few of the fatalities from the spear they suffered included Ixchel’s father. As Ixchel, now Balam’s fiancée, sat hunched in deep grief for the voyage to the north in the Gulf of Mexico, Hunac Ceel shouted from the beach: “The sea is not big enough to keep us apart, Balam. Wherever you go, I will find you.”

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All endings are followed by a new beginning. Although they have never sailed the boats out across the waters beyond the sight of land, at long last, maintaining close sailing without drifting apart and, despite an opposition from an elder, they finally landed at a seemingly uninhabited Gulf Coast. Balam’s attempt to fulfil his promise to the chieftain to marry Ixchel met her disapproval since his vow was made to her father, not to her. “If he (Balam) is lonely why does he not tell me himself?”, these unsaid words of Ixchel would only come later, to Ah Min who advised her to marry Balam.

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Presently they built a settlement which included irrigation systems, an essential pyramid that dominated everything by its height and at its crest was raised an altar for rituals, most importantly, for human sacrifices – for the joining of men with the gods. In a while, their presence was discovered by the head of a hostile Native American tribe who went by the name Black Eagle. The discovery was not unusual for the local tribe. There had been intruders in this land before, and they have always driven them away.

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During a confrontation with Balam, Black Eagle was wounded and captured by the Mayas. When Ixchel’s friend Ixzubin refused to tend to the brute’s wounds, Ixchel volunteered to take over to nurse him back to health. Although she was subjected to his aggressive attitude, the air started to clear when he saw Ixchel the whole blessed day and every day of the Week igniting an attraction for her. But the Mayas had another agenda for Black Eagle. The Maya soldiers preferred to capture rather than kill the enemy. The captive become the sacrifice. There has been no rain since their landing. Black Eagle, a native of this land, is the next ideal candidate for their sacrifice to the god of waters….

24  “Kings of the Sun” was shot on location at Chichén Itzá (Yucatán), Mazatlán (Sinaloa) and at Estudios Churubusco Azteca, Mexico (f), one of the oldest and largest movie studios in Latin America.

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The script has managed to provide a sweeping picture of the traditions, advancements and primitiveness of the Mayas while maintaining a modern sense of logic in the advancement of the story. Although the film deviates from historical accuracy, in a broader sense, it is likely that its structural foundation must have derived from the sacred books of the Maya of Yucatán “The Book of Chilam Balam” in which the villain Hunac Ceel, the head-chief of Mayapan, is a prominent character.

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While research provides material, it’s no substitute for creativity. Unhappy with the initial script, independent producer Walter Mirisch, who had garnered a new breed of professionals outside the studio system, had eventually secured script doctor James R. Webb (How the West Was Won (1962)) to add more structure to it which apparently met with Mirisch’s approval.

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The writers had also left the dialogues of the exiled Mayas and North American tribe of Black Eagle speak the same language without a hint of differentiation for the sake of convenience for the audience. Nevertheless, the characters and action showcasing forbidden love and mortal conflict of two great chiefs should have exploded off the script and exhibited a kind of raw energy on screen rather than be dull as it appeared in certain places and also failed to generate favourable reviews for the movie during the time of its release.

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Until now, much of the history of the Maya remains something of a mystery. It is widely accepted that the classic period of Mayan civilization, which stretched from Chichén Itzá in the north to Copán in the south, falls between AD 300 and AD 900 when their architectural and artistic achievements were brilliant. During that period, they built several cities in the Yucatán region and their civilisations went on to thrive until internecine warfare weakened them and left them prey to invaders from the north which culminated in the collapse of Maya civilisation between AD 800 and 900.

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The pyramid, a prominent feature in the film, was an integral part of the Maya architecture. Their basic idea was to raise the sanctuary of the gods higher from the ground although its position could be easily revealed to the enemies. From the account of foot soldier Bernal Diaz de Castillo (memoir: Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España) who accompanied the expedition of Spanish Conquistadors on their voyage to Mexico in 1518 (historians have criticized his account due to multiple inaccuracies and exaggeration) and other later findings, we could know of how blood sacrifice at the top of these pyramids was a standard feature of daily life. Though this primitive act of cultural vandalism has long since been abolished, innumerable humans, often fringe members of the society or prisoners or those kidnapped during raids, were provided with special headdress, and led up the steps of the pyramid. They were made to stretch over the sacrificial stone by four priests while the fifth priest cuts open the body with an Obsidian stone knife (g) and the heart is offered to the god. The golden rule for this was the religious belief concerning life after death. The terms “sacrifice” which derives from the Latin “sacer facere” means “to make sacred”. Considering the varieties of rituals for which the pyramids were used, its design had to meet certain specific requirements such as:

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  1. There are one or two shrines at the top of the platform dedicated to the gods;
  2. Apart from the methods of alignment with the stars used in the giant edifice, it is appropriately tall (not too high) to allow the spectacle of the ritual, the sacrifice and the victim’s elevation to divine status, to be visible to a large audience watching from below;
  3. Internal chambers and corridors are required, which was made possible by the strength of their mortar;
  4. To make the stairway even steeper than it is, the banisters were made to diverge slightly towards the top of the stairs;
  5. For the initial phase of the sacrifice, the stairway must be broad and impressive to befit the parade of the victim up the steps into the sphere of divinity;
  6. To dispose the corpse in a spectacular manner, it must be steep enough to provide an uninterrupted passage to the ground when it was made to roll down from the top.

To avoid being haunted by the spectre of the bloody ritual, the movie portrays the sacrificial ceremony in an implied manner by limiting the camera movements merely focused on the elites in power, a squad of religious specialists and ministerial dignitaries on the crest and the audience assembled below, all the while trying to be as authentic as possible. For realistic ambiance, few of these scenes were reportedly shot on location at the pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá (where the initial part of the story is based).

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Even though director John Sturges of “The Magnificent Seven” was slated to direct “Kings of the Sun” (then titled “The Mound Builders”) soon after completion of “The Great Escape” (1963), he had backed down from the project and went on to direct “The Satan Bug” (1965), paving way for director J. Lee Thompson to take over (h).

Although Lee Thompson never gained the heights reached with “The Guns of Navarone”, he scored notable success in several genres. The personal touch of the director is visible in style and expressions throughout the movie. Scenes depicting the instances when Ixchel’s heart reached out for Black Eagle in spite that her feelings were hanging on to Balam, or the mental struggle of the young woman as well as that of the young king and his struggle for coexistence, are effectively handled by the director. Lee Thompson was a “tiny man who carried a large sketchpad, and refused to read the script……. He never read a scene until he had to shoot it, and approached each shot on a whim. And yet, the cumulative effect was astonishing”, Anthony Quinn quoted in his memoirs “One Man Tango” referring to the production of “The Guns of Navarone”.

Kings of the Sun” features an impressive line of prominent technicians and actors, some of them, unhappily, now deceased.

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The stunts are impressive, especially a high-fall jump by Ronnie Rondell Jr., into a thatched hut from a burning observation tower. Then there was the difficulty in staging scenes over the pyramid, the uneven and very short steps to be laboriously climbed to its crest.

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Cast: As Chief Black Eagle, Yul Brynner tries to work his movie star persona, dominating the scenes by his magnetic presence and undeniable sexuality. His scantily clad muscular body, his bronzed skin, long braided pigtail for hair, his panther-like gait, his piercing gaze, proud mannerisms, projects the impression of a restrained wild animal attuned to nature. With lesser dialogues, Brynner enjoys more screen time to react to the scenes, which seems well considering a quote attributed to director John Sturges mentioned in actor Eli Wallach’s memoir, “The Good, the Bad and Me: In My Anecdotage”: “Movie acting is reacting. Silence is golden on the screen”. The depth of understanding displayed by Brynner in portraying Black Eagle, a chief trying to avoid a clash of native cultures, is admirable and begs for more attention. On the personal side, whenever he was free from displaying his machismo sexiness in front of camera, Brynner was mindful of himself, often engaged in taking behind the scene photos of the production.

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American dancer of Greek descent George Chakiris’ debut in films was in director Clarence Brown’s “Song of Love” (1947) in which he was credited as George Kerris. Thirteen years later, it was his role as Bernardo in the musical movie “West Side Story” (1961) based on a plot borrowed from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that brought him a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actor in a Support Role (1962) and catapulted him to international stardom.

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Chakiris plays Balam, the young and inexperienced king who refrains from raising his voice against the ritual of human sacrifice in order to avoid conflict with his own high priest but only to eventually realize that to abandon the practice and living in peace could be the best way to honour the gods. The appraisal of Rock Brynner in the biography of his father “Yul, The Man Who Would Be King” (Page 160) that Chakiris’ “physique and self-assurance suggested about as much threat to Yul Brynner as a plastic coffee spoon”, wouldn’t meet up with disagreement of some viewers given that Chakiris’ screen glory was at times unsuccessful to be a superior match to Brynner’s commanding presence in the film.

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English Rose Shirley Anne Field (Shirley Broomfield), a British pin-up magazine model for the 1950s and former Miss London had co-starred with Brynner in “Once More, With Feeling!” (1960). Her big break in movies came with an appearance opposite Sir Laurence Oliver in director Tony Richardson’s “The Entertainer” (1960). For Field, who was once known as “the British Marilyn Monroe”, the 60s were the busiest decade. And then – she was young and still learning. Following a string of successful performances in British productions, her first performance in a leading role for an American production was in “The War Lover” (1962) co-starring Robert Wagner and Steve McQueen. Somewhere around this time, she missed out on being a James Bond girl but was contracted to play the leading female role in “Kings of the Sun”.

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Field’s portrayal of Ixchel, open to more avenues for improvement, covered layers of conflict of emotions for being the love interest of the captured Black Eagle who chose her to be his bride, the final wish of the sacrificial victim. She was a woman thrust into the life of the young king, whose emotional tie to her was becoming too intense.

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To Black Eagle, she was the most beautiful woman in the heavens who would come and heal his wounds. To her, despite the fact that he had the look of a savage, he seems to have the soul of a man.

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Curiously enough, her quizzical expressions as well as her lack of chemistry with the two men apparently met with the approval of director Lee Thompson with whom she had worked earlier in his remake of “The Good Companions” (1957). However, according to my research, I would believe that the casting team made the right choice in choosing Field (and possibly George Chakiris as well) for her facial features to be consistent with the norm of the Maya civilization which considered an elongated head as a sign of beauty. (i)  

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A talented actor who had appeared in “Titanic” (1953), “La Strada” (1954), “Moby Dick” (1956), “The Brothers Karamazov”, etc, American actor Richard Basehart’s (1914-1984) range of characters includes the honest, the mentally disturbed and the villains even though none of these brought him the stardom.

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Basehart’s role of High Priest Ah Min, the ahkin of Chichén Itzá, took an earlier exit when, vexed by Balam’s decision to spare Black Eagle from death, he self-sacrificed on the point of an Obsidian stone knife.

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American character actor Brad Dexter, co-star of Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven” and “Taras Bulba”, played in the role of Ah Haleb, batab, the general. British leading man Barry (Herbert) Morse (1918–2008) who had a prolific acting career that spanned theatre, movies and television, appeared in the role of the little priest Ah Zok, after a long break from feature films since “No Trace” (1950).

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Once a screenwriter for producer/director Roger Corman, thick-set American actor Leo “Vincent” Gordon (1922-2000), usually cast in tough-guy roles (“Conqueror” (1955), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)), stars as Hunac Ceel who has nothing much to do but to act tough.

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Playboy’s 1968 Playmate of the Year Victoria Vettri (aka. Angela Dorian/Victoria Rathgeb) of “Chuka” (1967) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), played Ixzubin, the friend of Ixchel.

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Other members of cast: Armando Silvestre (Isatai), Rudy Solari (Pitz), Ford Rainey (Ixchel’s father, the Chieftain), Angel Di Steffano (Balam’s father), José Elías Moreno (The sacrifice), narrator James Coburn’s voice is uncredited.

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The movie offers numerous panoramic shots of the real locations in richly textured hues of DeLuxe Colour and in Panavision. The Cinematography is by Joseph (Joe) MacDonald (1906-1968), the award-winning American cinematographer who was born in Mexico City where Estudios Churubusco Azteca, in which the interiors of this film were shot, is located. While the veteran cinematographer’s busy tracking and wide angle shots are particularly impressive, the use of available and smartly placed source light to picture an imprisoned Brynner in successive scenes are also noteworthy.

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MacDonald is the talent behind the cinematography of “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “Panic in the Streets” (1950), “Viva Zapata” (1952), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), “Broken Lance” (1954), etc, which enabled him to work with renowned directors such as John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Elia Kazan, Samuel Fuller, Edward Dmytryk, Nicholas Ray, Fred Zinnemann, etc. While “The Carpetbaggers” for which he handled the cameras will be released during the same year, his next project with Lee Thompson would be “Mackenna’s Gold” (1969).

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Production designer Alfred Ybarra has tried to provide highest authenticity to the sets with historical forms and designs, a mystery he solved by going back into the past to find the answers.

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Since Mayas reputedly built their pyramids throughout of stone, held together with a strong lime mortar, a similar procedure is shown when young Balam’s men construct the pyramid at the new land.

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New York-born film editor William (H) Reynolds (1910-1997) is best known for works which includes “Red Skies of Montana” (1952), “Three Coins in the Fountains” (1954), “Bus Stop” (1956), “The Sound of Music” (1965) in which the role of Captain Von Trapp was initially considered for Yul Brynner, Sean Connery and Richard Burton (j).

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Winner of Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (1963) for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and nominated for “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), American costume designer Norma Koch (Norma – 1898-1979) was working in Hollywood since 1945. While the costumes by Koch (with wardrobe by Eric Seelig) for Black Eagle are perfect for the role, those worn by some of the other characters (of many colours with strange designs) seem to be more imaginary. Few dresses of young King Balam and his adversary Hunac Cell are decorated with similar jade works which comes across as green coloured plastic.

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On the other hand, the splendid quetzal-plume headdress of the “Feathered Serpent (Quetzacoatl) cult” priests, the dress for the sacrificial victims and of some supporting characters somewhat conforms to images in the Codex Dresdensis (a pre-Columbian Maya book of the eleventh or twelfth century of the Yucatán Maya in Chichén Itzá) and Codex Florentino (a 16th-century ethnographic research project in Mesoamerica by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún) and such other available data. There is also accuracy in the clothes of some peasant women attired in “kub”, a piece of decorated cloth with holes cut for the arms and head.

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The make-up by Emile La Vigne (The Magnificent Seven) although adequate sometimes neglects to keep up with the continuity while the hairstyles of King Balam (“West Side Story” look) and Ixchel (in a dark wig) by Mary Babcock (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) appear rather fanciful and unauthentic hampers the mood of the period.

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Robust and rhythmic, the original Music provided by American composer/conductor Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) is appropriately dramatic and haunting. He is one of the most prolific of all film composers – a master of all genres who believed in the power of melody and the traditional orchestra to move us. The widespread acclaim Bernstein received for scores arranged for “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) was further heightened when his score for “The Ten Commandments” (1956) ruled supreme. Charlton Heston wrote of Bernstein in his autobiography, “In the Arena”: “The value of Elmer Bernstein’s score is almost impossible to measure. It’s absolutely perfect for the film, guiding and shaping the emotional weight of each scene with mature mastery…”.

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Bernstein’s music also graced films such as “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “The Great Escape” in 1963, the year he was elected as the Vice-President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The magnificent arousing music of “Kings of the Sun” speaks volumes of his ability to capture the film audiences who had already placed Bernstein in league with his older contemporaries such as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, etc.

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Rest of the technicians are: Thomas Shaw (Asst. Director), Joe La Bella (Properties), Larry Allen (Asst. Editor), Richard Carruth (Music Editor), Roscoe Cline (Special Effects), John Franco (Script Supervisor), Allen K. Wood (Production Supervisor), Nate H. Edwards (Production Manager), Robert E. Relyea (Unit Manager), Stalmaster-Lister Co. (Casting), etc..

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The posters of the film were designed by New York-born Frank McCarthy (1924-2002) who had worked on iconic posters of innumerable movies: “The Ten Commandments”, “Taras Bulba”, “Hatari!”, “The Great escape”, “Rio Conchos”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, “Thunderball”, “Khartoum”, “Duel at Diablo”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “You Only Live Twice”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”, “Where Eagles Dare”, and “Dark of the Sun”…. His works of mastery of texture and form with an eye for detail comprising lighting, atmospheric effects and theme, depicted moments right in the middle of the action. “I paint to achieve visual impact”, wrote McCarthy in his Introduction to the book “Western Paintings of Frank C. McCarthy”.

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There has been a constant upward trend in the renewed interest in some Hollywood movies of that bygone era. “Kings of the Sun” recently kindled up curiosity amongst the film circles following the public interest perked up by the Great 2012 Doomsday Scare from the ancient Maya calendar which equated December 21 of 2012 as the end of humanity. Even so, the consolidation of talents of J. Lee Thompson, Yul Brynner, stalwart supporting players and crew, as well as the general form and design of this action film certainly merit our curiosity. However, a better script would have proven a more satisfying thing to enhance its screen glory – something worth finding out. Now more so than ever. Until next time, Ciao, Jo.

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Notes:

a)   The DVD of this movie, as well as those referred/illustrated in this post, are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

b)   The music album, “Kings of the Sun” by Elmer Bernstein & The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, re-recorded at Prague in November 2003 is available with major dealers.

c)   Chichén Itzá is now an important archaeological site in Yucatán combining the building genius of the Mayas and the Toltecs. Its most remarkable feature being a four-sided Kukulkan pyramid (aka “El Castillo”), probably a representation of the Mayan civil calendar. It is a square-based pyramid, 180 feet by 78 feet high, with nine tiers. The large stairways of 91 steps on each side (total 364 steps plus one being the platform adding to a total of 365 days of the solar year) are guarded by great serpent heads. The temple measures about 20 by 15 feet and has a door on each side. It’s method of construction ensures that for hundreds of years , on each spring and autumn equinoxes, the position of the sun coincided with the pyramid and project a shadow of seven triangles of light, measuring about 34 meters long from top to bottom, on the balustrade of the northeast, providing a silhouette of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, until the triangles of light touch the stone head of the serpent god in the ground where the stairs begin. This process on the side of the structure lasts nearly five hours and its fullness can be observed approximately for 45 minutes.

d)   Although a common family name in Yucatán, Balam means Jaguar.

e)   According to the map shown in the film, it could be the southeastern coast of what is now Texas, North America.

f)    Having been married to French fashion house executive Doris Kleiner in Mexico City in 1960, Yul Brynner had a special affinity towards Mexico City where the interiors of this movie were shot.

g)   Even without glass or optical instruments, Mayans achieved spectacular success in astronomy through crossed sticks in relation to fixed features on the horizon. Besides the calendar, they also worked out arithmetic and developed hieroglyphic writing. Then again, they didn’t have iron, ploughs or wheels or cattle, sheep, goats, pigs or horses. Obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock was used to make tools and knives for human sacrifice. Cacao beans were used as money in Maya society which had its counterfeit currency in the form of beans filled with sand.

h)   Following the release of “Kings of the Sun” in 1963 there was news that J. Lee Thompson planned to film “The Shoes of the Fisherman”, the 1963 novel by the Australian author Morris West, casting Paul Scofield and Spencer Tracy. In his book on Lee Thompson, author Steve Chibnall attributes the source of this information to Lee Thompson’s quote in Kinematograph Weekly in mid-1963. Even though this project never materialized, that film was finally directed by Michael Anderson starring Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier and released in 1968.

i)    Mayans strapped boards to the head of their infants in order to flatten the front part to produce a receding forehead. Squint eyes were also a feature considered beautiful.

j)    I have refrained from including few scraps of trivia related to the production of this film littered in the Internet due to lack of available sources to verify its authenticity. 

k)   This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of this movie. The reviews of movies in Manningtree Archive is part of my project to promote my favourite movies from a bygone era. Please refer to “About” for more details.

l)    A glance backward: This review is dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy who lost his life fifty years ago.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)