Tag Archive | vacation

SURVIVING WITH DIGNITY

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The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.

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Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.

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One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.

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A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).

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Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.

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These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).

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The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.

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Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.

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Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.

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The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.

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The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.

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The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.

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Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).

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Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.

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The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.

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21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!

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Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.

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26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.

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Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.

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Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.

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31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo

Notes:

  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

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StarChoice 12: The Wrath of God

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)

Viva Italia – 2: Santuario dell’ Arcella – Illustrious and Sublime

The Chinese have a saying: “Twenty cups of green tea a day saves from a bad day”. When that thought crossed my mind, I was sitting at a Trattoria in Padova, Italy with a cup of steaming green tea raised to my lips. No, I don’t care a great deal for green tea, but that was what I was having on that April day. The girl behind the bar-counter, with disarming warmth and beautiful smile was eyeing our table, silently urging us to finish our drinks in time for the taxi she had graciously booked for us and is expected to arrive at any moment. Italian drivers can get a bit impatient, at times. Having settled the check and ready to leave, we kept a cool face – after all, it is standard operating procedure among human beings to act as if everything is all right – all of the time.

Minutes later, we were driving past Padova railway station north-east bound towards Arcella on the other side. Having got down before the flower shop in front of the Il Santuario Antoniano dell”Arcella, we picked up a bunch of cream-tulips for our visit to the Santuario where Sant’ Antonio of Padova had died. I have a particular fondness for cream-coloured tulips which our jolly good flower-mart at Kensington High Street in London supplied us every time we happen to be there.

 

Quite oddly, we would have to settle for deep yellow-tulips when we reached Firenze the following week since the cream-coloured tulips were just not available, perhaps due to the Easter season.

The sight of the Santuario built with exposed bricks and stone decorations in harmony with the Romanesque and Gothic styles of the Veneto region has always sent my heart sailing. It is one of the places I loved to visit in Padova – so quiet, so cool, so inviting…, a place built up with the deepest patronage of the people of Padova. Undeniably, it is the devotion of simple people and patronage of the wealthy that has built most of the distinguished Christian shrines.

 

The Santuario, with its dignified interior featuring restrained neo-gothic style that resonate Italian and Franciscan influence, is situated on the site which was originally a Franciscan Monastery for the Poor Clares (Poor Ladies) founded by San Francesco d’Assisi in 1220 when he landed at Venice by the Spring or Summer and took a brief break at Padova on his return from Acre and the Holy Land. Some Franciscan chronicles push the year of founding the Santuario further ahead between 1225/1226 and also claim that it was established by Agnes of Assisi, St. Clare’s blood sister. Originally called Santa Maria de Cella (or de Arcella) which consisted of two separate convents: the monastery of Poor Clares; and a small friary of the “Friars Minor”, it will become famous as a place of worship for having witnessed the death of two saints: Sant’ Antonio (June 13, 1231) and Blessed Elena Enselmini (November 4, 1231/1242).

The present church built by Eugenio Maestri in 1895 on the site of the previous structures and enlarged by Nino Gallimberti in 1930 is the final version that derived from various reconstruction, restoration and modification through the course of its history. A later addition, the tall bell tower designed by Agostino Miozzo and inaugurated in 1922, holds the 6m tall statue of Sant’ Antonio (by Veronese sculptor Silvio Righetti) on its apex.

  

The Santuario escaped from fire during the winter of 1442-43 when its archive was totally destroyed obliterating valuable records. It was converted to a hospital when the Plague (Black Death) hit Padova in the fourteenth century and during 1509, it housed the headquarters of Emperor Maximilian I of Hapsburg (1459 – 1519) when he besieged Padova. While 90 percent of the Arcella area was destroyed by bombs during World War II, the present church escaped from destruction, together with the original cell in which Antonio died. Like Portiuncula (Porziuncola) within the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, the cell, called La Cella del Transito(the Cell of Transition), was incorporated to the Santuario during 1670-75 and now forms part of the center altar. Over the centuries, its spiritual appeal has grown and numerous Paduan families choose the Santuario for their place of burial.

After the Lent of 1231, Antonio who was staying at Camposampiero fell grievously sick, afflicted with dropsy. He opted to return back to the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini and the convent founded by him in Padova in 1227 or 1229 since according to his will, he desired to be buried there. When the ox-cart carrying Antonio drew closer to Arcella on its way to Padova, his physical condition had worsened and the friars were constrained to take him to a small cell in the friary of the Franciscans attached to the convent of the Poor Clares just outside the city walls. It was in this cell that Antonio had his Sacrament of Reconciliation/Extreme Unctionand sang his favourite hymn glorifying the Virgin Mary (O Gloriosa Domina) which was followed by recital of the seven penitential Psalms before the holy man breathed his last at the sunset of June 13, 1231.

 

The life-size reclining statue inside la cappella del Transito nel santuario dell’Arcella depicts Sant’ Antonio at his death. This statue was sculptured in 1808 by Rinaldo de Rinaldi, one of A. Canova’s pupils and does not represent a truthful resemblance to the saint’s physical appearance sketched out from his skeleton in 1981 by the scientists from the fields of anthropology, anatomy, reconstruction of tissue and plastic moulding. As a reminder of the events of the life of Sant’ Antonio and of his final arrival from Camposanpiero, a historical reenactment of his death is held here in period costumes by the evening of June 12 every year.

Inside the Santuario to the left side lies the uncorrupted body of Blessed Elena (Helena) Enselmini (Elsimi), displayed in a glass and silver reliquary. Born in 1208 (1207?) to the noble family of Enselmini in Padova, she was brought up with the supreme religious principles and untainted ideals of virtue. Named after Flavia Julia Helena, the innkeeper’s daughter who became the mother of Emperor Constantine whom the Christians venerate as Empress St. Helen, at her very young age itself, touched by the examples of absolute poverty and zealous acts of charity of San Francesco, Elena, like St. Clare, wanted to follow the way San Francesco had chosen to imitate Jesus, his source of spiritual inspiration. Having opted to live in the harsh rules of Poor Clares which offered her a life of silence, prayer, fasting, extreme poverty and manual labour, she received the habit of a Poor Clare sister, according to a fresco, from San Francesco himself.

While living in holy obedience at the monastery dell’Arcella, then reputed to be the fourth foundation of the “Order of Poor Clares” in addition to Assisi, Firenze and Faenza, Elena was also fortunate to have met Sant’ Antonio with whom she developed a holy friendship.

Following the death of San Francesco on October 3, 1226, Antonio had returned to Italy in 1227 and was elected ministro provinciale of the Franciscan Order for the Province of Emilia-Romagna, a position he held from 1227 to 1230. Having taken up his last permanent residence at the convent of Santa Maria Mater Domini in Padova in 1228, his periodical visits to Santuario dell”Arcella, provided the great theologian with opportunities to pass on his fruits of experience to Elena, bestowing her with theological education and moral perfection. At the age of eighteen, Elena had turned lame, blind, dumb and later bedridden until her death on November 4, 1231.

The date of “November 4, 1231” provided by me here is based on a placard displayed in front of the chapel of the Blessed Elena inside the Santuario which is founded on a eulogy on parchment discovered in her coffin. Incidentally, there exists a mix-up in the date of expiry of Elena Enselmini of Arcella since some writings stipulate it as November 4, 1242. Whatever authentic documents that would have confirmed the actual date were amongst the records lost during the fire in the winter of 1442-43.

According to The Franciscan Book of Saints, by Marion Alphonse Habig (Publisher: Franciscan Herald Press (1959), Elena is remembered for her patience with the sick and the treatment of many ailments and credited with visions of purgatory. During her lifetime, the sisters had recorded many of her revelations, and after her death, numerous miracles began to occur on behalf of those who had sought her intercession. As per the initiative of San Gregorio Barbarigo, the then Bishop of Padova, she was beatified by Pope Innocent XII on October 29, 1695.

Reminiscent of her own earthly life which had been fraught with difficulties, the mortal remains of Blessed Elena went through many re-interments. During the siege of Padova in 1509 when the Poor Clares moved to Borgo Ognissanti in Firenze (painter Sandro Botticelli (aka. Alessandro Filipepi) would be buried there in 1510 near his beloved Simonetta Vespucci, popularly believed to be the model for the personification of sexual beauty in “The Birth of Venus”) they took the urn containing the sacred body of Elena with them and later to other sister-convents until in 1810, when the convent was closed due to Napoleonic suppressions, the relic was translated to the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio. She was finally interned in the Santuario dell”Arcella on May 5, 1957. In 2007, the clarissa Francescana’s 50th Anniversary of burial was commemorated. The Santuario once dedicated to Virign Mary, is finally re-dedicated to Beata Elena Enselmini and the road outside it is also named after her.

According to contemporary sources, Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714), the great physician from Carpi in the province of Modena in Italy (the founder of occupational medicine and the first professor of practical medicine of the University of Padova), is said to be buried there. Recognised as a doctor in attendance to the nuns of the Santuario, he is the author of “De Morbis Artificum Diatriba” (Diseases of Workers). Ramazzini’s burial in the Santuario is disputed from 1914 onwards since the skeleton believed to be of Ramazzini (81 at the time of his death) in the unmarked tomb was identified to be of a 60-year old abbot of the convent. It is presumed that the actual remains of Ramazzini were lost when the tomb was opened in 1852 and bones removed to facilitate reinforcement and restoration of the Santuario and the oratory. While it is claimed that the remains were returned to the tomb and was properly sealed before the Santuario was consecrated in 1852 and dedicated to San Francesco di Sales, a further study in 2002 revealed that one of the remains of the four individuals found in the tomb, according to carbon dating, is that of Ramazzini.

 

Basilica di Sant’ Antonio                    Basilica di Santa Giustina

Whereas Basilica di Sant’ Antonio is the primary pilgrimage destination in Padova, Basilica di Santa Giustina and Santuario dell”Arcella also form part of a trivium. Saints and mystics were not born saints. They have attained a life of perfection through prayer, meditation and benevolence.

Life improves if you look on the bright side. As you step into these sacred places with a calm self and clear conscience, chances are that your instincts could feel the saints take over the guidance, and if you care to listen closer, you could hear them whisper, imparting their thoughts and inspiration to you, to renew your spirit and uplift the general outlook – something your heart and soul will never regret.

 

Novitiate’s Cloister of the convent attached to Basilica di Sant’ Antonio

As the taxi took us back to Hotel Casa del Pellegrino near Basilica di Sant’ Antonio, the driver expressed his happiness to us for having visited the Santuario which he often frequented, definitely on his birthday, every year. Like his moving taxi, belief follows a path of least resistance! Ciao, Jo

 

(Photos: © JS-CS/Manningtree Archive.)

Viva Britannia – 2: The Churchill Arms, Londres

 

Viva Britannia – 2:  The Churchill Arms, Londres

Notting Hill in London is a nicer place to live. Being a known place to us, that’s where we reside whenever we are in London. It is a fashionable neighbourhood with a bohemian past that still retains traces of the fifties, the vigor and love of the sixties and seventies, blended with the breadth and depth of quiet a mix of renowned musicians, artists, writers and actors who had lived there. The cinemas, the little shops selling merchandise ranging from retro-jewellery to out-of-print and second-hand books to music albums, posters, films, downright dreamy art…. and then there is the “Portobello Road” just around the corner.

 

They say the English seem rather uneasy of colour. But coming back to London after a year we found that Notting Hill still sports the glorious colours of the butterfly’s wing – façades of buildings and shops painted in pastel colours, some festooned with dazzling flowers. In here you see red, blue, green… brilliant colours everywhere, including during the annual Notting Hill Carnival  – especially the red: on the bus, the phone booth, the street signs, Vodafone, Virgin Airways, the British flag …. A flash of “English flare

 

 

 

We had been walking up the familiar Kensington Church Street, famous for its antique shops, and was nearing “The Churchill Arms”, the oldest and historic pub of London, when, good grief!, it rained. Five minutes earlier when we started from the vicinity of Notting Hill Gate Tube Station (Central Line), the sky didn’t betray of ensuing rain. Anyhow, this is England.

 

Sure enough, we went into “The Churchill Arms” for a drink – neither of us would have done it in any other way. I never carry an umbrella for I have a tendency to lose one more often.

 

We have not been to this bar earlier but a customer of our preferred fishmonger at The Fish Shop at Kensington Place had once divulged few good words about this pub. Many a times, we had walked past it while treading through Kensington Church Street which runs up to Kensington High Street past the Prince of Wales pub we used to frequent.

In the Notting Hill Gate area, one of our engrossing joy and fun for the evenings is the “All-Bar-One”, part of a gastro-pub chain where people mix outside their social class. The ambiance is fantastic and you will speak English better – if you can hear above the jive music and energized pub-talk. Evenings are more often crowded with post-work drinking culture and the pulse of the bar keeps beating away late into the night. The pubs are a central part of the English life and culture.

 

The rain was now hammering down outsideThe Churchill Arms. Built in 1750, it was once frequented by the grandparents of Sir Winston Churchill in whose honour it was renamed after the World War II.  The façade of the pub had a vast array of floral tribute – beautiful flowers spilled over from pots and hanging baskets. It is a treat to see all those plants grow together up above the street.

 

People in the hospitality industry say that nothing fails more often than restaurants. However, this watering hole with gorgeous antique interior and patterned carpeting that runs warmly throughout, had developed a character all of its own through the years and is good for lunch, dinner or just drinks. Literally, every part of the wood-paneled walls and ceiling is ornamented with a fantastic collection of Churchill memorabilia and also a good many assortments of utensils, jugs, figurines, photos, picture plates, musical instruments, etc – not surprisingly it provokes worthy-of-note conversation and good reviews. If the tables are all occupied, the full bar counter is available for drinks. Short and to the point, peak hours and Friday/Saturday nights maybe avoided.

 

 

The corner table we occupied, closer to the fireplace, smelled of rosemary… I like the beguiling attribute of that herb. We decided to have a couple of Fuller’s London Pride, a beer with a distinctive flavour (given the opportunity, my German-born wife often enjoys choosing the beer) even though the waitress also politely offered a vast choice of authentic delicacies inspired by Thailand (reasonably priced) served in the adjoining conservatory which we declined due to early hours of the evening. In any case, three weeks later, we had a wonderful meal there.

 

Some reminiscences are recalled with total clarity. Looking back, I could now picture the eyes of that Welsh Spaniel who sat on a chair at a nearby table. He appeared as harmless as a bowl of jelly beans. Spaniels are believed to be originated from Spain and the first reference of a spaniel appears in one of “The Canterbury Tales” of Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

 

His hazel eyes darted across the restaurant at the strange faces engrossed in chatter, his medium length muzzle with the flesh-coloured nose moving constantly, alerting the happy customers of his presence. The English are very careful to avoid sacrificing the privacy. Nobody paid attention to his piercing gaze. All the same, he looked happy and amiable there enjoying the cosy ambiance and warmth of the pub, as if nothing short of his master’s command would have made him leave that chair.

 

The rain has stopped. Once again the light is beautiful and the day has become magical. We left the drinks and prepared to leave the warmth of this pub that rightly preserved the traditionalism of true London. The name says it all … Ciao, Jo

 

 

(Photos © JS-CS/Manningtree Archive)

StarChoice 10: THE FIVE MAN ARMY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StarChoice 3: The Secret of Santa Vittoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

(© JS/Manningtree Archive.)Image