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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gunga Din (1939): A classic movie of war and bonding

Rudyard Kipling has a famous poem by the name of Gunga Din, and although this movie cannot be called to represent the poem, it does have elements of the poem along with parts from another of his novels called 'Soldiers Three'. The movie is cited as a classic, a tale of a man's quest to become a honorable soldier while he is currently just a helper to the army. It is also a tale of the comradeship between soldiers, their friendship and dedication to each other. The movie was directed by George Stevens, and was written principally by Fred Guiol and Joel Sayre with contributions from many others. The movie earned one Oscar nomination, with cinematographer Joseph H. August having been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

Gunga Din (1939) starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The movie is set in 1880, near the Kyber Pass in Northwest India (currently the area where there is an extreme amount of tension due to the Taleban); this has been an area where historically, it has been hard to conquer and keep under control. The British had a lot of problem in controlling this area, and fought frequently to keep the rebels at bay. The movie starts with a outpost at Tandipur having been lost, and the Colonel in charge, Colonel Weed (Montagu Love), sends out a team for investigation headed by 3 sergeants MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Cutter (Cary Grant), and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). All 3 of them belong to the Royal Engineers, and are veterans of the campaign. They are not exactly the most disciplined officers, but in a situation of such uncertainty, they would have been the best people to send. They are accompanied by a local water-bearer, the character bearing the name of the movie, Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffe). He aspiration is also to become a soldier of the British Indian Army, and serve the queen.
This detail reaches Tandipur, and finds it deserted - their immediate aim is to secure the place and repair the telegraph. However, they are actually in a trap, and are soon surrounded by attackers, through whom the detail has to fight its way out, and they are successful in that. Back at their base, one of the captured weapons is identified as belonging to the Thuggees (a cult that had been suppressed in the recent past, but apparently is again resurgent).
These 3 sergeants are the key to the movie, and one of the 3 is Ballantine who is doing the unthinkable, leaving the army to marry Emmy Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and go into the tea business. The other 2 sergeants cannot fathom as to how he can do this. Combine this with the fact that Gunga Din reports about a temple made of gold to Cutter (getting Cutter terribly interested), something that gets Cutter put in the stockade to prevent him from running away. Cutter however does manage to run away, helped by Gunga Din, heading to the temple where he is caught by the Thugs; Gunga Din escapes to get the rescue team.
The detail now goes to the rescue of Cutter, entering into a fight with the Thugs; the fight eventually costs Gunga Din his life, but not before he has sounded the alarm and got the Army to come in and defeat the Thugs. In death, Gunga Din manages to be inducted as a soldier, something that he always wanted.
The movie is a classic, full of action, adventure, comedy, male bonding, and a movie that is bound to be seen as a throwback to the past in these politically correct times.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It has happened many times that a movie was a box-office disaster when it was released, panned by critics, and having a negative effect on the careers of people involved; and then, over a period of time, the movie was re-evaluated and got more fame over a period of time. One of the movies that is a prominent member of this category is called 'Bringing up Baby', released in 1938. The movie, set as a screwball comedy (at a time when not too many people knew this term) involving a scientist needing a final item to complete his dinosaur skeleton (and needing a donation of 1 million dollars from a wealthy lady) gets involved into a series of mis-steps involving a jaguar called 'Baby' being shepherded by the lovely heiress Katherine Hepburn (also the niece of the rich lady).

Bringing Up Baby (1938) starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

The movie was based on a story by Hagar Wilde (and adopted into a screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde), directed by Howard Hawks. At that time, the effect of the disaster was such that Hawks was fired from the next movie that he was supposed to direct; similarly Katherine Hepburn was also affected by this disaster. Now, of course, the movie is considered a classic, generating money, and earmarked among several of the top 100 movie lists.
The movie is about this paleontologist called David Huxley (Cary Grant). He is other mind-mannered with one passion, he has been trying to assemble the skeleton of a Brontosaurus, and is now just one bone short. He is also supposed to get married to another boring colleague; and most of all, he is expecting a donation of 1 million dollars for his museum from a rich lady called Mrs. Random. And then he meets Susan (played by Katherine Hepburn) one day before his wedding. Katherine is free, vivacious, spirited, who also happens to be the niece of the rich Mrs. Random (although David does not know this).
Katherine has been sent a pet jaguar called Baby by her brother for passing onto her aunt. Susan has the belief that David is actually a zoologist and can help her in the matter of Baby. When David is there with her, she starts loving him, and trying to get ways to keep him there in order to avoid him leaving to marry his colleague. In addition to this situation, there are more complications in the shape of a dog who steals the last bone and buries it, Mrs. Random arrives, Baby runs off (and they mistakenly release another jaguar from the nearby circus, who is certainly not tame). These 2 must now resolve all these issues, while ensuring that the million dollar donation is still on track, Baby is retrieved; a major complication is that the local bumbling policeman has put them in the local jail.
This is a must watch movie for the fast dialog delivery, the utter comedy, the situations that seem totally improbable, and the excellent timing.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Battleship Potemkin is a classic Russian movie, released in 1925. It is a silent movie, also known by another name 'he Battleship Potyomkin' as well as by the Russian name of 'Bronyenosyets Potyomkin'. The movie was directed by Sergei Eisenstein, and was based on the real life story of the actual crew of the Russian naval ship of the same name during 1905, oppressed by the naval officers of the Tsarist regime that was ruling Russia around that time.
The movie has been so famous that the history of the ship is defined more by the movie rather than by history books. The movie was famous also for its graphic violence (not seen in movies of that time) as well as to be a propaganda movie to get sympathy for the crew of the ship. This attempt worked so well on viewers that the Nazi propaganda spinner, Joseph Goebbels, was very admiring of the movie for its attempt to sell a political story in a simple yet powerful way.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The zeal of the movie director to sway audiences imparted a revolutionary approach that caused the movie to run afoul of sensors in many countries, with the movie either banned or scenes cut; it was only over a period of time that the movie was restored with cut sections to audiences all over. The movie had some classic scenes, but the most striking was the scene of the Czar's Cossack soldiers marching down steps (the Odessa steps) and firing into the crowd of civilians who had come to watch the ship arrive.
The movie takes the true story of the rebellion on board the Russian naval ship Battleship Potemkin in the year 2005. There was discontent against the oppressive officers of the Tzar, and there was a plan to have an uprising. However, the uprising was started earlier on the battle-ship when the sailors protested against having to eat maggot infested meat that the ship's officers and doctor had certified as being fit for human consumption. This was the first element of the movie, with the movie being essentially divided into 5 parts:
1. Men and maggots
2. Drama at the harbour: The sailors rise up and their leader, Vakulynchuk, is killed
3. A dead man calls for Justice: The civilians at Odessa mourn the dead
4. The massacre of civilians at Odessa where the Czar's soldiers kill the civilians on the steps
5. "The Rendez-Vous with a Squadron where the squadron joins the sailors instead of crushing them
After the mutiny, the sailors go different ways. The ones who returned or were induced to return were executed or jailed, and the others went to different countries such as Romania, Argentina and Ireland.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Night of the Hunter (1955): The psychotic horror

Horror is not only about things that creak in the night, or about other such stuff that is tried to scare you. The concept of a crazed human being, who otherwise looks perfectly normal, and who kills and terrorises others, can be very scary. Especially, when this is done by someone who takes their time over this, willing to wait for a certain period of time before carrying out their mission. No matter that it takes time, the mission is uppermost in the mind of this individual, and he or she does not care about the feelings of others, or that if necessary, other human beings can be killed.
The Night of the Hunter is a movie acknowledged to be a 'film noir' movie, although there are people who absolutely love the movie, and there are others who cannot understand why the movie is so liked; after all, the characters are not really daily life, the story may not be so plausible, and the acting is considered by some to be over-done.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

When the movie was released, it was not met with rapture by critics, but over a period of 4 decades, the movie has been shown on Television multiple times, and has acquired a cult following (to the extent that the movie is now believed to be a top 100 movie; it is also regularly listed among the most scary movies of all time). The movie was directed by a one-time director, Charles Laughton, who was much more famous as a Academy Award winning actor, and screen-writer. The movie stars Robert Mitchum in the main role as the demented killer.
Night of the Hunter was based on a book of the same name by author David Grubb, and both were based on the real life story of Harry Powers (executed in 1932 for being the main accused in the murder of 2 women and 3 children). The story was powerful, but the style of the movie - it combines religious overdone, a Brothers Grimm type fairy tale in the middle, and a stalker who is most ruthless.
The movie is about the self-styled preacher, Harry Powell (Mitchum) who is sharing a prison cell with a man Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who is sentenced to hang for his part in a robbery in which killings happened. He alone knows where the money is hidden, and only tells his children (John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce)) where the money is located. He does not tell anyone else, not even his wife. Powell tries to get Harper to tell him where the money is located, but no dice; however he does get an elusive clue from Harper in the manner of a quote uttered in sleep "And a child shall lead them". This is enough to convince Powell that the children know where the money is located.
Once he is out, there is a single minded quest to get the money, and to be near the children, he manages to get Harper's widow Willa to marry him. However, even on questioning, the children do not trust him and do not tell him anything. Willa eventually finds out, and Powell then kills her. After Willa, Powell uses threat and manages to get them to tell him the location, but then escape with the money on a boat ride (a most fantastic ride) and find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lilian Gish). Powell searches for them, and finds Rachel, but she manages to hold him off, and then the police arrive.