Friday, April 23, 2010

The Idiots Have Landed

I should have suspected that Clash of the Titans was going to be an absolute fetid pile of dog toffee the moment it kicked off with a dreadfully lumpen prologue. Explaining in far too much detail who the key Gods were, and preparing the way for the eventual coming of the Kraken, it laid all the cards out on the table in such a crass way that I wondered if, before donning the useless 3D glasses, I was meant to have driven a stiletto through my frontal lobe.

Of course that might be an unfair assertion because I had a Latin master at prep school who would ease us into the week by setting aside the declensions and their cases and instead spending the Monday morning lesson teaching us about Roman History. So from an early age I knew about the Gods and their mythology, and subsequently their Greek counterparts. Soon after an introduction to the Norse myths came simply from reading issues of Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor. Whether most kids get that kind of introduction today is another matter. With so many distractions and the little feckers running riot most teachers have enough trouble trying to instil the three Rs without complicating the basic curriculum.

So there’s nothing wrong with a brief introduction per se. Disney’s Hercules – which covered some of the same territory and had an infinitely better Hades, voiced by James Woods, as opposed to Ralph Fiennes taking a big cheque to wear a bad wig – set the stage with The Muses introducing the characters in their song and dance number. But at least that opening was there from the get go. I neither know nor care if Clash of the Titans had a troubled production but on screen, as it stumbled through a seriously fractured narrative, the prologue seemed like the product of a radical re–edit, similar to The Golden Compass, whose introduction spelt out so much about the parallel universes connected by dust, the witches, Gyptians, alethiometer and the Magisterium that it seemed pointless to carry on.

Since a mainstream film’s structure has long been in the hands of the twerpy young Angelenos that make up preview audiences as much as the filmmakers, I wonder if detailed prologues are going to become a regular fixture for future releases. I mention this because last week I was staggered to read a blog post from a resident of LA who had watched The Eagle Has Landed and hadn’t been able to make sense of it. Released here and in the US in 1977, John Sturges’ adaptation of Jack Higgin’s novel featured German paratroopers being dropped into Norfolk with orders to kidnap Winston Churchill and deliver him to Berlin. It’s basically Ealing Studios’ Went the Day Well? – itself based on Graham Greene’s short story, The Lieutenant Died Last – but with a more clearly defined objective.

This girl’s issues with the film were actually twofold. The casting of American, British and European actors as German characters threw her to begin with, especially since Robert Duvall (wearing what she described as a “stereotypical German uniform”) spoke with a very clear German accent while “another guy” dressed in an unfamiliar uniform, which she believed was a German naval uniform, spoke with “a very distinct British accent”. So when they discussed kidnapping Churchill her confusion of the differing accents led her to think the British guy was a spy. It got even more confusing when Michael Caine eventually appeared on screen, speaking in “some kind of hybrid accent and wearing a completely different unfamiliar uniform”, and “saving Jews from concentration camps”. To confound her even more, “[t]hen Donald Sutherland shows up and speaks with an Irish accent. But he’s actually playing an Irishman.”

Given that The Eagle Has Landed is regarding as a classic Boy’s Own wartime adventure yarn, and not exactly particularly taxing on the brain, my initial response was to simply laugh like a drain at the sheer depth of stupidity on display and forget it as best I could. But one thing that still rankled was her mistakenly labelling all the German characters as “Nazis”, so after digging out the DVD, which had come free with one of the nationals some time back, and watching it again to refresh my memory, I tried my best to put her right.

The way I saw it, the ignorance of youth was to blame for her confusion rather than the production, especially when it came to not knowing that not everyone in Germany during the Second World War, either in the services or simply civilians, was a member of National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or that in the armed services there was a difference between the regular Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS – with the former not always seeing eye–to–eye with the latter. Many of the war movies made during the 1960s and 70s, such as The Guns of Navarone, would show tensions between the high-ranking regular army officers and the token member of the SS, and The Eagle Has Landed was no different, actually using that divide as a plot point.

Still she did recognize the regular officer’s uniform Duvall’s Oberst Radl and the other guy – who was in fact Sir Anthony Quayle – was indeed wearing a naval uniform. Though how he was dressed might not have been as familiar, the fact that he was continually addressed as “Herr admiral” might have been a bit of a give away. In the same vein, Michael Caine’s Kurt Steiner and his men were established as decorated paratroops before they make an appearance and travelling through Poland, obviously on the way back from Russia, were outfitted in reversible winter uniforms. Even if each of the main characters was wearing something entirely different, all were decorated with the Iron Cross or Knight’s Cross and there were enough insignias on display to make the point that they were all German.

As for the accents, it always seems to be an unwritten rule in these films of such daring–do that English actors would usually just add a slight Germanic lilt to their voice if they were playing one of the beastly Hun. It didn’t always work, and in The Eagle Has Landed Michael Caine’s mangled pronunciation of Berchtesgaden is always good for a giggle, but that’s the way it goes. Since it was also commonplace to have at least one or two American stars to help sell it to American audiences, those actors tended to elicit a much stronger affectation to disguise their own native accent. One thing Robert Duvall’s accent has going for it is that it doesn’t have anything like the formal, and occasionally distracting, pronunciation used in his portrayal of Dr Watson in the Nicholas Meyer–scripted The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, made in the same year.

And as for a Canadian playing an Irishman with an Irish accent, there’s little else to be said about that. But I did wonder if she had the same problems watching the more recent Valkyrie, which had any number of Brits playing German officers and Tom Cruise starting out in the light–sand coloured uniform of the Afrika Korps. Leaving the BFI Southbank last Friday, I mentioned this to a couple of the people in attendance as we stopped for a quick drink before I headed on toward Piccadilly to meet up with the Persian Princess who had been attending an event at BAFTA, and their immediate response once they finished laughing was, this poor girl better not see Where Eagles Dare then. That would put her in a whole world of brain hurt.

So I sent a response, which duly appeared in the comments followed by her reply that it was “all well and good but [filmmakers] cannot possibly expect [their] audience to know that much about any era if [they] want them to enjoy a film. I shouldn't have to study before I go see a movie.” One of her other grievances had been that “the beginning of the film was so talky. They keep naming characters who aren’t in the scene so when we finally meet those characters I’m not sure – is this the guy they were talking about? Is he German too?”

Aside from Churchill, I thought the only character who is really talked up ahead of their entrance in The Eagle Has Landed is Caine’s Oberst Kurt Steiner. But watching the opening ten or fifteen minutes of the film again Radl and his aide and Quayle’s Admiral Canaris, name–check Hitler; Himmler (who makes a brief appearance onscreen, played with a weasel–like intensity by Donald Pleasence); Goebbels; Mussolini; Göring and Karl Jung (and it would be doubtful we would see him taking up arms). I know it’s sixty–five years now since the end of the Second World War, but aren’t those names, and most of their faces, still familiar?

How soon will it be before producers and directors making any kind of period film have to bolt on an explanatory prologue because a clueless younger audience simply can’t get the gist of what’s going on? If this girl doesn’t know, then she doesn’t know and it’s not her fault. Although the most alarming aspect about her having difficulty in following this particular plot is that while trying to make it as a screenwriter she has a day job as a teacher. So if we have to suffer the ongoing infantilization of cinema, maybe the first thing to do is blame it all on the schools.


At 10:47 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

It seems ironic. Here's a generation that can tell you the distinctions between Sith and Jedi and rebel alliance and all the additional cod politics that Lucas has kept throwing in, while those of us around for the first STAR WARS still can't put the sequels in order... yet this woman won't apply the same interpretive radar to a story from her own universe.

EAGLE was a better book than the movie, as I remember it; the one that lifted journeyman Higgins/Patterson to the heights of the bestseller lists and then left him there to continue on his journeyman way, selling bigger numbers of much the same stuff that he'd been writing before.

(That probably sounds less respectful than I mean it to be.)

I saw the movie in Oslo, with added Norwegian subtitles, sometime around 1980 when I was backpacking solo up the coast to the Arctic Circle. Researching for a book of my own, hoping - I suppose - that eventually I'd find the same kind of break as Patterson.

At 3:22 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Well, I’ve just wasted a good ten minutes of my life just trying to remember the actual titles of the prequel sequels – let alone getting their order mixed up. But then I still refer to the original film as Star Wars.

And of course we are living in a time where one in ten school kids surveyed thought Buzz Lightyear was the first man on the moon – with Sir Richard Branson, cyclist Lance Armstrong and Luke Skywalker runners–up. Or that Charles Darwin, Noel Edmonds and The Queen were responses when they were asked who had invented the telephone.

There’s nothing wrong with a brief setup, like the intertitles that appear at the beginning of Black Hawk Down, giving the audience a brief insight into the political situation in Mogadishu, without spelling out what was to come. And of course I forgot to mention that The Eagle Has Landed itself beginnings with a prologue, using a voice over and found footage to remind the audience that Otto Skorzeny had led a mission to release Mussolini from captivity after he was deposed. Obviously not essential to the story, it was no doubt dropped in to suggest that what follows over the next couple hours isn’t as far–fetched as some might think.

For a long time The Eagle Has Landed was the only Higgins book that I’d read, when it first came out in paperback. The only thing I remember about it was the opening with the German graves in the English churchyard, which instantly flagged up Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?. Then a few years back when The Times, in conjunction with Harper Collins, had a promotion where you could buy a different novel each week for a quid with the newspaper. The first year they did it there quite an interesting selection of books. The next year it looked like they were simply trying to shift soon–to–be–remaindered stock. For one of those weeks Higgins’ earlier Toll For The Brave was the book on offer. I can’t say it was all that impressive. Just checking on Amazon, I was surprised to see Jack Higgins/Harry Patterson was still going, so good on him to have found an audience through that breakthrough novel and hung on to it, quality be damned.

At 3:51 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

And forgetting to mention at the end of the previous comment, I suppose it was the backpacking trip that informed Follower.

At 6:05 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Well spotted!

At 11:37 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

My favourite prologue is that to All About Eve: surely one of the most outrageously daring openings in cinema in that it is a lengthy voice-over (by George Sanders) accompanying images of people sitting around listening to a speech that we can't hear at an awards dinner. That really shouldn't work...

The Word Verification word on this post, by the way, was "encod". Definition: "Fishy work in spy-school."

At 4:32 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ah, All About Eve, one of the many films that falls into the category 'They don't make them like that anymore'.


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