Friday, January 05, 2007

The Best Pleasures are Guilty?

Greenman Tim over at Walking the Berekshires prompts this idle post. His post is about the particularities of his love for good costume dramas. He is all but punctilious in his demand for historical accuracy. After establishing his admirable criteria, he lists, with brief synopses, his top ten as of the writing. I've seen most of his list and concur, so I expect the rest to be worthy of their rental. Or even purchase. Two others, which arrived under the Solstice pole/Hanukkah bush/Christmas tree, are mentioned here in contrast.

To take the least first.
How the West Was Won is Warner Brothers' catalog of their stars, directors, and production crews circa 1962. It took three directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall) to get its 164 minutes in the can. The credits read like a Hollywood who's who from Spencer Tracy through George Peppard and back to John Wayne. The costumes are the sort of 1870's rags a reasonably competent big city high school would muster to suit scenes from 1820 to 1880 -- when we moved from knee britches and peruke's through frock coats to something much closer to the modern suit, and from the external corset through hoops and pantaloons to bustles). The story line, by James B. Webb, is not too bad as it follows one family through three generations up the Erie canal to Ohio, and then over the Oregon trail to California with the obligatory stop over at various points in the Civil War. The dialog will not impose any strain on the understanding of the audience Hollywood made millions writing down to in the fifties and early sixties. Any resident of San Bernadino county will recognize and feel at home in the "South Eastern Ohio" locations. The songs are well integrated, and justified, into the script. People did sing to entertain themselves and Karl Mauldin's rendition of Greensleeves is quite appropriate if you discount the Hollywood sound stage accompaniment and the fifties' gemultlictkeit reworking of the lyrics. Elsewhere the dance hall girls sing dance hall ditties worthy of the Minskys but a tad in advance of Stephen Foster, or the original Mr Bo Jangles of Minstrel show fame.
It does have a redeeming virtue.
Its chase sequences, of which there are many, whether raft against white water rapids, or buffalo herd against American 4-4-0, are superb.

Oh What A Lovely War, OTOH, is a sumptuous delight throughout. From the Wikipedia:
Oh! What a Lovely War began life in 1963 as a stage musical by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, based on The Donkeys by historian Alan Clark, with some scenes adapted from The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech humorist Jaroslav Hašek. It was an ensemble production with no "stars" as such, but Workshop regulars such as Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti and Glynn Edwards played multiple roles. The production transferred intact to Wyndham's Theatre the same year.

I have not seen the stage play. I expect inevitable changes occurred in adapting the stage work to film. Since I have no idea what they are, for once ignorance is bliss. as I can enjoy the film on its own merits which I find large indeed. I first saw this at the Little Art Theatre shortly after its release in 1969. Richard Attenborough directed a marvelous stew of vignettes and period songs which convey in overwhelming terms not so much the dry fact of the age as the feel of what it might be like to have lived in those times. With that emotional connection made, the resonance of WWI to Vietnam and to Iraq appears effortlessly -- unjarringly. Like How the West Was Won, OWALW presents the myrmidons of RADA who perform flawlessly in any class from the cockney sweep in the trenches to the Emperor at his organ console. Lightly, deftly, in perfect period attire against settings real and fantastical (juxtaposed as seamlessly as any schizoids' dreams) the folly of war is raveled before us: The war leader who knows God directs him to spend only a "few" lives more; The brave women who smile their men off to war while inwardly awash in tears and foreboding; the hopeful willingness of the new recruits convinced that the order to stand and run into the machine fire and gas is reasonable and will result in something useful; the junior officers who are in no better state; and the senior officers who know the CinC is mad-wrong-stupid but play the game; not to leave out the media who do their own soft shoe to the whistle accompaniment of Capital. It's all there: the full monty, to use a phrase from a latter day. Its 144 minutes flow past like a mighty stream faster than many a 90 minute standard film. Perhaps the heaviest handed scene is the final helicopter shot which pulls back from a group of women in Flanders field filling the screen with ever diminishing white crosses ever increasing in number. But, by the time we get there it is the only possible finale, and so no heavier than needed.
How the West Was Won is a bit of popcorn munching fun with some good not historically accurate bits. OWALW is a solidly successful entertainment raised to so high a level of art that one wonders why we ever accept mere entertainment.
Aside: There is also Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons to add to Tim's list, with his permission.
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1 comment:

  1. Granted, most gladly. 10 is such an arbitrary number anyway (as were my criteria). Thanks!