War movies use the image of the young man through exaltation. It’s a cinematic method that wouldn’t seem fitting for a genre with a predominantly masculine audience unless we realize that this male-on-male gaze, more dominant in the last three decades’ box office returns, is a fantastical version of the innocence we thought we used to have. Similarly, contemporary filmmaker Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, co-written by David Williamson, starts with the picaresque backyard stories of blonde Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), who would have otherwise existed if Katharine Hepburn and James Remar had a love child. In his Australian home turf he gets challenged twice, by his uncle training him to be a medal-winning runner and by a cowboy who conventionally thinks that he can ride a horse faster than Archy can run.
The second face is young Mel Gibson’s as a Archy’s tougher and more cynical counterpart Frank, who goes through multiple transformations, job titles, states of dress and occasional undress depending on situations he faces mostly without reluctance.
The two of them meet in a running competition and become unlikely friends, both craving the adventures that bigger cities like Perth and Cairo can offer. Archy treats the war as a way to see the world like his grandfather did, despite his uncle’s protestations of a world that has changed for the most dangerous. Nonetheless they race more than once in the movie, each challenge becoming more fraternal, treating, as the cliché would say, the world like their playground which is more of Archy’s philosophy than Frank’s.
Our first impressions of these epic actions are, again, Archy’s face and the surprising determination from his lean figure that we forget that he didn’t want to wait for the train and made Frank cross the desert to Perth with him, a difficult feat that in which he succeeds effortless. Frank stumbles before Archy does and the latter comes to save him and continues to do so no matter what country they’re in. It’s a character building experience yet both men survive that trial almost unscathed – instead of chapped lips and un-moisturized faces like those in Sergio Leone movies, all they have are dusty clothes. And during the trip he convinces Frank to join up, inadvertently promising women’s admiration and his prolonged friendship.There’s a subtext of class warfare more voiced out by supporting characters and minor plot lines and I even watch out for times when one young man is winning a race over the other but these two major characters disregard that, belonging within this story which is simply about two people who make each other happy.
In other words Archy has the same spirit of his English forebears, that optimistic underestimation that they try to hold on to for as long as they can. Their titular destination isn’t as well-known in their and this part of the world, bearing a name that the characters can hardly pronounce, which surprisingly attracts them to conquer it. They don’t heed warnings of their superiors of Cairo’s liquor and women, as if that’s the only source of their downfall. Weir thankfully allows them to have their fun, accusing a store for overcharging them for Egyptian knickknacks and hiring local prostitutes, bearing this philosophy that they should do these things if they die the next day. Both runners race again to the pyramids. Ironically, Weir sees Egypt as Australia’s twin country, both being arid locales. Because of the heat he outfits his characters with light pastel colours and later with uniform shorts, looking more like boy scouts than military men.
Being one of Weir’s earlier work it’s easy to see his signature, more of an epic movie and a more colourful tribute to David Lean thanks to Russell Boyd’s cinematography. Instead of choosing to portray destruction, Weir is more concerned more about the myth of invincibility. His depiction of the desert or the sea his glossy yet mostly survivable for the men of our past. Even when he gets to the movie’s perfunctory ‘waste of war’ section, he directs his actors with care, playing off Lee’s smiles with Gibson’s blossoming expressiveness, one of the only directors in memory who doesn’t satirize and instead, lets complexity shine through a mask of optimism, which is a mask we can live with. Image via horroria.
The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.
I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.
I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.
Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.
Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70′s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.
Long story long, while looking for reviews of Andrei Rublev on Google, I read the one from a blog called Precious Bodily Fluids. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, yes, my blog name’s still weirder. His blog post on the film is the second or third entry on Google by the way, whoo hoo.
Anyway, while he writes about he movie he also mentions six other epic films. Lists suck, but that doesn’t stop me from making them. Gone with the Wind, Seven Samurai, Ben-Hur 1959, The Leopard, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, The Thin Red Line. And yes, it’s mostly a boy’s club. Just for when you were wondering.
Andrei Tarkovsky‘s first film Andrei Rublev, like his later films, is known for his impressionistic environments inhabited by characters who exist as poetic entities. He’s also known for making movies with a long duration period. Both elements don’t make the best combination for me, but the film does have a lot of merits. Also, watch the film on the big screen if you can. The tenebrism and the close-ups look better in that format.
Nonetheless, the film for me doesn’t really start until three icon painters, Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), Danill (Nikolai Grinko), and Andrei (Anatoli Solonitsyn) set off and stop their rainy journey on a barn where a jester (Rolan Bykov) is performing for other townsfolk. His performance is physical, lively, lewd. The townsfolk repeat awatered down version of his song. Andrei stares and observes the jester like every other kid who didn’t know that staring is bad manners. He sees the man after the performance, tired but not necessarily in agony. He might even feel a camaraderie with the man, unappreciated for his talents that he exhausts himself for. Kirill steps in and says that the devil brought jesters into the world, although Andrei doesn’t show that he agrees with Kirill. The content of the jester’s song reached to some authorities, who have him arrested.
Kirill enters Theophanes the Greek‘s home. Kirill praises him and criticizes the man Theophanes has asked about – Andrei Rublyov. This is pretty much where I drool and bring up my art history background. Fifteenth century Russian icons were at the tail end on the Medieval chapter. All I knew about the era were Italians. Another impression I had of the Byzantine/Orthodox art was its rigidity, and that the image was more important. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention about the superstars of the era, which Theophanes has been and Andrei, at this part of the story, could potentially be. Anyway, Kirill’s main criticism of Andrei is that the latter didn’t seem to believe. Imparting his ‘opinion’ to the master, Kirill pleads for a public appointment to be the latter’s apprentice.
Theophanes hilariously – just to me – chooses the younger, more handsome Andrei instead, making Kirill really angry and denounces the monastery where they all live. Andrei then embarks on a second journey, the beginning of a new section in his life where he’ll see memorable sights and events along the way. These demonic moments eventually follow him through the town of Vladimir, where he’s commissioned. At least one does he take part in the lustful, violent world he only knows through theory, a Russia he hasn’t really been exposed to. He neither becomes lustful nor violent, but his experiences in this part of the plot posts the film’s real conundrum. Whether he’s passing through hell, passing through the real Russia, wondering how human beings can let a world become this degenerate and if all this exposure, participation and sympathy for evildoers makes someone a good or bad person. Tarkovsky doesn’t answer the questions more easily for us by depicting these devilish images with beauty, the long takes used to capture them letting his audience contemplate on moral dualities.
The Tatars raid Vladimir, and more than a decade later, many of the characters around Andrei have died, and those who haven’t are destroyed. The jester has little sense of humour left in him, and his bitter towards Andrei and accuses the latter of putting him in jail. He points out that Andrei has lost his looks, which isn’t Andrei’s biggest problem since Andrei has turned down work for a decade. The two are opposite a young bell maker’s son Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev) trying to fill his father’s shoes, energizing the town in the process. Andrei observes the kid as he ha observed the jester in the past, as the audience wonders how the child’s efforts affect Andrei and his rusting talents.