Category: Cult films

Escape to Victory (1981)

Escape to Victory (1981)

The sort of odd movie pitch that could only have been made in the 80’s: it’s a POW film – but with footballers! And Stallone in goal! Cult nonsense, but fun.

Director: John Huston

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Captain Robert Hatch), Michael Caine (Captain John Colby), Pelé (Cpl Luis Fernandez), Max von Sydow (Major Karl von Steiner), Bobby Moore (Terry Brady), Osvaldo Ardilles (Carlos Rey), Paul von Himst (Michel Fileu), Kazimier Deyna (Paul Wolchek), Hallvar Thoresen (Gunnar Hilsson), Mike Summerbee (Sid Harmor), Russell Osman (Doug Cluire), John Wark (Arthur Hayes), Daniel Massey (Colonel Waldron), Tim Pigott-Smith (Major Rose), Carole Laure (Renee)

It’s possibly the most bizarre idea in movies. An old-school, boy’s-own-adventure about POWs starring a Panini sticker album’s worth of footballers, led by Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone playing the Germans (actually represented by a team of ringers from the New York Cosmos) in a ‘friendly’ football match in Paris. Oh, and it’s directed by John Huston. Who thought this one up?

Needless to say Escape to Victory is a cult hit. Caine plays professional footballer John Colby, his career interrupted by internment in a POW camp, challenged to an exhibition match by football-mad Major von Steiner (Max von Sydow). When von Steiner’s bosses turns the game into a propaganda vehicle, Colby is under intense pressure to pull out. When he refuses – not wanting to put his players lives at risk, some of whom (the Eastern European ones) have been rescued from labour camps – instead he is asked to accommodate a daring escape plan, led by American Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) who joins as ‘trainer’ and back-up goalie. With the match scheduled, a plan is formed: the team will escape at half time. But will the players abandon the game, or will sporting pride kick in?

Well, what do you think? The whole film is a build up to the game. Are they really going to leave it at 4-1 to the Germans? The pedestrian opening two thirds of the film can pass you by. You certainly feel it passed John Huston by (if you ever want to see a great director do a pay cheque movie, watch this). The film settles into familiar rhythms of both genres (sports and POW movies) mashed together. For the latter; forgers, escape committees, roll-calls, daring escape attempts over and under wire, muttered attempts to board trains with fake papers are all dutifully ticked-off. Nothing unusual: the interest is all in the sports film.

And if you are going to make a sports film – crammed with training montages – who else would you hire than a dream list of footballers to perform them. And no footballer was more of a God-like figure than Pelé. Welcome to the only film the Greatest Player Ever made (as soon as he opens his mouth, you’ll see why). Alongside him England’s legendary World Cup winner Bobby Moore, charming Argentinian Ossie Ardilles (not trusted with a line), several other internationals from across Europe and (filling out the numbers) half a dozen players from Ipswich Town (though, to be fair, John Wark might just be the best actor). Most of the best parts involve watching these stars go through their paces.

Michael Caine – who only took the film so he could say he had genuinely played with Pelé – anchors all this reasonably well (even though, at 47, he looks noticeably out-of-shape considering he’s playing an international footballer at the peak of his career). The role of Colby is no stetch for him, but Caine conveys carrying responsibility rather well, and there is some decent material as he butts heads against the unhappy upper-class officers who want him to tell the Germans to shove it.

The officers – decent performances from Daniel Massey and Tim Pigott-Smith among others – point out the Germans won’t give them a sporting chance. But, this is the sort of film where boy’s own pride kicks in, and we get a classic ‘let’s show em’ attitude. This culminates, of course, in the half-time planned escape attempt being aborted as the players protest “We can win this!” and the side head back out for the second half (and, of course, glory).

It’s a big shout as our heroes take a heck of a drubbing in the first half. (This despite Caine’s ahead-of-his-time coaching advice to make the ball do the running, which sounds like tika-taka seventy years early – was Escape to Victory required viewing in Spanish football academies?). To the disappointment of von Steiner – our token ‘Good German’ played with his customary professionalism of von Sydow – who gave his word it would be a fair game, his superiors hire “a very good referee” who will “make no mistakes”. German tackles fly in un-punished, a dubious penalty is awarded and Pelé’s ribs are broken in a filthy foul forcing the team to play with ten men. Those dirty, cheating Germans! Thank goodness Bobby Moore scores to give them a chance.

Every star player gets their moment in the spotlight, most of all Pelé who scores with a trademark bicycle kick. (I wonder if Pelé counted this one in his career goals record?) It’s a breath-taking piece of skill – von Steiner even proves his “Decent German” credentials by rising to applaud (to the fury of his fellow officers). Our heroes pull it back to 4-4 before having a goal disallowed for a false off-side (mind you it feels less inexplicable in an age where VAR chalks off goals for offside elbows). Then of course the Germans are awarded a penalty as the last kick of the game after a fair tackle by Ardiles.

And so, we come to Stallone. Perhaps the most inexplicable thing in this, the Italian Stallion at least convinces as a man who knows nothing about football. Looking trim, Stallone handles most of the POW and escape stuff (and a token romance subplot with a French resistance fighter) but of course space had to be made for him in the game. So, he plays as keeper (the team’s first choice keeper volunteers for Caine to break his arm so Stallone can be released from lock-up to play in the film’s most difficult to watch moment). Stallone wanted to score the winning goal, but was told that was unlikely for a keeper, so instead he saves the penalty to preserve the moral victory. Stallone mumbles his way through the film, feeling bizarrely out of place, but he was the big star.

Escape to Victory is a truly bizarre thing. But it’s got a fun football game in it and as sort of exhibition match it’s a bit of a treat. And watching it shortly after the passing of Pelé, it feels almost like a rather lovely tribute.

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Marlene Dietrich with a beloved friend (and the film has fun with that rumour) in The Scarlet Empress

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Empress Catherine), John Lodge (Count Alexey Razumovsky), Sam Jaffe (Emperor Peter III), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizaveta Petrovna), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince Christian August), Gavin Gordon (Captain Orlov), Olive Tell (Joanna Elizabeth), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizaveta), Davison Calrk (Arch Episcopope), Erville Anderson (Chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin)

Did von Sternberg have a bet on when he made this film? “Hey Josef, what’s the maddest film you think you could make and get away with?” Either that, or perhaps he didn’t care anymore and decided his own obsessions with visuals, sexuality and Dietrich were more important than anything else. Regardless, he made The Scarlet Empress, perhaps one of the most bizarre major releases from a 1930s Studio, a sort of camp masterpiece that contains things you just won’t see any in other film, but at the same time is a disjointed, barely plotted ramble through a fable-tinged version of Russian history. Either way, it’s a truly unique film – and how many films can you say that about?

The plot loosely follows the rise of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) to power, but any resemblance to real people (living or dead) seems to be purely coincidental. Catherine arrives in Russia to power the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), a gurning simpleton more interested in his soldiers (both toys and real ones) and his mistress Elizaveta (Ruthelma Stevens) than Catherine. Russia is ruled by his mother Empress Elizaveta (Louise Dresser), a domineering matriarch. The (initially) innocent Catherine is admired by the rakeish Count Alexey (John Lodge), but must learn to master the skills of the court – and the sensuality of her own body – to take power.

The Scarlet Empress is pretty crazy. If you are coming here for a history lesson on Catherine the Great, keep on walking. Josef von Sternberg called it “a relentless excursion into style” and that’s a pretty good description. It’s a parade of his fascinations (and obsessions), set in a Russia that never really existed but I suspect Sternberg would argue ‘shouldhave done’. This is Russia as a medieval backwater, built entirely from Cossacks, icons and gargoyles, with the Russian court a ramshackle wooden palace with a throne that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. Much of the sense of time and place is buried under this and huge chunks of the film may as well be silent cinema, so little does dialogue matter and so skilfully are emotions and events communicated visually.

However, grab this in the right mood and this is a film it’s impossible not to admire and even fall in love with a little bit. There really is nothing like this, and like much of Sternberg’s work there is a visual sweep and drama here that few other filmmakers can match. There are some truly striking images, from Cossacks riding through the palace, to Sam Jaffe’s gargoyle like face as Grand Duke Peter, to a giant drill bit punching through the eye of a wooden icon. The jaw dropping production design – sets that dwarf the actors – is mixed with misty lighting for romantic assignations and deep shadows for (literally) backstairs court intrigue.

In all this, the story counts for very little, with the primary focus being Sternberg’s obsessions. Many of those seem to be sexual. The Scarlet Empress was released right on the cusp of the Production Code being enforced in Hollywood – and it’s hard to imagine it could ever have been passed once the code was fully enforced. The film lays it’s hand out early with an S&M tinged Russian torture montage (with naked women in iron maidens, whippings, beheadings and a giant bell with the clapper replaced by a human being) and hardly stops from there. Later montages feature explosions of Peter’s soldiers, looting, shooting and orgying across Russia.

The primary lesson Catherine needs to learn in Russia is to use the power of her own sexuality. The idea of politics is even openly rejected by Catherine in favour of mastering her seductive powers. Initially a blushing, mousy innocent, she becomes increasingly coquettish and seductive as the film unfolds. In an early scene she nervously fingers a riding crop – by later in the film she’s bending it in her hands with all the confidence of a Dominatrix. Lovers come and go, as she wins supporters over to her side (she “added the army to her list of conquests” a caption deadpans at one point). Trysts grow in confidence, as Dietrich’s performance progresses from innocence to dominant knowingness.

Dietrich is as close as she’s been to a prop here, striking a series of poses in a performance that’s largely campily two dimensional. For the first 70 minutes she’s given almost nothing to do other than strike a bemused face: for the remaining 40 minutes she’s like Sternberg’s wet dream of a sexually aggressive domineering woman. Basic notes are what most of the cast are kept to, fitting the impression that they are just props in a silent film. John Lodge scowls and poses as Count Alexey and is as wooden as most of the set. Sam Jaffe is one of the gargoyles made flesh. Louise Dresser is an older version of the sexual kingpin Catherine becomes.

But that’s because it’s all about the mood and the style. The Scarlet Empress has that in absolute spades. It’s as close as you can get in the 1930s to a director of a major Hollywood studio film, pouring money into something that maybe only he will like. It’s silent film roots can be seen not only in its vast impressionistic sets, but also in the steady parade of title cards that dance across the screen to communicate what passes for the story. Acting and story are very much secondary to the mood of sexual exuberance and craziness that dominates nearly every frame of the action. The film was a massive bomb on release – perhaps because no one else could quite work out what it was – and it’s taken decades for its overblown mad genius to be recognised. But it’s a film unlike any other and for that alone you should see it.

The Dam Busters (1955)

Richard Todd leads the most famous bombing raid ever in The Dam Busters

Director: Michael Anderson

Cast: Richard Todd (Wing Commander Guy Gibson), Michael Redgrave (Barnes Wallis), Ursula Jeans (Mrs Molly Wallis), Basil Sydney (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris), Patrick Barr (Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers), Ernest Clark (Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane), Derek Farr (Group Captain John Whitworth)

It’s famous for its stirring theme. Those bouncing bombs. The fact that George Lucas, while still completing the special effects, spliced in the final bombing runs into his first cut of Star Wars. But where does The Dam Busters sit today as a film? 

In 1942, aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is working on a plan to take out the German dams on the Ruhr, a strike that could cripple German heavy industry. Conventional bombs can never cause enough damage, and the dams are protected from torpedo attack. So Wallis has a crazy idea – to build a bouncing bomb that will skim the top of the water, hitting the dam, with its top spin taking it down to the base of the dam for detonation. It’s a crazy idea – but it finally wins favour, with Wing Commander Guy Gibson (played by real-life World War II paratroop veteran Richard Todd) given command over an operation that promises to be risky and dangerous beyond belief.

The Dam Busters doesn’t really have much in the way of plot, being instead a rather straight-forward, even dry in places, run through of the mechanics involved in planning the operation and overcoming the engineering difficulties that stood in the way of the operation. Throw into that our heroes overcoming the various barriers and administrative hiccups put in the way by the authorities and you have a pretty standard story of British pluck and ingenuity coming up with a left-field solution that saves the day. (Though Barnes Wallis denied he faced any bureaucratic opposition like the type his fictional counterpart struggled with for most of the first forty minutes).

Of course, the film is also yet another advert for the “special nature” of the British under fire, a national sense of inherent destiny and ingenuity that has frequently done as much harm as good. Made in co-operation with the RAF, it’s also a striking tribute to the stiff-upper-lipped bravery of the RAF during the war, and the sense of sacrifice involved in flying these deadly missions.  

In fact it’s striking that the film’s final few notes are not of triumph after the completion of the operation, and the destruction of the two dams, but instead the grim burden of surviving. After 56 men have been killed on the mission, Barnes Wallis regrets even coming up with the idea. The final action we see Gibson performing is walking quietly back to his office to write letters to the families. Anderson’s camera pans over the empty breakfast table, set for pilots who have not returned, and then over the abandoned belongings of the dead still left exactly where they last placed them. It’s sombre, sad and reflective – and probably the most adult moment of the film.

Because other than that, it’s a jolly charge around solving problems with a combination of Blue Peter invention, mixed with a sort of Top Gear can-do spirit. Michael Redgrave is very good as the calm, professorial, dedicated Barnes Wallis, constantly returning to the drawing board with a reserved, eccentric resignation to fix yet another prototype. The sequences showing the engineering problems being met and overcome are interesting and told with a quirky charm that makes them perhaps one of the best examples of such things made in film. 

The material covering the building of the flight team is far duller by comparison, despite a vast array of soon-to-be-more-famous actors (George Baker, Nigel Stock, Robert Shaw etc.) doing their very best “the few” performances. Basically, generally watching a series of pilots working out the altitude they need to fly at in training situations is just not as interesting as watching the boffins figure out how to make the impossible possible.

The flight parts of the film really come into their own in the final act that covers the operation itself. An impressive display of special effects at the time (even if they look a bit dated now), the attack is dramatic, stirring and also costly (the film allows beats of tragedy as assorted crews are killed over the course of the mission). The attack is brilliantly constructed and shot by Michael Anderson, and very accurate to the process of the actual operation, in a way that fits in with the air of tribute that hangs around the whole film.

All this reverence to those carrying means that we overlook completely the lasting impact of the mission. “Bomber” Harris (here played with a solid gruffness by Basil Sydney) later considered the entire operation a waste of time, money and resources. Barnes Wallis begged for a follow-up to hammer home the advantage, but it never happened. The Germans soon restored their economic capability in the Ruhr. Similarly, today it’s more acknowledged the attack killed over 600 civilians and over 1000 Russian POWs working as slave labour in the Ruhr. Such things are of course ignored – the film even throws in a moment of watching German workers flee to safety from a flooding factory floor, to avoid showing any deaths on the ground.

And of course, the film is also (unluckily) infamous for the name of Gibson’s dog. I won’t mention the name, but when I say the dog is black and ask you to think of the worst possible word to use as its name and you’ve got it. It does mean the word gets bandied about a fair bit, not least when it is used as a code-word for a successful strike against the dam. Try and tune it out.

The Dam Busters is a solid and impressive piece of film-making, even if it is low on plot and more high on documentary ticking-off of facts. But it’s also reverential, a little dry and dated and avoids looking at anything involved in the mission with anything approaching a critical eye. With its unquestioning praise for “the British way”, it’s also a film that reassures those watching it that there is no need for real analysis and insight into the state of our nation, but instead that we should buckle down and trust in the divine guiding hand that always pulls Britain’s irons out of the fire.

Zulu (1964)

Michael Caine and Stanley Baker are under siege in classic Zulu

Director: Cy Endfield

Cast: Stanley Baker (Lt John Chard), Michael Caine (Lt Gonville Bromhead), Jack Hawkins (Reverend Otto Witt), Ulla Jacobsson (Margareta Witt), James Booth (Pvt Henry Hook), Nigel Green (Colour Sgt Frank Bourne), Patrick Magee (Surgeon Major James Reynolds), Ivor Emmanuel (Pvt Owen), Paul Daneman (Sgt Robert Maxfield), Glynn Edwards (Cpl William Allen), Neil McCarthy (Pvt Thomas), David Kernan (Pvt Fredrick Hitch)

There are some films so well-known you only need to see a frame of them paused on a television to know instantly what it is. Zulu is one of those, instantly recognisable and impossible to switch off. A few notes of John Barry’s brilliant film score and you are sucked in. Zulu has been so popular for so long, it’s almost immune to any criticism, and deservedly so because it’s pretty much brilliant.

The film covers the battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War of 1879. Rorke’s Drift was a small missionary supply station, near the border of Zululand with the Transvaal. The British had instigated the Zulu war with a series of impossible-to-meet ultimatums (the Natal government wanted to restructure Southern Africa into a new confederation of British governed states and Zululand was in its way). The British had of course massively underestimated the disciplined, dedicated and organised Zulu armies and the war started with a catastrophic defeat of the British (nearly 1,500 killed) at Isandlwana by an army of 20,000 Zulu (who lost nearly 2,500 killed themselves). Isandlwana took place on the morning of the 22nd January – and by the afternoon nearly 4,000 Zulus had marched to Rorke’s Drift, garrisoned by 140 British soldiers.

The film opens with the aftermath of the Isandlwana defeat (with a voiceover by Richard Burton, reading the report of the disaster written by British commander Lord Chelmsford). The camera tracks over the bodies of the British, as the Zulu warriors move through the camp (the film omits the Zulu practice of mutilating the bodies of their fallen opponents, which is just as well). Action then transfers immediately to Rorke’s Drift where Lt John Chard (Stanley Baker), a Royal Engineer temporarily assigned to the base to build a bridge, is senior officer by a matter of months over Lt Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine – famously billed as “Introducing Michael Caine”). Chard takes command of the preparations to repel the siege, building fortifications, arming the walking wounded, and carefully making the defensive line as tight as possible to cancel out the Zulu numbers (the exact opposite of what happened in Isandlwana).

Zulu is drama, not history. Much has been changed to make for better drama. Chard and Bromhead were not as divided along class lines. Nigel Green (excellent) plays Colour Sergeant Bourne exactly as we would expect a Colour Sergeant to appear – a tall, coolly reassuring martinet “father to his men” – so it’s a surprise to learn the real Bourne was a short 24-year old nicknamed the Kid (the real Bourne was offered a commission rather than a VC after the battle). Henry Hook, here a drunken malingerer with right-on 60s attitudes towards authority, was actually a teetotal model soldier (his granddaughter famously walked out of the premiere in disgust). Commissioner Dalton is a brave pen pusher, when in fact it was he who talked Chard and Bromhead out of retreating (reasoning the company wouldn’t stand a chance out in the open) and then fought on the front lines. Neither side took any prisoners – and the British ended the battle by killing all wounded Zulus left behind, an action that (while still shameful) is understandable when you remember the mutilation the Zulus carried out on the corpses of their enemies at Isandlwana the day before.

But it doesn’t really matter, because this isn’t history, and the basic story it tells is true to the heart of what happened at Rorke’s Drift. Brilliantly directed by Cy Enfield, it’s a tense and compelling against-the-odds battle, that never for a moment falls into the Western man vs Savages trope. Instead the Zulus and the soldiers form a sort of grudging respect for each other, and the Zulu army is depicted as not only disciplined, effective and brilliantly generalled but also principled and brave. The British soldiers in turn take no joy in being there (Hook in particular essentially asks “What have the Zulu’s ever done against me?”), admire as well as fear their rivals and, by the end, seem appalled by the slaughter. (Chard and Bromhead have a wonderful scene where they express their feelings of revulsion and disgust at the slaughter of battle.)

It’s a battle between two sides, where neither is portrayed as the baddie. We see more of it from the perspective of the defenders of the base, but the Zulu are as ingenious and clever an opponent as you are likely to see. The opening scenes at the court of Zulu king Cetshawayo’s (played by his actual great-grandson) allow us to see their rich culture and their own fierce traditions, grounded in honour (and spoken of admiringly by missionary Otto Witt, played with an increasingly pained then drunken desperation by Jack Hawkins, as he begs the British to flee and prevent bloodshed). Many of the Boer soldiers in the base compare the British soldier unfavourably with his Zulu counterpart. The film goes out of its way to present the Zulu people as a legitimate culture, and a respected one.

But its focus has to be on the British, as this is a “base under siege” movie, and to ratchet up the tension successfully it needs to chuck us into the base, playing the waiting game with the rest of the men. The Zulu army doesn’t arrive until over an hour into the film – the first half is given over entirely to the wait, the hurried preparations and the mounting fear as the seemingly impossible odds start to seep into the British. The men react in a range of ways, from fear, to anger, to resentment, to grim resignation. The first half also plays out the tensions between Chard and Bromhead, one a middle-class engineer, the other the entitled grandson of a General. 

Caine is that entitled scion of the upper classes, and he plays it so successfully that it’s amazing to think it would only be a couple of years before he was playing Harry Palmer and Alfie. Caine nails Bromhead’s arrogance, but also the vulnerability and eventual warmth that hides underneath it. Set up as a pompous obstruction, he demonstrates his bravery, concern and even vulnerability. It’s a turn that turned Caine from a jobbing actor into a major star (Caine originally auditioned for Booth’s part as the working-class Hook. Booth later turned down Alfie). It also meant that Stanley Baker’s excellent turn, in the drier part as the cool, controlled Chard, buttoning down his fear to do what must be done, gets unfairly overlooked.

The film never lets up the slow build of tension – and then plays it off brilliantly as battle commences. Perhaps never on film have the shifts and tones of proper siege combat been shown so well. This is perhaps one of the greatest war films ever made, because it understands completely that war can highlight so many shades of human emotion. We see heroics, courage, self-sacrifice and unimaginable bravery from both sides. We also see fear, pain, horror and savagery from both. Several moments of bravery make you want to stand up and cheer or leave a lump in your throat (I’m a sucker for the moment Cpl Allen and Pvt Hitch leave their wounded bay to crawl round the camp passing out ammunition).

Enfield’s direction is masterful, the first half having so subtly (and brilliantly) established the relative locations and geography of everything at Rorke’s Drift, you never for one minute get confused about who is where once battle commences. The combat after that is simply extraordinary, a triumph not just of scale and filming but also character and storytelling. We are brought back time and time again to characters we have spent the first half of the film getting to know, and understand their stories. Eleven men won the Victoria Cross at Rorke’s Drift (more at one engagement than at any other time in history), and each of the winners is given a moment for their courage to be signposted. All of this compelling film-making is scored with deft brilliance by John Barry, with the sort of score that complements and heightens every emotional beat of the film.

Strangely some people remember this film as ending with each of the garrison being killed – I’ve seen several reviews talk of the men being “doomed”. Perhaps that impression lingers because there is no triumphalism at the end of the film. After the attack is repelled, with huge casualties, the soldiers don’t celebrate. They seem instead shocked and appalled, and simply grateful to be alive. After the final deadly ranked fire of the British, as the smoke clears to show the bodies of their attackers, the men seem as much stunned as they do happy. Bromhead talks of feeling ashamed, Chard calls it a “butcher’s yard”. Duty has been done – but the men were motivated by wanting to survive. The film doesn’t end with high fives and beers, but people quietly sitting, gazing into the near distance. There are small moments of dark humour from the survivors, but never cheers.

It’s all part of the rich tapestry of this enduring classic. Historically, many believe the celebration of the victory at Rorke’s Drift was to deliberately overshadow the catastrophe of Isandlwana (and that the number of VCs handed out was part of this). But, even if that was partly the case, it doesn’t change the extraordinary bravery and determination to survive from the soldiers. And the film doesn’t even try to get involved in the politics of the situation. The men must fight “because they are there” and the rights and wherefores of the war (which the film ignores completely) are neither here nor there. Instead this is a celebration of the martial human spirit, packed full of simply brilliant moments, wonderfully acted and directed, and an enduring classic. It allows you to root for the besieged but never looks down on or scorns the besiegers. It pulls off a difficult balance brilliantly – and is a brilliant film.

The Black Hole (1979)

Maximilian Schell in one of his quieter moment, planning a journey into The Black Hole

Director: Gary Nelson

Cast: Maximilian Schell (Dr Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins (Dr Alex Durant), Robert Forster (Captain Dan Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lt Charle Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr Kate McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth), Roddy McDowell (VINCENT), Slim Pickens (BOB)

When Star Wars became a massive smash hit, every single studio assumed all they needed to do was to search out any damn space-set saga it could find, dress it up with a few Star Wars-feeling elements (usually shooting and funny robots) and, Bob’s Your Uncle, you would have a box-office smash of your very own. Well that turned out not to be the case – and Disney’s The Black Hole was a case in point.

At the end of a long mission, the crew of the USS Palomino is on the way back to Earth, when they discover a black hole with a spaceship hovering around it. The ship is the long-lost USS Cygnus, commanded by legendary genius Dr Max Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). The crew are at first welcomed by the Cygnus – but is there a dangerous secret on board? You bet there is.

The Black Hole feels like several different types of story all very unsuccessfully stapled together.  There are elements in there of a 2001-style intellectual, “what does life mean” science fiction saga. But every time we start to get near those tones, up jumps a funny robot, or a bit of shooting, or an odd “haunted-house-in-space” sequence, or a mad scientist ranting. None of these stories, by the way, are particularly good or unique. They are all rather clumsily assembled. The tone of the film is also all over the place – so we get a comedy robot with funny bug eyes getting up to hi-jinks, closely followed by Anthony Perkins being ruthlessly killed by a drill (even if it is mostly offscreen blood and guts). Who is this film for? Too dark and grim for kids, too stupid and childish for their parents.

Robert Forster and Anthony Perkins look barely interested in the events around them (Perkins must have been wondering by this point in his life where it had all gone wrong). Ernest Borgnine plays the sort of blow-hard he could do standing on his head. Perhaps aware that most of the rest of the performers weren’t really engaged in it, Maximilian Schell acts for everyone. Never one to be afraid of going overboard, Schell’s wild-eyed enthusiasm leaves no scenery unchewed. It’s the sort of performance that seems to capture the wildly uneven tone of the film: so one minute Schell is a sort of space Byron, the next minute he’s literally slapping his head over the incompetence of his minions like some sort of Space Skeletor.

There really isn’t any actual plot in The Black Hole – it takes no more than about 40 minutes to hit the final “we gotta get off this ship” run around. There are some vague ideas bandied around about the spiritual meaning of touching the edge of God’s creation – but these barely get any air time. The last 30 minutes are a hurried dash through the ship, before we finally fly through the wormhole. This wormhole flight is left obliquely unclear (it’s crammed with odd imagery inspired by Dante), and I suspect there were more ideas in the original script that were cut when they basically decided to make this a kids’ film.

But then that’s like the whole film. It’s a 2001 wannabe that has been retrofitted into something as Star Warsy as possible. VINCENT and BOB are a low-rent R2-D2 and C3P0 (they even have basically the same personalities) and Dr Reinhardt’s robot followers are nothing more than imitation storm troopers with the Cygnus like some sort of Death Star. That’s not even mentioning odd touches, such as the ESP powers given to Kate McCrae. None of these elements fit well together at all. The special effects have dated very badly (surely they can’t have looked too impressive back then either?).

It’s also of course possibly one of the least scientifically accurate films ever made. Most of the black hole physics are errant nonsense (at least so I’m told, I’m not qualified to comment). But I know enough about science to know that if anyone ever spent as much time in the cold vacuum of space as most of these characters do, they would all be frozen and dead. Most of the last chase sequence sees the crew moving through the Cygnus as parts of the ship break off, with holes to space all over the place. One character even drifts out into space only to be dragged back in absolutely fine. I guess it’s for kids but it still immediately stands out as odd. 

And then there is that ending. As our heroes head down into the wormhole, the film makes a play for some sort of cult classic status. Angles distort and bend. Bizarre imagery is thrown at us. Reinhardt merges with his robot Maximilian and seems to go to hell. Angels fly across the screen. Lights and whizzbangs. What is going on? I don’t think the film knows: its the sort of cult classic stuff where it’s left open to the viewer to give it more meaning than it probably has. The final emergence from the black hole is a total let down – hard not to have a “what was all that about?” feeling…

The Black Hole is just, to be honest, a little too rubbish. I mean there are elements in there I don’t mind: some people hate VINCENT, but I find him probably the most engaging hero (that’s probably a pretty damning statement). Schell’s scenery chewing (“MAXIMILIAN!!!!!”) is reasonably entertaining. Some of the chasing around is fun. Villainous robot Maximilian is very well designed and looks creepy. But it’s not enough. There is too much damn nonsense everywhere. It’s a film with no spiritual or intellectual depth, which means when it does try to leave questions answered it merely frustrates rather than making you think.

Nightwatching (2007)

Martin Freeman is the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn in this bizarre part drama part art lecture

Director: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt), Eva Birthistle (Saskia van uylenburg), Jodhi May (Geertje Dircx), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoffels), Toby Jones (Gerard Dou), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Natalie Press (Marieka), Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Marita), Adrian Lukis (Frans Banning Cocq), Adam Kotz (Willem van Ruytenburch), Michael Culkin (Herman Wormskerck)

There are few artists who have such a distinctive visual style as Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the greatest of the Dutch masters. And there are few filmmakers with such distinctive style as Peter Greenaway. So this film is a sort of perfect marriage: Greenaway, the man who claims most of the world is visually illiterate and incapable of understanding the grace and depth of visual images (be they film or painting), taking the secret language of Rembrandt’s paintings.

Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is hired to paint the Militia Company of District II. There is, however, a conspiracy in the company. Captain Hasselberg (Andrzek Seweryn), the original commissioner of the painting, is killed, seemingly in an accident, and replaced by Frans Banning Cocq (Adrian Lukis) and his lickspittle deputy Willem van Ruytenburch (Adam Kotz). Rembrandt believes the accident was in fact murder, removing Hasselberg so that the other members of the militia can profit in a financial deal with the British government (I won’t go into the details). Alongside this, the film also looks at the personal life of Rembrandt and his relationship with his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) and, after her death, his maids and mistresses, Geertje (Jodhi May) and Hendrickhe Stoffels (Emily Holmes).

Peter Greenaway is a visual stylist that’s for sure. The film takes place (apart from a few outdoor sequences in a forest) in a sort of representative set that looks a bit like a combination of a theatre stage and the bare framework of a Dutch interior painting. The camera frequently uses the width of the frame to squeeze in full-body shots of its characters, and the width and depth of the room, to try and replicate as much as possible the look and feel of these artworks. An early discussion of colour (and how to describe it) is illustrated by Geertje opening curtains in a representation of Rembrandt’s bedroom, with each colour (red-yellow-blue) in turn flooding the room from the open windows. The film looks distinctive and impressive, the costume design is meticulously researched, and the artful framing to ape the conventions and styles of Rembrandt’s painting is extremely well done.

What is less well done is the actual story itself, which is largely inert and frequently dull, and takes ages to outline what is, to be honest, a not particularly interesting conspiracy. It then intercuts this with scenes and moments from Rembrandt’s domestic life, but never ties the two of these together into something coherent. Too immersed in the details of the case to be the sort of dream-cum-fantasy of previous Greenaway films like The Draughtman’s Contract, and too preoccupied with the director’s narrative laxity to become a proper character study or piece of investigative fiction, the film rather uncomfortably falls between two stools becoming neither one thing or the other.

In fact, you almost sense Greenaway’s heart wasn’t really in it, that he really wanted to make Rembrandt J’Accuse, the companion art lecture illustrated with moments from this film, which really goes to town on his conspiracy theory. The details of the conspiracy (extremely hard to follow here) are at least easier to follow in Rembrandt J’Accuse, where they make a batty but enjoyable Dan Brownish argument – even if it is based on hands being drawn “without commitment” and elastic interpretations of visual language. To be honest, for all that Rembrandt J’Accuse is a bit odd – and that Peter Greenaway has an air of an ultra-pretentious Johnny Ball in his addresses to the camera – it actually makes a far more compelling piece of cinema than the narrative film it sits alongside.

Which is a shame because, as well as the design, there is a lot of good stuff here, not least in the performance of Martin Freeman. Cinema and TV’s eternal nice-guy gets to stretch himself fantastically as an electric, compelling genius overflowing with passion, ideas, intelligence and a chippy (frequently foul mouthed) confidence, mixed with an insatiable sex drive and nose-thumbing defiance. Freeman really gets the sense of a complex, earthy, fiery man who knows he is the smartest man in the room, and is extremely cocky with it – but also has a keen sense of justice and decency. It’s about a million miles away from Tim or Bilbo, and a big reminder that he is a hell of a performer.

Put Freeman in with the thrilling design and painterly flourishes of the film, and you’ve got sections that are really worth watching. Eva Birthistle is very good as his intelligent and articulate wife, as is Johdi May as his earthy, ill-tempered, sensual lover. Nathalie Press is heart-breaking as an illegitimate girl with a tragic life. Adrian Lukis is particularly smarmy and vile as the head of the militia. In fact, most of the performances are great.

It’s just the story is not. Moments of investigation are just building into something logical and coherent when they get interrupted by straight-to-camera addresses (very odd) from the members of the Rembrandt household explaining their personal situations. Just as we start to get invested in the loves of Rembrandt, we get thrown back into the dull conspiracy. When the two overlap, neither is really served. The story frankly isn’t interesting enough. That’s even before you have to wade through the inevitable Greenaway penchant for including as much full-frontal nudity as possible (Freeman and May in particular) and graphic sex in multiple positions and orifices. I mean, I get it, Rembrandt was a lusty guy but do we need to keep seeing it?

Nightwatching is a bizarre oddity – a vehicle for a commanding lead performance, with an actor cast way against type, that never decides whether it is some sort of biography of an artist or a secret-history-expose of a conspiracy forgotten by time. As always with conspiracy theories you suspect the obvious-but-dull is probably the truth – Rembrandt delivered a painting that was so radically different from the dull line-up paintings of this genre that it shook up the art world (not in a good way) and then he fell out of fashion, didn’t have a good understanding of money, and went bankrupt, rather than being destroyed by a shadowy Amsterdam cabal. Greenaway is so in love with his theories – and his usual lusty and psychological obsessions – that he ends up with something that is neither a drama or an art lecture but somewhere in the middle with the worst aspects of both.

Hellboy (2004)

Ron Perlman fights the darkness in curio del Toro comic book flick Hellboy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Thaddeus), John Hurt (Dr Trevor Bruttenholm), Karel Roden (Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Brian Steele (Sammael), Ladislav Beran (Karl Ruprecht Kroenen), Bridget Hodson (Ilsa Haupstein), Corey Johnson (Agent Clay)

As little as 10 years ago, outside a few core characters like Batman, the X-Men or Spiderman, comic book movies were an odd curio hard to place in the mass market. Today of course, you can virtually get any character who has appeared in a cartoon strip up on the screen with a budget of millions. But back in 2004, Guillermo del Toro had to squeeze this project out on a smaller budget in order to get the studio to agree to make the film.

Hellboy has a particularly demented story. In 1945, the Nazis, working in partnership with Rasputin (Karel Roden) – yes thatRasputin, don’t even ask – attempt to open a portal to hell to, well I’m not quite sure what they want to do, but it probably involves the destruction of the world. Anyway, some humble GIs stop them and the only thing that comes through the portal is a little demon with an enormous stone fist. Raised by paranormal expert Dr Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), this creature grows up into cigar-chomping secret-agent-for-the-FBI Hellboy (Ron Perlman), working on paranormal investigations. But when Rasputin returns from the dead it looks like all hell (literally) is about to break out.

Okay it should be pretty clear to you from that that Hellboy is an odd film. It’s very much from del Toro’s B-movie heart, and he invests this nonsense material with a great deal of directorial style and heart – a real “geek-boy-artist” job. Del Toro has a great deal of imagination and is able to strike a happy balance between enjoying the material and not taking it all too seriously. So he lets the film barrel along, throwing plenty of nonsense at the screen without worrying about trying to make it make real-world sense. In fact Del Toro is clearly so fond of the material that he basically shoots the whole thing like a comic book come to life. 

So the film is crammed with bright primary colours mixed with murky blacks, and Del Toro frames many key moments like comic book panels. It’s a film packed with striking images and scenes built around stuff that feels like it should teeter over into ridiculous camp all the time but never quite does. Its steam-punky styling instead manages to feel somehow both strikingly original visually and also strangely packed with integrity – like Del Toro made a very personal big-budget movie for his childhood, the sort of bizarro cult film that’s actually-quite-good and it’s going to win a huge following once people can find it for themselves (which is indeed what happened).

Del Toro’s other great principled stand was to ensure that Ron Perlman played the lead. Hellboy is a bizarre character – over six feet, red, horns, a tail – but what Perlman and Del Toro do so well is to make him some sort of Brooklynish chippy blue-collar worker with a kitchen-sink earthy wit. Perlman is clearly having a whale of a time playing this temperamental demon like some sort of longshoreman Han Solo, a brattish teenager and rebel with a world-weary cynicism. He’s crammed with contradictions (the demon who fights for good!) that Del Toro is keen to explore – and makes consistently interesting.

Because he’s such a different character, he energises a fairly traditional story and his character’s pretty standard personal-struggle-plotline (will he do the right or the wrong thing?). Perlman juggles all this really well, and gives a performance that is both dry and funny but also has moments of real heart and emotion. He even manages to sell his rather possessive love for Selma Blair’s (also pretty good) fellow orphan with pyrotechnical abilities as something heartfelt and caring, despite the fact that at one point he basically stalks her. It’s a rather wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. Rupert Evans is saddled with the audience surrogate role – asking the questions we can’t ask – while Karel Roden’s lipsmacking performance as Rasputin never quite engages as a villain. Stronger roles come from Jeffrey Tambor as an officious FBI director and especially from John Hurt as Hellboy’s father-figure, the kind of quintessential ageing mentor that you can imagine his wards adoring. 

The rather silly plot doesn’t really matter. The importance here is the gothic chill of Del Toro’s style, mixed with his crazy “larger-than-life” dark comic book tone. And it works really well: the film is fun and witty, and if the storyline never really feels like it earns the “end of the world” threat (and builds towards an uninvolving duking out with a giant CGI monster), there are enough enjoyments along the way to make you want to make the journey.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Welcome to the weirdness: Donnie Darko ultimate 00’s cult hit

Director: Richard Kelly

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), Jena Malone (Gretchen Ross), Mary McDonnell (Rose Darko), Holmes Osborne (Eddie Darko), Katherine Ross (Dr Lilian Thurman), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Elizabeth Darko), Daveigh Chase (Samantha Darko), James Duval (Frank), Drew Barrymore (Karen Pomeroy), Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunnningham), Noah Wyle (Dr Kenneth Monnitoff), Beth Grant (Kitty Farmer)

Donnie Darko was a surprise cult hit. In fact, it was such a cult hit that Kelly made a “director’s cut” version of the film five years later. Funnily enough, the Director’s Cut was largely rejected by the very people who loved the first film. Why? Well probably because the film was loved because it was so weird. It was so esoteric, so hard to understand, so much of its logic unclearly defined, that much of that love was based on trying to work out what the hell is going on in it – and the director’s cut supplies lots of answers, ruining the game! 

In 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jaky Gyllenhaal) sleepwalks out of his house onto a local golf course and meets with a mysterious figure in a gruesome rabbit costume – “Frank”. Frank tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie sleeps on the golf course overnight – and returns home to find a jet engine has crashed through his bedroom. Plagued by strange visions and hallucinations, and visitations from Frank, is Donnie suffering from schizophrenia or is he genuinely in a position to save the world? And is there a danger from the way Frank is starting to influence Donnie’s actions?

Richard Kelly’s film is a bizarre, inventive, dreamy, creepy oddball flick that deliberately never really explains what the hell is going on. Never mind the mystery of Donnie’s mental state – the film’s confusing structure, its unexplained elements of time-travel, mind-control and predestination, all of this is just left hanging out there. It’s actually a testament to how much restriction can sometimes be the mother of invention. Kelly was told that the film could not be longer than a couple of hours, meaning a lot of the more traditional explanation (reintroduced for the director’s cut) was removed to keep the run-time down. But the great thing is, this actually leaves it very open for the viewer to create their own idea of what the film is about and what is going on. It really works.

This is particularly because Kelly manages to marry the clever-clever weirdness with a real emotional investment in the characters. Not just in Donnie either: his family are all extremely well-drawn, who we grow to care for over the course of the film, from his cheery father to his loving but frustrated mother, brilliantly played by Mary McDonnell. Equally strong is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donnie’s sister. These characters, along with dozens of other characters quickly established, but all feeling very real, are what keep you interested in the film. If it was just oddness and alienating weirdness, it would be hard to care. But this is a story that mixes science fiction oddness with genuine family drama heart.

There is a lot of oddness in there though. Frank is a character practically designed to be iconic, a twisted giant rabbit like a demonic Harvey. Combined with this are a series of curiously unsettling images and storylines. So we get Donnie with visions of streams of transparent liquid streaming out of people’s chests – possibly their future paths leading them forward. We get Donnie facing strange barriers, that seem to repel and reflect his world. Donnie is plagued with strange visions and increasingly unsettling instructions from Frank. He carries out a series of impossible feats under Frank’s direction. There are elliptical conversations about time travel and physics and while the film drops hints it never explains a damn thing. So when you finally get to the end – well lord alone knows what happens, but you’ll certainly have a hell of a lot of fun trying to work it out.

Around this, the film cuts rather a neat parody of teenage life in the 1980s and the 1980s Brat Pack films. Actors like Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle have a lot of fun as closeted liberal teachers struggling in a school is run by an oppressive, fiercely religious set of governors. But not as much fun as Beth Grant as a PE cum civics teacher, both blinkered in her love of traditional education (and “safeguarding our youth” from the dangers of literature) while in love with Patrick Swayze’s smug self-help guru (whose bullshit “conquer your fear” videos and mantra are a superb spoof). The film has a nice eye for the politics of school classes, and placing this end-of-world fear into the all-consuming self-importance of teenage life works very well.

Throughout Kelly shoots with a confidence that belies his “first-time film director” status. Yes there is the occasional overly clever camera shot that you get from someone enjoying the toy set for the first time, but there is lots of terrific stuff. His assembly of events is brilliant, he works with actors very well indeed.

But the other factor that really makes the film work is Jake Gyllenhaal’s superb performance in the lead role. Gyllenhaal gets the balance between Darko’s vulnerability and his (possible) darkness absolutely spot-on. He manages to turn himself perfectly into a gangly, awkward, nervous kid – totally believable as the sort of young man unsure of where he stands in the world and angry. It feeds perfectly into the mystery of the film. Is Donnie a dangerous schizophrenic? Or is he right in thinking he might be important? Gyllenhaal captures all this, but also really makes us care for Donnie, turning him into someone truly sensitive and confused (helped as well by a very good Jena Malone as his awkward love interest). It’s a brilliantly distinctive performance that captures a true idea of teenage difficulties.

Any maybe that’s also why Donnie Darko works so well. Because it’s as much about teenage awkwardness and not knowing what you are doing here and why, as it is all the bizarre and unexplainable pseudo-science, time travel and predestination paradoxes that the film allows to play around the edges. It places at the centre of a brilliant science fiction drama, a real human and emotional story that feels very real and grounded and like something we have all experienced at one time in our lives. It’s a puzzle and mystery that also has a heart. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – so difficult Kelly has failed to pull it off again since.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon: Sometimes words fail you

Director: Mike Hodges

Cast: Sam J Jones (Flash Gordon), Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), Max von Sydow (Ming the Merciless), Topol (Hans Zarkov), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura), Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin), Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan), Peter Wyngarde (General Klytus), Mariangela Melato (General Kala), Richard O’Brien (Fico), John Osborne (Arborian Priest), Philip Stone (High Priest Zogo), John Hallam (General Luro)

Well. If almost 40 years on, Flash Gordon is a cult favourite and beloved by millions, then there is hope yet for Jupiter Ascending. By any objective standards, Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But it gets a pass from millions because it’s one people have grown up with. I dread the same reaction to The Phantom Menace from those people whose first exposure to Star Wars was through that film.

Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) rules the planet Mongo and decides to destroy the Earth for his own amusement. Disgraced ex-NASA scientist Hans Zharkov (Topol) is the only man on Earth who believes a series of natural disasters are the actions of invaders from space. Zharkov flies a rocket into space to find them – accompanied, for strange reasons, by professional football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam J Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Arriving at Mongo, they encourage its citizens – especially the forest people led by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) – to unite and rise up against Ming.

Yup you read that right. It’s all as barmy as you might expect. Any film that asks to believe Brian Blessed can fly is always going to be odd. Flash Gordon does at least have its tongue firmly in its cheek. The whole thing is as camp as Christmas. In an age where science fiction and comic books are treated like holy texts, it is at least interesting to see a film that treats its source material with such a breezy lack of respect. The entire film is an exercise in high camp, cheaply put together, that refuses to take anything seriously and actively encourages the respected actors in its cast to take the piss.

So what is Flash Gordon? Is it a big old joke? Yes it probably is. No one is taking it seriously. The actors clearly think it’s a pile of campy rubbish. The producers seem determined to throw as much technicolour cartoon colours at everything as possible. The film is so cartoonish it all but has “Pow!” and “Thwack!” appear on screen as punches land. At a time when Star Wars (and it’s hard to believe it, but George Lucas only made Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights for this) took its space opera roots rather seriously, this seemed to miss the point completely. It’s a would-be Star Wars rip off that has nothing in common with the tone of the thing its ripping off. Usually that would be a good thing: here I’m not sure it is.

So the dialogue is terrible, the plot line makes no real sense, the film barrels around telling jokes against itself as inopportune moments. Characters shrug off events with no problems at all – at one point a character undergoes brainwashing torture: two scenes later he’s fine (“I just didn’t think about it” he gleefully tells someone. It’s never mentioned again.) The special effects, even for the time, are shockingly bad (the backdrops are sub-Doctor Who. The costumes and design are ludicrously overblown, like an explosion in a campy dressing-up box. It’s a terrible display of excess married with a complete lack of understanding about what made the things it’s trying to rip off successful in the first place. But yet, and yet, and yet it’s still in a terrible, terrible, terrible way quite good fun.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about its campy rubbishness, is how much odd sexual stuff creeps in under the radar. There are also lashings of sadomasochism, incest, orgasms, sex dens, threesomes, swinging, voyeurism – acres of cheeky sexual humour. Ming has a ring that can induce orgasms (it’s so effective on Dale Arden that it’s even commented only Ming’s daughter has had such a response). Ming has a harem, full of opiates to encourage “performance”. There are references to pleasure planets and sex toys. Ming’s daughter is whipped while tied to a bed by Ming’s henchmen (while Ming watches eating some popcorn). The arborians have a bizarre ritual which seems laced with wanking references. It never stops. At least they had some fun.

Some of the actors are also clearly enjoying themselves. Of course Brian Blessed throws himself into it: an actor who never knowingly underplays, Blessed rips through a bizarre role that sees him perform in a jockstrap with some unconvincing wings. Timothy Dalton channels Errol Flynn. Max von Sydow chews the scenery and virtually everything else in sight as a campy, moustachio-twirling Ming. Peter Wyngarde has a great voice and uses it to marvellous effect as pervy security chief Klytus, while Mariangela Melato plays his dominatrix assistant. There are bizarre, eclectic casting choices: so we get Look Back in Anger author John Osborne playing a high priest, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan as an initiate, and Richard O’Brien (of course!) playing – well to be honest himself.

Sam J Jones is of course simply awful as Flash (wooden, dull and confused). Melody Anderson isn’t a lot better as Dale Arden, while Ornella Muti gets some awful dialogue which she does at least deliver with some conviction (sometimes too much: “Not the BORE WORMS!” sticks in the mind as a bizarre moment of over such over conviction that it simply becomes funny). It’s a bizarre mix of acting styles and overblown, fourth-wall leaning. It’s so bad, I suppose, that to many people it’s good. But actually it gets a little overbearing.

Because nothing is taken seriously at all, the film actually becomes a bit wearing after a while. The writer later regretted playing everything for laughs: it removes any stakes from this ridiculous film. It says a lot that Brian Blessed – the most overblown actor in it – is the only one who really emerges with dignity intact. Blessed at least knows it’s utter crap and plays it like he’s taking the piss in every scene. He commits so fully to the scenery chewing that it sort of works. The rest of the cast can only aspire to his levels of camp. Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But age and fondness have been kind to it, and made it remembered as something better than it is. It’s a misfiring gag with some great Queen songs. It goes on forever, it looks awful but it fails utterly as anything but a joke. But hell maybe that’s enough.