Tag: Alec Guinness

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder and amorality abound in the darkest (and perhaps Greatest) Ealing comedy ever

Director: Robert Hamer

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (The nine members of the d’Ascoyne family), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Hangman), Clive Morton (Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel), Hugh Griffith (Lord High Steward)

Imagine you’re Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Your mother is the outcast daughter of the d’Ascoyne family (all of whom, male or female, bear a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness), Dukes of Chalfort. These vindictive snobs won’t even allow his mother to be buried in the family mausoleum. However, in the event of a series of unlikely deaths, Louis is the eventual heir to the dukedom. That couldn’t happen, could it? Even if they’re all such stuffy, tedious bores that the suave, sophisticated, urbane and witty Louis feels a lot more like what a duke should be.

What to do? Well, it’s obvious really: Louis will have to murder them. Because Louis wants nothing more than the thing he can’t have. It’s the same with the ladies in his life: his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), sensual and manipulative, seems all the more tempting when he’s with the refined and austere Edith (Valerie Hobson) and vice versa. We know that the charming Louis’ murderous career will eventually end at the gallows – the film opens with him writing his memoirs and eating his last meal in prison – but what crime will find him there?

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the first of the Ealing comedies. It’s also pretty much the one that sets the Gold Standard. I’ll confess I’ve been sceptical in the past, but rewatching it again, its black comic humour, shrewd psychology and delightful amorality delighted me as never before. Kind Hearts is a very, very funny movie: perfectly constructed, gorgeously scripted and supremely sharp, knowing and scintillating. It’s a miraculously marvellous film.

Is there a comedy sharper and more heartless than Kind Hearts? Our hero is, at best, a sociopath who kills without the slightest regret. Murders are frequent punchlines. One of its leading ladies is as selfish, conniving and ruthless as the hero. D’Ascoynes bite the dust regardless of their decency (and some of them are genuinely quite nice). But we don’t care – largely because Louis is such a smoothly charming and amusing person.

Brilliantly played by Dennis Price, even when poverty forces him into the role of draper’s assistant Louis is the genteel duke to his fingertips. His sociopathic focus on his own desires is delivered with such dry wit (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”) we can’t help but like him, even though he is a remorseless killer. Dispatching one d’Ascoyne and his mistress in a river “accident” he only sighs “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.”

Some critics have attempted to position Louis as some sort of class warrior, pruning the nobility. Would that were so, eh? The biggest snob in the film is clearly Louis (compared to him the worst of the d’Ascoynes are more rude and boorish), a man so convinced of his own intellectual and hereditary superiority that even his lowly roots don’t concern him.

Louis really matches our expectations of a duke. He’s refined in voice and manner, dignified in physicality and has the sort of arch wit no one else can compete with (when Sibella tells him her husband wishes to go to Europe to expand his mind, Louis replies “He certainly has room to do so”). He is a million miles from a class warrior: he wants nothing more than to take his place on the velvet cushions of the House of Lords (so much so he insists on being tried there). He’s so convinced of his own superiority, the dispatch of legions of d’Ascoynes cause him to lose not a second of sleep.

He’s also charming, funny and ingenious: we like him. It’s the same reason we like Joan Greenwood’s scheming, sexy and selfish Sibella: what’s more fun than an unashamed baddy? It’s easier to like her more than Valerie Hobson’s staid Edith – though Hobson’s generous performance is spot on for creating the ideal upper-class wife, exactly the sort of refined status symbol Louis would long for.

Hamer’s perfectly paced comedy is largely a triumph of dialogue and characterisation. He shoots much of it in carefully positioned mid-shot. But there are wonderful moments of visual comedy. Who can forget Admiral d’Ascoyne slowly submerging, going down with his sinking ship? Or, best of all, Louis and Edith’s gentle garden conversation about her husband Henry d’Ascoyne’s future while, in the background, over a wall, the small explosion that has just killed him smokes away (“I could hardly point out that Henry now had no time left for any kind of activity, so I continued to discuss his future” Louis observes). But above all, Hamer doesn’t skim on the cold amorality of Louis. While we are never invited to judge him, there are no attempts to hide his sociopathic blankness.

Confronted with real emotion and situations outside his control, Louis is helpless. When his mother dies, he can only mourn her with a flourish straight out of the cheap melodrama he despises. When Sibella’s husband, the dull Lionel, insults his background, he’s reduced to punching him. Caught off guard in his trial, his articulate wit absolutely deserts him. Louis slips on  personae like the fine suits he wears, but his ambitious mind can only travel on his pre-planned route, no others.

But that makes him more than match for the d’Ascoynes. In a masterstroke, all members of this family are played by Alec Guinness, the sort of impish, playful trick Guinness loved. It’s a series of eight distinct comic sketches – to be honest none of them a challenge to Guinness, who is such a great actor that playing these pencil-sketch eccentrics was no-problem-at-all – but still a delightful running gag. His d’Ascoynes include a bumbling vicar, a windbag general forever banging on about his Boer (Bore?) war, a sneering playboy scion, bumbling amateur-photographer Henry (the most sympathetic by a mile), a stuffy banker, an austere suffragette and a bullying duke with a capacity for violence.

Seeing each of these Guinnesses is a neat running joke (not to mention, a little gag at the in-breeding of the upper classes). Price gets in on the act as well, doubling up as Louis’ Italian Tenor father (who dies of shock on Louis’ birth – our hero’s first murder?). But it’s also part of the film’s comedic commentary on construction, duality and falseness. Is it a surprise that the d’Ascoynes are all facets of the same actor, when Louis himself is an entirely self-constructed man, part bitter by-blow, part natural duke? Nothing is ever quite what it seems. Louis lies to everyone he meets, pretends affections he never feels and presents a front to the world totally different from his real self. Even the reason Louis is on death row turns out to be radically different from what we expect.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect display of arch Wildean front, redirected into sociopathic irritation (I can’t call Louis furious – he’s not got enough depth to him for real anger). It’s a jet-black comedy, crammed with superb lines and brilliantly acted, above all by Price whose tortured unknowability behind his Cowardian suaveness is perfect. Guinness went into film legend, Greenwood is fascinatingly vicious and Hobson the embodiment of polite class. Every scene has a great line and the humour is as dark as it comes. It’s one of the greatest of all Ealing’s comedies –certainly the darkest and most vicious – with a hero who looks, acts and talks like a villain.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are star cross’d lovers in Lean’s epic but flawed Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lt General Yevgraf Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), Bernard Kay (Bolshevik), Klaus Kinski (Amoursky), Noel Willman (Razin), Geoffrey Keen (Professor Kurt), Jack MacGowan (Petya)

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the seminal 20th century novels. Smuggled out of the USSR after being refused publication, it became an international sensation and led directly to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize (although the USSR insisted he turn it down). A film was only a matter of time – and who else would you call but David Lean, master of the pictorial epic, to bring the novel about the Russian Revolution to the screen. Lean – with his masterful Dickensian adaptations – was perfect in many ways but Doctor Zhivago, for me, is the least satisfying of his ‘Great Films’. It’s strangely empty and sentimental, lacking some of the novel’s strengths zeroing in on its weaknesses.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is training to be a Doctor in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his father’s old friend Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), Yuri is part scientist, part poetic free-thinker. Events throw him together with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman whose fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) has ties to the revolutionaries, while she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). But are all these troubles worth a hill of beans in a country about to tear itself apart?

There are many things you can’t argue with in Lean’s film. It is of course unfailingly beautiful. Ironically filmed in Fascist Spain, it’s gorgeously lensed with a luscious romanticism by Frederick Young (who won his second Oscar for a Lean film). It’s not just pictorial beauty either: Young frequently makes wonderful uses of splashes of Monet red to dapple the frame. From poppies in a field to the ubiquitous communist imagery on uniforms and walls. There are some wonderfully cool blues employed for the snow, while slashes of light pass across eyes with a gorgeous lyricism.

Romance is the name of the game, with everything working overtime to stress the star cross’d lovers plot. Maurice Jarre’s score – in particular its balalaika inspired Lara’s Theme – mixes Russian folk inspirations with an immortal sense of longing. It plays over a film that, while very long, often feels well-paced, even if (just as the novel) its episodic and at times rambling. Lean’s direction of epic events revolving around personal loves and tragedies is still exquisite in its balance between the grand and intimate. The film is wonderfully edited and a fabulous example of long-form storytelling.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Zhivago? In a film with so much to admire, is it possible Lean and co spent years working on something only to bring the word but not the spirit to the screen? The key problems come round to Zhivago himself. This is man defined by his poetic soul. His poetry becomes a sensation after his death. His balalaika is a constant companion, and his playing of it an inherited gift (which even has major plot implications). Inexplicably, the film has not a single word of poetry in it (when it had Pasternak’s entire back catalogue to work with) and Zhivago never so much as strums the strings of his balalaika. It’s like filming Hamlet and then making him a mute.

The problem is, removing the character’s hinterland makes him a rather empty character. Zhivago is a liberal reformer, in sympathy with the revolution but not it’s methods. This should be at the heart of understanding his character, but like his poetry the film has no time for it. Instead, Zhivago is boiled down into a romantic figure, nothing more. He has no inner life at all, a blank canvas rather than an enigma.

Suddenly those long lingering shots of Sharif’s puppy-dog eyes end up carrying no real meaning. They aren’t the windows to his soul, only a big watery hole with not much at the bottom. Sharif is awkwardly miscast – and lacks the dramatic chops O’Toole bought to Lawrence – but it’s not completely his fault. His character has had his depth removed. When we see him struggling at the front, trapped on a long train ride to Siberia or forced to work with partisans, he’s not a man who seems to be considering anything, but just buffeted by fortune, neither deep or thoughtful enough to reflect on the world around him. That’s not really Pasternak’s intention.

Instead, the film boils the novel down to his plot-basics and, in doing so, removes the heart of what got the book banned in the first place. Lean misunderstood the future of Soviet Russia so much, he even chose to end the film with a romantic rainbow at the foot of a waterfall. The horrors of the civil war and the revolution are largely there briefly: a gang of deserting soldiers unceremoniously frag their officers and Zhivago frequently stares sadly at villages burned out by Whites or Reds (or both). But the film is more of a romance where events (rather than politically and social inevitability) gets in the way of the lovers – like Gone with the Revolution.

By removing the more complex elements – and the poetic language of Pasternak – you instead have the rather soapy plotline (with its contrivances and coincidences) left over. Again, it’s Hamlet taking only the events and none of the intellect or language. (And Pasternak’s novel didn’t compare with Hamlet in the first place.) Both Zhivago and Lara are shot as soft-focus lovers, with Julie Christie styled like a perfectly made-up slice of 60s glamour. It’s a grand scale, but strangely empty romance, because both characters remain unexplored and unknowable – in the end it’s hard to care for them as much as we are meant to do. For all the epic scale, small moments – such as an aging couple sharing a cuddle late at night on a train floor – carry more impact. How did the director of Brief Encounter – a romance that speaks to the ages for its empathy – produce such an epic, but empty, posture filled romance as this?

Julie Christie does fare better than Sharif – she’s a better actor, and her character has a bit more fire and depth to her. But she’s not in the picture enough, and Lean quietly undersells the terrible trauma of her eventual fate. Ironically, the smaller roles are on surer ground. Geraldine Chaplin is rather affecting as Zhivago’s wife, a dutiful and caring woman who her husband loves but is not besotted with. Ralph Richardson is witty and moving in a tailor-made role as her eccentric father. Tom Courtenay landed the films only acting Oscar nomination as the reserved and conflicted Pasha. Rod Steiger is very good as the mass of greed, selfishness and barely acknowledged shame as Komarovsky. Alec Guinness is bizarrely miscast as Sharif’s younger brother (!) but handles some of the film’s duller scenes well (Lean’s decision to have him never speak on screen except in the film’s framing device works very well).

There is a lot of good stuff in Zhivago, but this is a neutered and even slightly shallow film, that’s far more about selling a romance than it is telling a true adaptation of the themes of the novel. In Lawrence, Lean showed us multiple aspects of a conflicted personality to leave us in doubt about who he really was. In Zhivago, he just presents a rather empty person and seems unsure if he wants to use to ask who he is. The film concentrates on making the romance sweeping and easily digestible. What it doesn’t make us do is really care for them as people.

Great Expectations (1946)

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in David Lean’s masterful adaptation Great Expectations

Director: David Lean

Cast: John Mills (Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L Sullivan (Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Abel Magwich), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Anthony Wagner (Young Pip), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs Joe Gargery), Eileen Erskine (Biddy), Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummle)

Of all Dicken’s books there is perhaps none so popular as Great Expectations – and no Dickens adaptations are more highly regarded than David Lean’s 1946 film. Of course, just under two hours is only time to tell a simplified version of Dicken’s original. But no-one’s taking the book away. What Lean’s film did triumphantly was turn Dicken’s prose into a clear cinematic language and style, without losing the uniqueness of the author’s voice. Lean’s visual mastery is perfectly matched with his experience as an editor of telling a story to produce an endlessly entertaining film.

As a young boy Pip (Anthony Wagner) encounters an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) in a graveyard. Intimidated, Pip brings the convict food and tools to escape his chains – acts which the convict clears him of when he is caught later that day. Weeks later, Pip is invited to the home of rich spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to provide her and her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons) with company. The visits continue until Pip’s apprenticeship as a blacksmith to his brother-in-law Joe (Bernard Miles) begins. Imagine Pip’s (now John Mills) surprise six years later when he is informed by lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has come into money – that he has become a gentlemen of “great expectations”. Assuming it is the work of Miss Havisham – and that he is destined to marry Estella (now Valerie Hobson) – he is horrified to discover his life is more complex than he believed.

The film repackages Great Expectations a bit more into a romance. While the relationship between Pip and Estella, and the bond between them, is clear in the novel – and a large part of its plot – its but one thread masterfully woven together into the final storyline. Here this thread is given prominence, at the cost of several others. It’s not a complaint as such, but it makes Great Expectations into a more traditional story: a feeling added to by the film’s more conventional “feel-good” ending (very different from the much more uncertain ending of the novel, that Dicken’s edited back and forth in different editions to increase or decrease its hopefulness). However, it works for creating a film story, even if it loses some of the depth of the novel.

Its also more than balanced by how much the film gets right. Lean brilliantly captures the novel’s atmosphere, its gothic sense of impending dread, the burden of the past and the paranoia of persecution. For decades the opening scenes of the film, with its masterfully shot and edited mist covered graveyard (simultaneously a place of peace and a place of unsettling unknowability ) bursting into life through the grasping hands of Magwich, were practically used as a textbook example of cinematic language. Lean’s work is intensely cinematic. The mis en scene of Expectations is masterful – everything from casting, to camera angles to score comes together to bring Dickens world to life. This is exactly his London as he wrote it. It’s a wonderful expression of a particular author’s style, told using a mastery of cinematic language – from camera angles to editing cuts.

The characters have that perfect sense of eccentricity laced with menace that Dickens invests them with. Francis L Sullivan’s Jaggers is an unknowable legal machine who is part man of business, part fearsome fixer. Alec Guinness (in his film debut) is good-natured kindness to a T as Pip’s faithful friend Herbert (in one lovely scene he politely and gently corrects Pip’s primitive table manners). Finlay Currie’s Magwich captures the sense of danger and threat in the book’s opening that will become a fatherly meekness in the story’s later acts.

Largest of all, Martita Hunt’s gothic Miss Havisham sits like a giant spider at the centre of a decaying web. The design of Satis House – with its rotting wedding cake, sprawling cobwebbed dinner service, the heavy curtains and lack of light – is just one of the many perfect touches in the film. Hunt herself is superb as this outwardly eccentric aunt, who in fact has been nursing a core of bile and hatred that ends up only hurting those closest to her. There is something hugely dreamlike about Miss Havisham’s home – you suspect Lean may have watched some Cocteau – with its strangely angled table and mix of intimate framing and wide-angle crane shots.

Perhaps because we only see, not read, Pip’s actions in this film it’s impossible not notice what an arrogant snob he becomes. John Mills does decent work in the part, but (much as in the book) Pip ends up feeling like a slightly colourless figure. The film doesn’t always explore in detail the negative sides of his character meaning moments like his patronising dismissal of the kindly Joe (a perfectly judged Bernard Miles), don’t do the character much favours. Mills does however make a larger impression than Valerie Hobson, left slightly adrift as Estella. She’s not helped by how outstanding Jean Simmons is as the young and preciously flirtatious Estella, the perfect picture of the little cruelties teenagers inflict on each other. (A braver film might have had her play the role throughout – but then Mills would look even older than he does!)

The film is very strong on the pain caused to these two characters – and that they cause for each other. More than any other version, we get a sense here of how Miss Havisham’s misguided aim to use Estella as a weapon of revenge on all men only manages to hurt Estella herself and Pip (her one true love as presented here). Just as a Pip’s snobbish dismissal of Joe stings. And Lean’s brilliant sense of pace and rhythm means that this plays hand-in-hand with Pip’s ever more desperate attempts in the second half to save Magwich from doom.

Many of the complexities of the plot (from Estella’s parents to Herbert’s marriage to several key characters) are cut out, but it’s striking how the film still manages to feel so faithful to the book. Lean’s understanding of Dickens mix of eccentricity and darkness is communicated in every frame. The major moments and characters from the book are beautifully bought to life, from that opening scene to Satis House. But also because small moments, like Wemmick’s “Aged P” remain in the film. Sure, the canvas has been reduced – and refocused into a love story of sorts – but the picture that emerges is still very much in the style of Dickens.

That’s what makes it one of the greatest adaptations of all time: it’s both an interpretation of the original and a beautifully judged capturing of its spirit and tone. An adaptation twice the length may have caught more plot, but would not have been such a fine movie. Because so much of this film’s imagery and drama sticks in the mind long after it is finished. Lean’s masterstroke here was to understand completely the heart of the book, and to focus the film on that. Brilliantly assembled, designed, shot and acted, it’s still one of the best literary adaptations ever made.

Cromwell (1970)

Cromwell image
Richard Harris let loose the revolution in Cromwell

Director: Ken Hughes

Cast: Richard Harris (Oliver Cromwell), Alec Guinness (King Charles I), Robert Morley (Earl of Manchester), Dorothy Tutin (Queen Henrietta Maria), Frank Finlay (John Carter), Timothy Dalton (Prince Rupert), Patrick Wymark (Earl of Strafford), Patrick Magee (Hugh Peters), Nigel Stock (Sir Edward Hyde), Charles Gray (Earl of Essex), Michael Jayston (Henry Ireton), Douglas Wilmer (Sir Thomas Fairfax), Geoffrey Keen (John Pym), Stratford Johns (President Bradshaw)

How much does history actually matter when you watch a historical film? We all know we aren’t watching a documentary don’t we? It’s worth bearing in mind when watching Cromwell a film which would probably be in the running for “least historically accurate film of all time”. But despite that, it’s entertaining and gets quite close to some of the spirit of the times – even if it changes most of the facts. It probably as well deserves notice for being one of the very few films to offer a sympathetic portrait of Oliver Cromwell – not a guy it’s easy to like.

It’s the 1640s, and England is a mess. Charles I (Alec Guinness) has been ruling the country directly, without involving Parliament, for over ten years. But now the money is gone and he needs Parliament to raise some more cash. Problem is, Parliament is more interested in pushing a defence of its own prerogatives rather than simply putting more money into the King’s pocket. Among the leaders of the Parliamentary campaign is Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), and he is not the man to take any false promises from the king. Before we know it, the country has tipped into civil war – and now it’s up to Cromwell to create a Parliamentarian army that is capable of defeating the King and bring democracy to the nation.

Ken Hughes film offers some plenty of scope and drama, even if is old-fashioned (even a little Victorian) in its Wrong-but-Wromantic Cavaliers and Right-but-Repulsive Roundheads (to mis-quote 1066 And All That). It’s a strange topic for a historical epic (it took years to get the funding) – but it looks fabulous and has a wonderful score that really embraces the religious music of the time.

What it gets right is the passion and the fire that people felt at the time for questions of politics and religion. The film frequently features heated debates (even if the dialogue is often more ticking boxes than inspired) that the actors invest with real force. Its view of events is of course truncated and at times simple (it is, after all, trying to cover around ten of the most tumultuous years in British history in about two hours), but it focuses on trying to get the spirit of things right.

A large part of this is Richard Harris’ firey performance in the lead role. There is, it has to be said, a cosmic irony in Cromwell, the least popular British leader in Irish history, winds up being played so sympathetically by one of the most famous Irish actors of all time. Sure, the real Cromwell would have hated being played by an Irishman and a Catholic (Cromwell was surprisingly inclusive at the time, but had no truck with either group). But then Cromwell would also have loved being portrayed as a mixture of George Washington and Cincinnatus (the Roman general who left his plough to assume supreme command when the nation needed him, only to retire again to obscurity). This Cromwell is bullheaded, but determined to do what’s best for the nation, with personal ambition not even a consideration. He’s the one true, selfless man in a revolution of violence.

In fact, Cromwell was sorely tempted by the eventual offer to be King (something he laughs off here). He also undoubtedly was touched heavily by ambition, while his attempt to turn the Protectorate into a hereditary office was a disaster that doomed the Republic (surely George Washington learned a few lessons from him). But, deep down, Cromwell was sincere – a guy who largely said, and did, what he meant. It’s that sense of morality that Harris gets very well here. And, while its easy to poke fun at those hoarse tirades Harris is frequently called on to deliver, this sort of intemperate ranting (laced with Biblical language and a strong sense of moral superiority) were pretty much central to Cromwell’s personality.

It makes for a very different hero, even if the film is determined to turn Cromwell into the only decent man in the Kingdom. Cromwell, in real life, never retreated from politics to return to his farm as he does in the latter part of the film (he actually spent this time on brutal campaign in Ireland, something the film mentions only vaguely in passing). But there is no doubt Cromwell would have believed he was the guy selected by providence to save the nation – and that idea the film channels very well. In fact, Cromwell gives you a pretty decent idea of what Cromwell might have been like – and a pretty accurate picture of who Cromwell wanted to be – even if the things it shows you only have a passing resemblance to what happened.

It’s a key directive throughout Ken Hughes’ film, which feels free to distort historical events willy-nilly (see more below). But there is a sort of truth in spirit, if not in fact – from the heated debate in Parliament, to the mixture of frantic panic and regimented order in the battles (one particularly good shot positions the camera under a charging horse, which makes a cavalry charge suddenly feel horrifyingly visceral). Sure it’s arranged into a much more simple black-and-white story, but it works.

A similar trick also works for its portrayal of Charles I. This is probably one of Guinness’ most over-looked performances. His Charles is a weak, indecisive man who confuses stubbornness and pride for moral strength. Softly spoken when calm, he collapses into heavily Scots accented rage when riled and his politeness is a only a shield for bitterness and vexation. He routinely shirks responsibility for his actions and spreads the blame around everyone but himself. Again, it might not all be accurate, but you can’t imagine this is far off from the actual King.

Historically though, so much of the film is wildly inaccurate. Many of these changes are done to increase the importance of Oliver Cromwell early in the Parliamentarian campaign. To scratch the surface: Cromwell – a minor figure until quite late into the war – was not one of the five members Charles marched to Parliament to arrest (neither was Henry Ireton). He certainly didn’t – and neither did anyone else – remain sitting when the troops arrived and set a motion in place protecting MPs. He never met the King before the war. Cromwell is later made C-in-C of the Parliamentarian army – an office actually given to Fairfax. The film’s depiction of the Battle of Naseby flips the numerical advantage exactly to favour Charles rather than Cromwell. Far from providing the key damning evidence at Charles’ trial, Hyde fled the country with Prince Charles.

But this is a fiction, rather than drama. Even if the facts it presents are largely nonsense, it gets a lovely sense of the divided loyalties and tensions that existed during this period. The performances are often quite broad – Robert Morley simpers and sneers as an opportunistic Manchester, Patrick Wymark growls and splutters as Strafford while Timothy Dalton goes way over the top as a foppish Prince Rupert – but some, such as Michael Jayston’s firebrand Ireton or Nigel Stock’s tortured Hyde (historical nonsense as his storyline is) are rather good.

And it’s hard not to like a film where the lead actor is going at it such great guns that you can actually hear his voice disappearing into a rasp. Cromwell doesn’t have much relation to the facts, but deep down it does seem to understand the man Cromwell wanted to be. And, on that level, it feels truthful and heartfelt – and that’s partly why it remains entertaining and why I remain rather fond of it.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Darth Vader in the film that really made him an icon: the flawless The Empire Strikes Back

Director: Irvin Kershner

Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), David Prowse & James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Frank Oz (Yoda), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Denis Lawson (Wedge Antilles), Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett), Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Ian McDiarmid (Emperor)

As Star Wars sprawls into a massive Disney money-spinning franchise, for both fans and producers alike the original trilogy is increasingly becoming like Holy Texts, the events and characters of which must guide all future films. And of all these, none of them is holier than The Empire Strikes Back. It’s odd to think that the initial reaction to this sequel was a bit mixed at the time, since this is not only the very finest of all the Star Wars films, but also one of the best genre films ever made, one of the greatest sequels ever made – in fact one of the best, most consistently rewarding films you are ever going to see. It’s going to be loved forever, any critical view is almost superfluous. And the reason for that is surely linked to the fact that I’ve seen it hundreds of times and I still love every frame of it.

Anyway, nearly everyone must know the story. Some time has passed since the rebels successfully took out that Death Star. Now they are secure in a new base on the ice planet Hoth, being hunted by the empire in an operation commanded by the feared Darth Vader. When the Empire locates the base, our heroes are separated in the ensuing escape: Luke (Mark Hamill) is guided by the force and the ghost of his mentor Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) to seek out the legendary trainer of Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz). Meanwhile, Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) are on the run in a malfunctioning Millennium Falcon, dodging Star Destroyers and eventually taking refuge in the Cloud City of Bespin, run by an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). But is this a safe refuge? And what is the secret reason why Vader is so determined to hunt down Luke?

So what is it that makes The Empire Strikes Back so damn good? Well it takes everything from the first film and deepens and enriches all the characters and themes that that film explored. While you could say Star Warsis the quintessential romantic space opera – part Western, part fairy tale legend – it’s also a feel-good fun ride. Empireis a rich, complex and endlessly rewarding film that takes all its characters and turns them into fully rounded and intriguing personalities. When you think about the turmoil and struggles each of them goes through in this film – from Luke, through Vader even down to C-3PO – it’s not hard to see why these characters have worked their way into the hearts of every viewer. We see them all go through huge amounts and we learn and discover things about them in every frame. It’s fascinatingly well done storytelling and brilliantly structured character building.

In fact the whole film is a triumph of investment. Even more than the first one, we get a real sense of the mighty ruthlessness of the Empire (staffed exclusively it seems by British character actors from 1970s TV), of its resources, its willingness to do anything. Even more than in the first film, the odds seem piled against the rebellion, with the limited ship, tiny fire power, the fact that our heroes spend virtually the entire film either running, hiding or captured – how can you not feel the pull of wanting to take up this romantic cause eh? 

Perhaps it works so well as Lucas handed over much of the on-the-ground-floor creativity over to other people (you only have the watch The Phantom Menace to see what happened when he took all these reins back up again). The witty, energetic, fun script – packed full of lines that trip off the tongue, and character moments that feel real and human – is by Lawrence Kasdan. Directing meanwhile is handled by Irvin Kershner, a middle-of-the-road director who taught Lucas at film school but here seems to transcend his abilities to deliver a true masterpiece, with all the thrill of a teenager finally given the keys to the big car. 

Kershner can handle all the spectacle, but like no other movie in the series Empire works because it’s rooted in the small-scale, in the reaction shot, in the camera soaking up the actors. There are so many shots of actors looking at things in this movie (I think they all have significant moments of this) while we see their thoughts and emotions play across their faces. Kershner never forgets that this is a story about people not about bangs and whizzes in space. In doing that, in making this a brilliant character drama, he really turned Star Wars into not just an adventure but a series where we invested heavily in these people. There is a reason why the modern films come back time and time to the characters from this film: Empire really made us care about them, turned them into family members, people we’d seen through highs and lows. We see them in a modern film and it’s like greeting long lost friends.

And it helps that the stars give their best work here. Harrison Ford may never have been so cocksure, so cool but also strangely vulnerable and lovable. While in Star Wars he was used to puncture the grandeur, here he’s got a put-upon vulnerability to him, a bravado in his courtship with Leia that hides his touchiness. Not to mention we are constantly reminded he’s a wanted man. Ford also gets massive comic mileage from his exasperation with the constantly malfunctioning Falcon. All this and he never looks flustered: “Never tell me the odds!” indeed! And he gets possibly the best loved line in the whole series with “I know”.

Fisher is equally good as a prickly Leia, who is afraid to let down the imperious commanding cool to let any hint of feeling and emotion show. Mark Hamill does a very easy to overlook job of emotional commitment as Luke Skywalker – particularly as he spends a large chunk of the film interacting only with a robot prop and a puppet. He sells the conflict Luke is feeling, the clash between doing action that feels right now and having the patience to build his skills. And of course, he sells the anguish of finding out that twist.

Ah yes the twist. Empire was perhaps one of the first films to impose such strict pre-production secrecy onto its key plot development. On set, only Irvin Kershner and Mark Hamill knew that Vader was Luke’s father (no spoiler warning – I think Lucasfilm have well and truly spoilt that one themselves). Dave Prowse, who was not trusted to keep it to himself, to was given a line around Obi-Wan killing Luke’s father (he must have been slightly surprised at Hamill’s reaction, which does seem a bit OTT to that news). But this moment again really, really, really works because it is both a surprise AND something that makes total sense. It doesn’t feel like hints have been dropped through the whole film in advance, but when you hear it you spot them all over the place. It’s also such a brilliant narrative rug pull it has also effectively powered the creation of the prequels and is still central to the new trilogy.

Away from all this, the film is also a masterpiece in pacing and action sequences. It took a lot of guts to put the major space battle at the start of the film, but it works an absolute treat – while also being something completely different from anything in the first film. It looks and feels really cool. And it contrasts perfectly with the smaller scale, more intimate desperation of the escape from Besbin that ends the film, matched with Luke’s battle with a never-more-imposing Vader. I’ll also mention as well that John Williams’ score for all these sequences is practically perfect in every way, adding no end of tension, emotion and excitement to all these sequences.

And it’s the fact that you get all this, mixed with a real, genuine investment in all the characters (good and bad), that really makes the film work in a way that no other Star Wars film has quite managed since, and that makes this the crown jewel in the franchise. It’s one of those serendipity projects where everything fell into place, everyone brought their best to it, and the stars aligned. It’s lightening in a bottle, and the franchise has used it ever since as its setter for everything from tone to plot developments. You will rarely find anything as fun, or widely loved, as this film.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


Alec Guinness is the British Colonel in captivity whose principles are sadly misguided in The Bridge on the River Kwai

Director: David Lean

Cast: William Holden (Commander Shears), Alec Guinness (Lt Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lt Joyce), André Morell (Colonel Green), Peter Williams (Captain Reeves), John Boxer (Major Hughes)

“Madness! Madness!”Are there many better final lines of films – or any delivered with more emphatic, meaningful gusto than James Donald manages at the close of this David Lean classic? The Bridge on the River Kwai is a constantly reliable, wonderfully assembled classic film, and a never-ending joy to watch. It’s not only a gripping epic, it’s also a wonderful psychological study of a series of men and the impact war has on their psyches. It’s all madness after all.

In 1943, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his men arrive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma. Camp Commander Colonel Saito (Sesse Hayakawa) has been tasked with building a bridge over the river Kwai, and demands officers and men go to work. When Nicholson adamantly refuses to allow officers to do manual labour (as per the Geneva Convention), he and Saito are set for a clash of wills, in which the iron-willed, rigid certainty of Nicholson eventually triumphs. However, once Nicholson is released from solitary confinement, he is so horrified by the decline in discipline of his men, he decides building the bridge is the perfect opportunity to rebuild morale and demonstrate British character=. So he sets upon building a better, stronger bridge than the Japanese had designed. Meanwhile, fellow prisoner American Commander Shears (William Holden) escapes from the camp back to Allied headquarters – only to be forced to return to the jungle on a commando raid to destroy the bridge, led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).

Wow this is one hell of a film. It was garlanded with seven Oscars, and totally deserves each and every one of them. Kwai is a deeply engaging, wonderfully structured epic that balances perfectly the sweep of Hollywood cinema with a keen understanding of the complexities of psychologies under pressure. Because like Clipton says, this is a film about madness. Virtually everyone in this is mad in some way. Lean brilliantly positions these psyches in a series of conflicts and clashes: we have Nicholson vs. Saito, Nicholson vs. Shears, Shears vs. Warden – in every relationship in the film there is conflict and disagreement. It makes for extraordinary drama.

Pile on top of that the fact that David Lean is a consummate film maker. Every moment of Kwai is a display of wondrous visual storytelling, from the arrival of the British in the prison camp – a triumph of defiance, pride and hubris – to the final attack on the bridge. The final sequence around the bridge is exquisitely assembled. The editing is flawless, the tension build-up (nearly 20 minutes!) never flags, but carefully establishes the who, what, why and where. The sequence itself builds up both events and problems with daunting skill. In between, every sequence of the film has some masterful work in it.

The heartbeat is Alec Guinness, simply marvellous as Nicholson. It’s hard to believe watching it that he was not the first choice – in a parallel universe Charles Laughton starred opposite Cary Grant’s Commander Shears! – because he is superb in this Oscar-winning role. Guinness’s Nicholson is mad. Not in the cuckoo way or a cruel or arrogant way. He’s blinded by the rule book, by the middle-class values of duty, order and dignity that govern his life. Mad because he takes a task from his Japanese enemies and does it better than they ever could have: “Must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves?” Clipton asks of him. Too true. Nicholson’s response? That one day people will remember the bridge was built not by “a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers…even in captivity”. 

So Nicholson doesn’t see it that way. It doesn’t match his narrow world view of a place for everything and everything in its place. Because he has no vision beyond his own immediate circumstances. The important thing for him is to build the bridge, because it’s his duty to keep his men together, and demonstrate British resolve. So it’s Nicholson who visits Clipton’s sick bay and gently questions the wounded men, encouraging them to go back to work on the bridge so it can be finished on time (they ironically march through the graveyard of the camp on the way). For Nicholson the bridge is everything – and Guinness’ eyes are full of rigid monomania (needless to say, by the end of the film Nicholson himself off-handedly informs Clipton with pride that the officers have volunteered to work on the bridge to make sure it will be finished before the deadline).

His manner contrasts fascinatingly with Sesse Hawakaya’s Colonel Saito. Saito, a bank manager type if ever you saw one, clearly struggles with holding his command together and to deliver the bridge as planned. He has the strength of office, but not the strength of character of Nicholson. Hawakaya plays a weak man – and it’s fascinating how Lean charts the shift in power from Saito to Nicholson. Nicholson stands for principle and simply cannot imagine backing down – and then, with a sense of certainty and natural authority that governs his life, swiftly takes over the entire planning of the bridge from Saito. Poor Saito is a broken, weakened man: and in his own form of madness, is left with Nicholson alone as a confidant (the two of them talk more to each other about their loneliness and uncertainties than they do anyone else – Nicholson in particular gets a marvellous speech about the sad transience of the soldier’s life – “it’s a good life, but still there are times…”).

The madness doesn’t stop there. Jack Hawkins’ Major Warden is as fanatical as Nicholson: the mission is everything. Hawkins is excellent, turning Warden into a sort of over-grown schoolboy, playing at soldiers but with an adolescent aggressive willingness to sacrifice the pieces for the greater good. For Warden, no life in the team is sacred (including his own), and everything must be about the target. Warden’s gung-ho, take-no-prisoners attitude, his lack of empathy for the lives of those around him, makes him as much of an insane danger as Nicholson, perhaps more so.

Holden’s more humane Shears is the counterbalance with these three lunatics. Of course, Shears is sucked even more into the madness than anyone else – who else would escape from a prison camp, only to be forced to head back into the jungle on a fool’s errand? Holden is damned impressive as the naturally anti-authoritarian Shears, a man who never seems to have seen a boss without questioning him, who recognises the insanity of the war around him but when push comes to shove throws himself into the mission he has been given. 

He’s the big addition to the original source material – but it’s an idea so good that Pierre Boullé said he wished he had thought of it himself. Boullé won the screenplay Oscar, but the writers of the script were really the black-listed Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. These two put together a superb script, and the structure contrasting Shears with Nicholson works perfectly. These two are mirror images, but never really antagonists. Their final meeting towards the end of the film has a poetic sadness about it. It adds a whole extra dimension to the film – while one storyline sees the bridge being built, a parallel one prepares for its destruction.

All these threads come together beautifully on the morning of the bridge’s opening, after a triumphant celebration by the prisoners on the completion of the bridge – a moment Nicholson describes to them as “turn[ing] defeat into victory”. He is of course both right and wrong – and the triumph of the film is that you can’t help but share Nicholson’s desire to save this bridge that we have seen so much work, effort and love go into constructing. 

“Madness”. That’s how Clipton sees it – James Donald is by the way wonderful as the one sane man – and yes of course he’s right. It’s all part of what is a masterful film made by a master storyteller, beautifully filmed and edited. Alec Guinness gives a performance for the ages as stubborn, small-minded man whom we somehow still end up strangely admiring and respecting. Holden, Hawkins and Hayakara offer intelligent, engaging portrayals. The Bridge on the River Kwaiis a film that you can watch again and again. In fact you should, because Lean here marries an epic scale with a story that feels small, personal and deeply felt – that places the psychology of real people at the centre of an epic stage. It’s simply a classic.