Tag: Ralph Richardson

Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

HG Wells ultra-serious view of the future is stilted but also visionary

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Cast: Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (‘Pippa’ Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana Black), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr Edward Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), John Clements (Enemy pilot)

Alexander Korda was thrilled. He’d secured the rights to the legendary HG Well’s new novel. Even better the Great Man would work, hand-in-glove, with Korda’s team to bring The Shape of Things to Come to the screen. It would be a grand science-fiction hit, that would echo the success of American films based on Wells’ work (films, to be fair, Wells pretty much hated apart from The Invisible Man). It became a continual struggle before the final flawed-but-fascinating film arrived in cinemas.

Things to Come opens in the (then) near future in 1940 as war tears “Everytown” on Christmas Day and flies 100 years into the future. Bombing destroys the city and hurtles the world into over twenty years of never-ending war that leaves civilisation wrecked by carnage, advanced weapons and poisonous gases. A legacy of the war, “the wandering sickness” devastates the survivors, killing half the remaining population. In the ruins of Everytown in the 1960s, the Boss (Ralph Richardson) rises to take power, one of many warlords across the world being challenged by the “World Communications” alliance of engineers and scientists in Basra, Iraq. When they reshape the world, decades of progress lead to a new civilisation in 2036 aiming at the stars.

HG Wells saw Things to Come as a polemic, an ambitious and optimistic look at how mankind should progress, leaving behind war and politics to embrace rational thought and the quest for knowledge. Written at a time when tensions were high in Europe, it would show the world torn apart, devastated and reborn greater than it ever was before. Never-the-less at every point, the unambitious, myopic and power-hungry gather to hold back progress. What he didn’t really see it as was a conventional “drama” or those involved as “characters” more devices, ciphers and mouthpieces for his viewpoints.

Which helps explain the curious project that made it to the screen. Wells was guaranteed approval over the dialogue, which remains flat and heavy handed. Actors felt constrained within the sonorous phasing and over-written prose. It wasn’t helped by director William Cameron Menzies’ discomfort with dialogue scenes. Whenever two people stand around (which sums up the blocking) and chat, the film is frequently a little dull, settling for a semi-disguised lecture on humanity, science and progress. Korda correctly identified the dialogue problems and cut as much of it as possible.

In doing so, he snipped away much of the narrative framework of the film. In a film that flies forward through time and world-changing events, we frequently get confused about the exact details of who goes why and where and what makes characters do the things they do. Characters disappear and reappear, fly across the world in seconds, form and break alliances and argue and drop cases all on a sixpence. Raymond Massey later talked about how hard he found his character (a man and his grandson, bridging all timelines) to bring to life with dialogue largely devoid of emotion. Much of Things to Come can be dry-as-a-bone.

But yet… Away from the weaknesses of the script, much of Things to Come is quite awe-inspiring. While the characters might be a little flat, the energy of the film’s first two acts (in 1936 and 1966) offers a host of striking scenes and images. Things to Come remains powerful and horrifying when it looks at the darkness and damage of war. The 1936 bombing attack on Everytown still shocks with its superbly assembled shots of buildings exploding, crowds panicking, dead bodies slumped in cars, terrified faces and dead children in the rubble. Imagine watching this with the Blitz just a few years away. Menzies may not direct acting or dialogue with much inspiration, but his skill with visuals and editing is clear. The montage carrying the world over the next thirty years is a masterful mix of fake news-footage and technological innovation as ever more advanced tanks and airplanes roll past the screen. The film’s use of design and visuals is frequently haunting and impressive.

It carries across to the bombed-out design of Everytown in the 1960s. A shell of a city, where wrecks of cars are pulled by horses. Those suffering from “the Wandering Sickness” move like zombies through the city. Homes and buildings are gutted remains. Newspaper headlines – of newspapers that become ever more basic in printing and more expensive in price – had previously helped communicate the passage of events. Now the news is chalked up onto a board outside the home of the Mussolini-like Boss (the film’s finest performance of charismatic swagger and delusional power-mad greed by Ralph Richardson). Clothing is basic and functional, pulled together from scraps leftover from the war, in a world largely devoid of all technology.

This wasteland makes the futuristic designs even more striking. The “Wings Over the World” organisation – growing from the cradle of civilisation in Iraq – is sleek, metallic and efficient in its construction. When John Cabal (Raymond Massey) lands back in the 60s ruin of Everytown, he looks like a spaceman. He might as well be. His fleet of unimaginably vast airplanes have inspired visions of futuristic flight right up to the mighty airbases the Avengers operate in the MCU.

While you can snigger a little at the utopiaish version of the future – very Star Trek in its flowing robes and shoulder pads – it’s vision of subterranean cities full of everything from wrist communicators to widescreen TVs feels quite prescient. Everything is clear, polished and perfect – much of it doesn’t look a million miles away from an Apple store. While the villains of the future (a band of luddites led by Cedric Hardwicke) may be little more than paper tigers, given only the vaguest motivations, the grand engineering accomplishments of the future and their glances at the stars feel inspired in their detail and ambition.

It’s where Things to Come triumphs. It might not often have much to listen to, but every single scene carries a slice of design or visual interest. Its frequently assembled into effective – and even terrifying – montages. And its design of the future – based on Wells vision and bought to life by Menzies and his technical team – is a perfect mix of striking and prescient. Things to Come isn’t always the best drama, but as a forward-looking piece of design it’s truly memorable.

The Heiress (1949)

The Heiress (1949)

Is it love or is it avarice? Wyler’s sumptuous costume drama is a brilliant translation of Henry James to the screen

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Betty Linley (Mrs Montgomery), Ray Collins (Jefferson Almond), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond), Paul Lees (Arthur Townsend)

Pity poor Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). She’s seems destined forever to be the spinster, the last person anyone glances at during a party. Her father Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson) can’t so much as walk into a room without gently telling how infinitely inferior she is to her mother. And when a man finally seems keen to court her, her father tells her that of course handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) will only be interested in her inheritance. After all, there is nothing a young man could love in a forgettable, dull, second-rate woman like Catherine. He’s cruel, but is he right – is Morris a mercenary?

The Heiress was adapted from a play itself a version of Henry James’ Washington Square. It’s bought magnificently to the screen in a lush, sensational costume drama that comes closer than anyone else at capturing those uniquely Jamesian qualities of ambiguity and contradictory motives among the New American elites. Magnificently directed by William Wyler, it brilliantly turns a theatrical character piece into something that feels intensely cinematic, without once resorting to clumsy ‘opening up the play’ techniques. And it marshals brilliant performances at its heart.

Sumptuously costumed by Edith Head, whose costumes subtly change and develop along with its central character’s emotional state throughout the story, it’s largely set in a magnificently detailed Upper New York household, shot in deep focus perfection by Leo Tover, which soaks up both the reaction of every character and the rich, detailed perfection of decoration which may just be motivating some of the characters. Not that we can be sure about that, since the motives of Morris Townsend and his pursuit of Catherine remain cunningly unreadable: just as you convince yourself he’s genuine, he’ll show a flash of avarice – then he’ll seem so genuinely warm and loving, you’ll be sure he must be telling the truth or be the world’s greatest liar.

Catherine certainly wants it to be true – and believes it with a passion. The project was also a passion piece for de Havilland, and this is an extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance that delves deeply into the psyche of someone who has been (inadvertently perhaps) humiliated and belittled all her life and eventually reacts in ways you could not predict. Catherine is clumsy, naïve and lacking in any finesse. With her light, breathless voice and inability to find the right words, she’s a doormat for anyone. She even offers to carry the fishmonger’s wares into the house for him. At social functions, her empty dance card is studiously checked and her only skill seems to be cross-stitch.

She is an eternal disappointment to her father, who meets her every action and utterance with a weary smile and a throwaway, unthinking comment that cuts her to the quick. Richardson, funnelling his eccentric energy into tight control and casual cruelty, is magnificent here. In some ways he might be one of the biggest monsters in the movies. This is a man who has grown so accustomed to weighing his daughter against his deceased wife (and finding her wanting) that the implications of the impact of this on his daughter never crosses his mind.

Catherine is never allowed to forget that she is a dumpy dullard and a complete inadequate compared to the perfection of her mother. Richardson’s eyes glaze over with undying devotion when remembering this perfection of a woman, and mementoes of her around the house or places she visited (even a Parisian café table later in the film) are treated as Holy Relics. In case we are in any doubts, his words when she tries on a dress for a cousin’s engagement party sum it up. It’s red, her mother’s colour, and looks rather good on her although he sighs “your mother was fair: she dominated the colour”. Like Rebecca this paragon can never be lived up to.

So, it’s a life-changing event when handsome Morris Townsend enters her life. There was criticism at the time that Clift may have been too nice and too handsome to play a (possible) scoundrel. Quite the opposite: Clift’s earnestness, handsomeness and charm are perfect for the role, while his relaxed modernism as an actor translates neatly in this period setting into what could-be arrogant self-entitlement. Nevertheless, his attention and flirtation with Catherine at a party is a blast from the blue for this woman, caught mumbling her words, dropping her bag and fiddling nervously with her dance card (pretending its fuller than of course it is).

Her father, who sees no value in her, assumes it is not his tedious child Morris has his eyes on, but the $30k a year she stands to inherit. And maybe he knows because these two men have tastes in common, Morris even commenting “we like the same things” while starring round a house he all too clearly can imagine himself living in – by implication, they also have dislikes in common. (And who does Sloper dislike more, in a way, than Catherine?) Morris protests his affections so vehemently (and Sloper lays out his case with such matter-of-fact bluntness) that we want to believe him, even while we think someone who makes himself so at home in Sloper’s absence (helping himself to brandy and cigars) can’t be as genuine as he wants us to think.

As does Catherine. Part of the brilliance of de Havilland’s performance is how her performance physically alters and her mentality changes as events buffet her. A woman who starts the film mousey and barely able to look at herself in the mirror, ends it firm-backed and cold-eyed, her voice changing from a light, embarrassed breathlessness into something hard, deep and sharp. De Havilland in fact swallows Richardson’s characteristics, Sloper’s precision and inflexibility becoming her core characteristics. The wide-eyed woman at the ball is a memory by the film’s conclusion, Catherine becoming tough but making her own choices. As she says to her father, she has lived all her life with a man who doesn’t love her. If she spends the rest of it with another, at least that will be her choice.

Wyler assembles this superbly, with careful camera placement helping to draw out some gorgeous performances from the three leads – not to forgetting Miriam Hopkins as a spinster aunt, who seems as infatuated with Morris as Catherine is. The film is shaped, at key moments, around the house’s dominant staircase. Catherine runs up it in glee at the film’s start with her new dress, later sits on it watching eagerly as Morris asks (disastrously) for her hand. Later again, she will trudge up it in defeated misery and will end the film ascending it with unreadable certainty.

The Heiress is a magnificent family drama, faultlessly acted by the cast under pitch-perfect direction, that captures something subtly unreadable. We can believe that motives change, grow and even alter over time – and maybe that someone can love somebody and their money at the same time (perhaps). But we also understand the trauma of constant emotional pain and the hardening a lifetime of disappointment can have. It’s the best James adaption you’ll ever see.

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.

The Sound Barrier (1952)

Sound barrier header
Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick on a dangerous mission to break The Sound Barrier

Director: David Lean

Cast: Ralph Richardson (John Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Susan Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Sparks), Denholm Elliott (Christopher Ridgefield), Jack Allen (‘Windy’ Williams), Ralph Michael (Fletcher)

David Lean’s film career can be divided into two eras: his early films are British-based literary adaptations and family dramas, many of them front-and-centring the experiences and tribulations of women. The later era are the jaw-dropping epics he became best known for. The Sound Barrier is towards the end of the first era – and it’s almost a bridge between the two, an impressively filmed story of man’s triumph over nature, that sneaks under the wire an emotional family-in-crisis storyline, with a daughter suffering the damaging impact of her father’s obsession.

That father is John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a famous aeronautical engineer and airline entrepreneur who, with the end of the war, returns to his fixation: discovering a way to make a plane fly so fast it breaks the sound barrier. It’s a vision that has dominated his life, but which his daughter Susan (Ann Todd) finds hard to understand. John is a domineering, demanding father, whose son Christopher (Denholm Elliott) gets himself killed trying to qualify as a pilot to win his father’s respect. In his place, Susan’s husband Tony (Nigel Patrick), a test pilot, is claimed by John as a surrogate son and equally pushed to risk all to try and fly faster than sound.

Lean’s film is a wonderful mix of post-war military-based exploits and stiff-upper lip exploration of family dynamics, where resentments and passions go unspoken but shape everything. With a superb script by Terence Rattigan, whose work is filled with monomaniacs like Ridgefield and sympathetic and emotionally intelligent women like Susan, The Sound Barrier might seem like a celebration of British pluck (it hardly matters that we Brits didn’t actually break the sound barrier first – no mention of Chuck Yaeger here…), with some stunning aerial photography. But it’s a lot more than that.

What’s fascinating about The Sound Barrier – and what makes it such a rewarding watch – is how much it questions the value of these sort of quests. The film’s focus is less on the engineering struggles and the bravery of the pilots (compare and contrast this film with the more straightforwardly triumphant The Dam Busters), and more on the human cost of obsession and this sort of adrenalin-fuelled airborne machismo.

The Ridgefield family has been damaged almost beyond repair – under their wealth and comfort – by their father’s demanding perfectionism. Ralph Richardson is superb as this bluntly-spoken man who sees no reason to sugar coat anything or hide any disappointment. The character has more than a hint of a Gradgrind of engineering – and just like Hard Times patriarch, his well-intentioned but misguided parenting has distorted both his children.

His hero-worshipping son Christopher (a wonderfully fragile and charming Denholm Elliott) pushes himself through chronic air-sickness to lay down his life trying to follow in his father’s footsteps (John greets his death with a sad criticism of his flying skills and goes back to work with his jet-plane models straight after the funeral). Susan has a cold relationship with her father (strikingly she calls him Father while everyone else – even her husband Tony – calls him Dad), and can’t understand why all this goal is worth sacrificing lives and any chance of simple domestic happiness. Her father’s coldness and distance from his children – not to mention his obvious and continual disappointment that she was born a girl – has led her to treat him with respect but not love.

It’s a dynamic completely missed by her husband Tony, played here with a bluff simplicity by Nigel Patrick. But then it’s pretty clear that this risk-taking pilot is quite simply not that bright. His lack of independent thinking is even identified by engineer Will Sparks (a ‘sparkling’ performance of avuncular surrogate fatherdom by Joseph Tomelty) as his major weakness as a test pilot. Tony has no idea of his wife’s concerns or emotional problems with her father, and instead quickly gets sucked into filling the role of “son I never had” for John. But then Tony has everything John wants – the flying skills Christopher never had without the questioning independence of Susan. He’s exactly the sort of weak-willed would-be-hero who can be quickly sucked into taking huge risks.

The film’s sympathies though are with Susan, played with a real warmth tinged with a sad expectation for disaster by Ann Todd, whose presence slowly grows to dominate the film. She can’t understand why it is necessary to risk all for this nebulous goal: it’s a refrain she repeats throughout the film “I wish I knew, I really wish I knew”. We’ve just gone through a second calamitous war – why are we throwing our lives away for a concept? Why should her husband put himself at huge risk like this for a brief mention in the history books and nothing else? Why not be content with a happy family life and living to see his son? Not to mention that the film proves her right – the nice-but-dim Tony isn’t good test pilot material and Susan’s new family is destroyed just like her old one.

At first it might seem that Todd’s character is the stay-at-home “don’t go Darling” type, but the film increasingly shows the validity of her doubts. There is a slightly toxic “carry on” Englishness about Tony and her father. Obsession is shown to drive out all over considerations – and Richardson has a late scene that carefully but brilliantly demonstrates how it has left him isolated and alone. It’s telling the barrier is finally broken by devoted husband and father Philip (a very decent John Justin), who is aware of the danger and has the most settled family life of the lot (and who greets his triumph with tears of relief rather than cheers).

The Sound Barrier could have easily been a “Britain triumphs in the skies!” with soaring music and heroic filming. Instead, it demonstrates the danger of obsession and the damaging impact it can have on people and their families. It concentrates not on the men in the sky, but increasingly the potential widows on the ground, forced to acknowledge that life with the family is less important than the chance of glory. It’s a rich and emotionally intelligent film, very well directed by Lean with warmth and humanity and with three terrific actors leading from the front.

The Four Feathers (1939)

John Clements jacks in the soldier’s life, then has to prove he’s not a coward in The Four Feathers

Director: Zoltan Korda

Cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (Geveral Faversham), Jack Allen (Lt Thomas Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr Sutton), John Laurie (Khalifa)

Who doesn’t love a sweeping boys own adventure? The Four Feathers is a prime example of a classic late Victorian adventure story by AEW Mason, where stiff-upper lipped British men do what must be done for honour, Queen and country in the face of hordes of dangerous ruthless natives. Okay, you can see typing that why some of these attitudes can be seen as “troubling today” – and the film’s occasional non-PC stumbles (John Laurie blacks up – as does every other actor playing a speaking African – as radical leader Khalifa, while his army is referred to by an on-screen caption as “fuzzy-wuzzies”). But it’s a product of its time, and its attitudes are really less racist, than the sort of patronising parental colonialism, where the Khalifa has to be stopped as much because he is a danger to his fellow natives as he is the British rulers.

Anyway, putting it’s “of its time” attitudes to one side, The Four Feathers is an endearing, enjoyable and wonderfully made adventure story. After the death of General Gordon (see Charlton Heston’s epic Khartoum) in 1885, war is declared on the Khalifa in the Sudan. However young Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission on the day of the announcement that his regiment will be shipped out, feeling his obligation to join the army has ended with his father’s death and worried that he will prove a coward. His friends Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Willoughby (Jack Allen), Burroughs (Donald Gray) and fiancée Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) are singularly unimpressed and all send him white feathers of cowardice. Realising he has led down everyone, Faversham disguises himself as mute, Sangali native (including facial brand – ouch!) and heads out to the Sudan to help his friends and regain his honour: and do they need it, as Durrance is blinded and Willoughby and Burroughs captured by the Khalifa.

The Four Feathers was shot on a huge budget at the time, with extensive on-set location shooting, and it barrels along with an old-fashioned sense of adventure that is hard not to get a little bit swept in. Of course, it’s also easy to question some of the film’s colonialist, white-man’s burden attitudes and also its opinions on what constitutes bravery and nobility (leaving the army because you never wanted to be in it in the first place is seen as yellow-bellied nonsense, which I suppose makes sense for a film made just before World War Two). 

But take it as a product of its own time, and the film works extremely well – easily the best version of the many that have been made of AEW Mason’s book. While epic, it gives us a low-key, dignified lead character who it’s easy to admire and relate to. John Clements plays the role with an expected upper-class stiffness in places, but he’s also a man bursting with desires to be something more than a soldier, then plagued with guilt and self-loathing when he believes he has betrayed all those he is closest to. Clements’ performance anchors the film extremely well, and makes Faversham into an admirable, very human protagonist, pushing himself to insane levels of deprivation and suffering to redeem himself in his own eyes, as much as in his friends.

Those friends are also not painted as arrogant buffoons or cruel, knee-jerk bullies. Ralph Richardson mines a great deal of sympathy from Durrance, a man determined to do his best but (its implied ) living under a deep sense of inadequacy and fear himself, who knows he is second best in most things, especially in love, and who accepts the ill fortunes that befall him with an eventual stoic good-nature. The film’s most successful sequence, features a wordless disguised Faversham, guiding the blind Durrance not only back to the British troops, but also helping him to find some will to carry on living. Its sterling work from Richardson, and his physical intelligence – his initial blindness is almost comically blundering, before the character trains himself to move and act almost as if he still had his sight – makes for further emotional connection.

All this is set in a sweeping, marvellously entertaining, grand-scale by Zoltan Korda. No expense was clearly spared, and the large scale sequences of battles and attacks – as well as the shots of armies moving across the desert wasteland – carry a great deal of scale and impact. The film barrels along with an impressive force, throwing events and actions at us throughout, all while juggling the personal stories of its lead characters. The technicolour shooting of the film has a classic gorgeousness about it, and the film has more than its fair share of decent lines. The film highlights a number of rather stirring battle set pieces, as red coated Englishman fight against overwhelming odds, the sort of thing that we are meant to frown at today but actually remains rather gripping.

The Four Feathers may be dated in places, but as a piece of classic entertainment from its era it’s hard to beat. The action adventure is full of bangs, shots and stiff-upper lipped Brits overcoming trials and tribulations. Faversham is a grounded and relatable character, and his doubts and fears make him admirable, not least because of the great lengths he goes to in order to overcome them. The Four Feathers still entertains today because it feels like exactly the sort of classic Sunday afternoon adventure story that appeals to boys of all ages.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Christopher Lambert is the lord of the apes in dull Tarzan epic Greystoke

Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Christopher Lambert (John Clayton), Ralph Richardson (Earl of Greystroke), Ian Holm (Capitaine Fyllieppe d’Arnot), James Fox (Lord Charles Esker), Andie MacDowell (Jane Porter), Cheryl Campbell (Lady Clayton), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Nicholas Farrell (Sir Hugh Belcher), Paul Geoffrey (John Clayton Snr), Richard Griffiths (Captain Billings), Hilton McRae (Willy), David Suchet (Buller), John Wells (Sir Evelyn Blount)

For his follow-up to Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson settled on this curious mess: part heavy-handed exploration of class and the brutality of man, part picturesque jungle picture with people in ape costumes. If anyone remembers Greystroke today, it’s for an interesting bit of trivia: original director and writer Robert Towne was so annoyed at being removed from the project, he used his dog’s name as his screenwriting credit. When the Oscar nominations were announced, this pooch became the first four-legged Oscar nominee. Strangely fitting for a film about the nobility of animals.

The film is a “real life” version of the Tarzan story. What this basically means is that it is dry and boring with a ponderous self-important message about how the real animal is in man (or something like that). It also of course means that the word “Tarzan” isn’t used except in the title (presumably so that audiences could be lured into the cinema). Anyway, after his parents are shipwrecked off the jungle coast, and die after young John Clayton’s (Christopher Lambert) birth, he is raised by gorillas and becomes one of the leaders of the pack. When a troupe of gung-ho explorers are slaughtered by natives, the only survivor is Belgian Fyllieppe d’Arnot (Ian Holm). Rescued by John, d’Arnot teaches him language and takes him home to the estate of his grandfather the Earl of Greystoke (Ralph Richardson), who is desperate for an heir. But can John adjust to the jungle of the modern world?

So Greystoke is well filmed, looks good and has a couple of decent performances in it. But it’s a dull mess as a film. Watching it you suspect a lot of the runtime ended up on the cutting room floor. There are sudden time jumps. Characters appear and disappear, many serving no real purpose. The film drifts towards a conclusion that neither seems enlightening nor serves any real cathartic summation of what the film might be about. There are many, many lovely shots of the jungle and Scottish countryside, but we never really end up caring about any of the characters within it.

The film is thematically a mess from start to finish. It seems to be making a point about John being totally unsuited, by his upbringing, to adjusting to the world of man. But it never really gives a proper voice to John himself. Of course he’s only just learning language, but even without that you never really feel like you begin to understand him, or get a sense of half-remembered human traits emerging from his ape upbringing. Basically you don’t get a sense of conflict within him as to whether he should stay or go. Without that conflict, there isn’t really much interest in watching him work out the answer.

This is despite the fact the Christopher Lambert is actually pretty good as John Clayton. The role plays to his strengths: it’s highly physical (not just in the acts of athleticism but also in its half-man, half-ape physicality). Lambert also has this rather fine other-worldly quality that constantly leaves him looking a bit lost and vulnerable. The part may be underwritten but he is certainly doing his very best here, and he really does a brilliant job of playing an ape trapped in man’s body.

It’s a shame that the film takes so long to get going that he doesn’t really appear for the first half an hour or so. Instead we get a lot of ape-based action in the forest – and probably too much of his parents. Later in the film, the camera makes a point of returning two or three times to a large painting of Cheryl Campbell as John’s mother – but the film never suggests any link at all between these two characters. A lot of time is wasted setting up the parents’ voyage, while at the same time no time is spent on establishing any emotional link between the Claytons and their son.

Far more time is spent on the apes – which I suppose is the point of a film that wants to celebrate the purity of the world of animals over the corruption of man. Rick Baker’s ape make-up is pretty impressive for the time – and works really well in longshot – but in close-up is all too obviously a series of performers in masks. There is a sense of their natures, but not of them as dangerous or wild animals. In fact the film goes overboard in humanising them – even to the extent of giving them their own language of grunts and groans.

The ape stuff goes on too long – and then means the return to civilisation seems rushed and unclear. Ian Holm is excellent as d’Arnot, the bridge between the two worlds, and his fatherly love for John works extremely well. But the film makes no attempt to tackle the questions it raises of John dealing with his split animal-human relationship. Instead the film loads the decks by making almost every human character – epitomised by James Fox’s flat performance as Jane’s toff fiancée – a heartless uncaring moron.

Ah yes Jane. Played with an openness by Andie MacDowell, she’s dubbed in a painfully obvious way by an uncredited Glenn Close. This is another underwhelming relationship that seems skimmed over – one moment they have just met, the next they seem on the verge of a great love. It’s as rushed and slapdash as the introduction of a mentally handicapped servant – of course, with his childish outlook, he is closer to John than anyone could be – who literally appears out of nowhere.

The film was also Ralph Richardson’s final role – he died shortly after completing it – and his barmy Earl of Greystroke (part lonely old man, part semi-senile eccentric) does lift the film with a certain energy (he was posthumously Oscar nominated). But it’s an easy role for Richardson – and in fact his eccentric, hard-to-define energy kind of sums up the whole messy film pretty well. His character’s death is the final nail in its interest, his eccentric energy sorely missed.

The most damaging thing about Greystoke is it is dull and obvious. Pretty scenery and decent performances can only cover so much when the plot is empty and predictable. The film feels cut down absurdly – half the cast of Chariots appear in roles so tiny you wonder why they bothered – and by the time the film drifts towards its conclusion you’ll probably have stopped caring about what it was all about in the first place. It tries to ask questions about man’s nature, but it doesn’t even seem to notice it never answers them. A poor film.

Khartoum (1965)

Charlton Heston takes aim in a rare moment of action in Khartoum

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Charlton Heston (General Charles Gordon), Laurence Olivier (The Mahdi), Richard Johnson (Colonel John Stewart), Ralph Richardson (William Ewart Gladstone), Alexander Knox (Sir Evelyn Baring), Johnny Sekka (Khaleel), Nigel Green (General Wolseley), Michael Hordern (Lord Granville), Peter Arne (Major Kitchener), Zia Mohyeddin (Zobeir Pasha), Douglas Wilmer (Khalifa Abdullah) 

For me you can’t really beat a big epic film. I love their sweeping vistas, the larger than life personalities, the luxurious running times and the vast array of Brit actors you inevitably find filling out the cast list. There is a lovely Sunday afternoon cosiness about a good epic and, since Hollywood spent large chunks of the end of the 50s and the 60s churning them out, historical events and personages replayed in sweeping panovision, there are plenty to watch.

Khartoum takes as its topic the siege of Khartoum and the death of its commander General Charles Gordon (played here by go-to actor for the big epic, Charlton Heston). Part of the now largely forgotten Sudanese war of the 1870s-80s, the siege was conducted by forces led by The Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) a man convinced that he was a reborn messenger of Muhammed.

Khartoum is a film that means well, but it’s a rather stodgy, po-faced history lesson that struggles with the fact that sieges are rather dull eventless things. Combine this with most of the film’s subplot following faithfully recorded political events back in the UK, and it hardly makes for a event filled spectacular. Instead it’s a slightly muddy lecture, interspersed with invented meetings between characters (Gordon and Gladstone; Gordon and The Mahdi twice!) in which they eloquently talk at each other, mouthing out the writer’s careful research, but give us no real insight into the times or the impact events had on the future.

It’s also rather routinely directed, without any flair or dynamism. It’s clearly aiming to be another Lawrence of Arabia, with everything from its music score to the lingering shots of the desert all aping Lean’s masterpiece. An opening narration (by an uncredited Leo Genn) even mulls over Egyptian and Sudanese history, while lovingly showing the viewer some postcard shots of various Nile attractions, seems particularly dry and dusty.

When the film does allow moments of action (which all seem ill-placed in this seriously serious film) they are rather flat and dull. The final attack on Khartoum has a suddenness about it that works well for the overwhelming force of The Mahdi’s army – and the death of Gordon (inspired by George William Joy’s painting) is rather affecting (although the real Gordon allegedly went down all guns blazing) but this is a film far happier with conversation.

What does work in the film, surprisingly, is Heston, who underplays as an enigmatic Gordon, a quiet, unknowable man addicted to the limelight, a serene soldier with a love of peace and religion, a man of the cloth and accomplished solider. Heston allows his natural charisma to do a lot of the work, and he clearly feels a certain empathy with Gordon, gracing the film with the same determined leadership of the general. Heston is an easy actor to mock, his granite face made for legends, but he’s a quietly assured here.

Olivier’s performance is inevitably more troublesome today, the great man dressed up in blackface and a rum accent as The Mahdi. In fact, as per Hollywood films of the time, most of the major Sudanese characters are played by British actors in blackface. Of course it would never happen today – and it’s tricky not to either gasp or snigger at  Olivier’s first scenes – but looking past that first shock (and his opening speech – “Ohhhhh my belovvvvveed” is too much), Olivier gives a detailed study in ambitious fanaticism which is even more relevant in the age of Al-Qaeda. It’s uncomfortable to see, and Olivier allows the mannerisms too much rein (in particular compared to Heston’s confident underplaying) but it’s a decent performance.

I’ll always have a soft spot for this film as it allows us the chance to see Ralph Richardson as Gladstone, one of my favourite historical figures, and one of the two greatest English statesmen (with Robert Peel) of the 19th century. Richardson would have been brilliant in The Gladstone Story (sadly never made) and he brings to life much of the political scheming back home in Blighty, as a Machiavellian version of the Grand Old Man. Anyway, he’s terrific and the various cabinet room debates are some of the most interesting parts of the film.

It’s a shame that the films gets bogged down too early in Sudanese and Egyptian politics (and still manages to muddle the viewer), before settling into the siege from where, interspersed with slightly repetitive conversations. It’s clear where the film is going, but there isn’t the doom laden dread about this that the film needs. This is a shame, as this story of a colonialist, in love with a colony, killed by colonists while trying to protect other colonists, has a lot to potentially say about the modern world (both now and in the 60s) – it just doesn’t manage to say them.

Note: I was struck in the film by how dangerously many of the horses were thrown about or tackled by soldiers in the battle scenes. “Surely that can’t be safe” I thought as a man knocked over a galloping horse by jumping and tackling its head. Sure enough it wasn’t: allegedly 100 horses bought the farm for this film.