Saturday, 1 November 2008

"What's your problem?" "I'm a narcotic abuser, a drunk. And I just don't care." "Well, good luck to you sir."

The above comes from Rough Riders a John Milius directed and written tale regarding the American invasion of Cuba in the late 1890's. It's a darkly romantic epic, completely alien to modern sensibilities, and is terrific. As is Sam Fuller's world war 2 epic The Big Red One.

While I have written on the dreck I have been watching I've left out the good stuff. These two films, both running to about three hours, are great examples of old-school film-making.

Rough Riders centres on Teddy Roosevelt, who starts a war with the Spanish Cuba, and then goes to war with his troops. He calls together men from all over the country, for rich Harvard types to outlaws, Mexicans, lawmen, hen-pecked husbands, Southerners wanting a fight after losing the civil war. He pulls in a black military regiment. These fighters, rough riders, are actually in a race against the regular army, to get to Cuba and win the war, as Roosevelt wants to go to war. What's terrific about the film is how it makes no excuses for the sensibilities of the time, nor to the fact that what they are doing is going over to another land to kill, or murder as its explicitly stated, that people are being trained to be killers. The film doesn't pull back from that, nor does it ignore the sense that these men felt they were on a great post-civil war quest. There is no modern slant, to comment on behaviour. It is stated, and you can agree, disagree, or find it interesting. The fact that both the romantic and the darker elements of the quest stand side by side, are dramatised in constant reflection of one another, is what's so strong about it. The film takes its time. The first half is the rough riders being established and trained, focused more on the personalities of the soldiers (and on Roosevelt, who's a geek with a gun), is worked within incidents that's more about establishing character and time period. By the time the second half comes around, and these people are being killed, there is a real effect on the viewer.

I've always been a bit of a Milius fan. I've never agreed on his politics (he's to the right, I'm to the left) but he makes interesting films (and Conan The Barbarian) about subjects and people that I find fascinating. I would recommend Dillinger, The Wind And The Lion, Big Wednesday (one of my favourite films), Red Dawn (Russians invade US. Subversive fun. More of an attack on eighties Reaganite America than on the Russians), Farewell To The King (hacked about, bit of a mess but has some amazing scenes) and Motorcycle Gang (which is a fun cable b-movie) He also made Flight Of the Intruder, which isn't very good. He of course wrote Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now. He's always called right-wing but I'm not sure how much he is. He seems to despise money, banks, creature comforts, people with mortgages. Along with Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, he's the best of the seventies writers, and like them, he's remained a lot more interesting than many of those who were simply directors at that time.

The Big Red One is a film based in World War 2, star Lee Marvin, leading his troop through the war, over three years. Its him and his four survivors (who include Mark Hamill) who mange to get through the war unharmed. There are two versions, one is the shortened two-hour version, which is good, and the longer, nearly three hour version, which is terrific. There's some voice-over, that Fuller didn't want, which should have been cut from the long version but wasn't, distracts in certain scenes. The film, like Rough Riders, is interested in murder and killing in war. Do you kill the enemy or murder him? There is no real solution to this, nor is there seen to be a solution to the troubles the soldiers face. They simply survive while watching many fall around them. We go from Africa, to Sicily to D-day to Belgium front to the concentration camps, walking with these soldiers. Every sequence has haunting images, every location having background children who are always victims to the insanity of the adults. Many locations have mad people wandering about. The film's strength is a wonderful sense of humanity and curiosity about the surroundings, despite the fact that the soldier's life is killing or being killed. They interact with people everywhere, deliver a baby at one point, become more weighed down by what they see (especially in the concentration camp, which has a stunning sequence with Marvin and a starving Jewish boy who's dying). A lot of the humanity comes through in looks, little asides, while keeping the toughness up to survive. It's just terrific, a more tired film than Rough Riders but feels authentic to the time its set, in attitudes and darker aspects of character.

I've seen a few other Sam Fuller films but not to the same scale as I know Milius, so I can't really comment on his career, save to say that I loved what I saw. Like Milius he was a maverick who wasn't given enough respect. I think to avoid cliches that tend to focus war stories you need these type of stubborn directors who look for the odd moments that illuminate the oddness of character and situation, like Fuller and Milius mange. If you have a chance to see either of these wonderful films I would recommend it.

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