Sunday, September 29, 2019


As El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta was Mexico's own action hero of the 1960s and 1970s. A champion luchador at a time when wrestling was banned from Mexican television, El Santo reached a wider public through movies that portrayed him as part Batman, part James Bond: a nearly superhuman troubleshooter with official ties who wrestled on the side and wore his mask everywhere he went. In 1969 director Rene Cardona teamed Santo with one of Mexico's top comedy stars. As Capulina, Gaspar Henaine Perez had only recently ended his long partnership with Marco Antonion "Viruta" Campos. The team-up with Santo may have reflected some uncertainty over Capulina's ability to carry a film on his own. The Capulina character was simply a big bumbler, distinguished by his topless hat. Santo Contra Capulina is more a Capulina than a Santo film. The comic is introduced first, accompanied by heavyhanded "waa-waa" comedy music, as a lazy night watchman at some warehouse. As he takes a nap in a furnished shipping crate, two robbers infiltrate the warehouse. They in turn are attacked by the masked man Capulina immediately recognizes as the famous El Santo. His fandom doesn't stop him from preventing the hero from catching the thieves after a very protracted fight scene. Initially annoyed, Santo's good-guy instincts kick in as he recruits Capulina into the effort to catch the thieves. He even gives the watchman a signal watch like Jimmy Olsen's, though he isn't even out of the building before Capulina summons him back to his crate, just to see if the watch works. The comic also manages to cage an autograph and testimonial from the mighty luchador in return for information he doesn't have. Kids love Capulina, you see, and Santo's endorsement will only make them love him more as he leads them -- usually from the rear -- on their daily race-walking workouts.

El Santo (above) and Capulina (below)
in characteristic settings   

Meanwhile, we learn that the thefts are part of a larger plan by some old enemy of Santo's to lure the luchador into a death trap. The mastermind is assisted by a scientist and his pretty daughter, who disguises herself as a reporter in hopes of getting Santo to unmask. The scientist, we learn later still, is working reluctantly for his daughter's sake, while the daughter has somehow been convinced that Santo is some sort of murderer. The scientist's specialty is the making of robot duplicates who take the places of kidnapped men -- eventually including Capulina. The robot-vs.-wrestler fight justifies the title and looks more plausible than you'd first assume, once you see that Capulina is actually bigger than Santo. Eventually, though, the real Capulina escapes his captors but must pretend that he's his own robot duplicate or, as he understands it, a "rubber man." As well, the scientist's daughter realizes the error of her ways and helps our heroes defeat the mastermind. Good inevitably prevails.

By American standards, there's not much humor here beyond the inherent absurdity of the cinematic El Santo concept. He gets an understatedly weird solo moment set at his presumably impressive home, where he interrupts his breakfast to dump his secretary/mistress (?) into his pool, her explosion revealing her as one of the villains' robots. It's too bad such genius can't be used for humanity's betterment, Santo muses. That bit amused me more than all of Capulina's antics, but the comic's amiable idiocy sort of made me understand his popularity, which endured to the end of the 20th century. There's an audience for such bumblers in most places, but comedy, especially in the sound era, doesn't travel as well as fighting men in masks. Genre film buffs around the world know El Santo, I expect, but fewer know Capulina. Both are Mexican cultural icons, but Capulina seems more exclusively Mexican -- and they can have him.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

DVR Diary: THE LONG SHIPS (1964)

Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958) inspired a cycle of Viking films in Europe, including two by Mario Bava, but U.S. audiences apparently had seen enough the first time. Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships, a British-Yugoslavian co-production boasting Hollywood stars, was enough of a bomb at the U.S. box office to earn a mention in the Medved brothers' Hollywood Hall of Shame book. It's perhaps the most eccentric item in Sidney Poitier's filmography: a rare if not sole outing as a villain, reportedly ballyhooed as his first "non-Negro" role. He plays a Moorish ruler, al-Mansuh, who covets a legendary golden bell forged by Christian monks generations earlier. A storytelling beggar in his territory, Rolfe (Richard Widmark), claims to know where the bell can be found. Rolfe boasts of his Viking credentials, but you might share al-Mansuh's skepticism when this clean-shaven man throws off his robes to reveal the vest and shorts that supposedly serve as his bona fides. Chased from the territory, Rolfe appears to swim all the way back home to Norse-land, to reunite with his brother Orm (the actual protagonist of Frans Bengtsson's source novel, played by Russ Tamblyn, also clean-shaven) and his troubled lord and father (Oscar Homolka in comedy relief). The bell story gets him a crew who help him steal the longship dad had just handed over to his overlord, King Harald (Clifford Evans). While Rolfe has been built up as a rogue if not an outright liar, it turns out that he does know where the bell can be found, but he doesn't quite know how to land his ship in the right location. Wrecked in a whirlpool, he and his men fall into al-Mansuh's hands, but the lure of gold convinces the Moor to build Rolfe a fresh ship for one more try at the bell. If he fails, Rolfe and his men will have to ride the steel mare, and one doesn't do that and live to tell about it....

Poitier as a Moor with Widmark as his antagonist can't help making you wonder what they could have done as Othello and Iago. That seems more in Widmark's line than the role of Rolfe. Widmark had a respectable range, encompassing irascible authority figures and psychopathic imbeciles, but he lacks the swashbuckling panache that Rolfe requires. Similarly, Poitier doesn't fully take advantage of this one great opportunity to go over the top, though he could be excused for thinking that his costumes and his pompadour wig had already done the work for him. Neither is awful, but neither is really up for the type of performance this story seems to need. Russ Tamblyn's dance background makes him more of an action-hero type, but he would have been better served by a more faithful filming of the novel. As an action film, The Long Ships is a mixed bag. There's a terribly shot battle on a beach in which Rolfe's Vikings throw a wave of spears at Moorish cavalry. Cardiff cuts to horses and men tumbling under the impact of apparently invisible missiles. On the other hand, a disastrous attempt to drag the great bell down from its perch atop a cliff is very well done, and as far as special effects are concerned the waterborne model work is mostly quite good.  The film veers in tone from tragic violence to dubiously broad comedy, e.g. the Viking's lusty invasion of al-Mansuh's harem and the general abuse of a comedy-relief eunuch. Overall, it's a more comical film than I remember from childhood viewings, and also somewhat better than my dim memories. But while it's the sort of thing I'm tempted to find inherently entertaining, I can also see why American audiences left it rather than taking it to heart.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

DVR Diary: EMITAI (1971)

World War II wasn't the "good war" everywhere. Far from Europe, in Europe's colonies, what Hitler was up to hardly mattered. In some places the Allies, the good guys of the usual narrative were the oppressors. That's the context of Ousmane Sembene's war picture, which shows the war's impact on the Diola people in French-ruled Senegal. They and their crops are resources for France to draw upon at will. Emitai starts with colonial troops pressing villagers into military service. The young men must listen to a French officer praise them for volunteering and exhort them to revere and obey Marshal Petain, at that moment (Spring 1940) France's last hope against the Nazis. One year later, Petain leads a collaborationist regime, but France's alignment means little to the Diola, who are now required to give up their rice crops to the colonial power. The village elders debate the necessity for revolt and, perhaps more importantly, the will of the gods. Their chief has grown skeptical toward the pantheon -- if not toward their existence, then toward their effectiveness in this modern crisis. Ironically, it's he, mortally wounded in a futile uprising, who receives a vision of the gods. They chide him for his lack of faith, while he reproaches them for their apparent indifference to their worshipers' dire situation. After he dies, the film slows down as the village prepares for the chief's funeral, the remaining elders -- in hiding from the colonial troops -- ponder how to appease the gods and/or the French, while two French officers and their native troops hold the women and children hostage, with rice as the ransom. Sembene's deliberate, novelistic pacing -- he was a novelist before taking up the camera -- immerses the viewer in the life of the embattled village while steadily heating up indignation against the elders' preoccupation with the gods. They balk (rightly) at sacrificing rice to the French, but then one sacrifices a goat to the gods on impulse. The bawling animal has its throat cut and bleeds out before being dumped like so much garbage. Sembene respects Diola culture in the broadest sense but is clearly secular in his sympathies, or at least highly critical toward religion. The elders' folly sometimes nearly overshadows the oppression of the French, who switch sides in the world war, abandoning Petain for de Gaulle, with no change in their treatment of the Diola. But the film ends with a sharp reminder that, whatever their faults, the elders, like their fellow villagers, are essentially villagers of a regime that must have seemed little better to them than any tale of Nazi rule the French might have told them. Unsurprisingly, several years passed before either Senegalese or French people could see Emitai, but films like Sembene's are valuable, not necessarily as correctives to a particular narrative of World War II, but as examples of perspectives from which the moral drama of that conflict is not and never will be central, and the winners of it may never be the good guys.

Monday, September 16, 2019

1984 x 2

George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 was published in 1949. Between 1953 and 1956 it was filmed three times: first as an American teleplay, then for British television and finally as a British movie with an American star. Worries about the reputed brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War may have sparked this Orwellian spree. The first rendering, for the hourlong Studio One anthology program, I haven't seen yet. Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame wrote the British adaptation and gave Peter Cushing a big push toward stardom. For the movie version, William Templeton, who did the Studio One condensation, collaborated on the screenplay, which was directed by Michael Anderson, whose Around the World in 80 Days appeared that same year. Edmond O'Brien played a relatively well-fed Winston Smith for the movie, presumably as a draw for American audiences. An American Winston wasn't entirely implausible, since the novel's Oceania was an Anglo-American superstate. More to the point, however husky he appeared, O'Brien often played weaklings and mediocrities like Orwell's protagonist. His participation in the film, however, apparently made it necessary to change the name of the novel's inquisitor from O'Brien to O'Connor. The movie also changes the name of Big Brother's arch-enemy, the Trotsky to B.B.'s Stalin, from Goldstein to the (less Jewish-sounding?) Cellador. For what it's worth, the Kneale and Templeton scripts have in common Donald Pleasance, who plays Winston's co-worker in the British version and his neighbor in the movie, in essentially the same sniveling mode.

The basic story remains the same: Winston, discovering fellow party member Julia's love for him, gradually works himself up into potential rebellion against the Big Brother regime, but both are duped by O'Brien/O'Connor, who tricks them into thinking that he is an underground leader. Instead, the inquisitor systematically breaks them down, though we only see his handling of Winston. His goal is to reduce them to such a state of self-loathing that they find solace and meaning only in love for Big Brother. Each version has its virtues. While the Anderson film, actually shorter than the Kneale teleplay, spends more time, to more dramatic effect, on the physical and mental torture of Winston, Kneale actually drives home more effectively the sadism Orwell, embittered by his experiences in Spain and elsewhere, saw underlying totalitarian movements. The novel's famous line about imagining the future as a boot stomping a face forever is quoted by Kneale but not by Templeton and Ralph Bettison. The film tries to make the breaking of Winston more stark and tragic by establishing the protagonist as something of a rebel from the very beginning, first showing him starting a clandestine diary and questioning the party after abjectly unpacking his bags in front of his interactive home telescreen. Cushing's Winston awakens more gradually, but it's implicit that Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites news reports to confirm Big Brother's infallibility, is bound to make him question the party's bending of reality. Kneale spends more time explaining the insidious design of Newspeak to reduce people's ability to think outside the parameters set by the party, while the film, again presumably looking to the U.S. market, eschews such egghead talk. The rewriting of history Winston must do is awful enough.

The two versions are roughly equal in my eyes, with a slight advantage going to Kneale, but watching both in quick sequence regrettably made Orwell's dystopia seem quaint, and not just because of everyone's limited imagination regarding the telescreen.  Neither Orwell nor his cinematic translators could be expected to anticipate how the thing they warned against most passionately -- the willful distortion of reality by power and self-interest -- has spread beyond the totalitarian sector. When appeals to objective reality are widely seen as little more than power grabs, many people today seem to find the insistence that two and two make four oppressive. Freedom may not yet be slavery, but when freedom becomes a matter of believing whatever you want to believe -- on climate, on vaccines, elections, people, etc. -- with no reality beyond people's opinions to constrain you, it can be an Orwellian word in a not quite Orwellian world.

Sunday, September 8, 2019


Sergio Corbucci's follow-up to Django feels more like a conventional American "adult" western than the more exotic product we think of as a spaghetti western. Its protagonist does have a sort of gimmick weapon or two -- in addition to the golden pistol he has a canteen he can convert into a grenade -- but the story is more character-driven and moralistic than Italian westerns in general are thought to be. Bolzoni and Rossetti's screenplay is less a celebration of the amorality of the bounty killer than an affirmation of the rule of law. Accordingly, it really has two protagonists: not just Johnny Ringo aka Johnny Oro (Mark Damon) but the sheriff of Coldstone (Ettore Manni), with whom Ringo, momentarily his prisoner, allies against lawless outsiders. Johnny Oro may seem not merely conventional but conservative in its treatment of Mexicans and especially Indians -- relatively rare figures in spaghetti westerns -- as pure villains. Matching the film's two heroes are two villains: the bandit heir Junaito Perez (Franco de Rosa), who seeks vengeance on Johnny for the deaths of his brothers, and the Apache chief Sebastian (Giovanni Cianfrigia), first seen getting thrown out of a Coldstone saloon by the sheriff. The crux of the story is Johnny's arrest by the sheriff for a petty crime that will keep him in jail for less than a week. During this time, Perez demands that Johnny be delivered to him for revenge, or else he and Sebastian's warriors will descend on the town. As a bounty killer, Johnny isn't especially popular with many of the townsfolk, some of whom, wanting to restore the modus vivendi that existed with Juanito's brothers, urge Norton to turn him over to Perez. They realize too late that it's no longer possible to negotiate with Perez. Having made his alliance with the Apaches, Juanito is committed to letting them sack the town, so long as he has his way with Johnny. This news provokes a mass exodus from Coldstone, while the remaning people, led by the sheriff and ultimately joined by Johnny, resolve to resist the invasion. Corbucci had what looks like a decent budget to work with here, so the flight and the subsequent attack are impressively if not excessively staged, the latter climaxing in some massive explosions before the final showdown between Johnny and Juanito. Johnny Oro doesn't appear to rank high in the Corbucci canon, perhaps because it's relatively square and maybe because Mark Damon lacks the badass charisma of Franco Nero or other Cobucci stars. But Damon is personable enough as a cynic who shows he has a conscience, or at least some compassion after all, and the screenplay boasts a nice range of well-defined, well-performed characters, including a saloon girl (Valeria Fabrizi) whose love-hate relationship with Johnny ends tragically without particularly embittering our hero. He keeps up his blithe front even at the ultimate moment, when he seems helpless before a gloating Juanito but for a convenient bit of reflective material. Johnny Oro -- or Johnny Ringo for those markets where the Ringo name had Django-like magnetism --  is a likable enough rogue who might have been worth following in later adventures had Corbucci not moved on to ultimately better things.