As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
"One of the truly outstanding incompetents" may have been Orson Welles's hilarious verdict on Franco-Irish director and madman John Guillermin, and looking at something like King Kong (1976) or God help us King Kong Lives (1986) one can't help but sense some justice in this, but in his earlier career, the energetic Guillermin showed some promise. His films throughout the fifties were solid and stolid in the way of too much British cinema of the time (Michael Powell was progressively sidelined, as were Powell-like tendencies in others), but Rapture (1965) is a crazily stylish tour-de-force of excessive, out-of-control camera lurches and assaults which even Welles might have admired.
The previous year Guillermin had made Guns at Batasi, a 99% British feature, but produced by Twentieth Century Fox and starring stalwarts Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins, and Flora Robson. Speaking of Michael Powell, it should be noted that Leo Marks, writer of Peeping Tom, is the principle scenarist, though besieged on all sides by the author of the original book, the chap who did the initial adaptation, and one of those vexatious "additional material" types. Unevenness may be anticipated.
But the cinematographer is Douglas Slocombe (1913-2016), whose career ran from Ealing to Indiana Jones, so the black and white Cinemascope photography is outstanding. In the quaint manner of British productions in those days, the camera operator was responsible for composition, and Gerry Fisher (who went on to take over as Joseph Losey's cinematographer) delivers beautiful group shots, which is what this siege story is mostly going to be composed of. True, irregularities in the Bausch & Lomb lenses may have lead to "anamorphic mumps" in those crowded in at the frame's edges. Character man Graham Stark's head is already a remarkable architectural achievement, and the distortions of 'Scope serve to turn it into a kind of sci-fi tuberosity.
Darryl Zanuck, newly reinstalled as Fox chairman, had recently been rather obsessed with Africa, but this being a British picture they have to make do with locations on Salisbury Plain (matte painted huts, keep Stonehenge out of frame) and a lot of studio work, which is uncommonly convincing in the night scenes.
The acting centers around Richard Attenborough, delivering a pugnacious, detailed caricature of a British Sgt. Major, a bristling, chest-puffing martinet. While the Americans had R. Lee Ermey, Britain had these extraordinary characters, full of the same kind of machine-gun dialogue salted away for use as required (but the saltier bits are excised here: though we do get the occasional "bastard," a sure sign of the times). Attenborough seems to be overdoing it, but I wonder: these guys seem to deliberately evolve themselves into terrifying, absurd grotesquerie.
Light-hearted bowdlerization: Attenborough accuses an underling of hanging about "like a spare wick at a wedding." British audiences would recognize the real expression being hinted at, which has "prick" instead of "wick."
Non-Brits might need some kind of simultaneous translation as Sir Dickie spouts streams of mysterious verbiage peppered with military and other slang of an obscure nature: "I can always stomach a good soldier whatever his faults! What I can't stomach are Bolshies, skivers, scrimshanks, and boghouse barristers!"
There's a story behind this one: fashionable glamor girl Britt Ekland was originally cast as the girl from the U.N. who gets stranded in this army camp as the fictional African country of Batasi undergoes revolution. But her new husband, Peter Sellers, was paranoid about being cuckolded (he would later fire Paul Mazursky from I Love You, Alice B. Toklas due to unfounded adulterous suspicions) by rising star (rising to nowhere much, as it sadly turned out) and pop singer John Leyton (hot from The Great Escape) so he asked his mates Graham Stark and David Lodge, cast in supporting roles (above, centre and right), to spy on her. This eventually became so bothersome that Ekland quit the movie, to be replaced by a young unknown named Mia Farrow (talented and unearthly in her beauty, destined for stardom). The role is a completely gratuitous one anyway.
Fox sued Ekland for a million and a half dollars; Sellers countersued for four million, alleging psychological and physical harm caused by stress. And he may have had a point: 1964 was the year of Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid, in which Sellers was to play, of all things, a paranoiacally jealous husband, only he had to drop out after his heart attacked him.
Sellers should have been worried not about Ekland's dishy co-star, but her dashing director: according to a friend of mine who worked with Guillermin, he routinely shagged all his leading ladies. All? That would make a list including Jessica Lange, Faye Dunaway, Ursula Andress, Kathleen Byron and Margaret Rutherford. And no, I don't really believe he had his way with that lot, but the story my friend Lawrie Knight told was as follows: late night phone call from J.G. "We can't start shooting tomorrow: I haven't slept with the leading lady yet." "Well, we're bloody well going to start shooting tomorrow." Second phone call an hour later: "Alright, we can shoot."
This was in the fifties, and Guillermin quite possibly modified his professional arrangements in later life.
Flash forward to the year 2000. Lawrie gleefully spots a Guillermin production, El Condor (Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef) in the TV listings. "Slick, nasty, and superficial," I read. "That's John!" declares Lawrie with an affectionate laugh.
The question hanging over all colonial adventure stories is: how racist is it? In this case, probably not as bad as something like Black Hawk Down. There are good roles for Britain's best Black actors of the era, Earl Cameron and Errol John. Attenborough's character disavows racism, in his own idiosyncratic manner: "Our best is no better than their best, but their bad's as rough as ours, and that's pretty rough." The movie attempts to balance his militarism with the pacifist views of a visiting Member of Parliament, Flora Robson, but John Addison's score tends to celebrate the "heroism" and treat Attenborough's near-psychotic dedication as a humorous quirk. And there are queasy moments early on with the Brits outsmarting the rebels who haven't quite gotten accustomed to no longer following their orders.
(The best take on the British in Africa is the terrific Zulu, directed by a skeptical American blacklistee, and its belated sequel Zulu Dawn, which equates the British with Nazis speaking of a "final solution"...)
There's surprisingly little action in this, which is a shame because Guillermin gets his lurching camera out again whenever things get hairy. It's thrilling: we're low-angle, rattling through the interiors in an almost-out-of-control fashion. I don't know what he's using as his go-cart but it's terribly exciting.