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Who needs realism anyway?

3:10 to Yuma

At one point in 3:10 to Yuma Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is beaten repeatedly in the face with a shotgun. The guy hitting him is enraged to the point that the others almost have to drag him away, and when they do we see dark blood trickle out of Wade’s mouth and down his chin.

And then....that’s it. In the next scene Wade has no bruises, not even as much as a cut lip. And that is my problem with 3:10 to Yuma right there. The film opts for moments of realism, but it never follows through. It wants to be gritty, yet doesn’t dare to be gritty enough. It wants awful, bonecrushing violence, yet fears damaging the face of one of its leads. So there is no fear, no tension and no sense of dramatic coherency. The story of outlaw Ben Wade and farmer Dan Evans (Christian Bale) unfolds without ever hitting its nerve. It’s a shame really – because the film has enough going for it. The cast is great (there is even Ben Foster as a slightly psychotic bad guy called Charlie Prince), it looks gorgeous and the story isn’t half bad. It is just the execution that seems a bit confused. Does it want to be a western adventure story? Some of the shoot-outs, the way Ben Wade whistle’s after his horse and the inclusion of Charlie Prince seem to indicate that. Or does it want to be a gritty, realist Western following in the path of Unforgiven - well, most of Christian Bale’s character seems to imply that. It’s just that the film never manages to merge the two, and so I was left feeling befuddled about what the film was trying to say.

Quo Vadis

This is one of those epic sword and sandal epics, with Romans in tiny skirts and women with anachronistic hairstyles. Since Quo Vadis is from 1951, the women sport 1950’s hairstyles – except the evil empress who looks like something out of sci-fi film. The men are very good at posing, the women’s breasts are very pointy, and the Technicolor is as garish and wonderful as the rest of the film. I cannot help it – I love these old films with their flim-flam approach to history and boasts of "A cast of thousands!"

The story is simple. Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman General. He meets Lygia (Deborah Kerr) who is a Lygian Princess and hostage of Rome, but also a Christian. He pretty much sexually harasses her, she falls in love with him (she says she can feel the good inside of him - even after he has more or less kidnapped her from her home). This plot is further spiced by Peter Ustinov as the crazy Nero (cue ominous music every time someone mentions fire. Which they do a lot), and the story of St. Peter’s crucifixion.

I have a certain fascination with historical films. It is always intriguing to see how they strive to be so-called historically correct. Quo Vadis does try at times, especially when it comes to costumes and buildings. Apparently ten chariots were hand carved for the film so that they would be as realistic as possible. Yet I feel that the film’s approach to history can be best summarised by the following anecdote: Peter Ustinov had been attached to the role of Nero for over a year before filming began. During this time he received a memo from the producers, informing him that they still wanted him for the part, but were concerned that he was too young. Ustinov replied that Nero died when he was 31; if they waited much longer, he would be too old for the part. He then received a reply, which he said he had kept and treasured. The reply stated: Historical research has proved you correct.

Francesco, guillare di Dio

If 3:10 to Yuma couldn’t decide when it wanted realism to apply and when it didn’t, and where Quo Vadis possibly went looking for realism in all the wrong places then Roberto Rossellini decides to approach realism from a completely different angel; by casting monks from Nocere Inferiore monastery as St. Francis and his brothers.

The film deals with the story of the Franciscan order after their return from Rome after receiving the Pope’s blessing. They then proceed to build their community and to preach. The film is very austere in black and white and the cast of non-actors doesn’t so much act as recite their lines. The result is a film that feels more like a passion play than what we think of as film. It is interesting, but for me it never crossed over to being emotionally involving. There are a few scenes that are just stunning – the opening scene with the brothers caught in a heavy torrent, and the visit of St. Ciara when they eat lunch on a bed of flowers.

Apparently Rossellini was inspired by the legends of Fioretti di San Francesco as well as paintings by Duccio di Buonasegna and Giotto. That might explain the vignette like appearance of the film, and how it at times – when it is at its best – feels like a Giotto fresco re-enacted.

Where Eagles Dare

Where Eagles Dare doesn’t bother with realism. In fact Where Eagles Dare laughs realism in the face and then has Clint Eastwood shoot it with a sub-machine gun. Based on a book and script by Alistair McLean the film is supposedly set during World War II. To be honest it could be set during any war and any conflict, but I suppose the Nazis make for smashing villains. There is a plot – of sorts. Truthfully I cannot sum it up better than the film’s tagline:
They look like Nazis but . . . The Major is British . . . The Lieutenant is American . . . The Beautiful Frauleins are Allied Agents!

If you to that add a castle, a twisty plot with added twists and a handful of stereotypical Nazis and you pretty much have the film right there.

What I find interesting is how Where Eagles Dare doesn’t seem bothered by how it dispenses with realism and how irreverent it deals with WWII. In this decade – or basically after Saving Private Ryan - there seems to be a rule that war films in general and WWII films in particular should be as serious, realistic and gritty as possible. The idea of “showing what really happened” that previously only affected the epic productions like The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora! now pertains to anything dealing with WWII. In some sense The Second World War has become almost beatified and dispensing with so-called realism when depicting is seen almost as a sin. In contrast Where Eagles Dare (and its kissing cousins like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen) represents a different tradition – one that takes history as a starting point and then runs with it. By all means, that can be fun too.


Films watched in 2009.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 4th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Ustinov's Nero is a favourite of mine and my brother's. We just love him in that role. Between us, every now and then when opportunity calls, my bro's been known to say: "Let it be wonderful!" Hahahahaha! What. a. dork.

Edited at 2009-05-04 03:40 pm (UTC)
May. 4th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
Nero is hands down the best part of the film. I kept thinking I'd like a film just about him and his crazy singing. Everybody else is so serious and Nero just romps through the thing like, well, a mad, decadent Roman emperor.
May. 4th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
You've fixed on one of the things that irritates me most in films/on TV (and in books, too, for that matter): The Incredible Healing Powers Of The Star/Hero. Feh.
May. 4th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
In 3:10 to Yuma it was just ridiculous. He was beaten repeatedly in the face with a shotgun. How is he even speaking properly afterwards? And I wouldn't have minded so much if other parts of the film had not been so preoccupied with being realistic.

Edited at 2009-05-04 04:48 pm (UTC)
May. 4th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
Historical research has proved you correct

Hahahaha! I wonder what they would say now? Please wait while we confirm that your IP address does not correspond with the edit logs on the Wikipedia entry?
May. 5th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)
Hee! It wouldn't surprise me in the least.

I'm considering embroidering "Historical research has proved you correct" and tacking it to my office door.
(Deleted comment)
May. 5th, 2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
At times I felt like 3:10 to Yuma bordered on the schizophrenic. It was as if the film couldn't decide if it wanted to critique the Frontier Myth of wholly embrace it. Instead of going "wow" I just went "huh?" a lot. That is never a good thing.
May. 5th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)
The lack of follow-through bothered me so much in 3:10 to Yuma. And I didn't even notice the face problem!

What I did notice:

- At the very beginning, Wade and his guys talk about the big heist they just pulled right in front of the saloon girl. How have they not gotten caught before, exactly? I expected that either a) they would kill her on the way out or b) she would whip out a little pistol and capture Wade, thus setting up the rest of the movie. But no, it turns out that through a stroke of luck, she has TB and thus cares about nothing in life except sleeping with a hot outlaw when the occasion arises. I expect outlaws who blab about their exploits in public to bring trouble on themselves - it's just common sense. In a truly gritty and realistic film, you'd expect that blabbing would not lead to getting lucky. How could Wade possibly have known beforehand that she'd rather sleep with him than get the reward money?

- The movie attempted to muddy the waters by mentioning and showing some of the bad things the white hats were doing, like the guy who had killed Apache women, and children and the Chinese laborers at the railroad camp they stopped at. They even had a random Apache attack... which didn't lead to much, did it? This had the opposite effect from what I think the movie intended: instead of seeing it as realistic and gritty and morally gray, I was going, "Okay, granted that they're all involved in horrible crimes. So why do I care whether the guy with the white hat gets the guy with the black hat to the train station or not? At least let me see whether realizing he's complicit in slave labor and genocide affects Mr. White Hat in the teeniest way!" But no, apparently this has no actual effect on... well, anything, except adding that moment of realness and grittiness.

I was hoping that the saloon girl, the Chinese laborers, and the Apache would hijack the movie, frankly.

...and I'll stop there. I've blanked out on most of the details anyway.

Edited at 2009-05-05 01:05 am (UTC)
May. 5th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
Excellent points.

Wade and his guys talk about the big heist they just pulled right in front of the saloon girl

That whole plot point was so bizarre. I kept expecting it to make sense, or for her to be an accomplish or something. Granted there were hints that Wade had heard her sing before and as such they had met, but there is a far leap from that to trusting her with their dirty secrets. But for me what tipped the scale was the fact that Wade asked her to elope with him. I mean - why did he do that? Was it illustrative of his character? Probably, but since we didn't really know him or her it was hard to say.

They even had a random Apache attack... which didn't lead to much, did it?

Oh man, the Apaches in this film just felt pasted on. Not only did we barely see them, but based on the geographical feel the film gave it appeared that there were about six Apaches living in a small valley about ten minutes from the city, brandishing their guns and being ominous. I suspect they were just there so that the director could tick of Cowboys vs. Indians on his list.

Now this version of 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of an earlier version, so a few of the WTF? and Huh? moments might be a result of that. That said this doesn't excuse in the slightest the inclusion of the Chinese laborers as nothing more than a scenic element.

So why do I care whether the guy with the white hat gets the guy with the black hat to the train station or not?

You don't. At least I didn't. I think the film wanted you to feel it was something about fathers and sons, and how Wade was bad because he had no father - and that Dan Evans' son was turning bad because he lacked a fatherly rolemodel, and so to impress said son Evans had to prove himself a man. So when Wade let Evans take him to the train it was all to ensure that Evans' son could learn that "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
May. 5th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
If the WTF moments are due to it being a remake, then I'd say the people responsible for this movie shouldn't do remakes anymore.

If they wanted me to care about fathers and sons, maybe they shouldn't have pointed out how even the "good guy" father is teaching his son to turn a blind eye to forced labor and genocide in favor of focusing on some random white star. What do one teenage boy's minor problems matter in the face of all that? Really, they just not brought in all those moments that reminded me of the interesting movie I wasn't watching.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )