It took until the Sixties for the syntax of film to really begin assessing the difficulties presented by Henry King in this film, and much of recent grammar shows it still being realized. Connoisseurs of his later films will find it thrilling to see one or two shots in a familiar style (Marie’s arrival at Tenoki’s shop, seen from the back of the dark shop against a rainy street seen through the windows, lit by one streetlamp, e.g.).
Immediate conclusions were drawn in Casablanca, Across the Pacific, To Have and Have Not, etc. It is possible that the opening sequence inspired Tati’s Jour de Fête. The strongmindedness of King’s later films is already here in a first reel almost entirely filmed in French with no subtitles (this sequence also introduces American audiences to the innocent pleasure of looking up a girl’s skirts when occasion arises, as in La Règle du Jeu), and later, when the exceptionally acute script has Tenoki toying with an English version of a celebrated haiku (Breton relates the story in Rising Sign, “From Buddhist kindness, Bashō one day modified, with ingenuity, a cruel haiku composed by his humorous disciple Kikaku. The latter having said, ‘A red dragonfly—take away its set of wings—now it’s a pepper’, Bashō substituted, ‘Now it’s a pepper—put a set of wings on it—a red dragonfly’.”).
The story has a drunken captain accidentally shanghai a young French postwoman and deposit her at a port in Central America, where she becomes instrumental in a peacetime plot to sabotage the Panama Canal, with profiteering the motive. As fantastic as that is, King reaps gold of it in a lot of fine shots, not infrequently lighted à la Frankenheimer, et al.
The café interest has Helen Morgan twittering the torch and enlivening a bit of repartee with Ned Sparks by a voluble stage presence. Sparks is set against Stepin Fetchit, who is given dimension in which to express his art to its limits and beyond.
In the main arena is the very French Ketti Gallian, with a startlingly Hitlerine Sig Rumann, a lot of very charming and skilled actors who rise to the occasion, and Spencer Tracy as a researcher in tropical diseases, poisonous insects, and suchlike.
Interesting set details include portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Queen Victoria in American and British government offices, respectively, though the film is set in 1934.
Lloyd’s of London
The enemies of the firm are gambling and mathematics as pure avenues of thought, just as the enemies of England are folly and logic as opposed to faith and imagination.
A shrewd analysis in any case, but King’s preoccupation is the coming war, in which unity of forces is a necessity.
The argument is built up in highly characteristic scenes like the French caper and the gaming rooms, until it acquires the bewildering and instantaneous power of a lightning-bolt at the crisis.
Master Jonathan Blake comes to Lloyd’s as Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Johnson. His mistress is painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, an admirable judge of pictorial qualities.
The construction that places him outside the boughten law to begin with and ever more a villain also gives him a name to be reckoned with and the man who felled him none at all.
This cannot be what Sarris meant in The American Cinema when he proposed the question, “would film history have been radically altered if Henry King had directed The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford Jesse James, instead of vice versa?”
Critics from Variety to Halliwell’s Film Guide have complained of a whitewash or a “bleaching” job.
Fritz Lang has the sequel, George Roy Hill the jump off a cliff, Sergio Leone the railroad men and the McCoy.
Stanley and Livingstone
The African explorer and the New York Herald reporter meet because the one is mapping a continent and the other pursuing a story, as earlier he had interviewed Chief Satanta where the cavalry dared not go.
A year of fruitless searching teaches the reporter something about Africa. The explorer is a missionary and doctor and naturalist, he means to settle the source of the Nile as well as the Congo, among other things.
The Society of British Geographers reject the work at first, the reporter becomes an explorer in earnest.
“Absorbing and adventurous drama” (Variety). “A prestige picture” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
Halliwell cites Richard Mallett in Punch, “sound, worthy, interesting,” and Graham Greene for the opposing view.
Let Nast of Harper’s take care of Boss Tweed, says Bennett of the Herald.
A Yank in the R.A.F.
Air jockey deadheads a fighter to Canada, a bomber to England, joins up to please his girl in London.
They make him a bomber co-pilot in a Lockheed Hudson, he winds up in a Spitfire at Dunkirk.
The appeasement is a dropping of leaflets forcefully punctuated by the Yank.
At Dunkirk it’s a matter of feasting on the buzzards anyhow.
Between the two is the raid on Dortmund’s marshalling yard that shows off Dunkirk as a strategic retreat.
Variety took a rather vivid interest, for Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) it’s a “tiresome WWII yarn... unpersuasive, to say the least.”
“Silly but entertaining wartime flagwaver” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
The Song of Bernadette
You have experienced the miracle of the saint when you alone in the crowd have seen a film and written it up, for example. There is a Massabielle of them.
The Seventh Seal and Virgin Spring arise from this, also Amadeus.
That being said, the Catholic News Service is not to be commended for its movie reviews above the common run.
He had to go through Washington and Lincoln, that is the dramatic construction.
The incalculable masterpiece Henry King made of it is worthy of the closest study.
An affair of curtains lightly stirred, and great affairs of state handled in rooms (this means Wilson awakened to receive his Secretary of State and the German Ambassador, a great piece of filmmaking).
The great drama is Wilson putting the country at war with Germany, and bearing the consequences for the fact.
In the Second World War, this was salient news, as Bosley Crowther would say, and did say more or less.
It fell to nothing, reportedly, with the public.
A Bell for Adano
A U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer from the Bronx is put in charge of a partly ruined town as the battle presses on, he’s got parents from Florence and speaks the lingo, he’s got ears, he’s not deaf, he puts the town to rights.
And he’s married, not even the dyed-blonde daughter of the top fisherman in town can dissuade him from his duty, though it means countermanding a general’s orders.
But why write about such a masterpiece as this, it raised Bosley Crowther (New York Times) from the dead, that is enough.
“Slight end-of-war mood piece,” Halliwell’s Film Guide says, forgetting Jack Clayton’s Naples Is a Battlefield.
Prince of Foxes
Homage to Benvenuto Cellini in another guise, or Fra Lippo Lippi, some Italian painter made up to suit the purpose.
He sells himself to Cesare Borgia as a rogue of parts, thus he buys Ferrara for his Caesar.
He goes to Shangri-La, a mountain city, to slay the old lama and wed the young wife, delivering the city to Borgia, but is converted and leads its defense.
The city is taken, the lama slain. He escapes with the virtuous widow and leads the resistance.
Reinforcements to Welles filming Othello in Italy, there is even Iago’s cage mentioned in the script.
Filmed with amazing grandeur on location, Tyrone Power, Wanda Hendrix, Everett Sloane, Felix Aylmer, and Orson Welles practicing his magic (with direct reference to The Shadow) in the part of Borgia.
The central point comes after the torture scene (from King Lear), the Borgias are through and everyone knows it, the dialogue catches this, the weight of bravado passes into irony.
Twelve O’Clock High
The definition of “maximum effort”. The expression of this is the commanding officer of a bomb group in England, “the only Americans fighting in Europe” at the time, 1942-43.
It’s the position between Bomber Command and the flight crews, it entails flying missions, the first into Germany for the USAAF.
In such a position a CO is used up, like the man before him.
Gregory Peck later explicates the role in Gordon Douglas’ Only the Valiant and David Miller’s Captain Newman, M.D.
Combat casualties, each time.
There is a joke about buying a hat in England.
I’d Climb the Highest Mountain
Critics have more or less admired the view, but the title is an invitation accepted by noted directors, as will be seen.
A rule of art that pertains to criticism is that the more complicated a work appears, the simpler its origin (Shakespeare proves this). The rare corollary is here to perfection, an innocuous-seeming drama of the rural ministry, but the pastor’s three-year stay at Mossy Creek (a hamlet in northeast Georgia) identifies this with Jesus and thus the modern adaptation of the gospels in Meet John Doe, yet that is also the surface of King’s film, and the closer it is inspected, the taller and more formidable its structure stands.
It is 88 minutes of sweet surrealism on religious themes, and like nothing so much in this regard as Buñuel’s L’Age d’or, though the style is in the vein of Koster’s Stars and Stripes Forever. A light yoke calls nary any attention to itself, the motion is swift by its very nature and makes for easy telling, it’s only the close look that shows.
The essential metaphor is marriage, the central image is Millet’s Angelus, a favorite of Dali’s. The film might well be regarded as nothing more than a universal meditation on that famous painting, which then would give the rule in its initial formulation.
There is a severe compression in the opening scenes, the newlyweds are instantly transformed into a hungry dog fed out of the lady’s hand through an open window, then a rich young man (a self-described “lost sheep”) whose suit is frustrated by the girl’s father, the richest man in town (he runs the general store).
The pastor’s first sermon is not a recitation of church rules but a repetition of marriage vows. His horse is too frisky for the town’s leading citizen, they swap. A flu epidemic decimates the villagers, the church is closed to prevent contagion, then re-opened as a hospital.
The local atheist is a Harvard man (’96), glib with critique. His son drowns at the Sunday School picnic, the pastor’s son dies at birth.
The lady from Atlanta, “most exquisitely groomed”, forsakes her businessman husband Sam to discuss 2 Samuel with the pastor. His gloomy wife snaps to and tells her off. The ladies of the Missionary Society buy new dresses, “preventing the support of a foreign missionary”.
The general store gets a shipment of dolls instead of horse collars. “There ain’t no Santa Claus like there ain’t no God,” say the atheist’s children. The young couple are married at midnight, the fee is grudgingly paid by her father.
It swells into a Christmas Fund to stuff stockings.
The pastor is reassigned to Atlanta, his wife has learned the meaning of Ruth, “whither thou goest, I will go.” The horses are swapped back, the atheist and his family “face the future with an open mind.”
This bare sketch can give no more idea of the complications than a road map can tell you what the place is like. Mrs. Billywith’s antique car and driver are remembered in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the disappointed rival and would-be father-in-law are developed in Smokey and the Bandit. The element of salutary doubt reappears in Ryan’s Daughter.
The local townspeople are very much the ones who serve a special dinner at the end of Deliverance. Ray’s Distant Thunder has the natural beauty untrammeled by human concerns, Women in Love has the flavor of the time and some of the incident. Frost’s “Home Burial” figures in the crisis.
David and Bathsheba
King David joins a scouting party against the besieged Ammonite city of Rabbah, and is surprised in a culvert by torchlight. This early scene gives the anagrammatic Christological aspect.
His lodgings have the spear of his predecessor on the left wall, and his shepherd’s harp on the right. These figure as symbolic elements in many compositions small and large, e.g., after the deed is done, Nathan is seen standing in front of the harp, conversing with David who is standing in front of the spear. The shot is continuous, the camera dollies on David as he crosses right so that the harp is now between them, then he moves farther right to the door onto the terrace (where he had first seen Bathsheba). Nathan is now on the left of the screen, in front of the harp, and David is on the right, in front of the door. All this while, Nathan has been prophesying woe to Israel, now David crosses left and stands at an inner door, with Nathan now on the right in front of the spear and further prophesying the hostility of David’s son. The meaning of the objects is from Blake, who tells us (in his Book of Job) that musical instruments hung up from use represent a want of prayer. The spear signifies autocracy and violence, but also David’s inability to assume the royal mantle of Saul.
The latter point is made in a lengthy scene beginning with a hillside tryst by day. Susan Hayward is a Modigliani nude in all but her clothing, sheep are grazing nearby. “It’s been a dry year,” David observes for the benefit of the shepherd boy, who shortly proves his skill with a sling, besting David who is “out of practice.” Bathsheba befriends a lamb, whose mother is caught in brambles. A shepherd is trying to free the ewe, “an old soldier” who is significantly missing his right hand (“if I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning”). He tells David about the last battle of Jonathan and Saul (“the King,” to him, as David cannot be) on neighboring Mt. Gilboa.
David visits the place at sundown and stands where Jonathan fought “tens, then hundreds” of Philistines. A cloud obscures the last rays of light, the camera moves in for a close-up of his face as battle sounds are heard, lasting the better part of a minute, motionless. The cloud passes, the camera pulls out, he sits and bows his head.
This close-up is one of a number of technically interesting features. It recurs when David is playing his harp before the end, is a remarkable feat of acting, and calls for dim lighting with what appears to be an adroit use of “eye lighting” for a gleam in the eyes (or a corner of the eyes), unless Gregory Peck achieves this on his own.
There is a classical autonomy in the characters, reflected in the acting. Nathan (Raymond Massey) enters with the word of the Lord, Bathsheba from long meditation, Michal (Jayne Meadows) from bitter observation, Uriah (Kieron Moore) from the battle, Abishai (James Robertson Justice) from his administrative duties. Joab (Dennis Hoey) as a hardened general sends troops to rescue David at Rabbah, and presents another perspective.
Peck’s David is at the center of this vortex, there is scarcely a shot without his presence. His marriage to Bathsheba causes a popular revolt that is only quelled by Nathan. He goes to the tabernacle to offer a penitential and intercessory prayer on behalf of Israel and Bathsheba. Thinking to die, he lays his hands on the ark, and there is a flashback to his slaying of Goliath. When he leaves the tabernacle, it’s raining.
“No man can ever hope to know the real nature of God,” says Nathan, “but He has given us a glimpse of His face.” These are the concluding words of the film, said as David passes by on his way to Bathsheba. She is the adulterous woman, Jerusalem, redeemed in a marvelous way.
Uriah the Hittite salutes David in the Roman manner, hand across the chest, and himself volunteers to be “in the hottest part of the battle.” As he had done to Saul, David orders the soldiers to withdraw from Uriah, and believes himself to be no hypocrite for doing so, at least.
The mystery of the whole film is David’s mystery to himself, unfolded in the most minutely constructed of screenplays. Preminger improved on the shot of David leaving the palace for the tabernacle, advancing toward the camera through crowds, as Joan brought to the stake in Saint Joan. The ark is brought to Jerusalem as a woman is stoned to death in the city gates for adultery, and rests outside when a man lays hands on it to keep it from falling and dies (the shot has David appear in frame from the background as the man disappears from view).
In another running theme, the Egyptian ambassador presents a bejeweled dagger to King David, who offers it to Absalom as a token of appeasement against the boy’s jealousy of Amnon, who is anointed to succeed David. The ambassador returns, with no grain from Egypt during the drought.
Worldly, middle-aged David finds no help in the world, and cannot uphold the Lord, his offer to build a Temple is refused. Uriah dies in the breach at Rabbah, the city is taken, David is condemned by his own judgment to death.
He defends Bathsheba, whom he knows to have sought him out on his terrace. Her husband swore an oath of military service until victory was obtained, for which David excoriates him as a blind fool. It’s to defend her against the condemnation that David goes to the tabernacle, no longer jealous of his younger self (and thus a mirror-image of Saul), but craving mercy on that David alone, “who loved Thee and would have died for Thee.”
This long prayer is a worthy composition. Dunne casts David down to dust, raises him in expectation of mercy, and extinguishes him for the boy in the flashback (lightning strikes at the dissolve). Saul sends David against Goliath at the behest of Doeg, who fearful as he is still sees a chance to be rid of Samuel’s anointed successor to Saul’s throne. At the last moment, Jonathan volunteers, but Saul wants to “prove the folly of Samuel’s prophecy.”
Bathsheba herself expressed a wish to be free of Uriah, so as to marry David. Alfred Newman’s score expresses the torment and anguish of all these forces in play. The least that may be said of King’s direction is that it is equal to the occasion of Dunne’s screenplay.
O. Henry’s Full House
“The Gift Of The Magi”, returned by King to its origins in the gift that means all.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
There’s a story about Hemingway. He used to shoot in Paris at a range with live pigeons for the clientele, because if you shoot critics you’re liable to kill a very young Karel Reisz, who saw this and cocked a snook at it, according to ‘Alliwell.
Hemingway is a good writer, and we know that because you too can go to Harry’s Bar in Firenze if you ape him badly. Now, here’s a digression. There’s a certain amount of bullshit in films, just like in life. If you bring the two into congruence, you’re Henry King. He takes you past the poesy into the work. Gregory Peck in Beloved Infidel does a little walk that incarnates F. Scott Fitzgerald, believe it or not, just a little turn. He has a grin here that’s just a touch of Hemingway.
It will be noticed at the end that the witch doctor is only introduced to provoke the betrayal of consciousness that is the real diagnosis of the film, the one directly reflecting Dali’s The Conquest of the Irrational.
The Irish potato famine, impressions of the Great Trek, formation of a Dutch Free State, outlawry in the hinterlands.
A string of vicissitudes on a heroic scale to measure the commonplace Western, a suitable format.
Filmed on location, not much admired by critics.
“Standard”, says Halliwell’s Film Guide, and “predictable” (it cites the Monthly Film Bulletin, “a not unenjoyable essay in hokum,” as well).
A two-step musical under the star of Manet, all instars of which are accurately negotiated in aggressive planes of dumbfoundingly beautiful photography, its centerpiece is the very long “June”-dockside-ocean sequence that culminates in a regatta situated precisely between an Esther Williams seascape and Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. The Agnes de Mille ballet peripatetically recapitulates the charming fantasy of the “Starkeeper” prelude, the opening crane shot of the carnival, and the seaside scenes, as one might say, before the catharsis. The inestimably witty thing is Sarris’s guffaw and Halliwell’s guff, upon this director and his fifty-year career, for all they’re worth.
Richard Brooks’ The Professionals is from the same author, and describes a similar reversal.
The “hunter” who trails four men who raped and murdered his wife finds out too late it wasn’t them, it was the man who told him about it.
The workings of Providence have a hand in the Southwestern town that boasts a boys’ choir for the annual novena of St. Anthony.
This is only a matter of discernment, yet Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) found King’s film “worked out in perfunctory religious terms.”
The varmints are no-good bank robbers and border trash sentenced to hang anyway, thoughtless killers, but that is no consolation.
“Dour western” in Halliwell’s Film Guide, never mind the round of applause at the end.
The most damaging asseveration is put in the mouth of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who claims that Monroe Stahr is himself and Kathleen the fictional paramour Sheilah Graham.
With apologies to Dorothy Parker, Fitzgerald is also for a time dismissed by New York as well as Hollywood.
The point is the great writer’s ass hung out to dry, except that as filmed by King it’s the lady’s ass that counts in CinemaScope compositions that must be seen properly to be believed, they situate everything in the proper habitat.
HONI SOIT QUI MALIBU, as the saying goes.
Tender Is the Night
The cure of a schizophrenic (cf. Litvak’s the snake pit).
The long draw is from Huston’s Beat the Devil, though King’s film is status quo ante. Jason Robards has the Bogart role in an impressive mock, and there is Jennifer Jones as the Chicago packing house heiress who finds love with a Spanish Foreign Legionnaire, at last, after her cure.
“This may not be a 100 proof distillation of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” said Variety.
“Patchy, fairly literal transcription of a patently unfilmable novel about defiantly unreal people in what would now be the jet set. About half the result is superficially entertaining” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
Film4 echoes this, “a probably unfilmable novel”, and has “the miscasting of Jones”.