The Captain Hates the Sea

 

The one about the boozehound writer who leaves Hollywood on a pleasure cruise to write his novel.

Aboard are the floozy and her new businessman husband, the lady librarian from Boston who’s in cahoots with a thief, and the title character with a long story going back to his father’s great beard and a bowl of soup.

Also the Latin American general whose revolution is over before he knows it.

 

The General Died at Dawn

 

A warlord in China, leaving nothing but “the bark on the trees,” and wanting that, it seems.

“Quite a tidy little packet of melodrama” (Frank S. Nugent, New York Times). Graham Greene echoes this view, “if it were not for a rather ludicrous ending, this would be one of the best thrillers for some years” (cited in Halliwell’s Film Guide, which gives as its opinion, “an intellectual’s film of its day”).

“An artistic flop,” Variety opined, but for Cooper and Carroll.

A particularly inspired score by Werner Janssen.

 

Of Mice And Men

 

Pie in the sky they used to say, and a girl’s face is just that sweet, but the title is from Robert Burns, the structure is a mere delay.

Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times praised the work “as art”, but speaks of “one flaw”, Copland’s writing “when Candy’s old dog was taken outside to be shot.” Variety found “skillful directorial guidance”, Tom Milne of Time Out Film Guide an “impressive adaptation” and “terrific performances” that “mask much of the novel’s na´ve social philosophy,” Halliwell’s Film Guide that it “seems somehow unnecessary.”

Much of it goes into The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (dir. Robert Ellis Miller) and Straw Dogs (dir. Sam Peckinpah).

 

Lucky Partners

 

From Sacha Guitry, a great tribute to “French rationality”, a whole romance figuratively depicted around a sweepstakes ticket.

He says good luck, she receives the gift of a dress, they buy a ticket, etc.

With an apology from the bench to American art and one artist in particular for aspersions regrettably cast.

Bosley Crowther (New York Times) issues demerits but praises the work, Halliwell calls it “very thin”.

 

Edge of Darkness

 

A fishing village in Norway, land of Erik the Red and Ibsen, under the Nazi Occupation.

It’s too much, two years. Arms come from the British, “wait for it” is the order.

Finally, digging their own graves for a Nazi execution party, the villagers revolt en masse.

Variety senselessly accused Helmut Dantine of overacting as the Nazi commandant, this was early on. Crowther of the New York Times thought “the complicated tragedy of Norway” had been betrayed.

Milestone is furiously involved in the film at every step, a quiet place full of the immediate conflict is the venue of the action, its significance extends beyond the war’s end to the local treatment of collaborators looked on as called for by circumstances.

A ferocious and terrible film of small victories and the daintiest consideration of effect. “You’re a German,” says the lady hotelkeeper to a helpful soldier, refusing.

Then there’s the Warsaw stage actress working her way through the New Order, the aged schoolmaster on the rights of the individual, half-measures and half-baked resistance, quislings, the pastor in his church, the cannery director at ease with the commandant, and a British agent with the good news.

 

The North Star

 

One of the most famous examples of a benighted criticism failing to recognize a major work of art, a polished Persean mirror held up to Soviet self-image and finding Russia, “we’re the younger generation and the future of the nation”, sung to Zhivago’s balalaika on the road to nowhere...

And everything that is pure Milestone, image upon image collected, sure and cool, the little dolly-in to a foreground scene with a deep-focused background, a monstrously complicated tracking shot that closes on a simple image, the dolly-out from the dark torture chamber into the sunlit street, a shot Hitchcock repeated in Frenzy.

The essence of his art is a unique realization of the power inherent in the tension of pictures given motility. More than any other director, his images are endowed with the fatal quality of time, Cocteau’s theorem, persistence of vision dramatically realized.

“There’s something wrong with the sun!” Lillian Hellman’s script is among the most incisive work of a very subtle mind. Jane Withers stops in the woods, amid those living trees and leaves that have brushed her face. She prays out loud, crying, and her immobility (tears running, breast heaving) in the forest is the central point of Milestone’s art.

It is what makes his battle scenes so vivid, and why nothing is more horrible than his corpses. In Milestone, reality and image combine as they will, separate as they will, or pass into symbol, a symbol among images in a reality like a chorus, an image that persists as symbol, then is realized as reality, image, symbol at once.

 

The Purple Heart

 

A captured B-25 crew goes on trial in Tokyo District Court for the Doolittle raid, the charge is murder.

A civil court, illegally. A false accusation. Betrayal by a Chinese quisling. Toyama the chief judge, leader of the Black Dragons.

Crippling torture every night. Where is Shangri-La? The airmen refuse to answer and are sentenced to death.

Memories of home, verses by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Oliver Wendell Holmes recur to them.

Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review is notably accurate, leading the rest.

A true case, wherefore James Agee felt the facts were not yet in, fully.

 

A Walk in the Sun

 

Robert Rossen’s screenplay is an array of language in the deformations of combat, a sustained work of art curiously similar to Les Enfants du paradis in certain qualities of fatidic mindfulness and second sight clinging to reason or the unreason that is good sound sense invented every minute (the engine room of Coward & Lean’s In Which We Serve is a precedent).

Language itself is the motif, a soldier dies “in the middle of a word”, that’s where Milestone’s technique is intersected, motion pictures are just that, the dead do not move, the wounded are inert, battle fatigue is a mournful spectacle. A Dedalian letter-writer commits his lines to memory in all their truly fictional glory, then to paper at a convenient moment. Two Italian prisoners know nothing but Germans they have left behind. A written order is critiqued as “formal”. A letter might be used to stop a bullet hole.

This careful study anticipates the poetic evocation of True Grit. There is great variety of expression, the tessitura warbles and hums, expands and contracts to accommodate the characterizations.

Accuracy of knowledge, if it is not the same, is another motif. Mac is strafed while breaking his isolation, an officer is killed in the landing craft while looking through binoculars at Salerno, photography and Norman Rockwell and motion pictures are considered.

The objective is a farmhouse six miles (“closer to seven,” says Sgt. Ward) along a dirt road next to a ditch amid bare fields. Enemy fighters dive out of the sun, which bounces off the windows of the farmhouse, concealing whatever is within. The landing is initially unopposed.

The ballad form (High Noon, The War Wagon) is here a conscious replacement of the novel’s fixed unity in moments of relative stasis, let us say, the lull of action that lilts unconsciously, Milestone at rest.

A second objective near the first is a bridge that must be destroyed so that enemy forces can be kept from the beach. In the end, the bridge is blown to prepare a concerted attack on the farmhouse.

 

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is distinctly oneiric, and Milestone owes this sustained tour de force to Robert Rossen’s script and Miklos Rozsa’s almost constant music, as well as his own stretching of cinematically exact resources almost if not beyond capacity. It’s a closed dream because it resists understanding on its own terms, and probably is a gag way of saying the war had passed “like a bad dream”.

It begins with a preliminary dream, a lengthy flashback probably owed to Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, which offers no explanation but a pool of red herrings for the rest of the film. Symbolism becomes apparent only within the confines of the set piece, and the depth of style reached fluctuates from avant-garde compositions to Dutch painting, imperceptibly.

The music significantly stops during the confab in the District Attorney’s office, which produces an effect that’s mythic or from a fairy tale, though barely noticeable.

 

Halls of Montezuma

Milestone takes his plain treatment into Technicolor at the Academy ratio with no more immediacy than simple presence, and no more artful compositions than a document read for the news at the bottom, or a vertical wipe achieved by filling the screen with the underside of a tank followed by soldiers, or riverside greenery an immediate foil to a crossing.

The forward slope of hills addressing a Marine amphibious landing has been reached by tunnel from the reverse slope for a barrage of rockets, this is the unexpected development it takes all of the film to determine, with prisoners from a cave to interrogate under constant shelling.

Milestone compresses his action between a planned attack for which the rockets must be eliminated, and the sheer endurance of the enemy bombardment, the pressures of time and danger are continually oppressive, they make for a second-by-second continuum of duteousness against manic flight or mental breakdown or abstract immobility, and what there is of unblasted nature on the Japanese-held island quivers appreciably like a living witness in contrast, forming a vital link to flashback sequences in the States away from the war (Gen. Sherman gets ribbed as a stay-at-home).

A notable influence on Apocalypse Now can be discerned here and there.

 

They Who Dare

Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone is the signal analysis, overlooked because not appreciated for its unromantic view of a commando raid in the Greek isles.

Smight’s The Illustrated Man further analyzes the commanding officer and his junior (the rainy planet).

The plainness of the depiction is perhaps best expressed in Tamiroff’s role, which has many opportunities that he ignores for a bare presentation not in his line.

The British officers are young, it’s the first raid of the campaign, the Marines are somewhat feckless, the Greeks somewhat wild, the raid is scrubbed but for the grace of God, it is somewhat successful, most of the men do not return.

 

Pork Chop Hill

Milestone’s craziest movie, so organized that way it makes nearly no sense until the battle is over. “For nothing” is the key to strategists at the peace table, for peace and a no-man’s-land where the hill is, but there must be a decision.

It comes from the higher-ups almost as an inspiration, a divination. Meantime ragged soldiers hold the nothing they’ve taken with nothing left.

Bosley Crowther, as is his wont, complains of the enemy’s effectiveness (a propaganda loudspeaker) and exaggerates.

 

Ocean’s Eleven

Milestone’s late masterpiece is on a par with Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi in the general sense, and from two particular angles Hodges’ Get Carter and Lamont’s Salome, Where She Danced.

The 82nd Airborne raids Las Vegas “to liberate millions of dollars”, Stalin makes a partial bid to redress the wrongs, settles for half. This is denied him, the only profit is a GI burial and $10,000 to widow and child.

Las Vegas inside and out and six ways from Sunday, well before the inhumation under gigantism and that strange Soviet style of mega-architecture, paradoxically in the hegemony of the megamoney.

The brisk complicated caper’s all from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, to take one example that will serve, and turns out to have consequences for something as seemingly remote as Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., if we’re not getting ahead of our tale.

“Who steals my purse steals trash...” It all ends in the chapel bedecked with a neon clock where the really great idea disappears evermore...

 

Mutiny on the Bounty

The charge is that Marlon Brando wrecked the film, wasted Carol Reed’s time, and ended Lewis Milestone’s career, by recklessly behaving in an amateur fashion, and causing a critical and commercial failure, thus beginning a record of insults that has lasted to the present day.

Hollywood is a place of petty animosities writ large, the case of Chaplin is one of the most shameful. The word went out that Chaplin, Chaplin, was un-American, and from then on, in a rising career as a director to the end, his films were panned (and this after the charge that he was immoral, as you hear about Woody Allen today). Self-serving stupidity like this has a cumulative result, which we see nowadays in the collapse of criticism and the manipulations of public sentiment for films that are beneath consideration.

And then there is Mutiny on the Bounty. Why remake a perfect film (this indeed may be at the root of the response)? Because, as David Lean saw, Frank Lloyd’s syntax could bear expansion. Lloyd’s film is two hours long, Lean’s was to be in two parts of four hours, say, altogether, Milestone’s takes three hours. To say what Lloyd didn’t is to pay him the tribute of knowing what he meant.

Thus Brando’s Christian, which may have been thought as in some way a satire of Clark Gable, though how one may imagine but not fathom. Little things like this matter to Hollywood, or to a certain element there, but let’s not start naming names. Gable is perfect as Christian, and no sensible actor would attempt to repeat such a performance. The tribute to Gable is in the visible necessity of finding another reading.

The point of Mutiny on the Bounty is not the villainy of Bligh, or even the seductiveness of the isles, but the insufficiency of Bligh to his station, and the moral superiority of Christian. Charles Laughton’s line, “We have beaten the sea itself,” which is said to have evoked tears on the set after much arduous filming, is the utterance of a Xerxes (Milestone records an interesting variant, interesting to Lean). The preparation of this may be handled in any number of ways, but the crux is the gradual revelation of character on the Bounty. The vast subtlety of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, as filmed by Roger Donaldson in a disastrously curtailed production, gives an Olympian view. Lloyd’s screenwriters give you the quarter-deck. Charles Lederer (and a handful of uncredited rewrite men said to include Eric Ambler and Ben Hecht) must be somewhere between.

It builds by shifting perspectives to the mutiny itself, or rather it does not build, but in a flash reveals Christian, and a moment later Bligh with his line, “What a big price to pay for a small display of temper,” which brings to mind the legend of Eamon de Valera’s declaration of an Irish Republic on the provocation of an insult, or Henry V’s response to the French King.

Tahiti is stated in Maimiti’s line, “You eat life or life eat you.”

Bligh’s court-martial abundantly displays the majesty of Admiralty law.

The films display a progressive revelation, if one imagines the film Lean imagined.

It would be difficult to imagine a more complete triumph than Brando’s. On film it’s a sustained inspiration, offscreen it’s a total acquisition of the legend.

The development through Mister Roberts to Cool Hand Luke passes through D.H. Lawrence’s dismissive criticism of Two Years Before the Mast, where he says the purpose of flogging was to communicate the captain’s will, though it be through clouds of mistrust. The critics are at best loyal Blighters answered according to their folly by The Caine Mutiny. At the end, the British heard only something about inhumanity, and that decided them. They failed to notice a tragic flouting of the prophetic scene earlier, or anyway a Pisgah view.