The main inspiration is The Magnificent Seven, and the joke is there really is gold on that mountain. It opens with three Texans about to be hanged on horseback, who are rescued by Mexicans fighting Maximilian’s army. “These gringos will go to the end of the earth for gold,” says the head man. There are soldiers everywhere in the country, but his village is relatively safe, and he extends an invitation to the Texans, casually.
Zacarias has a characteristic tilt up and back down, first as a trick to elide the lapse of time between the rescue at the hanging tree and the arrival of General Sanchez (the slow view of taut ropes amid the leaves is telling), then later as the band reach the base of the mountain on top of which is the gold. The camera tilts up from the men and horses to the high ridgeline studded with trees, and back down again to give a sense of the predicament.
Roy Jenson in a leading position goes to town, while Robert Conrad is tough and introspective, and Jan-Michael Vincent is a young gunfighter. The locale is a Mexico of dark volcanic earth with some forests. The expansive abstractions are related to The Deadly Trackers, Santee, The Revengers, etc. A monastery is the scene for the final shootout, just anticipating The Wild Bunch, and a night ambush early on is the occasion for a display of Texas-style fighting.
The Bees is an enchanted film, the extreme low budget of which has excited risibilities and hindered comprehension needlessly. There is simply the sort of snob who turns up his nose at a humble B-picture, and the type of fool who will look no deeper into a thing than a cursory glance, no matter the signature.
Nevertheless, an enchanted and enchanting film. As one of our junior Rex Reeds of the Internet has put it, “how can you not love a film that casts John Saxon as John Norman?” The first shot is an aerial view of Rio de Janeiro. A map then shows a progression of lines emanating from the region, filling all of South America and heading north into the United States.
The first scene takes place at a UNESCO Agricultural Station in Brazil, tended by a neglected wife and a devoted scientist. A local man and his son break into the apiary to fetch experimental bees for honey production, and the boy is killed by them. Local people arrive to burn and loot the station, and the scientist characteristically locks his wife in a storage room, after which he is killed by the bees.
The scene now shifts to New York, where the widow is mugged in an elevator by two men, who steal her overnight bag and are killed by the bees inside it. She makes her way with the remaining bees to a top man in the field who has advised the UN on these matters.
I omit certain details of great amusement and significance only to make clear the general lines of the work. In California, a little girl with a look so strange Max Ernst might have named her Perturbation follows a bouncing ball to the mouth of a cave inside which millions of bees are hiving. Then there is a close-up of roses and bees behind glass, in a laboratory where the bees are being monitored by a TV camerawoman (diamond wipes occur in this film, and pyramid or triangle wipes as well).
In a park, an old man offers two boys money to catch him a bee in a paper bag, which he applies to his game leg, bare and extended. A boy hurls a ball at the hive, and the massacre is on. Another takes place at the Tournament of Roses Parade, accompanied as throughout by careless stunt work of the kind Chuck Bail has a chuckle with in The Stunt Man.
The Air Force is called in, which leads to the key scene dissolving all difficulties and explaining the method. Several aircraft are shown crashing in a cloud of bees, and this sequence plainly comprises test flight footage and the engineering study of an airliner crashing which is shown on the airplane in Airplane!, each shot overlaid with a swarm effect.
Obviously, the intent is not to deceive anyone. The last scene, which is intended to represent a convocation of United Nations delegates, is foreshadowed early on when the top man and his elder colleague tip a jar containing bees at a committee meeting in order to persuade the stubborn members, who flee the room while one of their number laughs at the hysteria, until he gets the point in the seat of the pants.
Now the top man and the widow are before the UN, pleading for understanding. They are scorned, and the bees smash through the great windows and scatter the assembly. The last shot is a close-up of bees at their hive.
Valéry’s famous poem was written on a smaller budget than this, so it only has one bee in its title, and it might just be the one in the old man’s paper bag. “Be then my sense illuminated / By this gold alarum lowly / Without which Love lies dead or dozing!” is the way it ends.
Crime of Crimes
The severe originality of Zacarias is in the dreamlike handling of the horrible theme, which is the destruction of children for their body parts. A filmmaker is uniquely positioned to appreciate this, as there is a constant tendency to render great films down into memorable clips, and there was a time not so long ago when silent films were principally known in this fashion (compilation films, they were called).
Innocence and futurity on the altar of Mammon, there’s a complete statement of the theme along the lines of its real interest and meaning. Mammon is a great and incapacitating God, the detective who corners the wealthy gentleman responsible finds himself out of bullets, but a police helicopter brings incorruptible help.
And this is, I should say, the force of Zacarias’s films, they give evidence of thought where so much is usually withheld under very trying circumstances, or fabricated to serve the needs of the passing moment.
Furthermore, a director is the rare artist whose offspring are butchered in the name of Philistinism before they have a chance to ripen in the public imagination, as not infrequently happens. A very pregnant theme, full of possibilities, engendering many thoughts in turn, and very naturally filmed in Los Angeles, where they make movies and break them, and sometimes put them back together.