Star Wars

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 March

 

President Reagan proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative,

On this day in 1983, President Reagan announced a change in the country’s defence policy. Hitherto relying on a launch-on-warning (aka fail-deadly) response to attack – Mutual Assured Destruction – the US switched to a stated position of defending the country, not attacking an enemy: the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since the previous strategy had relied on a superabundance of ballistic nuclear weapons, the idea being that even if only a small percentage got through, the damage to the other side (the Soviet Union, generally) would be so great that nobody would even countenance a nuclear war, the new one needed something conceptually equally awesome. What was proposed was an umbrella of defence over the whole country, provided by tactical weapons able to bring down any incoming missile before it found its target. To achieve this the US proposed stationing some of its defence systems in space, hence the nickname Star Wars. Whether the initiative was truly part of a switch from quasi-offensive MAD to the defensive is moot – critics suggest that putting missiles in space, defensive or otherwise, just moves the arms race into space. Either way the announcement was largely a publicity exercise – no SDI system has ever been put into operation, nor do scientists believe one is yet possible, though the injection of government money into strategic weapons shield research has undoubtedly given the US an edge in the realm of advanced missile defence systems.

 

 

 

Star Wars (1977, dir: George Lucas)

A long time ago in a culture far far way, the progressive 1960s yielded to the conservatism of the 1970s. This change expressed itself in a variety of ways. In music it was punk – an effort to re-assert the diminishing dominance of rock’n’roll, which had ceased to evolve ten years earlier, and which now referenced only itself. In movies the focus went even further back in time, to the comforting good v evil space operas of the 1930s, Flash Gordon being a prime visual inspiration for George Lucas’s tale of a simple boy who discovers he is in fact the bearer of incredible gifts, gifts which will aid him in his forthcoming fight with the fount of all evil, somewhere up in space. If the story is elemental – it’s the same plot as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – that’s because Lucas was drawing on memes (eg angels falling to the dark side) going back to the Bible at least. Lucas had read Joseph Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which makes the claim that most myths from all epochs and geographical regions share the same basic “monomyth” structure (hero goes somewhere magical, wins a victory, returns with new powers). So Luke Skywalker’s is the Jesus story and the Buddha story too. Lucas adds elements from Kurosawa’s most successful film at the box office, samurai actioner The Hidden Fortress, a touch of Freudian psychology (Skywalker’s oedipal mother-love is transferred to his sister; the film is awash with father figures he has to struggle against), some camp robots at the comedic fringes, a shitload of special effects, and voila, in terms of business and film culture probably the most important film of the past 50 years.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that changed Hollywood
  • The film that re-asserted Hollywood, after a decade of auteur directors (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Bogdanovich etc)
  • Darth Vader – all 12 minutes of him
  • Because Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is, when not fully in shot, wearing fluffy slippers

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Star Wars Trilogy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Oliver Twist

Oliver is menaced by Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist

 

 

The sort of film that most of us have slept through a few times. No, not the one with “Consider Yourself” and all those other fabulous Lionel Bart songs. Instead, it’s the David Lean version of Dickens’s story of a nice young lad all at sea in bad old London, completely song-free and freighted with baggage – Alec Guinness’s Semitic schnozz for starters, his wheedling manner for another – as thiefmaster Fagin. But beneath Fagin’s hard shell and stereotyped Jewish image (based on the Cruickshank drawings, that’s Lean’s and Guinness’s defence) there beats a heart of gold, while around him operates his gang of reasonably well-cared-for ne’er-do-well pickpockets. It’s Robert Newton’s Bill Sykes who’s the real villain here, as it was in Charles Dickens’s original story. So, having snoozed through, why bother to watch it again? Because the remastered version reveals Guy Green’s beautiful cinematography, a feast of rich blacks and brilliant whites and barely a half-tone to be seen. It’s the perfect visual counterpoint to the stygian performance of Newton and the lilywhite prissiness of John Howard Davies as Oliver. Gorgeously chiaroscuro and with crazily tilting sets, this is Lean grabbing at the revival of Expressionism that was sweeping through cinema in the 1940s. Naturalistic? Not even slightly. Consider yourself well served.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Oliver Twist – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Ladykillers

 

 

 

Now that there’s a new team at Ealing Studios, using an illustrious old name to sell underweight product (St Trinian’s, Dorian Gray, Burke and Hare) it’s a good time to look back at 1955’s The Ladykillers, the last classic of the studio’s golden era. Its director, Alexander Mackendrick, also called the shots on Whisky Galore! in 1949 and The Man In The White Suit in 1951 and would go on to make one of America’s most rancidly brilliant satires, The Sweet Smell of Success.
But here the accent is definitely on the sweet smell of lavender water, as a group of robbers, led by Alec Guinness’s caterpillar-browed Professor Marcus, first fool an old lady into believing they’re a string quintet – who would suspect them of plotting a bank job? – before they fall out over how to do her in. Chaucer used the basic plot as one of his Canterbury Tales but the atmosphere here is pure 1950s Britain, a world of ration-book austerity and deference but with the smell of something new in the air – the “looking after number one” attitude of the 1960s. Ealing regularly pulled off this sort of trick – the collision of fuddy-duddy Britannia with go-getting modern Britain – and they usually delivered it with such finesse that each constituency came out of the cinema thinking their side had won. That’s clever, the genius of Ealing, in fact. Let’s hope the new Ealing guys are taking notes.

© Steve Morrissey 2010

 

The Ladykillers – at Amazon