Rage

Doctor Holliford checks Dan while son Chris lies on a bed

George C Scott, as well as acting, also directed three films. Rage, the second, was the first to get a theatrical release and is an interesting failure, unlike Scott’s first film, The Andersonville Trial, which was a critical hit. Scott’s last, The Savage Is Loose, tickled neither audiences nor critics – it was probably the theme of incest.

The fascinating thing about Rage is that it’s a conspiracy thriller with a plot that’s all about the US government conspiring against its own people. This was 1972, pre-Watergate, when mainstream US-set conspiracy thrillers generally still hinged either on malevolent foreigners hatching dastardly plots (The Manchurian Candidate) or rogue generals planning a coup (Seven Days in May).

It’s based on a true incident, when the military in 1968 accidentally sprayed a chunk of Utah with the nerve agent VX, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 sheep, and then covered it up (for 30 years, as it happens). VX is still with us, by the way. It is the nerve agent that killed Kim Jong-nam, the troublesome half-brother of Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.

Here, VX has been renamed MX3 and Utah has become Wyoming, but large numbers of sheep have been subjected to an accidental aerial spraying. And so also have a kindly dad (Scott) and his son (Nicolas Beauvy), who were out in the great outdoors spending quality time together on a camping trip. The sheep are dead or dying, and the son, who had disastrously chosen to sleep out under the stars, is struggling to breathe.

Distraught, Dan (Scott) takes Chris to the hospital and, where the family doctor Roy Caldwell (Richard Basehart) is all concern, and a new young doctor (Martin Sheen) takes control. What Dan doesn’t know is that Dr Holliford (Sheen) is actually an army major, and that in a cabal on a nearby military base, a cover-up is organised of which Holliford is an integral part. Soon Dr Spencer (Barnard Hughes) from the Public Health Service will also arrive and start helping Holliford to keep the medical staff playing along with the subterfuge. Dan doesn’t know how sick his son is, nor that he’s sick himself, and will most probably die.

Barnard Hughes and George C Scott
Big Pharma meets big gun



Philip Friedman and Dan Kleinman’s screenplay decides against being the sort of thriller in which the audience discovers what happened – we know the facts of what’s going on very early on. Instead it’s a thriller about Dan finding out, and what happens when he does. Perhaps banking on the idea that the audience will side with a sick man with a dying son no matter what he does, they send Dan off on a vigilante vengeance jag, and in the process lose all the sympathy Scott’s performance as the increasingly vexed father has generated.

Dan kills innocent people. At the facility where the drug company brewed the fatal nerve agent, he blows up the lab, killing the innocent animals in the test lab.

Ay ay ay, what a mis-step. Reviewers of the time mostly blame Scott as the director for what is basically a problem with the plot. A case of auteur theory gone mad. In fact Scott’s direction is pretty good, nimble, pacey, a bit TV-movie-ish for sure, but he’s good at generating tension and paranoia early on, and draws a clear visual distinction between cold officialdom (the hospital, the army base) and warm everyday humanity (the campsite, a diner Dan later escapes to).

Lalo Schifrin’s score helps with the tension, even after the film has shot its bolt – the pizzicato strings and discords really adding a frisson.

It’s a change of gear for Scott, at the time probably best known for playing army guys. He was Patton in the movie of the same name, and Buck Turgidson in Dr Strangelove. Here he’s the anti-army guy, still granitelike, as Scott was, but humane and his performance is a reminder of how good he is. But then this is a great cast all round. Look at Basehart, barely in it but giving it his all as the suspicious and caring local doctor. Or Martin Sheen as the lean and hungry army medic with an agenda.

All largely for naught. Still, as an early arrival in a new territory where it’s the government that’s out to get us Rage does have something to say. Three years down the line, with 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, it had pretty much all been said.

PS The movie itself looks a lot better than the crappy stills I’ve illustrated this post with.




Rage – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





I am an Amazon affiliate






© Steve Morrissey 2021









Patton

George C Scott in Patton

 

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

 

 

11 April

 

President Truman fires General MacArthur, 1951

Today in 1951, President Truman fired his most popular, successful general, Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur had been chief of staff of the US army in the 1930s, had been commander of the US Army in the Far East and supreme commander of the southwest Pacific during the Second World War. It was MacArthur who accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 ,and it was MacArthur who effectively governed Japan between 1945 and 1951.

It was also MacArthur who led the United Nations forces into Korea, where he was initially successful, before being pushed back south of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between north and south Korea. In early 1951, under General Ridgway, the US eighth army retook Seoul and pushed on to the 38th parallel.

It was at this point that MacArthur wrote a letter to the US Congress – bypassing the president, the commander-in-chief – which criticised Truman’s policy both in Asia and globally. Truman responded by firing him, which made the already unpopular president even more unpopular – his approval rating of 22% being an all time low for a serving president.

 

 

 

Patton (1970, dir: Franklin J Schaffner)

Patton is the film that the less successful 1977 biopic MacArthur wants to be. And that’s largely down to the casting of George C Scott as the bulldog general, knocking Gregory Peck’s somnolent MacArthur into a braided hat.

Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay (written with Edmund North) is heroic too, injecting that fierce love of combat into the character of Patton, as Coppola would later into Lt Col Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now. The sense of the epic is here too, with Coppola and North painting Patton as a general whose dedication to his craft and his country are founded on something almost supernatural, certainly something bigger than himself (whether Patton actually believed that in a previous life he had been an imperial Roman warrior I don’t know, but Coppola has him state it here).

Released at the height of opposition to Vietnam, the film managed to be well received on both sides, thanks to Coppola’s work on a script which plays to a certain anti-war sentiment. And here’s where Scott comes in, playing Patton as at least 25% mad, the sort of man who you want inside the tent pissing out, as Lyndon Johnson said of J Edgar Hoover, rather than vice versa. Devotees of Dr Strangelove will notice more than a touch of Scott’s bonkers General Buck Turgidson in his Patton too.

It’s a long film, and Scott is there for most of it. Though it concentrates mostly on the closing years of the Second World War, Patton’s finest hour, it opens with the iconic shot of Patton, huge, standing in front of the American flag, even huger – and in its original 70mm awesome – then moves to his defeat of Rommel in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, where he disobeys orders in order to beat the British general Montgomery to the prize of Messina.

In the “boy loses girl” segment, structure borrowed from romantic comedy, we also see Patton forfeiting his command for slapping an apparently uninjured soldier he happens upon in a hospital. Before he comes back stronger than ever to win battle after battle as the Allies head towards Germany after the D-Day invasion. Ra ra ra.

In an echo of MacArthur’s dismissal, it is Patton’s unguarded remarks that get him fired, bringing to a muted end a glorious life of service.

Fox chucked a vault of cash at Patton and it’s all there on the screen – big names, lots of locations, a cast of thousands, and cinematography of remarkable virtuosity. And at nearly three hours’ running time, it gave Coppola a taste for the epic. He followed up, enabled by the success of Patton, with The Godfather.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • George C Scott won an Oscar – which he declined
  • Schaffner’s follow-up to Planet of the Apes
  • Great support from Karl Malden, Michael Bates, Jack Gwillim
  • Fred Koenekamp’s 70mm cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Patton – at Amazon