The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain [C. Monger, 1995]

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St. David’s day is coming up! Yes, March 1st is the festival of the patron saint of Wales. Every year St. Patrick’s day rolls around, and all right-thinking people say “Hmm, I wonder when St. David’s day is. Gotta make those cookies,” and find out that it happened two weeks ago. Well, this year I remembered.

They aren’t telling us about it, but in the week before St. David’s day, TCM is showing two of the very few Welsh films in its repertoire [films set in Wales … not in the Welsh language]. The Corn is Green is a Bette Davis heroic-teacher story with a mostly-American cast, two of whom [not her] were nominated for Oscars. The Citadel is a King Vidor drama with Robert Donat as a doctor torn between wealth/corruption [represented by Rex Harrison] and the rewards of small-town work [and his wife, Rosalind Russell]. They also just showed Night Must Fall, the thriller written by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams who also wrote The Corn is Green. Meanwhile the most famous Welsh film to come from Hollywood, How Green Was My Valley, isn’t even part of “31 Days of Oscar”. Maybe it didn’t deserve Best Picture, but it’s not a blot on the escutcheon of filmmaking, for goodness’ sake.

Anyway, I haven’t seen any of those movies, but I have seen 1995’s greatest Welsh film, Christopher Monger’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain [henceforth The Englishman, or TEWWUAHBCDAM], and it’s delightful.

Wales's three great figures: Tom Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joe Calzaghe

My memories say he was everywhere for a couple years and then largely went away, like Orlando Bloom, but in reality the Hugh Grant phenomenon could be viewed as exactly one movie long [Four Weddings and a Funeral], or over a decade long. The whole prostitute/mugshot unpleasantness happened when he was new to our shores, before his first Hollywood vehicle [Nine Months] even opened. 1995-96 saw him in a bunch of British films [Sense and Sensibility, Restoration, An Awfully Big Adventure], just like 1992-93 had [Sirens, Bitter Moon, The Remains of the Day], with the exception that in An Awfully Big Adventure he debuts his “arrogant cad” role in place of his diffident stammerer role. Ever since then he’s been in one major romantic comedy every couple of years, with the very occasional stab at something else. Most have been hits, though only About a Boy was big with critics and Did You Hear About the Morgans? does not bode well for the future. TEWWUAHBCDAM came out in 1995, at the height of stammer-mania, and it isn’t a romcom, despite the box art implying that Tara FitzGerald is to this film what Julia Roberts is to Notting Hill.

The Englishman is a fable, a tall tale, narrated by an old man telling the story to his grandson, based on a story writer-director Monger heard from his grandfather. The main characters are Anson, played by Grant, and Morgan the Goat [Colm Meaney]. Anson and his bibulous senior colleague Garrad [Ian McNeice] represent the British Crown, arriving in spotless tweeds and a cutting-edge automobile in one of the Empire’s distant muddy outposts [just north of Cardiff] where Morgan holds the dual role of “publican who knows everything” and “lusty, fecund yokel”. Morgan seems like a roguish roustabout, but at heart he’s a bureaucratic organizer, like Bill Clinton or the young Thomas Becket. The idea behind “Morgan the Goat” is that each character is called by a combination of family name and profession [or other distinguishing feature], because Wales rivals Korea in its paltry ratio of surnames to inhabitants. See the credits for more examples. This convention doesn’t get old because Monger doesn’t resort to puns or wordplay.

The year is 1917. Anson and Garrad are ex-military men and surveyors, travelling through Wales to map its mountains on behalf of the war effort. They’re mapping a village which claims to have “the first mountain in Wales”. The narrator is quite clear: mountains are what separate Wales from England [although the Welsh and their Apache-like ability to survive in the impassable crags had pretty much been pacified during the reign of Edward I, only six centuries before the film’s events].

Colm Meaney as Morgan

Is it a hill? Is it a mountain? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter anywhere else. But this is Wales. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built temples.  But we did none of that, because we had mountains. Yes, the Welsh were created by mountains. Where the mountains start, there starts Wales. If this isn’t a mountain — well, if this isn’t a mountain, then Anson might just as well redraw the border and put us all in England. God forbid.

They tell the townsfolk that to be listed as a “mountain”, Ffynnon Garw has to be at least 1000 feet. They estimate it as 930 feet, they measure it as 984 feet, and they decline to stick around while the townsfolk edit the hill to be taller. Morgan the Goat and Reverend Jones [Kenneth Griffith] set aside their differences and coordinate every villager [except one] in two simultaneous efforts: to pile up dirt around a 20-foot marker, and stymie the increasingly annoyed [Garrad] or smitten [Anson] surveyors from leaving. That’s enough story for a feel-good comedy, and this one hits all its marks.

When The Englishman came out, it was compared to Local Hero [Bill Forsyth, 1983] and Whisky Galore [Alexander Mackendrick, 1949], but may not have been part of a clear subgenre. Since then, there have been scads of films set in a quaint British/Irish location where the working-class locals band together to accomplish some odd thing or other, often involving an outsider who’s charmed and frustrated by their ways. Calendar Girls [2003], The Full Monty [1997], Saving Grace [2000], House! [2000], The Matchmaker [1997], Kinky Boots [2005]. And the movie The Englishman constantly reminded me of, with its interest in vigorous old men, its reverence for tradition, its sentimental score behind an unsentimental script, and its overwhelmingly green hilly vistas … Waking Ned Devine [1998]. Which was a comparable labor of love for its writer-director Kirk Jones.

Like Waking Ned with Ireland, this film purports to be not just about an odd little town, but about the Welsh people — to show you the romantic Welsh self-image, and display why they love living there. You’re reminded that it’s a fairy tale when the narrator talks about the rigors of coal mining, or the war, but when the action resumes all we see are hearty men and big-hearted women, clashing now and then but always with a smile close at hand. He refers to how all the men are away at war, but they don’t seem to be missing. The war only factors into the story by being responsible for Johnny Shellshocked’s state. Nevertheless:

How could we face those who survived, if they returned to find no mountain? While they fought the Germans, we had lost our mountain to the English.

What about the romance? Who is that woman taking up almost as much space as Grant on the VHS box? Well, she’s a classy woman from Cardiff, come to refurbish Morgan’s establishment, and she barely appears in the first half of the movie. Tara FitzGerald was Hugh Grant’s equally repressed wife in Sirens; here her smile inspires a more confident Grant character to give direction to his life. The romance isn’t exactly a distraction from the rest of the film, but it’s the most formulaic part of the film. In an idea much stupider than the rest of his plans, Morgan the Goat convinces Betty [FitzGerald] to charm Garrad into staying around for the unveiling of the newly augmented Ffynnon Garw. She spends about an hour of her life doing this in a slapstick fashion, Garrad doesn’t especially notice, and then she falls in love with Anson, whom she hadn’t noticed before. I suspect the romcom elements were augmented after the stratospheric success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, because they seem underwritten and sitcom-y.

What made Waking Ned satisfying is also true of The Englishman: the minor characters are all both charming and dignified. Actor/ documentarian/ activist/ philatelist/ historian Kenneth Griffith is infuriating, fiery and inspiring as Reverend Jones. He might have more scenes alone than any other actor except Grant, as he contemplates what’s best for the town. Williams the Petroleum [Robert Pugh] is torn between doing his job and fulfilling his mandate to disable Anson’s car. Johnny Shellshocked could be an irritating Christ-figure, but Ian Hart just plays him as a man who sees reminders of wartime nightmares wherever he goes. Lisa Palfrey refuses to be pitied as the small-town girl outshined by Miss Betty. And so on. Garfield Morgan [Davies the School] never makes you think he has a good reason for being such a fuddy-duddy, but that problem is solved by having everyone ignore him.

Even the car is a character with some character. Learn more about it in Shropshire Magazine.

"Rather ominous. Reminds me of surveying Abyssinia in '88."

Ealing Studios may have made more Welsh-themed comedies in the ’40s and ’50s than have been made since. I know of this one, Grand Slam [1978] Twin Town [1997], House! [2000], and now Submarine [2010], an intriguing entry from last year’s TIFF. A rave-exploitation film called Human Traffic [the Go of the UK?] is set in Cardiff but reportedly doesn’t do much with the setting. One that looks intriguing — possibly the closest thing to TEWWUAHBCDAM in the last 15 years  — is The Baker [Gareth Lewis, 2007]. A small Welsh town, an Englishman stranded there, colorful locals … and a star who is in no way known for comedic roles. Will have to check it out.

Rating: 4 stammers out of 5.

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FIFA 11 diary 2: Skyscrapers of St Mirren

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It’s time for a full season. A season in the Premier League seems daunting, so who to choose?

I can’t claim to be a supporter of any team other than Everton and Bolton [they aren’t rivals, I can have both]. Because I can’t watch games, or even highlights, of any other league on TV right now. Sympathies arise for various teams [Schalke, Fiorentina, Udinese, Lokomotiv Moscow, Molde], but it’s all superficial. The virus-laden aggregator websites that people keep lauding on discussion boards are intriguing, but watching long videos on the computer is intolerable. We don’t have Fox Soccer Channel. I’m excited about the Philadelphia Union, but haven’t been to a game yet and I know the roster in the video game is going to be vastly different from the eventual 2011 Union. So where to go, outside the English Premier League?

After all these years of sponsorship, Ūkio Bankas is no closer to dominating the wallets of the Scots.

I don’t have any ethnic or tourism-based links to any countries outside Britain [and Lithuania, whose league sadly is not included here], so you’ve got the other levels of English football, and Scotland. Playing as Cardiff was fun, but the SPL will probably let me detect progress better by having to play every other team at least thrice.

Vague SPL sympathies lie with Motherwell, Hearts, and St Mirren. Why? They aren’t dominant, and they have distinctive color schemes. And in Hearts’s case, it’s the Lithuanian connection. St Mirren get a really low rating in the game, significantly below Motherwell and Hearts [they were 10th, 5th, and 6th last season, respectively]. Being a low-level team unable to dominate would be good. And I know more about St Mirren than other teams at the bottom of the league, like Hamilton, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock. Is there even a city called Hamilton? Where are they from?

Facts I know about St Mirren:

  • They represent a city called Paisley, west of Glasgow.
  • They wear black and white stripes.
  • They used to play at a place called “Love Street” which was legendary for being windy.
  • Their name is spelled wrong. Saint Mirin was an Irish saint of the first millennium.
  • Two of their players’ names: Billy Mehmet and Andy Dorman. Neither of whom is on the team anymore, as it turns out.

The virtually unreadable text in FIFA 11 when played on a non-high-def TV is certainly irritating, but I’m trying to turn it into a positive. Who are these players? What does that say exactly? What do these weird marks mean in the Team Management / Squad view? How do I know who just got injured? It’s like using a shortwave radio to find out how the Hamilton Tiger-Cats game is going. I thought a player named “Weir” had been my Man of the Match in 2 of 4 matches, until the camera finally showed him and it turned out his name was “Mair”. Aha!

  • To get into the St Mirren spirit, go here to see the Paisley Panda. Go here to see him dressed for his day job.

So, how has the season been going? Well, Amateur level quickly got boring. I went from 4-4 against Dundee United, to 4-2 against Rangers [one of their goals was a penalty, the other came when my computer-controlled goalkeeper dove into my defender’s legs as he was about to clear it], to 7-1 against Motherwell and 7-2 against Kilmarnock. Higdon has 8 goals, Dargo has 3, McQuade has 3, van Zanten [I think that’s his name] has 1, Thomson has 3, Barron has 2, and Potter has 2. I can’t get Dargo to do what I want, and subbing in McQuade works better. Potter and Lee “Weir” Mair have both been man of the match twice, with about 18 tackles per game for each. The fact that my center backs are constantly having to clean up after my attackers give the ball away is a bad sign. And yet, it’s just too easy to score goals and too easy to win the ball, so it’s time to switch to Semi-Pro.

First game at Semi-Pro: 1-4 at home against Hibernian. 1 goal from Potter [assist from Travner…in other words, from a corner]. 2 of their 4 were penalties, but I got exactly 2 shots on goal, when I’m used to having 15. Deep breath. Let’s regroup with some time in the wilderness until I figure out how to pass with the yellow button no longer being magic.

Polonia Bytom's red and bluish army

Inter 3-3 Polonia Bytom. This is a struggle. I can’t pass between people while charging upfield. I just can’t. Polonia Bytom have a bizarre color scheme, like it’s supposed to be red and blue, but it’s actually red and lavender. In real life it’s closer to blue, but there is  something off about it.

Cardiff 3-3 CS Sedan. I was down 3-1 between the 50th and 82nd minutes. This may be a turning point.

Cardiff 4-3 Nordsjælland. Two extra-time goals this time in an all-time classic of mutual incompetence.

Bolton 1-2 Southend. Holy beans, it’s like wading through a swamp. Lee Chung-Yong managed to dribble between six people to score from beyond the penalty arc. I don’t know if I completed a pass of more than two yards.

Bolton 5-1 Hønefoss. Wow! Hønefoss just might be the ideal patsy for these situations. In addition to overall slowness and inability to shoot, their keeper barely ever kicks it. He rolls it out to the fullbacks like he’s Tim Grgurich running a basketball scrimmage. The EA programmers know a lot, but is it possible that they know the Hønefoss keeper does this in real life more than other keepers? Maybe he sustained an injury against Bolton and I didn’t notice.

Udinese 1-1 Grossetto. Low-scoring calcio in action…

Lokomotiv 1-0 Sibir Novosibirsk. Or maybe I’ve figured out how to defend, but not how to pass in attack. Well, at least I can keep the score down while working on other stuff. Let’s go back to the SPL.

Hønefoss GK Thomas Solvoll, either figure out how to boot a clearance, or sit out a game and give ex-Oakland University Golden Grizzly Steve Clark (center) a shot.

St Mirren 1 (Higdon 34), Hearts 2 (Elliott 6, Elliot 78). Yellow card for Mair.

St Mirren 1 (Dargo 18), Celtic 4 (Stokes 20, Hooper 22, Stokes 61, Samaras 82). Yellow cards for Mair and Higdon.

St Mirren 3 (Dargo 8, Higdon/Dargo 45, Dargo 49), Aberdeen 2 (Velicka 17, Velicka 25). More patient passing does the trick. As does the good odds that I can run up to the keeper, boot it at his face, have it bounce up in the air and then put it in. More importantly, why does a team other than Hearts have a Lithuanian star?

St Mirren 4 (Higdon 10, Potter/Brady 13, Brady 55, McQuade/Thomson 71), St Johnstone 1 (Hardie 86). Things are falling into place. St Johnstone is a really abject team, probably the first relegation candidate I’ve played. The guy at the point of their spear is about 5 feet tall and decisively prefers to dribble it into the goalie rather than shoot.

And let’s just do a little experiment.

Semi-Pro mode: Inter 2, Brann 2. Either the gulf between St Mirren and St Johnstone is huge compared to the gap between Inter and Brann, or I’m starting to tailor my attack toward St Mirren’s unique qualities, whatever those are. Had my first instance of an opponent diving, by way of “girly man-forward” Erik Huseklepp.

Amateur mode: Inter 17, Brann 1. I feel bad habits re-emerging. Martin Tyler says “That’s Lúcio’s tackle” about 25 times. As for Huseklepp, the feminine frontman‘s wiles fail to tempt the officials into handing out cards.

Captain Potter’s log, February 5th, 2011.

Recent accomplishments:

Figured out that sometimes I might like to pass laterally or backward.

Figured out which defender I should be controlling when the opponent has the ball. Hint: not always the one covering the guy with the ball.

Figured out to wait on corner kicks until my teammates have gotten into a promising position. It does make a difference.

No longer hitting the colored buttons as soon as I get the ball. The ball is occasionally under control now.

Current playing strategy:

Offense:

  • Blue button: lofted pass. Must be hit very very quickly to work.
  • Green button: fast pass.
  • Yellow button: sluggish pass. The yellow button is no longer a sure bet to get the ball to a teammate, so I’m using the green button almost all the time now.
  • Red button: shot.

Defense:

  • Same as before, except that a slide tackle is no longer a guaranteed foul.

Throw-ins:

  • Blue button: powerful throw that always goes to the opponent.
  • Green button: short throw to a teammate.
  • Yellow button: short throw to a teammate.
  • Red button: N/A

Things to work on:

  • How to score on a chip shot. Am now ~0 for 50 including practice games.
  • How to aim a lofted pass towards somebody instead of having it go in a random direction with a random amount of power. Am tantalizingly close to being able to do this.
  • Try out different formations, split between halves of a game.
  • Stop falling into the habit of using only the green button.
  • Watch the tutorials and read the manual again. There has to be something in there about what to do on a header.
  • Figure out how to get music to play during the games instead of the commentary. I’m sick of these guys already.

Dude, where’s

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Intriguing results. I did think Slate would win. Maybe someone can use Lexis-Nexis and do a real study.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 1

Slate: 2

The Globe and Mail: 4 [what about 2000-2008?]

Salon: 5

The Guardian: 6

Washington Post: 6

New York Times: 15

[from Google searches for “dude where’s” site:theglobeandmail.com,”dude where’s” site:nytimes.com, “dude where’s” site:washingtonpost.com, “dude where’s” site:slate.com, “dude where’s” site:salon.com, “dude where’s” site:guardian.co.uk]

[Bing searches looked similar]

I Thank the Extraordinary Seaman Alarm!

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Since starting this blog, although it has no regular readers except my mother and my friends Andy and Carly, I have started thinking “What do I write about this?” throughout entire movies. This is unhealthy and leads to joylessly expending too much focus on things which may be objectively interesting but which I don’t enjoy. To break that habit, let’s address three TCM movies that did not seem very good, but were good enough to watch while reading something else and occasionally leaving the room.

Cause for Alarm! [Tay Garnett, 1951]

There are a couple of bloggers [John Greco, Michael Troutman] citing this as a classic of non-hardboiled, suburban suspense. As someone who doesn’t know much about black-and-white suspense thrillers except the words “noir” and “Hitchcock”, that should be interesting. And I hate to criticize something for looking too cheap [and being too cheap — filmed in 2 weeks in about four rooms, plus an excursion to the beach], but that’s how this movie lost me. Which may be a male-chauvinist response. I love films like Detour, D.O.A., and He Walked By Night, where the low budget and limited soundtrack conveys the grittiness of the setting and the protagonist’s lack of options. But when the protagonist is played by Loretta Young, an extremely likeable actress who would later be famous for wearing sumptuous ball gowns while introducing morally edifying vignettes on her eponymous TV show, I can’t embrace the suspense. Would this woman live on such a cheap set? Aren’t these stock characters [the unsympathetic cop, the continually friendly ex-suitor and now-friend] too one-note to really exist? Why can’t I identify with her as the trapped protagonist, when I identified with Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark? Do I need a “woman’s picture” to be visually interesting or cleverly written, while I have no such standards for a movie about Edmond O’Brien?

Cause for Alarm! is set in Dennis the Menace or Beaver Cleaver’s neighborhood, and Young’s protagonist Ellen is one of his mom’s friends, though without any children of her own. We see a flashback to her single days during the war, and it’s clear that this is a cautionary tale about what happens when you marry the charismatic and unpredictable guy [Barry Sullivan] instead of the stable Ralph Bellamy type. If he becomes bedridden from some mysterious disease, his self-confidence will vanish completely and he’ll become paranoid about what she’s doing when she’s not with her no-long-exciting husband.

The synopsis on TCM’s website really boils it down:

A woman fights to intercept a letter in which her husband tries to prove her guilty of murder.

The dropdown description when it comes on on TV is even better. I think I memorized it:

Loretta Young spends almost the entire film trying to retrieve an incriminating letter.

And that would probably have been a better movie, or more interesting, than this one, in which she doesn’t become aware of the letter until about halfway through. I think it’s an exercise in making people feel sympathy for Loretta Young, as she’s emotionally victimized, first mildly without realizing that it’s intentional, then intensely after she figures out the depth of George’s psychosis, and then even more intensely after she’s suspected of murder as a result of said paranoid letter. I don’t know much about Loretta Young, but I know she was one of America’s top sweethearts and this film may have been to 1951 what, say, Stepmon was to 1998 [See Julia Roberts try to be nice! See Julia Roberts treated abominably! How can they do that to her?]. It’s hard not to feel manipulated, and it’s also hard not to be sure there will be a deus ex machina. But still, there aren’t many films in this sort of setting that have this sort of intense noir-style [hapless protagonist gets into no-win situation through no fault of his own, makes the situation worse] plot. Bosley Crowther certainly thought it was something new.

I Thank a Fool [Robert Stevens, 1962]

Susan Hayward: a woman synonymous with the three-handkerchief melodrama. Peter Finch: not a man best suited for romantic comedies. A Peter Finch character should be the last honest man, or the last angry man, or someone who thinks he’s figured out the world but doesn’t trust others with this information, or someone who just cannot believe everyone else’s nonsense and wants to be left alone. Here they are in a small, restrained thriller about a crazy woman [Diane Cilento, shortly before marrying Sean Connery] and how she got that way. Both have many opportunities to look around with confused disappointment; this is definitely Finch’s forte, but as Crowther spends most of his review pointing out, Hayward may be better suited to participating in histrionics than observing them sadly like the nursemaid Finch’s character unethically hires her to be. Director Stevens [In the Cool of the Day, 42 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes] falls into the Cause for Alarm! pattern of making us meditate at length on how our poor heroine is being mistreated by these malefactors.

The elderly and uncredited defence counsel is no match for Peter Finch's prosecutor.

The presence of Hayward and Finch makes I Thank A Fool [why is it called that?] seem more important than it is. It’s sort of in the tragic thriller mold of Gone Baby Gone or In The Bedroom, where everyone has a good reason for keeping their secrets, but that dishonesty leads to their downfall. It’s not exactly an action-packed story, compared to those two films, and when something exciting happens or gothic details are revealed, it seems like it detracts from the somber human drama. It’s like if Double Jeopardy was set largely in one house starring Cate Blanchett and Joaquin Phoenix. Just no fun.

Diane Cilento looks much better outdoors than in.

The story: Winnipeg-born doctor  [Hayward] goes to prison and is disbarred from medicine [does the word “disbarred” apply to medicine?] for allegedly euthanizing her lover, based on the energetically contemptuous prosecution of Peter Finch and the testimony of a heavily Liverpool-accented nursemaid. A surprisingly short courtroom scene is followed by a van ride with some prostitutes, no scenes inside the prison at all, and a fruitless job search with an FPS-ish focus on the back of her head. A mysterious aunt recruits her for charity work that turns out to be taking care of Finch’s supposedly mentally damaged wife Liane [Cilento], who longs to return to Ireland. Why does he hire her? Does he feel bad about prosecuting her? She certainly doesn’t trust him. After one idyllic day in his sunny, gloomy and secluded house reminiscent of The Deadly Bees, her worries grow about whether this isolation is good for Liane. Her sympathy grows when Liane’s charming father [Cyril Cusack] arrives, and the two women sneak off to Ireland, with unhappy results.

Diane Cilento [the schoolmistress in The Wicker Man] seems born to play a flighty and impulsive woman with little self-esteem. Cyril Cusack exaggerates both sides of his character, striding about the room in a stately fashion as if he’s under the proscenium arch. He’s convincing as the impishly charming gentleman failing to hide his secret sorrow, even with the handicap of not having a charming Irish accent. Cusack actually was Irish, but he sounds like Sir Ralph Richardson compared to the brooding Irish farmhand [Kieron Moore] or the small-town lawyer/coroner [J.G. Devlin]. Near the end of the film Devlin introduces some fresh air to this somber affair, with the actor having fun with his dialogue and the lawyer having fun with his unaccustomed power over the visitors.

Somehow this woman looks like Susan Hayward's character AND Diane Cilento's character.

Though it’s a muted treatment of the sort of plot that would take up a fragment of a Thomas Hardy novel, I Thank a Fool contains hints of something hip and interesting. The opening credits, for one, look like a series of Blue Note album jackets. You can see pre-Beatles teddy boys in the few scenes of downtown Liverpool, set to energetic music. And this is the rare film that surprised me by having an inconclusive ending. We spend the whole movie knowing exactly what Susan Hayward’s character knows, every plot detail is put plainly in front of us, and then at the end…well, we still know what she knows, and she’s confused. I may be a stupid old woopid but I was not clear who, if anyone, was guilty at the end, or who was happy or relieved. It’s a realistically messy return to daily life.

The Extraordinary Seaman [John Frankenheimer, 1969]

Oh, boy. It’s hard to know where to begin, because this movie does everything wrong. If I didn’t know John Frankenheimer was under 40 at the time and had just made several massive hits,  I’d think this was one of those films like Skidoo, in which directors and producers whose heyday was long past tried to construct a hippie-friendly edifice of nonsensical rebellion from old-Hollywood material. Although frankly, unlike Mae West in Sextette or Jackie Gleason in Skidoo, David Niven, almost 60, is the only actor who has an idea what the point of his character is or what the movie is doing. This is in a cast with Faye Dunaway and [in his first starring role, though it came out after Paper Lion] Alan Alda! Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter have the other major parts, along with Manu Topou as the hulking Native American who never talks.

Information about this movie’s origin is not easy to find, on the internet at least. Wikipedia reports, citing Charles Champlin’s Frankheimer interview book, that the director called Extraordinary Seaman “the only movie I’ve made which I would say was a total disaster.” That’s a lot more information than can be found on the Wikipedia pages of any of its stars. TCM may have the only extensive description out there. It describes an almost Gilliam-level troubled production, but still, it’s hard to imagine how this could have become a good movie.

Let’s presume that it started out as a sort of magical realist story about Niven’s character. Commander Finchhaven claims that he roams the earth, dead but not a ghost, until he can accomplish the warlike endeavor that will let him rest in peace. He talks to his ancestors, he has a fantastic sense of duty and propriety about some things while ignoring others, and he has certain supernatural powers but no real ability to impose his will on people. He’s a fascinating character. Does anybody in the movie notice?

It’s World War II, in the Philippines, and he’s been waiting for an opportunity, in his little ship the Curmudgeon, for 25 years or so. The peacetime adventures of the Curmudgeon and Finchhaven are mentioned in an off-hand reminiscence, possibly were intended to make up a significant portion of the movie, and could have been entertaining. I can imagine a story involving other fantastical elements, and I can imagine a story in which the extraordinary seaman encounters real-life characters of various types. The movie itself is an encounter between him and a band of US navy misfits led by Alda, their response to him is as muted as you could possibly imagine, and the whole thing lasts less than 80 minutes, including a dozen pieces of stock footage.

Writers are Phillip Rock [no other credits of note] and Hal Dressner [The Eiger Sanction, Sssssss, the “Catch-22” sitcom pilot]. Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter don’t establish any character traits. They look confused, and they mutter to each other. Alda’s character is confused as well, but his no-nonsense determination, whether in the service of something useful or something pointless, is just what Finchhaven has been waiting for all these years. The things that happen in the movie are so unfunny that it’s almost impressive that its simple story proceeds with so few tangents. Even Niven, who makes the character convincing, is bound by the script and doesn’t do anything spontaneous.

I can’t figure out what Faye Dunaway is doing here. She plays the super-competent woman who’s secretly indispensible if they want to accomplish anything, she orders everyone around when she wants, and one of the many frustrations at this film’s lack of an ending is when she doesn’t turn out to have any goal in mind.

Look at these two posters and try to figure out what The Extraordinary Seaman was supposed to be. Somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, presumably. It certainly accomplishes that!

The baffled actors and the Point-A-to-Point-A script only make the film intriguingly boring. What makes it infuriating is the whole ironic anti-war satire thing. The characters’ mundane struggles are juxtaposed with wartime training and propaganda films, showing you how out-of-touch the military spokesmen and bureaucracy are, in their dream of perfect competence. This happens over and over in scene after scene.

Some of this is interesting, especially when the physical actions of our characters are similar to those in the propaganda clips. Most of it is annoying. Yes, show us the woman unable to break a champagne bottle at the launch of a ship — that’s a nice unsubtle metaphor for the way plans go wrong from the start. Don’t show it to us so many times! What on earth are you thinking? What is this, the Ludovico technique?

The non-stock-footage parts of the film are likewise full of Sousa and other martial music. This would make sense in a light-hearted movie about the wacky exploits of Commander Finchhaven. Here the irony is just overbearing. The only thing I got out of The Extraordinary Seaman was a sense of confusion that it was made well before M*A*S*H, of which it seems to be a cynical imitation. This is just a reminder that although M*A*S*H may have been groundbreaking in its style, anti-war films of an almost nihilist level of satire were well established by the late sixties.

WTF? [What’s this film?]

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According to my records, these are among the films I have watched in the past six years. I remember nothing about them based on the titles, and don’t know who any of the directors are. Tempus fugit.

Krzysztof Zanussi, painted by Mariusz Kaldowski. Doesn't ring any bells.

  • Secrets [Frank Borzage, 1933]
  • If You Could Only Cook [William A. Seiter, 1935]
  • The Law and the Lady [Edwin H. Knopf, 1951]
  • Sail a Crooked Ship [Irving Brecher, 1961]
  • Sharaku [Masahiro Shinoda, 1995]
  • American Vampire [Luis Esteban, 1997]
  • Up For Grabs [Michael Wranovics, 2005]
  • Gabrielle [Patrice Chéreau, 2006]
  • Amal [Richie Mehta, 2007]
  • A Warm Heart (Serce na dłoni) [Krzysztof Zanussi, 2008]

 

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