Friday, August 31, 2012

From Star Wars to Jedi: A 1983 overview of the Star Wars saga


The Bottom Line:
If you still own a VCR or can transfer this VHS tape's content to digital media, From Star Wars to Jedi may be worth getting.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

On Wednesday, May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox - somewhat skeptically - released Star Wars, writer-director George Lucas's third feature film, hoping that enough movie-going science-fiction "geeks" would go see it on Memorial Day Weekend for the studio to recoup its $9 million investment.

Considering that science fiction movies rarely earned enough box office "take" for studios to earn much more than the seed money that they reluctantly doled out to even visionary directors like Stanley Kubrick, neither the board of directors at Fox nor Lucas himself had any hopes that Star Wars would set the movie world on fire.  Indeed, the studio "suits" - and some of the film's British crew - figured that Lucas's space-fantasy adventure set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" was nothing but a children's tale and, with the exception of senior vice president Alan Ladd, Jr., gave "that science movie" very little corporate support.

Six years later, the movie, which is now known as Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, was one of the top 10 box office hits of all time, just behind Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and Lucas's Return of the Jedi, the trilogy-ending installment, was premiering on wide release in hundreds of theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

The history of the Classic Star Wars Trilogy has, of course, been chronicled several times in "making of" documentaries ever since ABC TV aired The Making of Star Wars in October of 1977, but From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga was the very first to cover the entire trilogy's creative process.

Written by Time magazine's film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel (The Making of Star Wars, SP-FX: The Empire Strikes Back) is a 65-minute look at how some of the special effects for Return of the Jedi were created, as well as an overview of the making of the other two Episodes in the trilogy.

Narrated by actor Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga includes a look into the workings of Jabba the Hutt (13 puppeteers were needed, while a "little person"  manipulated the vile gangster's tail), footage of how the Endor forest speeder bike chase was planned and filmed, plus interviews with Lucas and some of the other major behind-the-scenes talents, including directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, effects supervisor Dennis Muren, sound designer Ben Burtt and composer John Williams.

It's in From Star Wars to Jedi where Lucas first revealed some of the history behind the Star Wars saga, where he drew inspiration from and the evolution of the story as he struggled to get studios to back his updated version of the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s and 1940s.

It's also in this documentary where Lucas said a statement which detractors of the effects-heavy Prequel Trilogy like to use when they say the Star Wars creator has lost his way (if not his mind) as a filmmaker:

Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an end to themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.


Lucas, of course, might have been referring to Paramount Pictures' overreliance on special effects in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but over the past several years this quote has been the source of many a derisive comment from Star Wars fans who believe the Prequels are mostly about Lucas's fascination with digital effects and not about the characters, the acting, good dialogue or the story.

The documentary also reveals the now-famous deleted scene with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt from A New Hope; Lucas had shot it in the Elstree sound stage with actor Declan Mulholland as a live action scene.  The young director had hoped to superimpose an animated version of Jabba onto the physical space occupied by Mulholland, but the technology of the mid-1970s was too limited and the effect was awful, so Lucas had the sequence edited out of the original cut of Star Wars.  20 years later, using the same CGI techniques used to create the dinosaurs in 1993's Jurassic ParkIndustrial Light and Magic restored the scene with a digital version of Jabba.

There's also some silly humor involving Salacious Crumb, the "Kowakian monkey lizard" who serves as Jabba's court jester and bane to C-3PO.  For instance, when narrator Hamill informs the viewer that most of the film was shot in London after some location shots in Arizona and California's redwood country, puppeteer Tim Rose has the odd little alien say this:

We're going to England! Hey, Edgar, get your suitcase!

My Take: Although From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga is more of a Return of the Jedi-centric "featurette" and not a comprehensive look at the entire Trilogy, it is a good making-of documentary which mixes glimpses ofStar Wars' behind-the-scenes wizardry with television-friendly humor and insights into the creative impulses in Lucas's career up to that point.

Because it was originally aired on PBS in late 1983, viewers should not expect any references to the Prequel Trilogy or the Sequel Trilogy.  There are also no revelations of how little support Lucas received from Fox's board of directors; these are to be had in 2004's Star Wars: Empire of Dreams,which is available in the original four-disc DVD box set of The Star Wars Trilogy.

Interestingly, though Schickel's other two Star Wars-related documentaries are included in the nine-disc Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) Blu-ray box set, Lucasfilm has excluded From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga as one of the extra features offered.  In its stead, the studio is including 1983's Classic Creatures: Return of the Jediwhich is more focused on the "final" film of the Star Wars saga.

Sadly, this documentary has not been released as a DVD; it's been available since 1995 as a VHS tape and, for some reason, never been included in any of the various VHS box sets offered by 20th Century Fox Home Video or its successors.

Recommended: Yes

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A trippy war movie featuring Donald Sutherland as a proto-hippie GI: Kelly's Heroes


One of the great truths in life is that all art, as writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is fond of saying, reflects the times in which is it created.

A good example of this is 1970's Kelly's Heroes, a wry, dark, and sometimes downright daffy caper-comedy set in World War II.

Starring Clint Eastwood as an oft-busted ex-lieutenant-but-now Private Kelly, Kelly's Heroes is not so much a giddy Blake Edwards-inspired World War II comedy a la What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? but more of a Vietnam War-era revision of all those war movies wherein the G.I.s are always portrayed as imperfect but well-meaning "angels in battle dress and helmets" who are fighting to liberate Western Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Kelly's Heroes, directed by Brian G. Hutton, whol made only a handful of fair-to-middling features and a score or so TV episodes of various series before switching careers to plumbing, is essentially a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western (it bears a striking similarity to both A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and The Ugly) transplanted into a World War II setting.

The premise is simple.  The tactically-gifted but somewhat undisciplined Kelly gets demoted from lieutenant to private during the summer campaign to liberate France from the Germans after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.  A German colonel is captured by U.S. forces, and after a particularly nasty artillery barrage which prevents his interrogation by the G-2 types in HQ, Private Kelly takes him aside, gets him drunk and digs some information out of Herr Oberst that is not strategically important to the Allied cause but financially vital to Kelly's.

Happily under the influence of booze, the German colonel tells Kelly that in a bank vault in the town of Claremont there is a nice amount of gold tucked away...$16,000,000 worth of gold bars, to be exact.

Though in 21st Century terms this is quite a bit of money, think of how big a fortune $16,000,000 would have been to a squad or more of U.S. soldiers in 1944.  

Of course, there are several catches.  One, Kelly can't walk to Claremont all by himself and make off with the gold; he'll need accomplices.  Two, the platoon (it's always a platoon) will need transportation and a modicum of support, which will come partly in the shape of a trio of Sherman tanks commanded by a hippie-like sergeant nicknamed Oddball (Donald Sutherland).  Three, Claremont is not easily accessible - it lies 30 miles behind enemy lines.

Kelly, who is at this point more interested in making money than making war, assembles his team of misfits and golddiggers out of like-minded GIs.  Some of these Merry Men in Khaki (or, more accurately, Olive Drab) include the somewhat reluctant Master Sgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas), the more enthusiastic and sarcastic Staff Sgt. Crap Game ("King of the Insults" Don Rickles), Private Willard (Harry Dean Stanton), and Private Babra (Gene Collins).

Taking advantage that they have a three-day leave, Kelly's "anti-heroes" set forth toward Claremont.  It's not a picnic excursion, of course, as they must engage the Germans in several firefights and even cross a deadly minefield on the way to the huge stash of gold bullion.

Adding to the satire is Major General Colt (Carroll O'Connor), who intercepts Kelly's radio conversations while the latter is coordinating his unauthorized jaunt into enemy territory and believes that it is a brave and unorthdox operation by the men under his command.

Though Troy Kennedy Smith's screenplay contained a far more acid bit of anti-war material, there were many scenes that were cut from the finished movie - which was shot in Yugoslavia - and somewhat blunted the movie's message.  It still works, particularly if one turns a blind eye to the notion of hippies in the U.S. Army during the 1940s, and especially if one is a fan of Eastwood's movies.

Interestingly, though Eastwood gets top billing and his character is the "brains" of the caper, the actor is quite content at letting the other cast members - particularly Sutherland and Rickles - have their fair share of the limelight.  This gives Kelly's Heroes more a M*A*S*H-like ensemble piece feel, and it also shows Eastwood's generosity as an actor.

On the whole, while this movie hasn't aged too well because of its eccentricities, it's still entertaining and sometimes even funny, if in a rather twisted 1970s fashion.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Worst Star Trek episode of all time....seriously! (Spock's Brain)


In almost every TV series which airs in any country at any given time - at least as far as I have seen, anyway - even the best of shows seem to have their off-par episodes and, sadly, even off-par seasons.

Take, for instance, the recently-canceled 24.  It started out strong in the fall season of 2001 and was - for the most part - a pretty good series until its fifth season.  Then, when it introduced James Cronwell as Jack Bauer's shady father and had him teaming up with villainous Chinese agents against his own son, the show ‘jumped the shark" and caused its most loyal fans to start wondering whether it had run out of creative steam.

And even during its great seasons, 24 had its fair share of eye-rolling moments.  Who can forget Teri Bauer's bout with amnesia in the first season, or the nearly-deadly close encounter between Kim Bauer and a mountain lion in the second? (Not to mention all the moles who managed to infiltrate the happily fictitious Counter Terrorist Unit!)

In the 44-year-history of Star Trek and all its movie and TV spinoffs, there are many instances of episodes, films and even - in the sad case of Star Trek: Enterprise ­- complete series which did not really work out as well as Gene Roddenberry, his production team, his artistic heirs or Paramount Pictures hoped.

The Enterprise Runs Aground
 
Although it's hard to believe now, after six TV series (including Filmation's Star Trek: The Animated Series), 11 motion pictures (with a 12th one in preproduction as this is being written) and over 100 novels and non-fiction books published, but the show Gene Roddenberry pitched to the Big Three networks in the early ‘60s as Wagon Train to the Stars was not exactly treated well by the network which originally aired it, NBC.

Though much of Star Trek was tailored to meet NBC's requirements - the recasting for the second pilot, the emphasis on action in many episodes and the now-famous gold-red-blue "ship's department" uniform colors (required so that RCA, then owner of the network, could sell more color TVs) - the series was never really supported by the execs who ran the network.

Indeed, the rocky history of Star Trek's three-year run on NBC is part of the franchise's legend: never quite a ratings champ, it nevertheless was saved by its fans when a letter-writing campaign led by a woman named Bjo Trimble swayed the network from canceling it outright after the second season.

But even that fan victory was to be short-lived.  The network assigned Star Trek to the "death slot" of Friday nights at 10 (when most of the young viewers who loved the show were out having fun on dates and what have you) and cut the show's production budget in what many people in and out of Roddenberry's team called a clear-cut attempt to kill the show.


In a doomed effort to get the network to place Star Trek in a viewer-friendly time slot, Roddenberry threatened to resign as line producer.  NBC did not back down, and Roddenberry stepped down, keeping his Executive Producer hat but handing the reins of control to Fred Freiberger.

Whether Freiberger deserves the rap he got from fans as "the guy who killed Star Trek" is not for this reviewer to dwell on, but even though the series' third season has several good episodes, it was marked by Star Trek's weakest batch of episodes, including Spock's Brain.


If Spock Only Had a Brain.....
Written by Gene L. Coon (under the paper-bag-to-cover-his-head pen name of Lee Cronin) and directed by Marc Daniels, Spock's Brain was the third season's first episode and marked the beginning of the Freibeiger regime which oversaw the (temporary) death of the series.

Setting: Stardate 5431.4 (Earth date 2268, according to The Star Trek Chronology: A History of the Future)
 
While on its five-year mission of exploring space (in what later Star Trek series would label the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy), the Starship Enterprise (hull number NCC-1701), with Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) in command, encounters an ion-propelled spacecraft.

As a fascinated Enterprise crew stands by - especially a very pleased Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, played by the late James Doohan) - to make contact, the alien ship emits a transporter-like beam and a very attractive woman (Marj Dusay) materializes on the bridge.

Before anyone can even say "Hi," the newcomer stuns the entire bridge crew and inspects all its members, lingering significantly on First Officer/Science Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  Moments later, just before the Star Trek main title, she is seen touching everyone's favorite half-Vulcan's head.

When the bridge crew wakes up, the sexy intruder is gone, and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (the late DeForest Kelley) calls the captain from Sick Bay:

 
Captain James T. Kirk: [regarding Spock] You've got him on complete life support. Was he dead?
Bones: He was worse than dead! 


You see, Kirk has just seen his second-in-command lying on one of the sick bay's diagnostic tables, and it doesn't look too good, for Mr. Spock, the personification of rational thought and logic aboard the Enterpriseis alive but brainless.

Apparently, the mysterious sexy intruder has somehow used superior medical techniques to make off with (obviously) Spock's brain, and the only reason the guy with the pointy ears is not dead is his Vulcan physiology.  (According to this episode, Vulcans can survive without a brain for 24 hours, a plot point which 24's now unemployed writers probably would have seized upon for a crossover episode had that Fox series somehow been renewed.)

Of course, this day-long window of opportunity allows Kirk and his crew to follow the bread crumb trail left by the ion-engined craft on which Spock's brain abductor has flown, and they track it all the way to the Sigma Draconis system's sixth planet. (Nichelle Nichols' Lt. Uhura is the one who figures out which planet to go to. You go, Uhura!)

And, of course, Kirk and a landing party which includes Ens. Chekov (Walter Koenig), Dr. McCoy and a remote-controlled brainless Spock beam down to Sigma Draconis VI, where men are relegated to a harsh, caveman-like existence on the chilly surface while the women, known to the poor cavemen as the "givers of pain and delight," live in an underground city in relative comfort, only using the guys to reproduce.

Naturally, the whys and wherefores of the taking of Spock's brain are eventually revealed, and - this being the season opener - everything is set to rights by the final fadeout, so there is not a heck of a lot of suspense in this extremely silly and very embarrassing episode.

 My Take: Though it is always good that a television series has its comedic, even campy episodes so that viewers, writers and the cast can have some irreverent fun and not take the whole thing so seriously, I can't help but wonder if Spock's Brain wasn't - in some way - Gene Coon's way to protest NBC's treatment of the series (and Roddenberry) by coming up with a story no one would end up liking.

That he used the name Lee Cronin as a byline certainly is significant; as a budding screenwriter myself I know if I write something I'm willing to stand behind I won't do so with a pseudonym.  Coon was, by 1968, one of Star Trek's best writer-producers and had penned quite a few of the really great ones, so Spock's Brain's embarrassing storyline strikes me as his literary "flip of the bird" to NBC after the network placed the show in the Death Slot of Friday nights at 10 PM.

Sure, there is some of the "old magic" in Spock's Brain even though the episode is - even in its restored 2006 form in DVD and Blu-ray formats - excruciatingly painful to watch.

Despite himself, Coon/Cronin infuses the episode with the bonds of loyalty that bind Kirk, Spock and McCoy and makes them, as Harve Bennett likes to say, the Star Trek Trinity.  Foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Capt. Kirk is set on finding and rescuing his first officer and friend.

And as in the better episodes, there's still the famous friendly duel of words between the acerbic and all-too-human McCoy and the outwardly-logical but inwardly-amused Spock.


McCoy: [after restoring Spock's brain functions, while Spock prattles on about the planet's civilization] I knew it...
Captain James T. Kirk: [puzzled] What?
McCoy: I never should have attached his mouth.
[Spock stops speaking abruptly and looks quizzically at McCoy]

Still, even in its 2006 digitally remastered version - which features a really cool-looking ion-powered spaceship and a bleak-looking ice world - Spock's Brain is clearly among the worst episodes - if not the worst episode - of Star Trek: The Original Series, even if the concept of a matriarchal society or the notion that a society will dumb itself down if too dependent on machines or a Big Government are intriguing.

Recommended: No

Friday, August 17, 2012

Michael Walsh's As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca (book review)




Note: This a major revision of one of my first Epinions reviews. I wasn't too happy with either my original version or the rather low "turnout" hits-wise, so I decided to rewrite it almost completely.
 

Part One: Confessions of a Rank Sentimentalist 

I love this book. 

As a guy who has read hundreds of novels and non-fiction works, I can be classified as a certified (and, some might add, certifiable) bibliophile, and most people would say, "Hey, he reads and reviews lots of books...doesn't he love them all?" 

Obviously, if I buy a book -- I rarely borrow books, and I haven't checked out any from the Miami Dade Public Library system in over 20 years -- I have to at least like it, so maybe I do love most of my books. I rarely say, point blank, that I love a book. 

I can, however, honestly say that I love Michael Walsh's As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca

Not only am I a fan of the movie that is the well-spring from which Walsh derived this combination of prequel-sequel, but, unlike most of the books that I've bought over the years, I still remember how I found out about it, how much I paid for it, and that I walked 19 blocks from my house to the International Mall within hours of seeing Katie Couric interviewing the author on the Today show on a cool October morning in 1998. 

I rarely ever get excited about a book the way I did when As Time Goes By was published that fall of '98. I used to get a rush when I'd hear that Stephen King or Tom Clancy had a new novel out; indeed, I'd go to Waldenbooks (this was before I had either Juno Web or America Online) with my Preferred Reader discount card and my credit card or wad of cash and get a new Clancy offering in its first day on the shelves. Now I am less anxious and order new books from my fave authors online. 

I know people that know me will point at my love for Casablanca and say that I am such a big fan that I'd have walked to the mall as I did, and they would be right. I did feel a twinge of I hope this novel isn't as hokey as Scarlett seemed to be as I walked to the mall, but the siren call of a book that not only told the continuation of theCasablanca story but also filled in the blanks about Richard Blaine's past was just too hard to resist. (That I would later be involved in a somewhat bittersweet, confusing, and complicated romance of my own has nothing to do with my feelings about the novel, though the situation did, indeed, enhance my understanding of the Rick-Ilsa-Victor triangle.) The added factor that Walsh had married the fiction of Casablanca to the real-life assassination of a Nazi leader is also crucial to the success of this novel; had the story just focused on the romantic aspects, chances are that I'd have consigned As Time Goes By to the back shelves of my book collection. 



Part Two: A Brief Review of As Time Goes By

As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca was ex-Time magazine music critic Michael Walsh’s second novel, and it serves as both prequel and sequel to one of the most popular movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Unlike Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s sequel to Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind, As Time Goes By was neither widely praised nor reviled, perhaps because there was not as much media scrutiny for Walsh’s exploration of the lives of Ilsa, Rick, Victor Laszlo, Louis Renault, Sam, and all “the usual suspects” after the fade-to-black in Casablanca. 

Walsh was no fool when he undertook this project. Indeed, in his afterword, he says. “Everyone knows Casablanca. Everyone loves Casablanca. Therein lies both the challenge and the danger of writing a novel of Casablanca.” 

Walsh’s approach is to treat the movie as a centerpiece sandwiched between the two timelines depicted in the 38 chapters of his novel. His prose is crisp and fast moving, echoing the tone of the Epstein Twins’ screenplay while expanding the story both backward to Rick Blaine’s past in New York’s seedy underworld and to a perilous mission in Victor Laszlo’s Nazi-occupied homeland, Czechoslovakia. 

Purists -- and I know there are always going to be Casablanca fans who feel this way -- will probably say the movie was fine without a sequel (forgetting or ignoring the two failed TV series based on Casablanca), but this book is a pleasure to read. Particularly worth noting is how Walsh blends Casablanca’s fictional characters and historical reality. At the heart of As Time Goes By is Victor Laszlo’s involvement in Operation Hangman, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi “Protector of Moravia and Bohemia” and architect of Hitler’s “final solution.” Although the inclusion of the Casablanca cast is fiction, the details of the operation and of its tragic aftermath are historically accurate. 

Another bonus is Walsh’s literary talent. His narrative captures the pace of its source perfectly, and his ear for the characters’ voices is almost uncanny. Readers who allow themselves to fall under this novel’s spell will hear the voices of Claude Rains, Paul Heinreid, Ingrid Bergman, and especially Humphrey Bogart in the exchanges between characters. There are also many “inside gags” for knowing Casablanca fans within the pages of this wonderful novel, such as the inclusion of “As Time Goes By” composer Herman Hupfeld, into the storyline. Like the movie it plays homage to, As Time Goes By is romantic, witty, and dramatic. 

The Lisbon plane soared away from the dense, swirling fog of Casablanca, up and into the night. Below, the airport was plunged deep into the North African darkness, its only illumination the revolving beacon that perched atop the conning tower. The sirens of the French colonial police cars had faded into the night. Everything was quiet but the wind.

Almost lost in the mist, two men were walking together, away from the airport, away from the city, and into an uncertain future.

". . . of a beautiful friendship," said Richard Blaine, tugging on a cigarette as he walked. His hat was pulled down low on his forehead, and his trench coat was cinched tightly against the damp. Rick felt calmer than he had in years. In fact, he tried to remember when he had felt this certain of what he had done, and what he was about to do.

The shorter man walking beside him nodded. "Well, my friend, Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund are on their way to Lisbon," said Louis Renault. "I might have known you'd mix your newfound patriotism with a little larceny." He fished in his pocket and came up with ten thousand francs.

"That must have been very difficult for you, Ricky," he said. "Miss Lund is an extremely beautiful woman. I don't know that I should have been so gallant, even with money at stake."

"I guess that's the difference between you and me, Louie," Rick replied.

Ilsa Lund? Had it been only two days ago that she had walked back into his life? It seemed like a year. How could a woman change a man's fate so much so fast. Now his duty was to follow that fate, no matter where it might lead him.

"Anyway, you were gallant enough not to have me arrested, even though I'd just given the letters of transit to the most wanted man in the Third Reich and shot a Gestapo officer. By rights I should be in your hoosegow, getting ready to face a firing squad. Why the sudden change of heart? I never let you win that much at roulette."

The little man, smart and well turned out in his black colonial policeman's uniform, trod so lightly beside Rick Blaine that even in the stillness his footfalls were inaudible. Over the years, Louis Renault had found it preferable to leave as little mark on his surroundings as possible.

"I don't know," Renault replied. "Maybe it's because I like you. Maybe it's because I didn't like the late Major Heinrich Strasser. Maybe it's because you've cheated me out of the favors of two lovely ladies who were in dire need of my services in obtaining exit visas, and I insist on proper retribution. Maybe it's because you won our bet, and I'd like a chance to get my money back."

"And maybe it's because you're cheap," said Rick. "What difference does it make? You lost, fair and square." He finished his cigarette and sent the glowing butt sparking against the tarmac. He searched the sky, but her plane was long gone. "So did I."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Peck, Niven and Quinn lead a risky mission to destroy The Guns of Navarone (film review)




On June 22, 1961 – by coincidence, the 20th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union – writer-producer Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone premiered in the United States. Not only was it the first of several adaptations of novels by Scottish writer Alistair MacLean to become big-budget action-adventure movies, but it also marked the return of Foreman, who had been blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s as one of the Hollywood Ten, to the limelight of the movie industry after years of working anonymously for more than a decade. 

Starring Gregory Peck as Capt. Keith Mallory, David Niven as Corporal Miller, Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavros, and Anthony Quayle as Maj. Roy Franklin, The Guns of Navarone tells the exciting – if at times a bit implausible – tale of a small Allied commando team tasked with one hell of a mission: Infiltrate the German-occupied island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea, avoid detection, and blow up a pair of large radar-controlled cannon mounted deep on the side of a 400-foot-high cliff. If they succeed, a small flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers will be able to sail past the shores of Navarone to pull off a Dunkirk-like evacuation of the 2,000-man garrison on the island of Kheros, which is about to be invaded by the Axis as a demonstration of force and to push Turkey into the war as an ally of Germany and Italy. 

Although Foreman tinkers a bit with the cast of characters – one British officer featured in MacLean’s book vanishes altogether and two female characters are added – the movie is, for the most part, faithful to its literary source. This was possible because MacLean’s approach to writing was to get on with the story, move the plot forward fast and with lots of action, and avoid any sidetracks involving sex and romance, thus giving his readers – usually males – lean and mean testosterone-filled tales full of suspense, fighting, and plots, counter plots, and cross-plots. 

The movie begins with a narrated prologue that sets the stage for the “ordinary people” tasked to blow up the guns of Navarone, read by James Robertson Justice, who also plays Commodore Jensen, the officer who orders Capt. Mallory, a.k.a. “the Human Fly” for his pre-war mountain climbing experience, and the other saboteurs to carry out the nearly-impossible assignment. Then, director J. Lee Thompson gets things underway as a Lancaster bomber carrying Mallory lands on a British airfield near Alexandria, where, he finds out to his dismay, his scheduled leave has been canceled. 

In their first face-to-face meeting, Commodore Jensen tells Mallory he regrets having to send him out on another mission, and lays out the situation by first giving him a short briefing, then – when Mallory asks why the Navy or the Allied air forces can’t take the guns out – takes him to a room where a rather tired and dejected-looking group of RAF pilots is being debriefed after a failed attempt to bomb the guns from the air. 

Squadron Leader Howard Barnsby RAAF: First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got that bloody fortress inside the cliff. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And even if we could, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth, sir. 

Mallory, whose friend Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) has been assigned to lead the team on this mission, is not only to climb up the side of the cliff and help guide the saboteurs into the fortress, but he is also able to “speak Greek like the Greeks and German like the Germans,” so he is to play the part of the skipper of a fishing boat, one of many that plies the waters of the Aegean. On this nearly-mythical adventure he’s to be joined by Maj. Franklin, Cpl. Miller, Andrea Stavros, Private “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker), and Pvt. Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren, in his first acting role as “an angry young man with a killer instinct”). This all-guy team will be supplemented by Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas) and Anna (the lovely Gia Scala) once they reach Navarone. 

All in all, this motley crew of soldiers and resistance fighter has only a brief period of time – seven days – before the Royal Navy sends out the destroyers to evacuate the British garrison on Kheros. Will Mallory and the team be able to evade Nazi air-sea patrols? Will they be able to make it to Navarone on their rickety fishing boat? Or will the elements and the enemy combine to make their labors part of the annals of failed commando operations against the vaunted Third Reich? 

Of course, if you’re a watcher of the daring-commando-team subgenre of World War II movies (The Dirty Dozen, Hanover Street, and 1978’s Force 10 From Navarone), you know that the issue is hardly ever in doubt. I mean, we don’t watch action-hero flicks to watch the good guys nearly beat the bad guys, only to be defeated in the end, right? (It happens in real life all too often, but when it comes to entertainment, such dark endings usually kill a film’s box-office appeal.) 

That having been said, screenwriter Foreman and director J. Lee Thompson (who was called in to take over after Alexander Mackendrick was fired) pull off the never-easy trick of getting the audience to forget that a happy ending is in store by putting the characters in a never-ending series of cliffhangers (literally, as there is a cliff-climbing sequence early on in Act Two) and set-piece action sequences. Even when the viewer is asked to buy into the “unbeatable commando team myth” or to disregard Mallory’s clearly American accent even though the character was British, their use of constant action, subliminal references to mythological themes, and complex relationships between characters – Stavros, we learn early on, wants to kill Mallory because he holds the Englishman responsible for his family’s death at the hands of the Germans - the writer and director grab our attention and hold it for two hours and 38 minutes. 

Yes, there are continuity goofs, bizarre little visual gaffes – such as German troops riding in a Dodge truck – and cheesy little things along the lines of model planes clearly hanging still in midair and erroneously placed light sources, but the movie still works, partly because the acting is superb, partly because – despite its somewhat long running time – it is paced nicely, has mostly good Special Effects (which won an Oscar), and boasts a rip-roaring score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon, 55 Days at Peking), among other attributes that more than make up for its flubs and flaws. 

All in all, if you enjoy well-acted, well-written (if sometimes somewhat formulaic and even unbelievable) action-adventure films, you can't really go wrong with this 1961 classic. 

(Oh, yes. If you're also a fan of James Bond films, you'll probably recognize actor Walter Gotell, who played Soviet spymaster Gen. Gogol in several of the 007 movies. Here he plays, of course, a German officer on Navarone.) 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dithering While Syria Burns?

When Libyan rebels ousted the late Muammar Khaddafy's dictatorial regime in the late fall of 2011, their difficult task was made easier by the international community's timely declaration of a "No Fly Zone" enforced not only by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but also by various members of the Arab League. Carried out by military aircraft from France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Canada, Qatar, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, Sweden, and Norway, Operation Freedom Falcon and several supporting naval missions helped keep Khaddafy's forces from achieving air supremacy, prevented massive civilian losses from loyalist air strikes on rebel-held cities and degraded the regime's capacity to carry out successful ground counteroffensives against the Free Libyan forces.

Back in 2011, the anti-Khaddafy coalition could count on the West, particularly the United States and her allies, to provide military assistance that would assist the Free Libyan movement in their popular revolt without the need for any foreign ground forces.  The opponents to Khaddafy knew that the presence of foreign troops on Libyan soil could generate support for the regime;  their canny foe,  who had ruled Libya since a coup d'etat in 1969 and become a rogue state which carried out terrorism and supported such anti-Western rulers as Idi Amin, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, could rally support for his cause if America and her allies in the region sent ground forces.

After weeks of diplomatic maneuvering and calls for a no-fly-zone in various venues, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, which says in part:

Determining that the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security,

Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,

“1.   Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;

“2.   Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High-Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;

“3.   Demands that the Libyan authorities comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law and take all measures to protect civilians and meet their basic needs, and to ensure the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance;

Protection of civilians

“4.   Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;

“5.   Recognizes the important role of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region, and bearing in mind Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, requests the Member States of the League of Arab States to cooperate with other Member States in the implementation of paragraph 4;

No-fly zone

“6.   Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians;

“7.   Decides further that the ban imposed by paragraph 6 shall not apply to flights whose sole purpose is humanitarian, such as delivering or facilitating the delivery of assistance, including medical supplies, food, humanitarian workers and related assistance, or evacuating foreign nationals from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, nor shall it apply to flights authorised by paragraphs 4 or 8, nor other flights which are deemed necessary by States acting under the authorization conferred in paragraph 8 to be for the benefit of the Libyan people, and that these flights shall be coordinated with any mechanism established under paragraph 8;

“8.   Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above, as necessary, and requests the States concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the Secretary General on the measures they are taking to implement this ban, including by establishing an appropriate mechanism for implementing the provisions of paragraphs 6 and 7 above,

“9.   Calls upon all Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to provide assistance, including any necessary overflight approvals, for the purposes of implementing paragraphs 4, 6, 7 and 8 above;

“10.  Requests the Member States concerned to coordinate closely with each other and the Secretary-General on the measures they are taking to implement paragraphs 4, 6, 7 and 8 above, including practical measures for the monitoring and approval of authorised humanitarian or evacuation flights;

“11.  Decides that the Member States concerned shall inform the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States immediately of measures taken in exercise of the authority conferred by paragraph 8 above, including to supply a concept of operations;

“12.  Requests the Secretary-General to inform the Council immediately of any actions taken by the Member States concerned in exercise of the authority conferred by paragraph 8 above and to report to the Council within 7 days and every month thereafter on the implementation of this resolution, including information on any violations of the flight ban imposed by paragraph 6 above..."

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim, The Egyptian Liberal
Of course, Resolution 1973 was not universally supported; Khaddafy supporters, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, criticized it as an imperialistic attack on a sovereign nation, and five sitting Security Council nations, including Brazil, Germany, India, Russia and China, abstained.  (Luckily, neither China or Russia used their veto power to stop Resolution 1973.)

Although the Libyan Civil War raged on for nearly eight months, Resolution 1973 and the air support given to the Libyan rebels toppled the tottering Khaddafy regime; the dictator himself was killed by a pistol-wielding rebel, and as of this writing Libya is on its way to becoming a true Arab democratic nation.

Paradoxically, the Syrian revolt against strongman Bashir Assad has not resulted in a similarly decisive act of support by the same countries who helped free Libya from its 42-year-old dictatorship.  Instead of giving the fighters of the Free Syrian Army the same aerial umbrella and material support given to the Libyan rebels by the West and some Arab countries, America and the other great world powers are content with imposing economic sanctions and applying diplomatic "pressure" to Bashir Assad so that he will leave power on his own.

Assad's Syria is widely condemned by many nations, including Sunni Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and many citizens from those countries have volunteered to join the anti-Assad forces.  The U.S., Turkey and Great Britain are also aiding the rebels, mainly by providing non-lethal support (such as electronic devices that can be used to promulgate the rebels' messages through the Internet or other means of communication).  However, because Russia, China and Iran oppose any armed intervention, until very recently the idea of setting up a no-fly zone has not enthusiastically been promoted by nations friendly to the anti-Assad forces.

But as mujahedeen friendly to Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists pour into Syria to bring down Bashir Assad, the West is perhaps reconsidering the no-fly-zone option.

According to a report by Reuters, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her country and Turkey would study a range of possible measures to help Assad's foes, including a no-fly zone, although she indicated no decisions were necessarily imminent.

"It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions, but you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning," she said after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul.
Though any intervention appears to be a distant prospect, her remarks were nevertheless the closest Washington has come to suggesting direct military action in Syria.
"There are areas that are being liberated," Sida told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul. "But the problem is the aircraft, in addition to the artillery bombardment, causing killing, destruction."
He said the establishment of secure areas on the borders with Jordan and Turkey "was an essential thing that would confirm to the regime that its power is diminishing bit by bit".
A no-fly zone imposed by NATO and Arab allies helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year. The West has shown little appetite for repeating any Libya-style action in Syria, and Russia and China strongly oppose any such intervention.
As understandable as it is for the decision-makers in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon to be reluctant to begin another military operation in a volatile region such as the Middle East, it makes more sense to act now and provide the Syrian rebels with more than just non-lethal assistance.  The fighters and their leaders who are being bombarded by Assad's forces will more than likely end up winning, especially if terrorists jump in and carry out devastating strikes against important targets.  If so, it's would be wise to remember that the Free Syrians will neither forget nor forgive the U.S. and her allies for not repeating what we did in Libya in 2011.

Sources: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10200.doc.htm#Resolution, text of UN Security Council Resolution 1973
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/12/us-syria-crisis-idUSBRE8610SH20120812, Syrian rebels need no fly zone - opposition leader

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Savage Curtain: Star Trek's 77th Episode (review)

Although most Star Trek fans would probably say that the show’s third season was its weakest due to Gene Roddenberry’s absence as line producer and the poor quality of many of its scripts, there were some good episodes which aired on NBC in 1968 and 1969. 

One of the best shows which were produced under the aegis of Fred Freiberger was Star Trek’s 77th episode, The Savage Curtain, which was co-written by Gene Roddenberry and Arthur Heinenmann, based on a story by Roddenberry and directed by Herschel Daugherty (Bonanza, Emergency!). 

The Savage Curtain 
Stardate 5906.4 (Earth Calendar Year 2269) 
Original Air Date: March 7, 1969 
Written by Gene Roddenberry & Arthur Heinenmann 
Based on a Story by Gene Roddenberry 
Directed by Herschel Daugherty 

On Stardate 5906.4, during the fifth year of her deep space exploration mission, the USS Enterprise, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) commanding, is in standard orbit over the planet Excalbia, an uncharted world with a surface of hot, molten lava and a noxious atmosphere that is deadly to humanoid life forms.  Enterprise’sassignment: to carry out scientific  studies and send data back to the Federation. 

To the surprise of the Enterprise’s captain and his crew, the ship’s scanners inform Science Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) that they have detected something which Spock considers to be impossible: there are carbon-based life forms on a region of Excalbia. 

Moreover, the ship is itself scanned by unknown entities on Excalbia, but even more surprising than this is the appearance on the bridge’s main viewscreen of  the figure and voice of an entity claiming to be President Abraham Lincoln  (Lee Bergere). 

Abraham Lincoln: Do I take it that you recognize me, James Kirk? 

Captain James T. Kirk: [cautiously] I recognize what you appear to be. 
Abraham Lincoln: And appearances can be most deceiving. But not in this case, James Kirk. 
[pause] 
Abraham Lincoln: I am Abraham Lincoln. 

The Lincoln-like being is not offended by Kirk’s reluctance to accept that the 16thPresident of the United States has somehow been revived and is alive in the 23rdCentury, but nevertheless he agrees to beam him aboard Enterprise – with all the honors due to a visiting head of state. 

Kirk, of course, doesn’t really think Abraham Lincoln – who was assassinated in April of 1865 by John Wilkes Booth – is alive, but nevertheless his curiosity is piqued by the existence of an almost exact replica of one of his boyhood heroes.  This, plus his deep-held belief in Starfleet’s mission statement to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, leads Kirk to accept an invitation to beam down – along with Spock – to a small pocket of Excalbia which can sustain humanoid life. 

On the planet surface – which resembles part of the American Southwest, complete with rocky canyons and scrub-like vegetation – Lincoln, Kirk and Spock are met by a rock-like native of Excalbia: Yarnek (Janos Prohaska, voice of Bert LaRue). 

Yarnek explains to the two Enterprise officers that his race – though fairly advanced in many ways – is trying to understand certain abstract concepts that most of the galaxy seems to understand  instinctively, particularly the duality of “good” and “evil.” 

In order to grasp this abstraction, the Excalbians have set up a simple but dangerous contest pitting Kirk, Spock, Lincoln and the father of Vulcan philosophy, Surak (Barry Atwater) against four “evil” personages from history: Genghis Khan (Nathan Jung) and World War III leader Col. Green (Phillip Pine) of Earth, Zora of Tiburon (Carol Daniels Dement) and Kahless the Unforgettable of the Klingon Empire (Robert Herron). 

The rules are simple: each group of four must use available materials to make weapons and employ them in a life-or-death struggle to determine – at least to the satisfaction of the curious Excalbians – which is stronger: good or evil? 

My Take: 
In a season which saw the broadcast of such Star Trek misfires as Spock’s Brain and The Cloud Minders, the 77th episode clearly stands out as one of the series’ better efforts. 

Part of the credit, of course, goes to Gene Roddenberry and co-writer Arthur Heinenmann and their nicely-written script. 

The Savage Curtain
’s teleplay takes all the elements that make for good Star Trek moments – interesting characters, interesting setup, dramatic conflict, witty humor and good performances – and a classic question that explores the depths of human nature: What is the essential difference between good and evil? 

Abraham Lincoln: Tell me, James, do you drink whiskey? 

Captain James T. Kirk: [puzzled] Upon occasion. Why? 
Abraham Lincoln: Because you remind me of another man who drank whiskey. A man I admired very much. 
[pause] 
Abraham Lincoln: General Grant. 

This exploration of humanity is what Gene Roddenberry’s show about a 23rdCentury starship on a trek to the stars was really all about.  Sure, it was presented as an action-adventure science fiction program with gadgets, technobabble and 1960s-era special effects, and many viewers saw it as merely entertaining, but for most of its fans – bright television viewers of both genders, all ages, races and creeds – Star Trek wasn’t a series about the future or high technology, it was about contemporary America and all sorts of sexual, social, moral, ethical and political dilemmas. 

 The Savage Curtain is, viewed in this context, a morality play couched in science fiction terms.  Certain negative human traits – aggression, deceitfulness, ruthlessness and power lust are personified primarily by Col. Green and – to a lesser extent – Kahless.  The two main “evil” characters exhibit those traits often, making the “good” quartet pay dearly at times during the sometimes violent contest. 

In contrast, the episode depicts Lincoln and Surak as two sides of the same coin; both are wise and compassionate, revered by their respective peoples as great examples of “good.”  However, Surak is markedly different from Lincoln; the Vulcan’s philosophy is more idealistic and pacifist than that of the American President who cherished peace but had to wage war in order to preserve the Union. 

Captain James T. Kirk: Your Surak is a brave man. 

Mr. Spock: Men of peace usually are, captain. 

While The Savage Curtain is not my favorite Star Trek episode of all time, it is one of the show’s best “study of human nature” stories and definitely one of the more watchable third season offerings.  It’s well-written, nicely directed and it showcases nice acting turns not only by the regular cast but by guest stars Phillip Fine, Lee Bergere, Barry Atwater and Bob Herron. 

Interestingly, Herron’s character Kahless – the legendary founder of the Klingon Empire – was later seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  In Rightful Heir, character actor Kevin Conway plays a genetic copy (clone) of the nearly mythical Klingon warrior who had united his people 1,500 years before.  In the TNG episode, Kahless is depicted as having the more elaborate skull ridges and bumpy foreheads seen on Klingons since 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while the Kahless seen in The Savage Curtain has the more simple “swarthy makeup and facial hair” Klingon look used in the modestly-budgeted Star Trek: The Original Series.