No trips to the theater this week. Instead, I decided to sit down and watch a few classic films at home – including one from a famous director that isn’t exactly well-known.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Werner Herzog (1972)
It is the sixteenth century, and Spanish conquistadors have defeated the Incan Empire. After hearing of the fabled country of El Dorado, the city of gold, a faction of conquistadors along with one-hundred indigenous slaves march down the conquered land in search of it. On the eve of the new year, Commander Gonzalo Pizarro has reached the end of his supplies and is unwilling to continue the journey without any knowledge of the area. Arriving at the mighty Amazon River, Pizarro orders a group of forty men to scout the area ahead by raft. If they do not return within one week, they will be considered lost. Pizarro chooses Don Pedro de Ursúa as the expedition’s commander, who in turn names Don Lope de Aguirre as his second-in-command, Don Fernando de Guzmán to represent The Royal House of Spain, and Brother Gaspar de Carvajal to bring the word of God. |Though they set out in relatively high spirits, the group has no idea that they are caught in a downward spiral of insanity that will consume them all.|
Just like with Run Lola Run, I learned of this film’s existence by typing “best German films” into Google. What particularly got me interested in seeing it was when I did further research and learned that it was a major inspiration behind Apocalypse Now. When watching the film, I noticed several parallels between the two; both are about a group of determined, battle-hardened soldiers sailing down a river to achieve a goal |only for the harsh environments to pick off them off one by one. By the end, the increasingly unhinged Aguirre has declared himself the personification of God’s wrath and in his delusions, tells a group of monkeys who have taken residence on the raft that he intends to marry his daughter and will found “the purest dynasty the world has ever seen”, ruling the entire continent. To accentuate how far gone he is, his daughter has already been killed by this point in the film|.
Like Apocalypse Now, the production of Aguirre was quite troubled with the notoriously unstable Klaus Kinski striking one of the extras with a sword at one point. Before shooting even began, Mr. Herzog was traveling with a soccer team as he was writing the script, and one of the members wound up getting drunk and vomiting on the first pages, making them unreadable. Even today, he does not recall what was on the lost pages. In both cases, it’s remarkable the films were even made let alone quality products.
Personally, I enjoyed this film; its cinematography is excellent, and the plot reads like a deconstruction of adventure films. Also, it’s worth noting that the music is scored by Popol Vuh, a remarkably talented band. Their music was a cocktail of krautrock, progressive rock, and new age, and if you’re looking for excellent, overlooked albums, I recommend In den Gärten Pharaos and Hosianna Mantra. The esteemed Roger Ebert regularly considered Aguirre, the Wrath of God of his top ten favorite films of all time, and though I didn’t like it as much as Apocalypse Now, I’d say it’s worth looking into.
Rope by Alfred Hitchcock (1948)
Two young aesthetes, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan strangle to death a former classmate from Harvard University, David Kentley. Committing the crime as an intellectual exercise, they want to prove their superiority over others by committing the perfect murder. Brandon convinces Phillip to hide the body in an antique chest. From there, they host a dinner party. To make this plan a masterpiece, they’ve invited the victim’s father and aunt. Also attending the party are the victim’s fiancée, Janet Walker, Janet’s ex- lover, Kenneth Lawrence, and the killers’ former prep-school housemaster, publisher Rupert Cadell.
My introduction to Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography was Vertigo, which got my attention when I learned it displaced Citizen Kane in the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll for the title of the best film ever made. I subsequently concluded that it was not a better film than Citizen Kane. The next film of Hitchcock’s I ended up seeing was Shadow of a Doubt, which was his personal favorite work. Though not nearly as well-known as Vertigo, I ended up liking it much more, and I can see why he thought so highly of it.
So if Vertigo is a sacred cow among critics while Shadow of a Doubt is an underrated gem, Rope falls into a third category. Specifically, Hitchcock considered it a failed experiment, and didn’t think too highly of it. The likely reason for this was that he tried to make the film one continuous shot. It certainly wasn’t a bad idea, but the technology available to filmmakers at the time made this impossible; the film would run out after around ten minutes. As a result, whenever they needed to cut, they would zoom in on a person or object to disguise it, and there are nine hard cuts in the film. It’s still impressive considering most films have hundreds of them, but it did make things a bit awkward. It could be one of the reasons why Roger Ebert only gave this film two stars when reviewing it.
Fortunately, I don’t think the technical difficulties detract from what is a solid film. What I particularly like about Rope is how it manages to accomplish so much with the bare minimum of resources. This is a film that has a scant nine cast members, one of whom has no lines, and is shot entirely within a penthouse apartment, yet manages to deliver an impactful, suspenseful experience that those with ten times as many resources couldn’t. Particularly laudable is John Dall’s performance as the sociopathic, insufferably smug Brandon Shaw, who proceeds to throw a party in the same room he and Phillip murdered David. Knowing a dead body is in the antique chest and that, even after Brandon decorates it by placing candelabras and trays on top of it, there is a very real chance one of the guests could open it and expose their plan really grabs your attention.
Interestingly, the film was an adaptation of a 1929 British play of the same name. The play’s story was, in turn, inspired by the real-life murder of Robert Franks in 1924. It was planned by two wealthy students from the University of Chicago – Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb – to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. That extra bit of subtext went a long way in enhancing the narrative. So despite what Roger Ebert said about the film, I’d say it’s worth your time. I think you’ll be surprised how invested you can become with a narrative with such few moving parts.
Patton by Franklin J. Schaffner (1970)
The year is 1943 and the American army has suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in the Tunisia Campaign. General George S. Patton is placed in charge of the American II Corps in North Africa. The fiery Patton quickly asserts himself, enforcing strict discipline among his troops. In a meeting with Air Marshal Coningham of the Royal Air Force, he claims the American’s defeat was the result of having little air cover. He later proves his worth at the Battle of El Guettar wherein he and his troops fend off a German attack.
Around Memorial Day, one of the outlets near where I live had a special on war-themed films, and Patton was among them. I had heard many great things about this film, so I decided to finally see why it was so acclaimed. The version I bought had a foreword from Francis Ford Coppola, who was one of the film’s screenwriters. He said that one of the challenges of the film stemmed from how they were to depict Patton. They had to write Patton in a way that appealed to both the people who saw him as a war hawk and those who thought of him as a military genius. One of Patton’s subordinates, Omar Bradley had even served as a consultant for the film’s making, ensuring that Patton’s interpretation would be nuanced and multifaceted.
And that’s exactly what we got. George C. Scott’s portrayal as Patton is one of the most iconic in film history. He manages to capture what made him an effective general while also acknowledging his more impulsive tendencies. Though his tactics manage to win several key battles, his striking a solider suffering from PTSD and invading Palermo without having been ordered to do so eventually result in him being relieved from duty. One touch I liked was that the German intelligence forces were unable to comprehend why Patton was being relocated, believing it to be part of his strategy. When confronted with the truth in the form of a newspaper clipping, they dismiss it immediately. Ironically, Scott wasn’t satisfied with his performance, feeling he hadn’t fully realized the complexity of the man he was portraying. He didn’t give himself enough credit because Patton is an excellent film that is definitely worth a watch – especially for history buffs.