“TITANIC” (1953) Review

 

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“TITANIC” (1953) Review

As many moviegoers know, there have been numerous film and television productions about the maiden voyage and sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912. The most famous production happens to be James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar winning opus. However, I do wonder if there are any fans who are aware that another Titanic movie managed to strike Oscar gold.

Directed by Jean Negulesco, the 1953 movie “TITANIC” focused on the personal lives of a wealthy American family torn asunder by marital strife, a deep secret and the historic sinking of the Titanic. Family matriarch Mrs. Julia Sturges and her two children, 17 year-old Annette and 10 year-old Norman board the R.M.S. Titanic in Cherbourg, France. Julia hopes to remove her children from the influence of a privileged European lifestyle embraced by her husband Richard and raise them in her hometown of Mackinac, Michigan. Unfortunately, Richard gets wind of their departure and manages to board the Titanic at the last moment by purchasing a steerage ticket from a Basque immigrant and intercept his family. The Sturges family also meet other passengers aboard ship:

*20 year-old Purdue University tennis player Gifford Rogers, who falls for Annette
*the wealthy middle-aged Maude Young (based upon Molly Brown)
*a social-climbing snob named Earl Meeker
*a priest named George S. Healey, who has been defrocked for alcoholism
*American businessman John Jacob Astor IV and his second wife Madeleine

Julia and Richard clash over the future of their children during the voyage. Their conflict is reinforced by Annette’s budding romance with college student Gifford Rogers and a dark secret revealed by Julia. But the couple’s conflict eventually takes a back seat after the Titanic strikes an iceberg during the last hour of April 14, 1912.

There seemed to be a habit among moviegoers lately to judge historical dramas more on their historical accuracy than on the story. As a history buff, I can understand this penchant. But I am also a fan of fiction – especially historical fiction. And I learned a long time ago that when writing a historical drama, one has to consider the story and the character over historical accuracy. If the latter gets in the way of the story . . . toss it aside. It is apparent that screenwriters Charles Brackett (who also served as producer), Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch did just that when they created the screenplay for “TITANIC”. Any history buff about the famous White Star liner’s sinking would be appalled at the amount of historical accuracy in this movie. However, I feel that many lovers of period drama would be more than satisfied with“TITANIC”, thanks to a well-written personal story and top-notch direction by Jean Negulesco.

Superficially, “TITANIC” is a melodrama about the disintegration of a late 19th century/early 20th century marriage. The marital discord between Julia and Richard Sturges is filled with personality clashes, class warfare, disappointment and betrayal. And actors Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb did their very best to make the clash of wills between husband and wife fascinating and in the end . . . poignant. One of the movie’s best scenes featured a confession from one spouse about a past discretion. I am not claiming that the scene was particularly original. But I cannot deny that thanks to the stellar performances from Stanwyck and Webb, I believe it was one of the best moments of melodrama I have ever seen on screen . . . period. But their final scene together, during the Titanic’s sinking, turned out to be one of the most poignant for me. And by the way, fans of the 1997 movie would not be hard pressed to recognize one of Webb’s lines in the film . . . a line that also ended up in Cameron’s movie.

“TITANIC” featured other subplots that allowed the supporting cast to shine. Audrey Dalton portrayed Julia and Richard’s oldest offspring, the beautiful 17 year-old Annette, who had become enamored of her father’s penchant for European high society. Dalton did an excellent job of slowly transforming Annette from the shallow socialite wannabe to the shy and naturally charming young woman who has become more interested in enjoying her youth. And the character’s transformation came about from her budding friendship and romance with the gregarious Gifford Rogers. Robert Wagner seemed a far cry from the sophisticated man that both moviegoers and television viewers have come to know. His Gifford is young, friendly and open-hearted. Wagner made it easier for moviegoers to see why Annette fell for him and Julia found him likeable. However, I was not that enthusiastic about his singing. Harper Carter did an excellent job of holding his own against the likes of Stanwyck, Webb and Dalton as the Sturges’ son Norman. In fact, I found him very believable as the 10 year-old boy eager to maintain his father’s interest without accepting the snobbery that marked Annette’s personality. Perhaps he was simply too young.

The movie’s screenplay also featured a subplot involving a young priest named George Healey, who dreaded his return to the U.S. and facing his family with the shameful news of his defrocking. Thanks to Richard Basehart’s subtle, yet sardonic performance, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward his plight, instead of disgusted by his alcoholism. Thelma Ritter gave her usual top-notch performance as the sarcastic noveau riche Maude Young. Allyn Joslyn was amusing as the social-climbing card shark, Earl Meeker. And Brian Aherne’s portrayal of the Titanic’s doomed captain, was not only subtle, but he also kept the character from wallowing into some kind of second-rate nobility that usually makes my teeth hurt.

For a movie that did not have James Cameron’s advantages of creating the technical effects of the 1997 movie,“TITANIC” proved to be an attractive looking movie. Production manager Joseph C. Behm and his team did a solid job of re-creating life aboard an ocean liner, circa 1912. Behm was also assisted by costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, Don B. Greenwood’s art department, Maurice Ransford and Oscar winner Lyle R. Wheeler’s art directions, and Stuart A. Reiss’ set decorations. Although the movie did not feature an accurate re-creation of the Titanic’s sinking, I have to admit that visually, the special effects created by a team team led by Ray Kellogg were very impressive, especially for 1953. They were ably assisted Joseph MacDonald’s black-and-white photography and Louis R. Loeffler’s editing.

Earlier in this review, I pointed out that James Cameron’s 1997 film was not the only one about the Titanic that struck Oscar gold. Although “TITANIC” did not win eleven Academy Awards, it was nominated for two Oscars and won a single one – namely a Best Original Screenplay award for Brackett, Breen and Reisch. But despite an award winning script, a superb cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb and a first-rate production team, “TITANIC” still could have ended in disaster. But it had the good luck to have an excellent director like Jean Negulesco at the helm.

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

The last episode, ”Replacements” saw Easy Company reeling from the Allies’ disastrous defeat during the Operation Market Garden campaign in Holland. Directed by Tom Hanks, this latest episode depicted Richard Winters’ last combat engagement as the company’s commander, Operation Pegasus, and the company’s departure for Belguim as they prepare to participate in the Bastogne campaign. 

At the beginning of the aptly named ”Crossroads”; Winters, now the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion of 506th regiment, recounts his last combat mission as commander of Easy Company in a report for regimental headquarters that took place at a crossroads, near a dike in Holland. In the aftermath of the battle, Winters is informed that he has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel Strayer’s executive officer, leaving Easy without a commander. However, a new man – Frederick Theodore “Moose” Heyliger – becomes Easy’s new commander and leads them in Operation Pegasus, a military mission to escort a large number of British paratroopers trapped behind enemy lines, following the failure of Market Garden. Unfortunately, about a week later, Lieutenant Heyliger is seriously wounded by an American sentry and Easy ends up with a new commander named Norman Dike. Unlike Winters and Heyliger, Easy Company has no respect for their new leader and nicknames him ”Foxhole Norman”.

Not long after Dike becomes Easy’s new commander, a reluctant Winters is ordered to spend a few days of furlough in Paris. During his furlough, Winters is haunted by a moment when he killed a teenaged German soldier during the crossroads battle. Not long after his return to the regiment, the 101st Airborne learns about the German counterattack near Bastogne and is sent to Belgium to repel it. The episode ends with Easy company marching into the Belgian forest in the middle of the night, with minimum supplies and inadequate clothing.

I have always liked ”Crossroads” . . . despite itself. I cannot put my finger on it. Perhaps my feelings about the episode have to do with how Hanks directed the battle fought at the crossroads. He injected a great deal of style into that very moment that featured Winters leading a charge against S.S. troops at the crossroads. I also enjoyed Damian Lewis’ performance during the Paris furlough scenes and Neal McDonough as the slightly stressed out “Buck” Compton, who has returned from the hospital. And I enjoyed the sequence featuring the interaction of some of the company’s men, while watching a Marlene Dietrich film. However, my favorite sequence featured Easy Company’s brief journey to another crossroad – one near the town of Bastogne, Belgium. Screenwriter Erik Jendresen certainly did his best to ensure that the episode’s title adhere to its theme. A good deal seemed to be at a crossroads in this episode – including the location of a Dutch dike, where Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time; and the crossroads near Bastogne, where the company was sent to halt the German counterattack. Winters’ Army career was at a crossroads, as he went from company commander to battalion executive officer. And Easy Company endured a crisis of leadership following Winters’ promotion to battalion.

Yet, despite my positive feelings for ”Crossroads”, I cannot deny that it was one of the miniseries’ weaker episodes. For such a short episode, so much had occurred. Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time. The company participated in Operations Pegasus. It lost “Moose” Heyliger as its commander after he was accidentally shot and gained Norman Dike as the new commander – a man for whom no one seemed to have much respect. This episode should have been longer than 50 minutes. More importantly, watching both ”Replacements” and ”Crossroads” made me realize that Spielberg and Hanks had limited the company’s experiences in Holland to two engagements. The miniseries could have explored a lot more, judging from what I have read in Stephen Ambrose’s book.

It seemed a pity that Spielberg and Hanks failed to take the opportunity to explore more of Easy Company’s Holland experiences. Instead, the second half of this episode focused on Winters’ furlough in Paris and the company’s preparations for the Belgium campaign. And because of this ”Crossroads” seemed unfulfilled . . . and lacking. But it did provide an excellent performance from Damian Lewis as Richard Winters. And it featured a first-rate combat sequence and some personal interactions between the men that I found interesting. It was not a complete waste of time.

 

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

There have been four adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. One version was a radio play that broadcast in 1999. The Adventure Company released its own adaptation in 2007. John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin released a movie version in 1982. However, the adaptation that has recently caught my attention is the 2001 television movie that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.

While dining at his friend Captain Arthur Hasting’s new Argentine restaurant, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot suffers a sudden collapse. His doctor reveals that Poirot need to lose weight or risk a heart condition. Both the doctor and the detective’s secretary, Miss Lemon, book Poirot at a health resort on the coast of Devon called Sandy Cove. Miss Lemon also insists that Captain Hastings accompany him.

At the Sandy Cove Resort, both Poirot and Hastings come across the usual assortment of guests. Among them was a well-known stage actress named Arlena Stuart Marshall. Many of the guests disliked Arlena, including her new husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall and her 17 year-old stepson, Lionel. Another guest, Mrs. Christina Redfern harbored jealousy over Arlena’s indiscreet affair with hubby Patrick. Well-known dressmaker Rosamund Darnley, was an old flame of Captain Marshall’s, and also harbored jealousy toward Arlena. A fanatical vicar named the Reverend Stephen Lane viewed Arlena as the embodiment of evil. An athletic spinster named Emily Brewster harbored resentment toward Arlena for bailing out on a play she had invested. The only guests who seemed to harbor no feelings regarding Arlena were a Major Barry and a Mr. Horace Blatt. But both seemed to be involved in some mysterious activities around the resort’s island – including the location where Arlena had been waiting to meet for a clandestine lover. When Arlena’s body is discovered strangled to death, Poirot and Hastings work with Scotland Yard inspector Japp to investigate the crime.

When I was younger, I had read Christie’s novel on a few occasions. I tried to enjoy the novel. I really did. I understood that it was a favorite among Christie fans. But I never managed to rouse any enthusiasm for the story. There was something about it that struck me as rather flat. This 2001 television adaptation seemed to be an improvement over the novel. Perhaps a visual representation on the television screen made it easier for me to appreciate the story. I certainly cannot deny that Rob Hinds’ production designs struck me as colorful and sleek – a perfect continuation of the Art Deco style that had dominated the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” since the beginning. I was also impressed by Charlotte Holdich’s sleek costume designs for the cast – especially the female characters. Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be eye-candy for those who usually enjoy television and movie productions with a 1930s setting.

The subplot involving Poirot’s health certainly made it easier for me to understand why he would vacation at a not-so-interesting hotel resort. To be honest, I could not see someone like the flashy Arlena Marshall being a guest at such a low-key location. Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz made a wise choice in transforming Arlena’s 16 year-old stepdaughter Linda Marshall, who studied magic; into a 17 year-old boy, studying poisons. Arlena had been strangled. And Scotland Yard made it clear that large hands had been responsible for the crime. The idea of a 16 year-old girl with man-size hands struck me as slightly improbable. After all, if Christie wanted Linda to be considered as a serious suspect, she should have changed the character’s gender, which Horowitz did; or find another method to bump off Arlena Stuart.

The above mentioned changes in Christie’s story – Poirot’s health problems and the transformations of the Linda/Lionel Marshall character – seemed like improvements over the original story. However, other changes made it impossible for me to love this adaptation. I understand why the series’ producers and Horowitz had decided to include Hastings, Japp and Lemon into the story. After all, the Eighth Series, which aired in 2000 and 2001, proved to be the last that featured these three characters. But none of them had appeared in the 1941 novel. Hastings’ presence only gave Poirot a pretext for vacationing at Sandy Cove in the first place. Unfortunately, the running joke about Poirot’s distaste toward the resort’s health-conscious menu for its guests became tiresome within one-third of the movie. Other than the Argentine restaurant sequence, Horowitz failed to make Hastings’ presence relevant to the story. And why on earth was Chief Inspector Japp investigating a murder in Devon? He was outside of Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London and the home counties of Essex and Hertfordshire in the East of England; along with Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent in South East England. In other words . . . what in the hell was Japp doing there in Devon? Miss Lemon proved to be the only veteran recurring cast member that proved to be relevant to the story. She helped Poirot investigate another murder case with connections to Arlena Stuart’s murderer.

The cast gave solid performances. But I could not recall any memorable performances among them. The four main cast members – David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran – were competent as usual. I was also impressed by Michael Higgs (Patrick Redfern), Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster), Ian Thompson (Major Barry), Tamzin Malleson (Christine Redfern) and especially Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall). But there were performances that failed to rock my boat. David Mallinson’s portrayal of Kenneth Marshall struck me as . . . meh. He was not terrible, but simply not that interesting. Marsha Fitzalan’s performance as Rosamund Darnley seemed a bit off. Her portrayal of the dressmaker struck me as gossipy and callow. She seemed like an early 20th century version of her old role, Caroline Bingley; instead of the warm and strong-willed Rosamund. Both Tim Meats and David Timson’s performances seemed slightly hammy and rather off for such a low-key production. But the real worm in the apple proved to be Louise Delamere’s portrayal of victim Arlena Marshall. I realize that Delamere was given a role that seemed the least interesting in Christie’s novel. But Horowitz’s script and Delamere’s performance failed to improve upon it. Delamere ended up projecting a fourth-rate version of Diana Rigg’s performance in the 1982 film.

Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be a mixed bag. Production wise, it looked sleek and colorful. The script provided a few improvements over Christie’s novel. And there were some first-rate performances that included David Suchet. But in the end, I felt the movie was slightly undermined by other changes that I found unnecessary and some not-so impressive performances.

 

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” Commentary

In the last episode, ”Carentan”, yet-to-be-announced First Sergeant Carwood Lipton announced to Normandy veterans Easy Company that they would be returning to France. Instead, a conversation between Sergeant Bill Guarnere and a group of replacements revealed at the beginning of this new episode that Easy Company never did. Eventually Easy Company did return to the Continent when they were deployed to the Netherlands to participate in the doomed Operation Market Garden campaign. 

”Replacements” centered on Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman and his experiences during Operation Market Garden and with the replacements in his platoon. One of them included Edward “Babe” Heffron, who hailed from the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Guarnere (this was established at the end of Carentan”). The other three include Antonio Garcia, James Miller and Lester “Leo” Hashey. Through both his and their eyes, viewers get to experience Easy Company’s trouble-free jump into Holland, the Dutch citizens’ joyous reaction to their presence in Eindhoven and their disastrous encounter with battle-hardened S.S. troops – one of many encounters that led to the failure of Operation Market Garden. Following Easy Company’s retreat from Eindhoven, a wounded “Bull” Randleman finds himself trapped in the German-occupied town and is forced to find his way back to Easy Company and the American lines.

”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode, but it was one that did not knock my socks off. It featured a terrifying battle in which Easy Company was forced to retreat in defeat. And it also gave viewers an interesting view in the mindsets of replacement troops like Garcia, Miller and Hashey; who seemed to regard Randleman and the other Toccoa trained men with awe. In scenes that featured Easy Company’s brief liberation of Eindhoven, the episode revealed the cruel fates inflicted by the Dutch citizens upon local women who had collaborated (had sex) with some of the occupying German troops. And viewers got to enjoy more scenes featuring some of the men engaging in small talk that revealed more of their personalities. The episode also had interesting scenes that featured Lewis Nixon’s brief brush with death (a bullet in his helmet) and Winters’ reaction, Easy Company’s brief reunion with Herbert Sobel, who had become a supply officer; and David Webster, Don Hoobler and Robert Van Klinken’s humorous encounter with a Dutch farmer and his son. However, ”Replacements” belonged to one particular character, namely Denver “Bull” Randleman. Screenwriters Graham Yost and Bruce C. McKenna did a solid job in both his characterization and the Holland experiences of the Arkansas-born sergeant. One of the episode’s more harrowing scenes featured a violent encounter between a wounded Randleman and a German soldier inside a barn, while the owner – a Dutch farmer – and his daughter look on.

But Randleman’s experiences during Operation Market Garden would have never been that effective without Michael Cudlitz’s subtle performance as the quiet and imposing Randleman. With very little dialogue, Cudlitz conveyed the veteran’s battle experiences and emotions through body language, facial expressions and the use of his eyes. He made it easy for me to see why the troopers of First Platoon and even the company’s officers held with such high regard. Cutdliz was ably supported by the likes of Dexter Fletcher’s sardonic portrayal of First Platoon’s other NCO, John Martin; Frank John Hughes’ amusing performance as the verbose Bill Guarnere; and Peter McCabe, who turned out to be one of the few British actors who perfectly captured the accent and speech patterns of an American combatant in his portrayal of the aggressive Donald Hoobler. Also, it was nice to see David Schwimmer again as Easy Company’s much reviled former commander, Herbert Sobel in a more subtle performance. Portraying the inexperienced replacement troops were James McAvoy (James Miller), Douglas Spain (Antonio C. Garcia) and Mark Huberman (Lester “Leo” Hashey). And each actor did a solid job in portraying their characters’ inexperience, awe of the veteran Toccoa men and their determination to prove themselves in combat.

However, ”Replacements” had its problems. One, the opening scene at the English pub featured Walter Gordon revealing Carwood Lipton as the company’s new first sergeant. And this moment really seemed out of place, considering that Lipton was already acting like the new first sergeant at the end of ”Carentan”. Aside from the battle scene, I must admit that this was not an exciting episode. Like ”Day of Days”, it featured a major historical event – in this case, Operation Market Garden – that had exciting moments, but lacked an epic quality that would have suited such a topic. Allowing the episode a longer running time would have been a step in the right direction. And if I must be honest, I got the feeling that not much really happened in this episode, in compare to ”Day of Days”.

But, ”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode. Although it lacked an epic quality for a story about Easy Company’s experiences during Operation Market Garden, it did feature an exciting battle that resulted in defeat for them. And Michael Cutdliz gave a subtle and first-class performance as the episode’s central character, “Bull” Randleman.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

This third episode, ”Carentan” picked up one day after where ”Day of Days” left off – Easy Company in Northern France for the Normandy invasion. ”Carentan” mainly centered around the experiences of Private Albert Blithe, portrayed by actor Marc Warren during Easy Company’s attempt take the town of Carentan. 

Easy Company’s nighttime jump into Normandy seemed to have left Private Blithe in semi-shock. He barely acknowledged the comments of his fellow paratroopers. During the company’s assault upon Carentan, he suffered from temporary blindness. Conversations with officers like Easy’s Harry Welch and Dog Company’s Ronald Spiers failed to help Blithe ease his anxiety regarding the horrors of combat. Winters is finally able to spur Blithe into action, during a German counterattack, a day or two later. But Blithe’s triumph is short-lived when he is wounded by an enemy sniper after volunteering to lead a scout patrol. Also during this episode, the legend of Ronald Spiers continues when Donald Malarkey and his friends – Warren “Skip” Muck, Alex Pankala and Alton More – discuss Spiers’ alleged connection to the deaths of a group of German prisoners-of-war and a sergeant in Dog Company. Winters endured a mild wound and Sergeant Carwood Lipton endures a more serious one during the battle for Carentan.

”Carentan” became the second episode in ”BAND OF BROTHERS” with a running time longer than one hour. ”Currahee” was the first. But I must admit that I enjoyed ”Carentan” a lot more. The longer running time and broadening effects from the horrors of war gave the series’ portrayal of the Normandy campaign more of an epic feel than ”Day of Days’. It featured two harrowing combat sequences – Easy Company’s attack upon Carentan and the Germans’ counterattack that nearly left the company in a vulnerable state. And it is the first episode that featured an aspect of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I truly enjoy – namely casual conversation between the men of Easy between combat situations. Conversations such as the one about Spiers between Marlarkey, More, Muck and Penkala turned out to be bright spots that prevented the miniseries from sinking into the cliché of a typical World War II combat drama.

The main storyline for ”Carentan” happened to be about Albert Blithe’s anxieties in dealing with combat for the first time. Writer E. Max Frye did a solid job regarding the Blithe character and his troubles with hysterical blindness. But I do have a few problems with his work. One, his take on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” did not strike me as original. Watching Blithe’s travails on the screen left me with a feeling that I have seen numerous war dramas with similar storylines. And two, Frye got a good deal of his information wrong about Blithe. The end of the episode revealed that Blithe never recovered from his wound in the neck and died four years later in 1948. As it turned out, Blithe did recover from the wound . . . eventually. He remained in the Army, served in the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War and died in 1967. Either Fyre made this mistake intentionally . . . or had made a major blooper. There was another mistake regarding Blithe, but I will reveal it later.

One last complaint I had was the episode’s last fifteen or twenty minutes, which featured Easy Company’s return to England. Aside from the ham-fisted scene in which Malarkey found himself picking up the laundry of some of those who had been killed or wounded in Normandy, most of those scenes should have been featured in the beginning of the following episode. And they should have deleted the scene in which Lipton announced that they would be returning to France. One, he had not been announced as Easy Company’s new First Sergeant and two, they never did return to France.

The performances in ”Carentan” were solid, but a few did stand out for me. Matthew Settle continued his excellent introduction of Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in a very memorable and slightly tense scene in which he tries to give Blithe some advice on how to mentally deal with combat. Another first-rate performance came from Rick Warden, who portrayed one of Easy Company’s platoon leader and close friend of Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon – Harry Welch. I rather enjoyed Warden’s charming take on the easy-going and sardonic Welch. And finally, there was Marc Warren, whose portrayal of Blithe pretty much carried this episode. He did a very good job of conveying Blithe’s journey from a shell-shocked trooper to the more confident warrior, whose experience with Easy Company ended with a wound in the neck. My only complaint with Warren’s performance is that he portrayed Blithe with a generic Southern accent. And the real Blithe was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Why Spielberg, Hanks and director Mikael Salomon had him used a Southern accent for the character is beyond me.

”Carentan” is not my favorite episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. I found the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” storyline for the Albert Blithe character to be slightly unoriginal. The character also spoke with the wrong regional accent and the information about his post-Easy Company years was historically inaccurate. And I could have done without the scenes with Easy Company back in England near the end of the episode. On the other hand, I do consider ”Carentan” to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. Easy Company’s experiences in taking Carentan and enduring a German counterattack gave the episode more of an epic feel than the events featured in the last episode, ”Day of Days”. And despite portraying Blithe with the wrong accent, Marc Warren did give an exceptionally good performance.