“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, “Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Bonneville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army officer at the beginning of the story; and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that also bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man. Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him. As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the “POIROT” series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.

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The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

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The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

Any fan of the John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy would be more than happy to tell you that the worst entry in the author’s saga about two American families in the mid 19th century was the last one, ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. Those fans would be speaking of the 1994 television adaptation, not the novel itself. Unlike many of these fans, I do not share their low opinion of the three-part miniseries. But I will not deny that ”HEAVEN AND HELL” had its share of problems. Below is a list of I consider to be its major flaws. 

*Use of Montages – The miniseries did not hesitate to use montages to indicate a passage of time. Most of these montages centered on the Charles Main character, portrayed by Kyle Chandler. The problem with these montages was that they had exposed a blooper regarding Charles’ rank with the post-war U.S. Army in the first episode.

During a montage that featured Charles’ early courtship of actress Willa Parker (Rya Kihlstedt), Charles either wore corporal or sergeant stripes on his jacket. It went like this – Charles first wore corporal stripes, a fringe jacket and then sergeant stripes. And after the montage, Charles wore corporal stripes again.

*Orry and Madeline Main’s Presence in Richmond – BOOK II ended with Orry and Madeline Main (Patrick Swayze and Lesley Anne Down) attending the funeral of family matriarch, Clarissa Main. However, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” began with Orry and Madeline staying at a friend’s home in Richmond, in order to raise funds to feed the defeated post-war South. What in the hell for? The pair had a burnt home, an estate and family to care. They had no form of income or cash. And yet, they left their devastated home to raise funds for a cause that would have been implausible for them to achieve. 

I realize that screenwriters Suzanne Clauser and John Jakes wanted an excuse to get Orry in Richmond so that he would be murdered by his old nemesis, Elkhannah Bent (Philip Casnoff). This could have been achieved in simpler fashion. For example, Clauser and Jakes could have used a funeral for an old comrade as an excuse to get Orry and Madeline to Richmond. This seems simple enough to me.

*Augustus “Gus” Main’s Age – In an article I had written about ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, I had pointed out that the screenwriters managed to foul up the age of Augustus Main, Charles Main’s (Kyle Chandler) only son by his first love, Augusta Main. Jakes and Clauser managed to repeat this mistake in their screenplay for ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. The third miniseries began with young Gus around the age of five. According to Charles, Gus had been born just before the war. Where did this come from? It was bad enough that Gus looked older than he should have in ”BOOK II”. Then they aged Gus even more, despite the fact that only a few months had passed between the second and third miniseries. Worse, Gus failed to age, as the story for ”HEAVEN AND HELL” progressed. Especially since the miniseries was obviously set between 1865 and 1868.

During my last viewing of ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”, I was surprised to discover that a good number of its so-called “bloopers” originated from writing mistakes that appeared in both ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Those “bloopers” include: 

*Cooper Main – Prodigal Son – In John Jakes’ literary saga, South Carolina planter Tillet Main and his wife Clarissa had one nephew – Charles, and four children – Orry, Ashton, Brett and the oldest offspring, Cooper (Robert Wagner). However, Cooper was never featured in the first two miniseries. His appearance finally came in the third miniseries, ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. Those fans who had never read Jakes’ novels had accused the producers and screenwriters of creating the character for the miniseries. Personally, I never understood why the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had failed to include Cooper. After all, his presence proved to be vital to the saga by the third novel.

My only problem with Cooper’s presence in this third miniseries is that Jakes and Clauser had failed to create a back story to explain his disappearance from the first two miniseries. This failure made his appearance in this third chapter rather incongruous.

*Charles Main and Elkhannah Bent in Texas – Another plotline that took the fans of Jakes’ saga by surprise was the revelation that Charles Main had served under Elkhannah Bent in Texas, during the late 1850s . . . before the Civil War. No such story arc had been present in the first miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. However, this plotline was present in Jakes’ 1982 novel. The first miniseries did show Charles serving in the U.S. Army in 1850s Texas. It also revealed Bent as an Army officer, visiting New Orleans, Louisiana around the same period. And New Orleans had served as one the main terminals in and out of Texas, east of the Mississippi River during the early and mid 19th century. 

Charles’ past with Elkhannah Bent proved to be one of the major storylines in third story. The screenwriters for the miniseries had no choice but to include it. Especially since Charles and Bent’s past history played a major role in Jakes’ story. Most fans would probably hate for me to say this, but I believe that the screenwriters and producers for ”BOOK I” made a major mistake in their failure to include Charles’ experiences in Texas in the miniseries. Especially, since it proved to become an important storyline.

*The Return of Stanley and Isobel Hazard – I am surprised that many fans of the saga were surprised to see Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) footloose and fancy free in this third miniseries. After all, they were last seen in ”BOOK II” facing prosecution for war profiteering. As it turned out, the couple was never investigated or prosecuted for war profiteering in Jakes’ second NORTH AND SOUTH novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. Also, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” portrayed Stanley pursuing a political career, something that never happened in the first two miniseries. Yet, the literary Stanley Hazard had began his political career as far back as the second half of the first novel, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. Again, another so-called “blooper” in ”HEAVEN AND HELL” originated from the screenwriters’ failure to be faithful to the novels when it counted.

*Revelation of Madeline Main’s Ancestry – In the first miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the character Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main learned from her father that her mother was a quadroon (one-quarter African descent) and that she was an octoroon (one-eighth African descent). She eventually revealed this information to her love, Orry Main. Her secret ended up being exposed to both Elkhannah Bent and her despised sister-in-law, Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber) in the second miniseries, due to Bent’s discovery of a painting of Madeline’s mother in a New Orleans whorehouse. Somehow, the Mains’ local neighbors – including the local Klan leader, Gettys LaMotte (Cliff DeYoung) – learned about her ancestry. I would love to know how they managed this, because Bent and Ashton never had the opportunity to expose Madeline’s secret. In fact, the entire storyline regarding the exposure of Madeline’s ancestry is riddled with a good number of bloopers that originated in Jakes’ first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

*Miscellaneous Characters – Characters last seen in ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” failed to make an appearance in the third miniseries:

-Semiramis – the Mont Royal house slave was last seen engaged to another one named Ezra. Both had been given land to farm by Clarissa Main in the last episode. A former slave named Jane (Sharon Washington) took Semiramis’ place in the third miniseries. However, Semiramis was only featured in the first novel. And Jane was featured in both the second and third novels.

-Ezra – Semiramis’ future husband and a character that had been created solely for the second miniseries and not featured in any of the novels.

-Hope Hazard – George and Constance Hazard’s (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) had been a month before the Civil War broke out in the first miniseries and was seen in the second miniseries. However, she never existed in any of the novels. The literary George and Constance had two children – William and Patricia – in all three novels. And they were seen in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”.

-Virgilia Hazard – Portrayed by Kirstie Alley, George Hazard’s younger sister had been killed at the end of ”BOOK II” – executed for the murder of a congressman. However . . . this never happened in the second novel. And her character played a major role in the third novel. Unfortunately, she did not appear in the third miniseries. Her presence was sorely missed by me.

”HEAVEN AND HELL” was not a perfect miniseries. Its production values did not strike me as impressive as the first two miniseries. And it had its share of flaws. However, I was surprised to discover that it was a lot more faithful to Jakes’ third novel, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” than ”BOOK II” was to the second novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. More importantly, a good number of changes made by the screenwriters of the first two miniseries produced some of the “bloopers” found in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. I could accuse Wolper Productions and the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for failing to consult author John Jakes on how he would continue his saga in the third novel. But the problem is that Jakes also happened to be one of the screenwriters for all three miniseries. While co-writing the first two miniseries, he should have stood his ground and resisted some of the major changes made in them – especially in the second miniseries.

 

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

Based upon Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the story of a 19th century English gentleman named Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in eighty (80) days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Produced by Michael Todd, the Academy Award winning film starred David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton. 

Could someone please explain how ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” managed to win the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award? How on earth did this happen? Do not get me wrong. Ever since I first saw ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” on television years ago, I have been a fan of the movie. The idea of someone taking a long journey around the world – especially in an age before air travel – greatly appealed to me. It still does. I like the idea of travel, whether I am doing it myself or watching it on the big screen or on television. And even after all of these years, I still enjoy watching this movie. And yet . . . I simply cannot fathom the idea of it being considered the Best Picture of 1956. Even more surprising is the fact that John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe all won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps the reason behind the movie’s accolades centered around Hollywood’s amazement that first time movie producer, Mike Todd, had succeeded in not only completing the film, but also creating an entertaining one. Two men directed this film – Michael Anderson, an Englishman who had only directed seven movies before ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”; and John Farrow, a well-known Australian director who had co-written the film’s script. Farrow, by the way, did not receive any credit for his work as a director of this film. Which makes me wonder how many scenes he actually directed. Considering the movie’s running time of 183 minutes (3 hours and 3 minutes), I find it surprising that it took only seventy-five (75) days to shoot it. Along with the four leading actors, the movie featured over forty (40) stars, 140 locations, 100 sets and over 36,000 costumes. No wonder Hollywood seemed amazed that Todd managed to finish the film.

Set around 1872, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” told the story an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) who claims he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. He makes a £20,000 wager with several skeptical fellow members of his London gentlemen’s club (Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie included), the Reform Club, that he can arrive back within 80 days before exactly 8:45 pm. Together with his resourceful valet, Passepartout (Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”), Fogg sets out on his journey from Paris via a hot air balloon. Meanwhile, suspicion grows that Fogg has stolen his £20,000 from the Bank of England. Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) is sent out by Ralph the bank president (Robert Morley) to trail and arrest Fogg. Hopscotching around the globe, Fogg pauses in Spain, where Passepartout engages in a comic bullfight; and in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue young widow Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from being forced into a funeral pyre so that she may join her late husband. The threesome visit Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and the Wild West. Only hours short of winning his wager, Fogg is arrested upon returning to London by the diligent, yet misguided Inspector Fix.

The main differences between Jules Verne’s novel and the movie centered around Fogg and Passepartout’s efforts to leave Europe. Quite frankly, the novel never featured Fogg’s journey through Europe. In the novel, there were no stops in either France or Spain. Fogg had considered using a hot air balloon in Chapter 32, but quickly dismissed it. Also, Fogg never punched Detective Fix after being released from jail near the film’s finale. He simply insulted the detective’s skills as a whist player.

I might as well stop beating around the bush. What is my opinion of the movie? Like I had stated earlier, I still find it entertaining after all these years. I love travel movies. And I found the movie’s caricatures of the different nationalities that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Fix encounters on the journey rather amusing – including encounters with a boorish American politician portrayed by John Caradine, Charles Boyer’s Parisian travel agent/balloonist and Reginald Denny’s parody of an Anglo-Indian official. The movie’s funniest moment featured Fogg and Aouda’s encounter with a Chinese gentlemen portrayed by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who proved that his English was a lot better than Fogg’s Chinese-English pidgin. The locations in this movie are absolutely gorgeous, especially Fogg and Passepartout’s trip over France, and the rail journeys through India and the United States. And Lionel Lindon’s Oscar winning photography is accompanied by the memorable score written by another one of the film’s Oscar winners – Victor Young. In fact, the most memorable thing about ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is Young’s score. Even after 59 years, it is the first thing many fans mention about the film.

I was surprised to learn that Cantinflas had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his portrayal of Passepartout. Frankly, I found this as astonishing as the movie’s Best Picture Oscar. Mind you, his performance was a little more animated than David Niven’s portrayal of the stiff-upper lip Phineas Fogg. And his dance with a young dancer at a Spanish cantina was entertaining. But a Golden Globe award? I cannot think of one actor or actress in that movie who deserved any acting award. As for Niven, I think he may have gone a little too far in his portrayal of the reserved Fogg. There were times when he came off as a bit inhuman. I have to wonder about Todd’s decision to cast a young American actress from Virginia to portray the Indian Princess Aouda. Shirley MacLaine, ladies and gentlemen? She is the last person I would have chosen for that particular role. I must give her credit for not succumbing to some clichéd portrayal that would have left moviegoers wincing and instead, gave a restrained yet charming performance. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the persistent detective, Mr. Fix, was just as restrained. Which turned out to be a miracle, considering his reputation as a cinematic ham. Sadly, Newton passed away from a heart attack before the movie’s release.

One might ask why I had expressed astonishment at the thought of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1956. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the movie deserved such a major award. Sure, the movie is entertaining. And that is about the best thing I can say about the film. Granted, Victor Young’s score and Lionel Lindon’s photography deserved its Oscars. But I feel that the movie did not deserve to be acknowledged as 1956’s Best Picture. Not over other films like ”THE KING AND I””FRIENDLY PERSUASION””GIANT””THE SEARCHERS” or even ”THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. Nor do I feel that the three men who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay deserve their statuettes. Heck, the movie featured a major blooper carried over from the novel – namely Fix’s revelation to Passepartout in Hong Kong about the British authorities’ suspicions that Fogg may be responsible for robbing the Bank of England before his departure. Passepartout told Aouda about Fix’s suspicions . . . but neither of them ever told Fogg. Not even when they were about to reach the shores of Britain. Why?

Another scene that continues to baffle me centered around Passepartout’s bullfight in Spain. Impressed by the manservant’s cape work during a dance in a cantina, a Spanish-Arab sea captain named Achmed Abdullah (Gilbert Roland) promised to give Fogg and Passepartout passage to Marseilles if the manservant would take part in a bullfight. What started as a comic moment for Cantinflas turned into a bullfight that promised to never end. The damn thing lasted five minutes too long and I felt more than happy when Fogg and Passepartout finally arrived in Suez.

I have read Jules Verne’s novel. At best, it was entertaining fluff. I could say the same for the 1956 movie. Like the novel, it lacks any real substance. For me, both versions struck me as nothing more than a detailed travelogue disguised as a series of vaguely written adventures. Unfortunately, the movie’s entertaining fluff lasted slightly over three (3) hours. Three hours? I like the movie a lot, but an obviously dated three hour movie based upon a piece of fluff like Verne’s novel just does not seem worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Despite the movie’s undeserved Oscar, I still find it entertaining after all these years.

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

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“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2005 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – “COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick. 

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony. 

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. The movie earned thirteen (13) Academy Award nominations and won three (3). I have no problems with the Oscars that it won, since they turned out to be in the technical categories. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I had first seen back in 2008.

 

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

“WESTWARD HO”: Introduction

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Below is the introduction to an article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in the United States – especially during the 1840s: 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Introduction 

I. History vs. Hollywood

Between 2001 and 2004, the A&E Channel used to air a series called “HISTORY vs. HOLLYWOOD”. Each episode featured experts that were interviewed about the historical accuracy of a film or television special that was based on a historical event. These experts or historians would examine a newly released film – usually a period drama – and comment on the historical accuracy featured in the story. Not surprisingly, most productions would receive a verdict of “both Hollywood fiction and historical fact”.

A rising demand for more historical accuracy seemed to have become very prevalent in recent years. I cannot explain this demand. And if I must be honest, I do not know if I would always agree. If such accuracy ever got in the way of a whopping good story, I believe it should be tossed in favor of the story. Many of William Shakespeare’s dramas have proven to be historically inaccurate. I can think of a good number of well-regarded productions that I would never consider to be completely accurate as far as history is concerned – “GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939)“GLORY” (1989)“ENIGMA” (2001) and “THE TUDORS” (2007-2010).

All of this brings me to this article’s main topic – namely the depiction of the 19th century western migration in various movies and television productions. I thought it would be interesting to examine five productions and see how they compare to historical accuracy. I will focus upon two movies and three television miniseries:

*“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

*“THE WAY WEST” (1967)

*“CENTENNIAL: The Wagon and the Elephant” [Episode 3] (1978-79)

*“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

*“INTO THE WEST: Manifest Destiny” [Episode 2] (2005)

II. The Essentials of Western Travel

Before I start making comparisons, I might as well focus on the correct essentials needed by westbound emigrants during their trek to either Oregon, California or other destinations. The essentials are the following:

1. Farm wagon/Prairie schooner vs. Conestoga wagon – The Conestoga wagon is well-known among those who study American history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a heavy, broad-wheeled covered wagon used extensively during that period in the United States east of the Mississippi River and Canada to transport goods up to 8 tons. It was designed to resemble a boat in order to help it cross rivers and streams. 

However, the Conestoga wagon was considered too large and bulky for the 2,000 miles journey between Western Missouri and the West Coast – especially for the teams of stock pulling the wagon. It was highly recommended for emigrants to use regular farm wagons. The farm wagon was primarily used to transport goods. However, small children, the elderly, and the sick/or injured rode in them. But since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they had horses to ride. The wagon – depending on luck – was sturdy enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 westbound trek. More importantly, the wagon would not wear down the team of animals pulling it.

2. Draft animals – The westbound emigrants depended upon draft animals to haul their wagons for the long trek. Horses were out of the questions. A single rider could travel to Oregon or California astride a horse. But horses were not sturdy enough for the 2,000 miles trek and would die before reaching the end of the journey. It was recommended that emigrants use oxen or mules to pull their wagons.

Both oxen and mules were considered sturdy enough for the long trek. However, most would recommend oxen to haul a wagon, for they were cheaper and could survive slightly better on the grazing found along the trails. Mules could do the same, but at a lesser rate. But they were more expensive than oxen. They had a tendency to be temperamental. And they were more inclined to attract the attention of Native Americans.

3. Supplies and Goods – It was very essential for emigrants to haul supplies and goods during their long, westward trek. Upon leaving Independence, Missouri; there were very little opportunities to purchase food and supplies. The only locations that offered such opportunities to purchase more goods were a small number of trading and military outposts along the western trails. However, many emigrants attempted to bring along furniture, family heirlooms and other valuable possessions. They realized it was wiser to rid said possessions in order to lighten their wagon loads. And this would explain why these discarded possessions practically littered the major emigrant trails during the second half of the 19th century.

4. Western Outposts – As I had stated earlier, westbound emigrants encountered very little opportunities to re-stock on supplies during their journey west. Only a series of trading or military outposts on the western plains offered emigrants opportunities for more supplies. Emigrants encountered Fort Laramie (present day eastern Wyoming), Fort Hall (present day Idaho) and Fort Laramie after 1848 (present day Nebraska) along the Oregon/California Trails. Along the Santa Fe Trail, they would eventually encounter Fort Leavenworth (present day northeastern Kansas). Fort Bent (present day southeastern Colorado) and eventually Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.

5. Native American Encounters – The portrayal of emigrants’ encounters with Native Americans during the western trek could either be chalked up to Hollywood exaggeration, American racism or a mixture of both. But many movie and television productions about the western migration tend to feature large scale attacks upon wagon trains by Native American warriors. One, such attacks never happened – at least as far as I know. The various nations and tribes possessed too much sense to attack a wagon train that was likely to be well-armed. And the number of Native Americans portrayed in these cinematic attacks tend to be ridiculously large. A small band of warriors might be inclined to steal some horses or stock in the middle of the night, or attack a lone wagon traveling on the plains for the same reason. However, westbound emigrants either socialized or traded with the Native Americans they encountered. Or perhaps some trigger-happy emigrant or more might be inclined to take pot shots at a lone rider or two. But large scale attacks by Native Americans ended up being figments of a filmmaker’s imagination.

In the following article, I will focus upon the history accuracy or lack thereof featured in 1962’s “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

From a certain point of view, I find it hard to believe that the 1980 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” has become the most critically acclaimed STAR WARS movie by the franchise’s fans. And I find it hard to believe, due to the film’s original box office performance. 

I was also surprised that “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was released in the first place. Despite the ambiguous nature of villain Darth Vader’s fate in the 1977 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, I had assumed that film’s happy ending meant the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends was over. But my assumption proved to be wrong three years later. Many other filmgoers and critics also expressed surprise at the release of a second STAR WARS movie. More importantly, a surprising revelation and an ending with a cliffhanger resulted in a smaller box office for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” than either “A NEW HOPE” or the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Yet, thirty-three years later, the movie is now viewed as the most critically acclaimed – not just among the first three movies, but also among those released between 1999 and 2005.

“THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” begins three years following the events of ” A NEW HOPE”. Despite the Rebel Alliance’s major victory above the planet of Yavin and the destruction of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, the rebellion continues to rage on. Luke Skywalker, now a wing commander at the Rebels’ base on Hoth, patrols beyond the base’s perimenter with close friend and former smuggler Han Solo. After the latter returns to base, Luke is attacked by a wampa and dragged into the latter’s cave. Meanwhile, Han receives word from Princess Leia, one of the Rebel leaders and a friend of both men, that Luke has not returned. He leaves the base to find Luke, while the latter manages to escape from the wampa’s lair. Luke stumbles into a snowstorm and before losing consciousness, receives a message from the Force spirit of his late mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to seek out another Jedi named Yoda on Dagobah for further training. Han eventually finds Luke before a Rebel patrol finds them both. 

While Luke recovers from his ordeal, Leia and General Rieekan learn from Han and his Wookie companion Chewbacca have discovered an Imperial probe. They surmise that Imperial forces know the location of their base and might be on their way. The Rebel Alliance forces prepare to evacuate Hoth. But an Imperial presence on the planet served as a bigger problem for the heroes. Unbeknownst to them, Darth Vader seeks out Luke, following his discovery of the young man’s connection to the Force three years ago. Although the three friends will separate for a period of time and experience adventures of their own, Lord Vader’s hunt for Luke will result in great danger and a surprising revelation in the end.

I once came across a post on the TheForce.net – Jedi Council Forums message board that complained of the lack of a main narrative for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me could understand why this person reached such an opinion. Despite the circumstances on Hoth and the finale on the Bespin mining colony, our heroes barely spent any time together. Following the Rebel Alliance’s defeat on Hoth, Luke and R2-D2 traveled to Dagobah, where the former continued his Jedi training under Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca helped Leia and C3-P0 evade Darth Vader and Imperial forces on Hoth and in space before seeking refuge on Bespin. I believe this person failed to realize that other than Luke’s Jedi training with Yoda, most of the movie’s narrative centered on Vader’s attempts to capture Luke – the Imperial invasion of Hoth, his pursuit of Han and Leia aboard the Millennium Falcon, and their subsequent capture on Bespin. Even Luke’s Jedi training was interrupted by visions of his friends in danger and journeyed into the trap set by Vader. And this is why I found it hard to accept this complaint about “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”.

Most fans tend to regard the movie as perfect or near perfect. Despite my feelings for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I cannot agree with this view. I believe that the movie has its flaws. One could find cheesy dialogue in the movie, especially from Darth Vader. He possessed an annoying penchant for constantly using the phrase “It is your destiny” in the movie’s last half hour. Some of Leia and Han’s “romantic dialogue” in the movie’s first half struck me as somewhat childish and pedantic. Speaking of those two – how did they end up attracted to each other in the first place? “A NEW HOPE” ended with Han making a brief pass at Leia during the medal ceremony. But she seemed to regard him as a mere annoyance and nothing else. Three years later, both are exchanging longing glances and engaging in verbal foreplay at least ten to fifteen minutes into the story. I would have allowed this to slide if a novel or comic story had explained this sudden shift toward romance between them. But no such publication exists, as far as I know. This little romance seemed to have developed out of the blue.

There were other problems. The movie never explained the reason behind Leia’s presence at the Rebels’ Hoth base. She was, after all, a political leader; not a military one. The base already possessed a more than competent military leader in the form of General Rieekan. Watching Leia give orders to the pilots during the base’s evacuation made me realize that she really had no business interfering in the Rebels’ military protocol. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” also failed to explain why Han was being hunted by Jabba the Hutt after three years. I thought the payment he had received for delivering Leia and the Death Star plans to Yavin was enough to settle his debt to the Tattooine gangster. Apparently not. And the movie failed to explain why. Perhaps there is a STAR WARS that offered an explanation. I hope so. For years, I never understood the symbolism behind Luke’s experiences inside the Dagobah cave during his Jedi training. And I am not sure if I still do. Finally, how long did Luke’s training on Dagobah last? And how long did it take the Millennium Falcon to reach Bespin with a broken hyperdrive? LucasFilm eventually revealed that both incidents took at least three months. If so, why did the movie failed to convey this particular time span?

Thankfully, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” more than rose above its flaws. For me, it is still one of the best science-fiction adventure films I have ever seen. I am amazed that such a complex tale arose from two simple premises – Darth Vader’s hunt for Luke Skywalker and the continuation of the latter’s Jedi training. From these simple premises, audiences were exposed to a richly detailed and action-filled narrative, thanks to George Lucas’ story, Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (which was also credited to Leigh Brackett) and Irvin Kershner’s direction. The movie featured many exciting sequences and dramatic moments that simply enthralled me. Among my favorite action sequences were the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Hoth, Yoda’s introduction, Han’s seduction of Leia inside the giant asteroid worm, the Falcon’s escape from the worm. For me, the movie’s best sequence proved to be the last – namely those scenes on the mining colony of Bespin. I would compare this last act in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” to the Death Star sequence in “A NEW HOPE” or the Mos Espa podrace sequence in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. The Bespin sequence featured a few truly iconic moments. Well . . . if I must be honest, I would say that it featured two iconic moments – Han’s response to Leia’s declaration of love and Darth Vader’s revelation of his true identity.

Naturally, one cannot discuss a STAR WARS movie without mentioning its technical aspects. In my review of “A NEW HOPE”, I had failed to mention Ben Burtt’s outstanding sound effects. I will add that his work in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” proved to be equally outstanding. I could also say the same for the movie’s sound mixing, which earned Academy Awards for Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Greg Landaker, and Peter Sutton. Composer John Williams’ additions to his famous STAR WARS score were not only outstanding, but earned him an Academy Award nomination. Those additions included a love theme for the Leia/Han romance and the memorable “Imperial March”, which is also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme” As far as I am concerned, the tune might as well be known as the Sith Order’s theme song. The team of Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson did an outstanding job with the movie’s visual effects – especially for the Battle of Hoth sequence. I can also say the same for Peter Suschitzky’s photography. However, my favorite cinematic moment turned out to be Luke’s initial encounter with Darth Vader on Bespin. Even to this day, I experience a chill whenever I see that moment when they meet face-to-face for the first time. Although John Mollo’s costumes caught Hollywood’s attention after “A NEW HOPE” was first released (he won an Oscar for his effort), his costumes for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” seemed like a continuation of the same. In fact, I found the costumes somewhat on the conservative side, even if they blended well with the story.

It is interesting that the performances of both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher garnered most of the attention when “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” first came out. The Leia/Han romance was very popular with fans. Mind you, both gave very good performances. But I believe that Mark Hamill acted circles around them. And not surprising, he won a Saturn Award for his performance as Luke Skywalker in this film. Billy Dee Williams also gave a first-rate performance as the roguish smuggler-turned-administrator, whose charming persona hid a desperation to do anything to save the inhabitants of Bespin from Imperial annihilation. James Earl Jones and David Prowse continued their outstanding portrayal of Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker, with one serving as the voice and the other, the physical embodiment of the Sith Lord. Julian Glover, who later appeared in “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” made a brief appearance as the commander of the Imperial walkers, General Veers. Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew continued their excellent work as C3-P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. But I was particularly impressed by Frank Oz’s voice work as the veteran Jedi Master Yoda, and Kenneth Colley as the Imperial Admiral Piett, whose cautious and competency led him to rise in the ranks and avoid Vader’s wrath for any incompetence.

Is “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” my favorite STAR WARS movie of all time? Almost. Not quite. For me, it is tied in first place with one other movie from the franchise. But after thirty-seven years and in spite of its flaws, I still love it. And I have give credit to not only the talented cast and crew, but also director Irwin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and especially the man behind all of this talent, George Lucas.