One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

How do you think you’d fare if you went to Hollywood big shots these days for money to make a critique of the mental health service? You’d probably not be sectioned for it but you might be laughed out of town. Mind you, if it’s the more laid-back 1975 and you have Kirk Douglas and Son behind it, the project had a fair chance. It turned out to be not just a blockbuster but one one of the defining films of its time.

Although to call it a critique of the mental health services is to miss the point. It’s as much a mental hospital story as if… is a ripping boys’ school yarn. It’s a story of its time, and its time wasn’t morning-after-the-summer-of-love 1975, when the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent oil crisis shook everybody out of babyboomer idealism and planted tehir feet firmly in the mud. It’s a film ten years after its time and belongs to those heady days of revolutionary optimism in which Ken Kesey wrote the novel. It’s the tale of the rebel pitted against a calculating, controlling and oh-so-reasonable establishment that crushes the human spirit, and it might have been waiting for Jack Nicholson to come along. If that’s the case it’s certainly no worse for the wait.

It’s also, in a curious way, a love story. Nicholson’s character shouldn’t be in a mental hospital, but he’s an accomplished player of the system who wangles commitment as a way of easing the passage of his short prison sentence for the statutory rape of a girl “fifteen going on thirty-five”. One inside he meets his nemesis in the form of control freak Louise Fletcher who, he realised to late, has made a career out of bringing her charges under her complete control and has the power to detain indefinitely. Oh, how these two need each other! For Fletcher, the wild and wayward Nicholson is a challenge to be tamed and brought under her control. And Nicholson just has to break the ice-cool Fletcher; rumple the perfect hair and soil the crisp white uniform. It’s going to be a titanic struggle, and as with the titanic struggles of the day it’s always likely to end in mutual destruction.

The two leads play it to perfection. Jack Nicholson has been playing Randall McMurphy all his career, but the real tour de force is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched. Her buttoned down, oh-so-reasonable menace comes across with great subtlety. You want to find a heart of gold inside there, but of course there is none.

Was this the last of the truly great Hollywood films? Maybe not, but Hollywood won’t be making many more of this calibre.

Great Expectations

I used to think of Great Expectations as the Dickens novel for people (like me) who hated Dickens. That was before I discovered Bleak House of course (but then, for some reason, Dickens’s masterpiece was never on the menu when I was a child: if it had been I might have viewed the man more benevolently). Although it contains a fair slice of grotesque caricature, Great Expectations seemed more than any other Dickens to be about moral ambiguity, and thus surprisingly modern.

David Lean managed to tap into this well. Dickens was always going to be a gift to the cinema when it finally arrived, and perhaps because of that pervading sense of moral ambiguity Great Expectations was the novel best suited to the screen. From the shocking moment early on when young Pip in the graveyard runs into the terrifying convict Magwitch, attention is demanded. After that, the story of the rise of young Pip under the influence of the bizarre Miss Havisham and a mystery benefactor unfolds relentlessly towards the inevitable bursting of his bubble. Some parts of the story are missed out, as is the wry Dickens commentary, but they aren’t missed. The only thing that grates is the false happy ending. The story of ambiguity ought to end as Dickens, that consummate wordsmith, ended it. Ambiguously.

Can great novels be made into great films? This is undoubtedly a great film. Maybe it depends on whether you think it’s a great novel or not. I’m inclined to think it is.

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In which Malcolm McDowell reprises the role of Mick Travis, the unlikely revolutionary schoolboy of if…

It’s four years later and Travis is now a trainee coffee salesman with the knack of always landing on his feet. Presumably this natural jamminess is the reason why he is not banged up for mass murder, but all is not what it seems, as we shall see. So, we follow our hero through a series of increasingly surreal picaresque adventures and mishaps from which Travis, however he may be humiliated or tortured, invariably emerges better off than he was before. Until, eventually, he pushes his luck once too often and ends up in prison. But then, as Ralph Richardson remarks at one point, the gap between the House of Lords and Pentonville Prison is very small indeed.

It might easily have been from an original idea by Fielding or Smollet. I believe that the true inspiration was Voltaire’s Candide, and that fits for it is a powerful political satire of its time and one which – thinking of Osborne and Mandelson on the yacht – is just as applicable today even if it dates from the days of Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho and the unacceptable face of capitalism. It’s also hard not to see a parallel with Evelyn Waugh. Travis’s decline and fall is not at all unlike that of Paul Pennyfeather.

This is a big film – over three hours long – and it’s baggy and sprawling, but it’s never dull. Its scale only serves to underline the monstrosity of the corruption and exploitation that it satirizes. There’s also a fabulous soundtrack by Alan Price to hold the attention. Price and his ensemble appear initially as a kind of Greek chorus, stopping the flow to give a detached musical commentary. In a typically surreal touch though, Price and his band become an integral part of the action. (And if that weren’t enough, we find in the closing scenes Lindsay Anderson auditioniong Mick Travis for the lead role in his film if… and at this point we’ve left the realms of Voltaire and Waugh and plunged into the bizarre world of Flann O’Brien.

It’s all quite bonkers, of course, and quite magnificent. A wonderful film.

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Despite what we might want to believe, social revolutions are seldom if ever triggered by a single event, instigated by a single individual, or completed within the space of a single year. Western society had been turning itself inside out since at least 1945, possibly since 1918. But looking back, one might recognise 1968 as the year when western society had to acknowledge that it could never be the same again. Event after event underlined the crisis – the Paris uprisings, Grosvenor Square, the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression, the Chicago Democratic Convention, all with Vietnam providing the soundtrack. And before any of these events happened, Lindsay Anderson was filming if…

It looks like a school story, right up to the shocking climax, but it is transparently allegorical. A boys public school as a microcosm of British culture, of the old order that must now fall. And in two parallel stories we follow two of the boys who are formed by their environment. First there is Jute, a naive new boy, gradually being assimilated and accepted into the culture. And then there’s Mick Travis, a sixth-former whose non-comforming instincts begin with growing a moustache over the summer (but keeping it well hidden from authority until he can shave it off), and are pushed by oppression and persection into taking a bloody revenge on the school and the establishment figures who run it.

Something was certainly in the air in that turbulent year. It was something inextricably linked with youth: a generation no longer prepared to sit and watch the follies of its elders being continued into perpetuity and which actively rose against it. It was futile, of course, if total revolution was its aim, but nothing would ever be the same again.

This is a quite magnificent film, one that captures the 1968 mood perfectly, and it should be ranked up there with the very best. The biggest disgrace is that only very recently has it been available on DVD.

The Searchers

It’s so easy to poke fun at John Wayne. He’s such an inviting target; his bone-headed stubbornness, his neanderthal attitudes, his apparently wooden acting. What’s harder is trying to explain how it is he turns up in so many excellent films, and not in minor roles either. Stagecoach and Red River are up there with the greats of any genre, and so is The Searchers.

The history of the Western has been about the America of the European settlers coming to terms with what it has done: what it has destroyed as much as what it has achieved. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, especially as the awful realisation of what was visited on the people who were already there. John Wayne fits into this history perfectly. He’s the embodiment of Manifest Destiny; the pioneer who ain’t gonna let nobody stand in the way of his fortune; the man who takes just what he wants and blasts away anybody who gets in his way. Even his own brother, if his brother has the woman he wants.

And he really hates Injuns. He lost his mother to them. He hates the red man so much that, when he comes back late from the Civil War and finds that his brother’s family have adopted as their own the part-Cherokee boy Marty, the look he gives would freeze whiskey in the full heat of noon in Monument Valley. He hates them so much that he shoots them in the back as they ride away from him. Some Hero of the Old West! He’s even determined to kill the niece he and Marty have been tracking for five years, taken by the Comanche, because she’s become assimilated with them.

Sure, it’s a dreadful thing that the Comanche torch the settlers’ homesteads with the settlers inside and abduct the children. But it’s also pretty bloody awful for the US Cavalry to charge through a tepee village on sight massacring men, women and children alike. And in the end it’s the Comanche who come out of The Searchers smelling sweeter. In 1956 America was waking up to what it had done to its indigenous people, The Searchers still has a touch of moral ambiguity about it, but the Western has come some way from Red River a few years earlier where cutting the throat of an Indian was no obstacle to being family entertainment.

It’s the ambiguity that made the ending, which I won’t give away, such a disappointment for me. It’s undoubtedly a great film, but for now it must yield to Red River the title of My Favourite Western.

The Go Between

These days we tend to look upon the arranged marriage as a feature of another culture, but we forget that not all that long ago marriage was a tool for forging alliances for the sake of social betterment, often under duress, and how often were lives damaged by it.

In this story, the real victim is the 12-year-old Leo, a naive schoolboy living with his doting mother in straitened circumstances to allow him to attend a prep school, who is invited to spend the last summer of the nineteenth centure with his much more worldly schoolfriend and his upwardly-mobile middle-class family, pretending to play the gentry in a Norfolk country house. While there, his naive innocence is taken advantage of in furtherance of the liaison between beautiful Julie Christie and her bit of tenant farmer rough Alan Bates (Phwarrr!). But Our Julie is destined to marry charming but badly-scarred aristocrat Edward Fox for the sake greater social advancement of the Mawdesley family. And when young Leo is caught up in the crossfire, he sustains emotional traumas that will blight the rest of his life.

The film stays faithful to LP Hartley’s wonderful novel, but can’t entirely capture the spirit of it, which stresses the point of view of elderly Leo looking back on that distant summer through years and years of desiccated avoidance of emotion. All the same, it catches the flavour well. One should really read the book but there’s enough here to get the idea across, by the use of some very subtle time shifting. It certainly looks terrific – you can feel the heat of the summer, the lazy buzz of the bees in the overgrown garden, feel the intesity of the Norfolk sun on the lake, smell the rubbish around the outhouses. And a near-perfect score by Michel LeGrand ties it up nicely.

Its 2007 descendant is Atonement of course. What is it with Ian McEwan. surely much influenced by old Julie Christie films? The Comfort of Strangers was surely a rehash of Don’t Look Now!

Cat Ballou

A western that follows well-trodden paths and plays them for laughs, mostly. Nice-as-pie schoolteacher Jane Fonda returns to live on her father’s ranch in Wolf City, Wyoming. But all is not well; there’s a campaign to drive him off his land in the time-honoured way of ambitious property developers everywhere – horse manure in the well, that sort of thing. It could be Surrey in 2008. Things turn nastier when hired assassin Lee Marvin rides in to give a final warning, which the amiable Mr Ballou does his best to shrug off. The next thing you know, Lee Marvin’s back, Frank Ballou is dead, and his daughter is swearing vengeance. She hires a notorious gunslinger to sort out Lee Marvin, but when he arrives he’s not only also Lee Marvin, but this Lee Marvin is a hopeless drunk who looks more like Harpo Marx on an off day than a hero of the Old West.

Well, I wouldn’t want to give anything away, and you can probably predict the way things develop, and it could be a real turkey. But the truth is, it’s pulled off with some aplomb and rises well above the mediocrity it could have been in lesser hands. Besides, the show is stolen by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as a couple of troubadours who drift in and out, singing the ballad of Cat Ballou. Bonnie & Clyde it ain’t, but that won’t come for another couple of years and it certainly poins the way.

I might not be heartbroken if I never saw Cat Ballou ever again, but my life is richer for having seen it.