Print the Legend

No director from the Golden Age of Hollywood did more to create the mythology of the Western than John Ford. Beginning with Stagecoach in 1939, he made several iconic films in the genre: My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and The Searchers. A final film that belongs on this list was one of the final films that Ford made, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a sense it marked the end of the straightforward stories and set the scene for the Man-With-No-Name antihero stories like A Fistful of Dollars that came along two years later. In general, Valance marked the end of the hagiography nature of westerns an began the search for historical accuracy. It also has a renewed relevance in the US today.

Cast & Crew

As with all the above films except My Darling Clementine, Ford had John Wayne as his star, this time as the character Tom Doniphon. Ford had befriended the young Duke Wayne when he first started in the movies. Wayne’s career had sputtered along until Ford took a chance and cast him as Johnny Ringo in Stagecoach. From that moment on, Wayne was box office gold. There was a definite comfort level for both men when they worked together, even though their working relationship was rough and tumble. In all they worked together 10 times, incluing such non-Westerns as They Were Expendable, The Long Voyage Home, The Quiet Man, and The Wings of Eagles.

The rest of the cast was outstanding, starting with James Stewart as the protagonist Ransom Stoddard. Strangely enough, Stewart and Ford hadn’t worked together until Ford’s 1961 movie, Two Rode Together, even though Stewart was an established star in westerns through movies like Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. As the antagonist Ford cast Lee Marvin as the titular Liberty Valance. While Marvin had small roles in movies in the 1950s, including Bad Day at Black Rock and The Caine Mutiny, he made his name in television, particularly as the hard-edged lieutenant in “M Squad.” Three years after Valance, he turned his tough-guy persona on its ear with the drunken gunfighter in Cat Ballou and won the Best Actor Oscar, then re-established his hard edge with The Professionals and Point Blank. Marvin worked with Ford and the Duke once more the next year in Donovan’s Reef.

The love interest, Hallie, was played by Vera Miles who had worked with Ford and Wayne on The Searchers and had also played Stewart’s wife in The FBI Story. Two years earlier she’d played Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho. As newspaperman Dutton Peabody, Edmund O’Brien got to chew the scenery with a Shakespearean flare, going so far as to quote a portion of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Also in the cast were veteran character actors Andy Devine and John Carradine, who’d both appeared in Stagecoach. As Valance’s henchmen Ford cast two actors who would go on to major careers: Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef.

Most Westerns of this era had a decidedly WASPish view of the west. Ford began to change the impression with Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, which looked at a respected black Cavalry officer on trial for raping a white woman. Ford cast actor and former decathlete Woody Strode in the title role, and Strode starred in three more of Ford’s movies. (He also fought Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.) In Valance Strode played Pompey, John Wayne’s hired hand/friend. One scene late in the movie was topical since the movie came out at the height of the civil rights protests. Pompey comes into a bar to pull Doniphon out and take him home. The bartender starts to order Pompey out but Wayne stands up for Pompey, saying he had a right to be there. It’s a mild scene now, but when it was released white supremacists were likely shocked to think they’d “lost” John Wayne. If Wayne were alive today, he’d be very upset with the rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants, since he like to travel south of the border and that was where he found his three wives.

There was also Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen as the Scandinavian couple who run the town’s restaurant. When a vote is taken in town, Qualen proudly shows his citizenship papers to the clerk. In the background is a strong Mexican contingent in town that’s somewhat represented by Andy Devine’s Sherriff Link Appleyard, who’s wife is Mexican. Strangely enough, one contingent not represented were Native Americans. Two years later Ford made Cheyenne Autumn, one of the first movies to treat Native Americans with respect, though it would be another couple of years, with Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josie Wales, that the roles would begin to be portrayed by Native American actors. (There’s still a way to go in regard to this, as the recent dustup showed over the casting of 2016’s Gods of Egypt.)

The look of Valance is different as it was filmed on the studio backlot and at a ranch in Thousand Oaks, a few miles outside the San Fernando Valley. Ford had often filmed in Arizona, particularly in Monument Valley, but budget constraints kept them close to the studio. In one shot in particular it looks like the scenery people transplanted a couple tall cacti into a Southern California field to make it look somewhat like the Southwestern. Ford had been scrupulous with such details, even if he wasn’t filming on location. He had the Welsh mining village in How Green Was My Valley built in the Southern California hills when filming in Wales wasn’t possible. If you compare My Darling Clementine and Liberty Valance, you’ll see a huge difference between two movies set in similar locations.

Ford filmed Valance in glorious black and white like most of his classic westerns, though this would be the last non-color film Ford made. The director of photography was William H. Clothier, who had worked with Ford on Fort Apache and The Horse Soldiers. Clothier had started as a camera operator – his first credit was for aerial photography in Wings, and he also worked on the original King Kong and the classic WWII documentary, The Memphis Belle. He became John Wayne’s choice for cinematographer on most of his movies during the 1960s and early 1970s, having worked on The High and the Mighty as well as Wayne’s directorial debut, The Alamo.

The Story

The screenplay for Liberty Valance was done by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Johnson taught journalism at the University of Montana and published 17 novels and dozens of short stories, all set in the West. Her stories were also the basis for the Gary Cooper western The Hanging Tree and Richard Harris’ major hit, A Man Called Horse.

Bellah had a very colorful background, an American who enlisted in the Canadian Army to fight in World War I and ended up flying with the RAF. In World War II he rose to the rank of Colonel working in the Southeastern theater with Lord Mountbatten and Generals Wingate and Stillwell. In between he was a popular writer of Westerns, and some of his work was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post. His stories were the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. In 1960 he adapted his own novel Sergeant Rutledge for Ford with the help of Goldbeck, an then they worked together again on Liberty Valance. Goldbeck had been a screenwriter in Hollywood since the silent films, and was mostly known for adapting the Dr. Kildare stories in the 1930s and 40s. He also was an uncredited part of cinema history, having done the screenplay for Tod Browning’s classic Freaks.

(Note: Spoilers are following, so if you haven’t seen the movie you’ll want to skip to the last section – or watch the film on Netflix before continuing.)

Liberty Valance looks at the contrast between the mythical west and what it became after it was civilized. It begins in 1910 with Senator and former Governor Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Miles) arriving in Shinbone. The state they’re in is never specified, though in the script the characters talk about being south of the Picket Wire. That was the nickname of the Purgatorie River that’s located in southeastern Colorado. However, when a US flag is shown later in the movie, it has 38 stars – the 38th being Colorado after its admission in 1876. The train is met by Appleyard (Devine), the former sheriff of the town. Stoddard is the picture of an elder statesman who can’t refuse talking politics when approached by the current editor of the newspaper. It’s almost as if Stewart was playing the Claude Rains role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While he talks, Link drives Hallie out of town to a decrepit and partially burned house that’s surrounded by cactus roses in bloom. When they return to town, Stoddard makes his apologies and rejoins them as they head to the undertaker’s to pay their respects to Tom Doniphon. Waiting with the body is Pompey (Strode), Doniphon’s loyal friend and helping hand. The newspaper editor is surprised – he has no idea who Tom Doniphon was – so he follows Stoddard and insists that the Senator tell him the story. Seeing Doniphon in his casket shakes Stoddard. He proceeds to tell the story, though without the political polish he showed earlier.

Thirty-plus years earlier, Stoddard comes to the southwest as a newly-minted lawyer, only to have his stagecoach robbed by Valance (Marvin) and his men. When Valance tries to take a broach from an elderly woman, Stoddard intervenes and is beaten and whipped for his trouble. Doniphon (Wayne) and Pompey find him along the road and carry him into town where Doniphon calls upon his girl Hallie to help Stodard. Hallie works with Peter and Nora Ericson who run the restaurant in town. It’s always busy in spite of its limited menu: massive steaks, potatoes, beans, and deep-dish apple pie. When he wakes up, Stoddard wants Appleyard to arrest Valance, though Appleyard begs off since the assault was outside of his jurisdiction.

Valance works for the cattlemen in the territory who want to put off statehood and keep the range open for their cattle. Doniphon has a small ranch outside of town and aligns himself with the townspeople and settlers who want the order and prosperity promised by statehood. He’s the only man in town who will go toe to toe with Valance. The arrival of Stoddard, who’s the embodiment of what statehood would mean, increases tension. While he works in the restaurant to pay back the Ericson’s hospitality, Stoddard also hangs his shingle out in front of the newspaper office at the invitation of the editor and highly functioning town drunk, Dutton Peabody (O’Brien). He starts a school in the back room at the paper where he teaches civics along with the three R’s. (There is one major gaffe in a scene at the school, where the body of laws that established the country is misidentified as the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution.)

Doniphon returns from a trip with word that Valance has started a campaign of intimidation to prevent statehood. He’s not happy to find that Hallie is a student at the school where she’s learning to read, and he feels Stoddard is interfering with his relationship with Hallie. Doniphon had told Stoddard that if he intended to stay in town he’d better learn how to use a gun, or Valance would eventually finish what he’d started the night of the stage robbery. Hallie discovers that Stoddard has been practicing with a pistol, and implores Doniphon to help him. Instead Doniphon embarrasses Stoddard, leading to Stoddard laying out Doniphon with a hard punch.

On the day of voting for delegates to the territorial conference, Valance and his men try to hijack the proceedings, but Doniphon prevents it. Stoddard along with Peabody are elected as delegates. Valance tells Stoddard that if he’s in town that night, he’ll shoot him, so Doniphon has Pompey ready at the restaurant to drive Stoddard out of town. However, Peabody has written an article critical of Valance, and that evening the gunslinger brutally assaults the editor while vandalizing the office. In the face of the near-murder of Peabody, Stoddard sends a message to Valance that he’ll meet him in the street.

In the climatic showdown, Valance plays with Stoddard, shooting him in his right arm and firing again when Stoddard tries to retrieve his gun from the ground. Valance promises his third shot will be between Stoddard’s eyes. Stoddard grabs the gun and manages to fire at the same time as Valance. Valance’s shot misses and he staggers back, shot in the chest, then drops in the street and dies.

Hallie runs to Stoddard, and Doniphon realizes he’s lost her. He goes on a drunken tear where he roughs up Liberty’s men and then returns to his ranch where he torches a room he was building in preparation for marrying Hallie.

Peabody recovers from his wounds, and he and Stoddard go off to the territorial convention where Stoddard’s name is place in nomination to represent those wanting statehood. When a representative of the ranchers excoriates Stoddard as having only one qualification, that he shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard is ready to leave and head back east, torn up by the thought of having killed Valance, a repudiation of his belief in law and order. However, Doniphon shows up and in private tells Stoddard what really happened. Hallie had sent Pompey to get Doniphon when Stoddard went out to face Valance. Doniphon pretended not to arrive in time, but in fact he and Pompey had watched Valance and Stoddard from a dark alleyway across the street. When Valance takes aim at Stoddard, Doniphon shoots his rifle a split-second earlier, killing Valance. Freed from the guilt of killing Valance himself, Stoddard re-enters the convention where he wins election, the first step in his distinguished career, while Doniphon rides away into obscurity.

The film switches back to 1910. In response to Stoddard’s story, the current editor of the paper (who has a portrait of Peabody in his office) slowly lists Stoddard’s many accomplishments while he rips up the notes of the conversation. He then delivers a line that sums up the movie, and much of the western genre: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Stoddard and Hallie leave Shinbone on the train, headed for Washington. Stoddard tells Hallie that he’s thinking about retiring soon, which she’s glad to hear. When the conductor comes by to tell them they’re making excellent time, Stoddard drops back into his politician personality, promising to write a letter of commendation to the railroad. The conductor delivers the final line of the film, a gut punch to both Stoddard and Hallie that’s soaked in unintentional irony: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

A Renewed Relevance

 The days of the “Wild West” lasted only a couple of decades, but they’ve been the focus of movies for well over a century, beginning with the very first American movie with a story line – 1902’s The Great Train Robbery. Even when Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone were in their heydays, pulp novels were busy creating myths of that time, and the movies picked up on that mythology. The contrast between the novel creations and reality was beautifully illustrated in Unforgiven when Gene Hackman’s sheriff reads the exploits of Richard Harris’ gunslinger in a pulp novel, then reminds Harris what actually happened. The 1960s marked the change in Westerns from glorifying the myth to deconstructing it. Before that time George Custer was a hero, thanks to movies like They Died With Their Boots On. The luster of Custer began to fade with The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965, and was completely destroyed with 1970’s Little Big Man. The legend was no longer satisfying, and since the 1970s the most successful westerns have been the ones that strip away the mythology and try to give a realistic view of the time – Movies such as Unforgiven, Tombstone, and the miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” Probably the easiest way to see the difference is to watch the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma and then view the Christian Bale/Russell Crowe remake. Same basic story but two very different movies.

Liberty Valance marks the moment the change began. One scene that highlights this is when Stoddard views Tom Doniphon’s body early in the film and is upset that he’s not to be buried wearing his guns. Pompey mildly informs Stoddard that Doniphon hadn’t worn his guns for years. The wild territorial days had been replaced by the law and order of statehood, with the change effected mostly by Stoddard himself.

Probably the greatest relevance of the movie to our current time is the attitude about guns. The whole idea of “a good man with a gun” that’s been propagated by the NRA is based on the mythology of western movies. In the real west, towns usually restricted the carrying of weapons. But what the film highlights is how the use of violence has consequences even for the “good” man. Doniphon is under no illusion; when he confesses to Stoddard that he killed Valance, he calls it cold-blooded murder. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, Doniphon goes off the rails and becomes as destructive as Valance was, though with Doniphon the destruction is aimed inwardly rather than outwardly.

Trivia and Box Office

This was actually this first movie where John Wayne called another character “pilgrim,” though it became a staple for impressionists when they did the Duke. Wayne was already sick with lung cancer during the filming of the movie, though it wouldn’t be diagnosed for two more years.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song based on the movie that was recorded by Gene Pitney and hit #4 on the music charts in 1962. The song’s not featured in the movie, partially because of a dispute between the music publisher and Paramount Pictures, and because it was viewed as too contemporary for a western. A few years later, Bacharach and David would have an even bigger contemporary hit with a movie from a western: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 The movie had a trim budget of $3 Million, and it was a success with a gross of $8 million, which was good enough for 16th place on the box office list for that year. It also achieved critical success. Roger Ebert singled it out among the Ford/Wayne collaborations for its pensive and thoughtful mood. Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) counted it as his favorite Ford film. The American Film Institute put Wayne’s Tom Doniphon on its “Hundred Years” list of heroes and villains.

In 2007 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. The movie has held up well and retains its emotional power 53 years after its initial release.


A Faith Full Story

This year has seen the release of a cascade of movies with religious themes. They have a Sergio Leone spread: they go from the Good (Heaven is For Real) to the Bad (Noah) to the Ugly (Left Behind). However, no one would call any of this year’s religious films devastating in their beauty and power. For that, you need to go back 28 years to a movie called The Mission.

The movie was the last one written by Robert Bolt, from his original story. Bolt was a former schoolteacher with his degree in history who began writing radio plays for the BBC on the side. He eventually left teaching and moved to writing for the theater. His major theatrical hit was “A Man For All Seasons,” for which he won a Tony award for best play when it was produced on Broadway. Later Bolt wrote the screenplay when it was adapted for the screen with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw in the main roles and Fred Zimmerman in the director’s chair. Before that, though, Bolt began a three-film collaboration with David Lean. In 1962 he wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, followed by Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.

In 1979, Bolt suffered a severe stroke that affected his speech and partially paralyzed him. He worked hard to recover, and returned to screenwriting with 1984’s The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. Two years later came The Mission. Bolt’s background in history made him the perfect person to tell the story of colonial South America in the 1750s. Robert Bolt passed away in 1995 at age 70.

Robert Bolt

Roland Joffe, who directed the movie, had started in television in his native England, including working a few episodes of “Coronation Street,” the BBC soap opera that’s been running for 54 years. In 1984 he directed his first film – The Killing Fields, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Mission was his second feature film. The movie was produced by David Putnam, who’d also produced The Killing Fields as well as another movie that dealt with faith, Chariots of Fire.

The movie begins with a short preface as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) dictates a letter to his secretary, to tell Pope Benedict XIV that the cardinal has completed his assignment. Altamirano isn’t pleased with the tone and begins again, starting with the first Jesuit who climbs a waterfall to reach natives living in the highlands above the falls, known as the Guarani people. When they see the crucifix the priest is wearing, they create a wooden cross, tie the Jesuit to it, and then send him down the river to be martyred when he plunges over the falls. That iconic image was used for the movie’s posters.

Rather than stay away from the escarpment, the head of the Jesuits in the area, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), climbs the falls himself. He can feel the natives in the forest around him, but rather than speaking to them, he sits on a rock and begins playing his oboe. The natives are drawn out of the forest by the music. Most of them are entranced, though some are angry at Gabriel. One takes the oboe and breaks it, but Gabriel knows he’s made a connection when another native picks up the two pieces of the oboe and tries to fix it.

Soon Gabriel learns why the Guarani are so hostile. A mercenary and slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), has also penetrated the area above the falls to kidnap natives and sell them to plantations. Mendoza is an intense man who takes laughter as an affront. When not on raids to capture slaves, he lives in the Spanish capitol of the colony with his half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), close to his fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). Mendoza loves Felipe, but when he returns from a raid to discover Felipe and Carlotta in bed together, Mendoza kills Felipe in a duel. While he’s excused of blame by the authorities, his grief over his actions almost drives him to madness. The head of the hospital where Mendoza is confined sends for Father Gabriel, who presents the slaver with a suitable penance. He must climb the falls, dragging a bundle filled with all the armor he wore as a soldier, and then let the Guarani decide his fate. What follows is an incredible sequence that ends with the most powerful and realistic depiction of repentance and salvation ever put on film.

Mendoza embraces the life of a Jesuit, serving those he once enslaved. But when Cardinal Altamirano arrives, Gabriel and the Jesuits learn that the area where their missions are located is to be transferred from Spanish control, where slavery is outlawed, to the control of the Portuguese, where slavery is still allowed. Gabriel tries through a series of debates as well as a tour of the missions to convince the Cardinal to prevent the transfer, but while Altamirano is deeply moved by all he sees, he can’t change the decisions made across the ocean. Altamirano warns Gabriel that the Jesuit risks the suppression of the whole order, as the authorities in Catholic Europe have grown tired of their independence. Three choices of action remain, none of them good: 1) capitulation to the authorities, 2) non-violent resistance, and 3) war against the Spanish and Portuguese. It’s a question of conscience for each man to decide which path he’ll follow.

Much of the movie was filmed on location, and the film recruited indigenous people to portray the Guarani people. Rather than write lines for them, they were given the thrust of scenes and then allowed to speak whatever they wanted in their own language. The waterfall that is a central part of the movie is one of the most beautiful in the world: Iguazu Falls, on the present-day border between Brazil and Argentina.

The story of The Mission is roughly based on fact. In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid was signed by Spain and Portugal to end a border dispute between their colonies in South America that had led to armed conflict. As part of the treaty, a portion of Paraguay where the Jesuits had missions was transferred to Portuguese Brazil. The transfer meant that all of the natives who were living at the missions could now be enslaved. That action started what was called the Guarani War, with the indigenous people fighting against the soldiers of both Spain and Portugal from 1754 to 1756. The suppression of the Jesuits mentioned in the movie happened a little later, in the 1760s and lasted into the 1800s. During that time the Jesuits left Catholic Europe and its colonies and worked in other nations and mission fields.

Altamirano was a real person, though rather than being a Cardinal he was a Jesuit himself, sent by the general of the order to enforce the Madrid treaty. Father Gabriel is based on Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz. One of the consultants on the film was Fr. C.J. McNaspy, S.J., who wrote the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” that deals with the history of this period.

Iguazu Falls

Music is an integral part of the movie, and the producers were fortunate to get Ennio Morricone to compose the score. It is one of the best ever written, from the beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” to the native instruments blended into “Falls,” to the raw, discordant power of “Penance,” to the liturgical chanting in the “Main Theme.” It’s one of those scores that brings the images of the movie rushing back into your mind when you listen to the music.

The casting was excellent. Irons was respected for his work in “Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but it was still early in his career. It was four years after The Mission when he had his breakout role as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. De Niro had had a string of unsuccessful movies after 1980’s Raging Bull, including The King of Comedy, Brazil, and Once Upon A Time In America, which as released in such a truncated form that it lost its coherence. (It wasn’t until it was released years later in a 4 hour version that its brilliance was recognized.) With his work in The Mission along with The Untouchables the next year, De Niro’s career was back on track.

Ray McAnally was an Irish character actor who was revered for his stagework, though he had a run of successful movies in the late 1980s (Cal, White Mischief, and My Left Foot) and did  the miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy.” Sadly, he passed away in 1989 at age 63. Fielding, one of the Jesuits helping Father Gabriel, was played by another Irish actor just beginning his career – Liam Neeson. An interesting piece of casting in light of the theme of the movie is that of Sebastian, an elderly Jesuit. The role was played by Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who was a protester against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and nuclear arms in the 1980s. At the beginning of the credits it is noted that priests still fight for the rights of indigenous people, along with a verse from the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Mission was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the grand prize, the Palm d’Or. At the Golden Globes, Morricone won for his score and Bolt for the screenplay. The movie was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Score, and Director, but it ended up winning only one award, for Chris Menges’ cinematography. In 2007 it was selected as #1 on the list of top 50 religious movies by “The Church Times.” This is a movie that wrestles with powerful themes: redemption, obedience, the conflict of Christianity with temporal power – and the danger of merging those two.

At the time it was made, adding a final tag to a movie after the credits had just become popular. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with its famous tag, was released the same year as The Mission. The tag at the end of the credits in The Mission is only a few seconds long, without any dialogue, and it is devastating.

This year’s quantity does not equal the quality of The Mission. If you want to watch a powerful movie about Christianity, start here.

A Giant Parable

Brad Bird is one of a handful of directors to find success in both animation and live action films. Working with Pixar, he did both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and he helmed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is the best movie in that series. But before those successes, he made his feature debut with the classically animated film, The Iron Giant.

The movie is based on a 1968 children’s book, “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes. When the book was published in the US, the name was changed to avoid confusion with Marvel Comic’s character. Hughes was known for his poetry and was Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998. (Today he’s also remembered in connection to his first wife, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar.”) Bird adapted the story along with screenwriter Tim McCanlies (Second Hand Lions, “Smallville”). They move the story from England to coastal Maine in 1957, at the height of the Red Menace fears. Instead of the intergalactic threat to peace in the original, The Iron Giant has an all-too-human villain who is motivated by fear and paranoia.

The giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) crashes to earth just off the coastal town of Rockwell, Maine. He accidentally sinks a fishing boat, though the fisherman survives. Rockwell is the home to 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who’s a waitress at the town’s diner. Hogarth meets the local junkyard man and aspiring artist, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), when the squirrel he wants to keep as a pet gets loose at the diner.

Hogarth is home alone that night, watching a forbidden sci-fi horror flick on the TV, when the picture turns to static. When he checks on the antenna, he finds it’s gone, and he sees a trail leading off into the forest. Armed with his BB gun and wearing a plastic Army helmet, Hogarth investigates, and comes across the Giant. The Giant has a ravenous appetite for metal, and when he tries to eat a power substation, he gets hung up in the high-tension wires. Hogarth saves him by cutting the power. Hogarth runs from the scene, only to be found by Annie, who’s searching for him after finding the house empty. Later the next day, he returns and finds the Giant who, because of a blow to his head, is like a very large child himself. He introduces the Giant to McCoppin, so the junkman can help satiate the Giant’s hunger for metal.

The report by the fisherman and the blackout cause at the substation has raised the suspicions of a government operative, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald). He’s at first dismissive of the assignment, but that changes when he finds his car half-eaten by the Giant. When he finds the remains of Hogarth’s BB gun at the substation, he suspects he has a way to find the Giant.

Along with the actors noted above, others who supply their vocal talents to the movie include Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney and M. Emmett Walsh. The animation, done by Warner Brothers, is on par with later Disney films such as The Fox and the Hound, though in style the film is more complex, closer to live-action movies. Its closest spiritual cousins are The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, not the Keanu Reeves mess), both of which were comments on the paranoia of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

While it’s an animated movie and can be enjoyed in that way, it also works well for adults, especially those who remember what it was like to be a child in the middle of the last century. It draws you back to that more innocent time of friendship and imagination, and it grabs your heart strings and plays them shamelessly with its theme of sacrificial love. That’s a good thing, for as long as our hearts can still be reached with a message of love and understanding, there’s hope for us yet.

For the Love of Films

Italy has had a love affair with movies for as long as images have flickered on the screen. In the mid-1950s, there were over 17,000 cinemas in the country, and it is the land that produced Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Sergio Leone, Franco Zeffirelli, and Vittorio de Sica. But, as with the US and other countries, after that high water mark in the ‘50s the number of cinemas contracted as their audience was lured away by television. In 1988, writer/director Guiseppe Tornatore created a nostalgic and bittersweet love letter to those bygone days with the movie Cinema Paradiso.

The movie begins in the present day, with the mother of a successful film director trying to reach her son in Rome to tell him his childhood friend Alfredo has passed away in their home town in Sicily. When the director, Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), arrives home late, his live-in lover passes on the message. He brushes it off, but as he lays in his bed, his eyes are sad and haunted by memories. There’s no sleep that night as he drifts back to his childhood when he was known as “Toto” and to his friendship with Alfredo.

At the end of WWII, Toto (Salvatore Cascio) is a eight-year-old obsessed with movies who is constantly pestering Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso, to show him how to work the projector. He follows the village priest into the theater after mass one day and watches as the priest previews a new movie for unsuitable content. The priest makes Alfredo cut out anything sexual, beginning with kisses. (As a patron moans while watching a movie, “In twenty years, I’ve never seen a woman kiss on the screen.’) Toto gets Alfredo to give him some of the cut footage, which Alfredo does to get rid of him. Toto stores it in a can under his sister’s bed, but it’s too close to a heater and the silver nitrate film almost burns down their house. Toto’s mother Maria (Antonella Attili) prohibits Toto from going into the projection booth again.

Toto is devastated, but fate gives him another chance. The illiterate Alfredo has been attending night school, but it’s not going well for him. He asks Toto for help, but Toto demands Alfredo teach him how to run the projector in exchange for his tutoring. Soon the two become close friends as they work together. It’s an idyllic time, until a horrifying accident costs Alfredo his sight. Toto continues on as projectionist into his late teens. By then, Toto (now played by Marco Leonardi) is experimenting with his own 8mm movies. He also experiences the highs and lows of first love when he falls hard for Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano), the blue-eyed banker’s daughter.

After his military service, Toto is pushed by Alfredo to pursue his dream of working in the film industry. Alfredo tells Toto that only after he has been away for a long time will he have a chance to return home and find what he left behind. After 30 years away, the adult Toto returns for Alfredo’s funeral – and finds his friend has left him a very special gift.

The delight of Cinema Paradiso is in Tornatore’s eye for detail. The audience in the theater is a microcosm of the village, captured in beautiful detail over the course of the years. Along with the love of movies and Toto’s love of Elena, there’s a powerful familial love story between Toto, who lost his father in the war, and Alfredo, who has no children.

Helping the movie’s impact is a gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone that is equal parts haunting and romantic, echoing the great themes of the golden age of movies. Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is particularly beautiful in capturing the village in the evening.

The movie was an Italian/French coproduction, and drew its cast from both countries. Philippe Noiret was a well-known actor in French cinema who did over 150 films, but he didn’t speak Italian. During filming, he spoke all of his lines in French, and then they were dubbed in Italian afterward. When the film was released in France with the language dubbed, they used Noiret’s regular voice. Noiret passed away in 2006, at the age of 76.

There are three versions of this movie. The original cut ran 155 minutes, but Tornatore also did an expanded version that was just short of 3 hours. There’s also a shorter version (124 minutes) that was released internationally. That shorter version won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 1990 Academy Awards. It also won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes that year, and was nominated for 11 BAFTAs (winning 5) along with numerous other awards.

Tornatore has gone on to write and/or direct over a dozen more movies to date, including Malena, The Legend of 1900, and Everybody’s Fine, with Marcello Mastroianni. The last picture was remade in English in 2009 with Robert De Niro in the main role. Cinema Paradiso counts, though, as his masterwork, and a love letter to cinema lovers throughout the world, and throughout time.

In Memorium

(NOTE: If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, this post does include spoilers. However, a good way to spend Memorial Day is to watch it, since it brings home the sacrifices of soldiers.)

The movies always presented a pristine version of war. Decades ago director Sam Fuller, who’d been at Omaha Beach on D-Day, was asked why he didn’t make a movie about the invasion. He responded that no one wanted to see a beach covered in blood and guts. Late in his career Fuller did make a movie that touched on D-Day, The Big Red One, but it followed the form of the movies before it – all the main characters survive. All that changed in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. For once, the gut-wrenching terror, capriciousness, and brutality of war were showing on the screen.


The Writing

Saving Private Ryan was written because a father took his newborn baby for a walk. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was living in his home state of New Hampshire on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1994. His first child had recently arrived, and the proud papa pushed the baby’s stroller around town. When he stopped at the town’s war monument, he looked at the names of the residents who’d died in battle since the Revolutionary War and was struck by how many surnames were repeated. Looking at his child, he imagined what it would feel like to lose his child in a war. The seed for Saving Private Ryan was planted.

Families have suffered multiple casualties in war on the same day. There’s a mention in the film of the five Sullivan brothers who served on the light cruiser USS Juneau and were all killed in action when it was sunk. An integral piece of the movie is Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, consoling her on the loss of five children in the Civil War, an actual document. (It’s said that truth is the first casualty in war; in fact, three of the Bixby children survived.) The loose basis for Ryan was the experience of Frederick “Fritz” Niland, a German-American from upstate New York. He and his three brothers enlisted and were placed in different regiments, one going to the Pacific while Fritz and the other two went to Europe. Those two brothers were killed when they and Fritz participated in D-Day. At the same time the brother in the Pacific was reported missing and presumed dead. Fritz was pulled out of combat and returned to the States where he served out the war as an MP. Happily, the MIA brother had in fact been captured and survived the war.

Rodat approached producer Mark Gordon (Speed, The Day After Tomorrow) about the project. Gordon liked it, though he had Rodat do eleven rewrites before he accepted the script. Gordon brought the project to Spielberg, who’d been looking to do a war picture. When he was a kid making films with his father’s Super 8 camera, he’d done a short war story called “Flight to Nowhere.” He’d circled the war with Schindler’s List and the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies (we’ll forget about the comedy 1941, which is best), but he’d never dealt with actual battle sequences. Rodat was on the set throughout the filming as there were constant revisions to be made. Scott Frank (Out Of Sight, Get Shorty) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) also did uncredited work on the script.


Gordon got Tom Hanks interested in playing Capt. Miller, though not without effort. He’d been friends with Spielberg ever since The Money Pit, which Spielberg produced, but both men were concerned that working together would ruin that friendship. However, the project appealed to them, and they discovered they worked well together. Spielberg later directed Hanks in both Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, and they collaborated to produce Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two miniseries that built on what Ryan started.

The casting of Miller’s unit was integral for the success of the movie. Spielberg and casting director Denise Chamian filled the roles will people from the world of independent film. Ed Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), and Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo) all wrote, directed and acted in their own movies. Giovani Ribisi (T-4 Medic Wade) had acted in Goldberg’s film, as well as in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Jeremy Davis (Cpl. Upham) had starred in Spanking The Monkey, the first feature by David O. Russell (American Hustle, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), while Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson) had worked mostly as a supporting actor on television. For Sgt. Horvath, Michael Madsen was first considered, but he passed on the project and instead suggested his friend Tom Sizemore (Heat, Natural Born Killers).

Spielberg had Technical Adviser Capt. Dale Dye take the primary cast for a week of military training. Dye was a twenty-year Marine veteran who’d come up through the ranks and served in Vietnam and Beirut before coming to Hollywood, Most of the actors thought it would be like camping, except for Hanks who’d worked with Dye on the Vietnam scenes for Forest Gump. Dye put them through an abbreviated boot camp that was so intense midway through most of the actors were ready to walk away. Hanks took the lead like a real Captain Miller and got them to stay.

One actor purposefully spared this week was Matt Damon. Spielberg wanted the other actors to resent him, just as their characters resented Ryan. Spielberg wanted an unknown actor in the role, and chose Damon after Robin Williams introduced the two during the filming of Good Will Hunting. However, between the casting and the release of the film, Good Will Hunting and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker were released, and Damon became one of the hottest actors in Hollywood.

The Opening

The sun-faded American flag that both opens and closes the film is a brilliant metaphor for the fading memory of D-Day. Harrison Young, who plays the older Ryan, hadn’t had a credited roll in films until he was 61 years old in 1991, but before his death in 2005 he garnered 74 credits as a supporting actor. Kathleen Byron, who plays his wife, was a veteran of the British cinema and had appeared in Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus in 1947; Ryan was the last movie she would do. They did not film the scene at the actual military graveyard in Normandy, as that would desecrate the land. Instead the set crew created the “graveyard” in a field in England. These scenes are the only ones in the film with normal color. For 1944, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski washed out 60% of the color to create sharper images.


At first, Spielberg thought the movie would be a boy’s adventure story, but interviews he did with veterans about their experiences changed his view. Author Stephen Ambrose (“Undaunted Courage,” “Citizen Soldiers”) also provided background for the movie. The pivotal attack on Omaha Beach was scheduled to be filmed at the end of the shoot, but instead Spielberg moved it to the beginning. He didn’t story-boarding the scenes, as he always did in his movies, choosing instead shoot like a newsreel taking in the action as it happens. It took 4 weeks and $11 million to shoot the sequence chronologically.

Originally Spielberg planned to shoot in England, but a request for Army personnel as extras was refused. Instead he moved the Omaha Beach sequence to Ireland, where the Irish Army provided 2500 men. They’d similarly cooperated with Mel Gibson when he filmed Braveheart. The location manager found a section of coastline that was a perfect match for Omaha Beach, and even the weather cooperated with heavy seas and damp cold days, just like the actual invasion. When you see actors throwing up while approaching the beach in the Higgins landing craft, that’s not acting; they were really seasick. Ten of the landing craft used in the film had been operational in WWII.

The metal and wooden barricades on the beach were there because the Germans expected the invasion to happen at high tide. They wanted the Higgins boats to get hung up on the barricades, and many had mines attached to their tops to blow up the craft. Instead the invasion happened at low tide and the barricades provided some cover for the soldiers.

Industrial Light and Magic later digitally added the bullets flying throughout the scene. About twenty amputees were hired to portray the soldiers who lose their limps. The sequence captured the reality of the invasion, and several veterans complimented Spielberg on its realism. One of them was James Doohan – “Scotty” on Star Trek – who as a young man came ashore on D-Day at Juno Beach with the Canadian Army. On the other hand, British actor Richard Todd, who was also at D-Day and later starred in The Longest Day, thought the movie was rubbish. Saving Private Ryan used 40 barrels of fake blood in the course of filming of D-Day.

Near its end, after the Americans break through the German defenses, two soldiers try to surrender to two Americans, and are instead shot dead. The surrendering soldiers actually speak Czech and say that they were forced into the German Army by the Nazis but they hadn’t taken part in the battle. The German Army had what they called Ost (East) Brigades, which were made up of captured Poles and Czechs.

The filming of Omaha Beach changed the movie. It was as if the voices of those who died called out and demanded that their story be told honestly.


Several actors who have since become stars were featured in small roles in Ryan. In the sequence following the invasion where secretaries are writing to inform families of the loss of their loved ones, the deaths of the three Ryan brothers is discovered. It’s brought up the chain of command to a Colonel who’s lost an arm. That role is played by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). Dale Dye, the technical advisor, also appears as the white-haired Colonel when the situation is explained to General of the Army George Marshall (played by Harve Presnell). One of the voices reading the casualty letters is John de Lancie, who played Q on “Star Trek – The Next Generation.”

In the window of the Ryan home in Iowa is a white banner with a red border and four blue stars. WWII families hung those banners in the window to show how many in the family were fighting the war. For those who died, their stars were changed to gold.

To Neuville-au-Plain

Originally the soldiers began the trip to the village of Neuville by jeep, but the sequence when they lose the jeep (and most of their ammunition) was cut. Captain Miller later mentions the loss of the ammo. The half-destroyed village was constructed in England where the filming continued after Ireland.

After Caparzo is shot by a sniper, Jackson takes out the German with a shot through the man’s telescopic sight. This is based on an actual occurrence, though it took place during the Vietnam War. The Marine sniper who made that shot was Pvt. Carlos Hathcock.

Two other actors who’ve since become stars appear during the Neuville scenes. The sergeant who guides Miller and his soldiers across the divided town is played by Paul Giamati, 5 years before his breakthrough roles in American Splendor and Sideways, and the wrong Ryan is played by a very young Nathan Fillion (“Castle”).


The rally point details how the Airborne invasion went wrong, with misdrops all over Normandy. FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all recognition) was a term used by WWII soldiers, as well as FUBB (f**ked up beyond belief), though the most common was SNAFU (Situation normal – all f**ked up). When Ed Burns reads the names on the dog tags during this scene, all the names are of friends of his.

After the attack on the radar site and Wade’s death, the soldiers debate whether to kill Steamboat Willie (Joerg Stadler). Willie is saved when Captain Miller finally tells the others what he did before the war. Rodat had originally written a much longer speech, but Hanks asked Spielberg if he could edit it, since he felt his character wouldn’t talk so much about himself. The shorter speech is what’s in the film.

The Battle of Ramelle

After Miller and his men find Ryan among the paratroopers holding the bridge in Ramelle, and Ryan refuses to leave until reinforcements arrive, there’s a sequence where they’re preparing for the German counterattack. One thing they make are “sticky bombs” to disable the tanks. While this is a fiction, it’s based on the British S.T. Grenade, which was designed to stick to tanks and then blow up. Unfortunately, the grenades had a habit of sticking to the person throwing them, with tragic results.

Once the preparations are completed, the soldiers are stuck waiting for the attack. Ryan tells Miller a long story about his brothers from the last night they were all together. That story was improvised by Damon, and it sounded so guileless that it was effective.

There was no battle of Ramelle, the climax of the film. (The sequence lasts almost exactly as long as the D-Day invasion, forming bookends for the film.) The Germans did counterattack at Normandy, but the fight took place on causeways, not in a town. The production used the same set that they used for Neuvelle, just shot from different angles, and the bridge spanned a three-foot deep canal that was dug for the film.

The small motorcycle with tank treads, called a Rabbit in the film, was an actual German vehicle used to tow artillery. It was built by a one of the companies that, after the war, merged to form Audi. The German tanks in the film were dressed-up Russian T-34s. While they look similar, the treads are quite different.

When Mellish is killed in the knife fight with a German, he can’t understand what the soldier is saying to him. The German is actually telling him to give up, that they can end it here and that it will be quick. When Upham captures soldiers at the end, including Steamboat Willie (who has shot Miller), Upham tells them to put their hands up and drop their weapons. Willie says he knows this soldier, and Upham tells him to “hold his snout.” Willie says “Upham,” as if they were still friendly, and Upham shoots him, then tells the other soldiers to get lost.

Miller’s final words (“James, earn this. Earn this.”) are simple and devastating, not just for the older Ryan when we return to the graveyard, but for the audience as well. How can anyone earn the sacrifice of another person’s life? As it says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”


As with almost all of Spielberg’s work, the score for Saving Private Ryan was written by John Williams. It beautifully blends a martial feel with a requiem. The final music over the credits gives it the richness of a full symphony orchestra along with a chorus, provides a final resolution for the film. It’s not so much triumphant as an acknowledgement of sacrifice that honors those who were lost in the war.


Saving Private Ryan was a risky movie. The level of violence was unlike anything put on film before. Spielberg said at the time that he was making a movie that John Wayne wouldn’t like. It was in many ways the antithesis of all the war films made before it. The only flag waving in it is the faded old Glory at the opening and the closing. The budget was kept small to minimize the risk for investors. Armageddon, which was released the same summer, cost twice as much to make, as did the 1998 version of Godzilla. In the end, though, Ryan beat them both to become the highest grossing film of the year.

When the finished movie was screened for Stephen Ambrose, he was overcome with emotion midway through the D-Day sequence and they had to stop the film. After a while he returned and complete watching the film. Other veterans found the scenes disturbing enough that the VA set up an 800 number for them to call for help with their reactions. However, the film also became a way for vets of WWII to finally talk about their experiences during the war with their families. For the first time fathers were able to open up to their children and tell what had happened to them.

The movie was banned in Malaysia because Spielberg wouldn’t cut the violent scenes. He was afraid the MPAA would give the film an NC-17 rating because of it, but he was determined to not make any changes. The film was almost banned in India, but the Culture Minister personally screened the film and, seeing its merit, approved it to be shown.

Ryan’s summer release may have hamstrung it at the Oscars. While it did win Spielberg another Best Director Oscar, along with statues for Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects, it lost out on Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. Tom Hanks lost Best Actor to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, and John Williams’ score lost to that film as well. Ryan was the last film edited in the old way on film to win the Best Editing Oscar; from then on the winners have all been edited digitally. It was also the last film released in the old Laserdisc format for home video.

While Life Is Beautiful is pretty much forgotten now, and Shakespeare in Love is rated as one of the most embarrassing Best Picture wins, the power of Saving Private Ryan remains, and the film is just a stunning today as it was sixteen years ago. It blew away the myth of a good war. As Miller says in the film, “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me…I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” That is something every soldier faces, and some never do make it home.


Spared No Expense

Jurassic Park was a watershed moment for the movie industry since it was the first movie to have a majority of its special effects be computer-generated.  Now the movie that proved the power of that technology has been re-released in Digital 3-D, and it is as wonderful as it was 20 years ago when it was first released.

The movie began as a “by the way” moment.  In 1990, author Michael Crichton had met with producer/director Steven Spielberg about a project they were considering doing together, which later on became the hit TV show “E.R.”  Crichton mentioned in passing that Spielberg might be interested in the book he was currently writing.  Ever since “The Andromeda Strain” in 1969, Crichton had made a career out of taking current science and pushing it a little farther along, then crafting a thriller around that speculation.  Now he told Spielberg he was working on a story about cloning dinosaurs.

The book became a bestseller, but even before it was released the movie studios were fighting with each other to get the film rights.  James Cameron, Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon series), and even Tim Burton were in the running to make the movie for different studios, but Universal Pictures, where Spielberg had his Amblin’ production company, won the rights.

At first Spielberg planned to use a combination of models crafted by the legendary Stan Winston as well as stop-motion animation by Paul Tippett (RoboCop).  Stop-motion was the venerable special effects method, used since silent pictures.  It was the technology special effects master Ray Harryhausen used to create his magic in movies such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, It Came From Beneath The Sea, and 20 Million Miles To Earth.  Harryhausen’s final special effects extravaganza was the original Clash of the Titans in 1981.

A few years later digital effects came along, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic.  It was fitting that its first use was in a Spielberg production: 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, where a knight in a stain glass window comes to life.  James Cameron used digital effects in The Abyss (1989) to create the water tentacle.  That technology was refined and used for the T-1000 liquid metal robot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).  Still, at that time the common impression of digital effects was that it was what you saw at a video arcade.

Originally, digital effects were planned for one scene, where the T-Rex chases the stampeding Gallimimus (a name that actually means “chicken mimic”). Dennis Muren of ILM, who’d done the T-1000 effects, contacted Spielberg when they had a very rough version of the footage.  When the filmmaker and his production team saw test strip, they were completely blown away by it.  Spielberg decided to gamble on the new technology to replace the stop-motion footage.  Paul Tippett remained on the film as a choreographer of the dinosaurs’ movements, and his efforts helped give the individual dinosaurs personalities.  One other innovation was that this was the first movie to use DTS digital sound.

The screenplay for the film was done by Crichton, who done original screenplays such as Westworld as well as adapting novels like Coma for the screen.  Crichton had also directed both of those movies, among others.  To help Crichton, Spielberg chose screenwriter David Koepp.  Koepp had done the screenplay for Death Becomes Her, and he went on to write Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, Spider-man and Angels & Demons.

The casting of the movie is excellent, though Spielberg and casting directors Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson made choices that were unusual at the time.  Sir Richard Attenborough (John Hammond) had begun his career in front of the camera in movies such as Brighton Rock and The Great Escape, but had given that up to direct.  In 1983 he won both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Gandhi, which he produced and directed.  He hadn’t appeared in front of the cameras since The Human Factor in 1979.  Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler) was an indy princess, appearing in off-beat movies like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart.  Sam Neil (Dr. Alan Grant) had started out in the Australian film industry with roles in films like My Brilliant Career.  He’d survived an early brush with Hollywood (Omen III: The Final Conflict) to do good supporting work in A Cry In The Dark, Dead Calm, and The Hunt for Red October, but he wasn’t someone you’d think of as an action hero.  His other major role in 1993 was as Holy Hunter’s demanding husband in The Piano.

Probably the most logical choice at the time was the idiosyncratic Jeff Goldblum as chaostician Ian Malcolm.  Bob Peck (game warden Robert Muldoon) had mostly worked in England on stage and television.  He did the lead role of Robert Craven in the six-part BBC series Edge of Darkness that was later adapted for the big screen with Mel Gibson in the Craven role.  Sadly, Peck died of cancer in 1999, at the age of 53.  After a decade of small supporting roles, Wayne Knight had graduated to larger roles in Dead Again and Basic Instinct, and he’d just started appearing as Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis Newman.  With his performance as computer programmer Nedry, he solidified his position as one of the go-to supporting actors of this generation.

Like Knight, Samuel L. Jackson had paid his dues in small roles (with credits like “Gang Member #2” and “Black Guy”).  He’d also begun getting larger roles leading up to Jurassic, such as Jack Ryan’s friend Robby in Patriot Games, though he’d have to wait a year to jump to being a leading man in major pictures with his mesmerizing role as Jules in Pulp Fiction.  Joseph Mazzello, who played Hammond’s grandson Tim, had done a little work before, and had auditioned for a role in Spielberg’s Hook.  He lost that role, but Spielberg promised to get him into another movie, which turned out to be Jurassic Park.  Mazzello has continued acting, recently appearing in this season of “Justified” as a snake-handling preacher, and he’s also in G.I. Joe: Retaliation this summer.  Ariana Richards, as his sister Lex, was well-experienced in film, having done movies such as Prancer and Tremors.  Her audition consisted mainly of screaming.  When Spielberg later reviewed the audition tapes at home, Richards’ scream woke Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw from a nap and made her check on their children.

One piece of casting was actually done by Michael Crichton.  In the book, Hammond tells his guests that they hired award-winning actor Richard Kiley to do the narration for the ride.  So for the film version, Spielberg hired Kiley as the narrator.  This has happened one more time in movie history, with the Swedish film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire.  Stieg Larsson had used a real boxer as one of the characters in his novel, and the boxer then portrayed himself in the movie.

The exteriors of the park, including the helicopter approach, were filmed on the island of Kauai.  On the last day of filming reality mirrored fiction, though the reality was much more intense.  In the film a tropical storm hits Jurassic Park while Nedry has disengaged the security fences and headed to the boat.  In the production’s case, Kauai was hit by Hurricane Iniki, a record-setting storm for the Hawaiian Islands.

The production was finished in L.A., including the T-Rex’s attack on the jeeps.  For that sequence, a mix of digital effects and animatronics was used.  Stan Winston’s creature workshop created a T. Rex that was over thirty feet long and almost twenty feet high.  When the T.Rex crashed down on the Plexiglas roof of the jeep holding Tim and Lex, that was Winston’s creation.  Winston also created the sick Triceratops featured early in the film.

Amazingly, considering the north of $200 million budgets of blockbusters these days, Jurassic Park had a budget of under $70 million.  It was released under the old model of a limited number of theaters which then slowly expanded.  In comparison to the $100 million plus openings of major pictures these days, Jurassic Park had an opening weekend box office of $15 million, but that was on fewer screens – and it was playing to sold-out theaters with lines snaking around the block.  In the end, the movie had a worldwide gross within spitting distance of a billion dollars, and was the highest grossing movie until Titanic sailed into theaters four and a half years later.  The 3-D re-release brought in nearly $20 million in its first weekend.  It has a real shot at breaking through the billion dollar level.  The film was also a marketing success with the Jurassic Park logo adorning lunch boxes, backpacks, and all manner of items.  This marketing was gently lampooned in the film, with scenes of the souvenir shop at the headquarters of the park.

The conversion to 3-D actually enhances the film.  Spielberg’s visual narrative made use of 3-D angles, such as when Drs. Grant and Sattler along with Tim and Lex try to escape from the raptors in the ceiling of the main building, only to have the raptors leap at them.  Seeing a raptor flying directly toward the audience was bad enough in 2-D.  In 3-D it’s better than much of what you see in films these days that are shot specifically in the process.  Some of Stan Winston’s work now looks dated, such as the brontosaurus making friends with Grant and the kids (and sneezing on Lex).  But overall the movie is just as intense – and awe-inspiring – as it was when it first played twenty years ago.

These days all of the special effects would have been done digitally.  But it took Jurassic Park to truly open the world of digital film effects and forever change how films are made.   

Mockingbird at 50

**This is the 100th post I’ve published since starting this blog in June of 2011.  In honor of that, I decided to look at To Kill A Mockingbird, which just had its 50th anniversary this past November.

To Kill A Mockingbird stands out as one of the best adaptations of a book to the screen.  But it almost never made the transition.  All the major studios passed on the book, even though it had won the Pulitzer Prize.  They couldn’t see how it could be made into a movie, since there was hardly any action in the story, nor a love interest.

Then producer Alan J. Pakula stepped in, who was at the beginning of his distinguished career.  Pakula, the son of a Polish immigrant, was a Yale graduate who found a position in the Leyland Hayward Theatrical Agency.  That fueled his desire to work in the film business.  He headed for Hollywood where he became an assistant at Warner Brothers Animation, then moved MGM.  In the late 1950’s, he formed a partnership with television director Robert Mulligan to do their first movie, Fear Strikes OutTo Kill A Mockingbird was their second collaboration.

They worked together throughout the 1960’s on such films as Inside Daisy Clover and Love With The Proper Stranger.  Then in 1969 Pakula slipped into the directing chair himself for The Sterile Cuckoo, Liza Minnelli’s first movie which brought her an Oscar nomination.  Pakula went on to produce and direct multiple Oscar winners including Klute, All The President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice, and The Pelican Brief.  Sadly, he was killed in a freak car accident in 1998, at age 70.  Mulligan continued directing, doing films such as The Summer Of ’42, Same Time Next Year, and The Man In The Moon, which introduced child actress Reese Witherspoon in 1991 and was his final film.  He passed away at 83 in 2008.

Pakula saw the potential in the book and obtained the movie rights.  He and Mulligan felt Horton Foote would be the writer who could translate the story to the screen.  Foote was born in Wharton, TX, and had first pursued an acting career.  However, choreographer Agnes DeMille, with whom he became life-long friends, suggested he write plays.  That began a long career, first writing for the stage, then television, and finally films.  One of his early television works, in 1953, was “The Trip To Bountiful” which he adapted 32 years later as a movie that won Geraldine Page the Best Actress Oscar.  Foote at first didn’t want to take the assignment because he was afraid he couldn’t do justice to the book, but he eventually gave in to Pakula’s request.  He had a breakthrough with the writing when he decided to keep the story within a period of just over a year.

Pakula convinced Universal to back and release the production.  The studio had some ideas about who should play the lead role.  Their first choice was Rock Hudson, and then James Stewart.  Thankfully they both passed.  Instead, Pakula sent the book to Gregory Peck.  Peck read it in one night, and called Pakula early the next morning.  He said to the producer, “I’m your boy.”

Peck had been a major star ever since his second movie, The Keys of the Kingdom, in 1944.  His résumé leading up to Mockingbird was filled with excellent performances in memorable movies:  Spellbound, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, Twelve O’clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., Roman Holiday, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, On The Beach, The Guns of Navarone, and Cape Fear.  Any actor would be happy with that as a career.  For Gregory Peck, it was all a prelude to the role of a lifetime that remained his personal favorite for the rest of his life.

Early on, the company considered filming on location in Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama.  When they visited there, they found little remained of the town in Lee’s book.  The visit, though, allowed Peck to meet Lee’s father Amasa, the template for Atticus Finch (Finch was Harper’s mother’s maiden name).  Peck noted Mr. Lee had a habit of fiddling with his pocket watch when thinking; the actor used that, particularly in the trial scene in the movie.  Unfortunately Amasa Lee passed away before the movie was released.  As a remembrance, Harper gave Peck her father’s watch.

The decision was made to instead shoot on the Universal lot.  The production designers exactly reproduced the Monroeville courthouse for the trial scenes.  While the set is gone, the actual courthouse is now a museum that you can visit in Monroeville.  The exterior of the courthouse is the “Courthouse Square” that you can see on the Universal Studio Tour (and was later used for Back To The Future.)  They planned to build the town set on the back lot, but the production designers found a number of Southern-style houses in the San Fernando Valley that were scheduled for demolition to make way for a new freeway.  The houses were bought cheap and transferred to the back lot, saving a considerable portion of the budget.

A major hurdle for the production was finding children to play the roles of Scout, Jem and Dil.  The role of Dil is based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, who spent his summers in Monroeville when he was a child.  To play him, they cast John Menga, who had done stage work along with television roles.  After Mockingbird, Menga continued to act on TV shows such as Dr. Kildare and Star Trek and in movies (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Cannonball Run), and he founded L.A. Arts, a non-profit theatrical company.  He was one of the many that the artist community has lost to AIDS, dying in 1995 in his early ‘40s.

Thousands of children were auditioned in the south before they found Mary Badham and Philip Alford in Alabama.  Philip wasn’t interested in auditioning until he found out he’d miss a half-day of school.  Mary Badham had acting in her genes, as her English-born mother Mary Hewitt was an actress before marrying Henry Lee Badham Jr., a military aviator who retired as a Brigadier General.  Mary hadn’t prepared anything for the audition and just got up on the stage and did something she thought was silly.  It worked, for she and Philip were called back to audition once more, this time in New York City.

They are both wonderfully natural in the film.  This was helped by Mulligan, who let the children play together while the crew quietly set up shots.  There were problems, though.  In a scene where they were eating, Mary messed up almost every take, usually by mouthing the other actor’s lines.  (A small example of it is in the film.)  Philip got so tired of eating, when it came time for the scene where Jem pushes Scout in a tire, Philip aimed the tire at a utility truck, hoping to do grievous bodily harm to Mary.  Mary was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, becoming the youngest nominee ever at that time.  Curiously, she lost out to another child actress – Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.

During the filming, Peck often had Philip and Mary over to his house on off days to play with his own children, who were about the same age.  They formed a close attachment that lasted the rest of Peck’s life.  In a documentary about the making of Mockingbird, Mary slips a couple of times and refers to Peck as Atticus.  Both children continued to act for a while – Philip appeared in Shenandoah – but they gave it up by adulthood.  Philip became a successful businessman in Birmingham.  Mary married a school teacher and did art restoration, though she’ll often do talks about the experience of making Mockingbird.  Her older (by 14 years) brother, though, has had a quite successful career behind the camera: Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games, Short Circuit, Stakeout).

The cast included a number of actors making their big screen debuts.  Alice Ghostley became a supporting actress fixture on the small screen for the next four decades, best known as Esmeralda on “Bewitched.”  William Windom had been working in television since the late 1940s.  He remained busy both on the big and little screen into the mid-2000s, and passed away just last August.  There’s one further debut performance, though I’ll mention it later.

As the old, laudanum-addicted Mrs. Dubose from the book, Ruth White endured 4 hours of make-up each day she was filming.  However, most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.  She passed away suddenly from cancer seven years after the film was made, at age 54.

The centerpiece of the book and the movie, the trial of Tom Robinson, was based on Amasa Lee’s defense of a black man in 1923.  The heavy of the piece is Bob Ewell, played by James Anderson.  Anderson performed in over 140 films in his career that spanned from Sergeant York to Little Big Man, even though he was felled by a heart attack when only 48.  His hate-filled performance as the father of Mayella (Collin Wilcox) is indelible, even as you wish you could wash it away.  Wilcox purposely chose the unwashed look of Mayella’s hair, wanting to appear like a woman who didn’t have time to take care of herself.  While Mayella’s physical abuse by Ewell is clearly stated, there’s also a subtext of incest to the story, leading to her attempted seduction of Tom.

As Tom, Brock Peters communicates incredible nobility.  Peck found he couldn’t look directly at Peters when Robinson is on the witness stand for fear of being overcome by the emotion Peters was projecting.  Instead Peck used a stage trick of looking past the actor.  It is telling for those times that Robinson is convicted because he had the temerity to feel pity for a white woman.  In the segregated South, that wouldn’t do.  Mulligan filmed Atticus’s final address to the jury in one single nine-minute take.

But the movie is truly a story of childhood, and the awakening of the children to their father’s identity.  There are moments when they suddenly see him in a new light.  Some are small, such as when Atticus meets with Robinson’s family, treating them with respect.  Others are surprising, as when Atticus shoots the rabid dog.  It leads up to the encounter in the middle of the night at the jail, when the children see Atticus standing up to the mob of men bent on lynching Tom Robinson.  When the children rush forward to stand with Atticus, it is Jem’s first step to adulthood, refusing to obey his father.  But it’s Scout’s guileless conversation with the farmer that breaks the will of the mob.  At the conclusion of the trial, they see their father through the eyes of the black spectators.  It still is the same goosebump moment today as it was in 1962 when the black pastor tells Scout to stand up because her father’s passing.

All children like to be scared, and in Mockingbird they’re scared of Boo Radley.  The character is based on a real person in Monroeville whose name was Alfred “Son” Bouleware.  He did live with his parents in a dilapidated, boarded-up house only a few houses down from the Lees.  It’s likely that he was an albino, which explains his staying out of the sun and working in the garden at night.

Playing the role was Robert Duvall in his big screen debut after six years working in television.  Duvall bleached his hair and stayed out of the sun in preparation for performing Boo.  He has no lines, but his face conveys so much that lines are superfluous.  Duvall’s career has been stellar, with 130 credits, from the original True Grit, The Godfather I & II, The Natural and Apocalypse Now through the recent Jack Reacher, where he was one of the best parts of the movie.  He won his Best Actor Oscar for 1983’s Tender Mercies, which was written by Mockingbird scribe Horton Foote.

The movie was helped by an excellent score by Elmer Bernstein.  In his long career, Bernstein scored over 200 productions, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, True Grit, Animal House, and Ghostbusters.  His only Academy Award, though, came for composing the music for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  For Mockingbird, he began the theme with an approximation of how a child will randomly plunk notes on a piano, and went from there.  Actually, the person playing the piano on the score would eclipse Bernstein and become one of the greatest composers the film world has ever seen: John Williams.

The film was a success, making nearly $14 million at a time when it still cost less than a dollar to see a movie, off of a budget of $2 million.  It picked up 8 Oscar nominations, including Picture, Black & White Cinematography (they had a separate award for color at that time), Direction, and Music Score, along with Mary Badham’s Supporting Actress nod.  It won for Art Direction, and for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Gregory Peck assumed that Jack Lemmon would win the Best Actor award that year for The Days Of Wine And Roses, so he was surprised when Sophia Loren called out his name.  Mockingbird lost the Best Picture award to another classic movie, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

To Kill A Mockingbird occupies a place in the pantheon of movie excellence, up there with Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, and other examples of the best of the silver screen.  It’s ranked as the best inspirational movie ever made.

To view the movie in its glory, there’s now a 50th anniversary DVD that includes a beautiful digital restoration of the film.  The two-disc set also has two full-length documentaries: A Conversation With Gregory Peck, which was made by Peck’s daughter Cecilia (Mary Badham’s childhood playmate) and includes footage from Peck’s tour in the late 1990’s where he talked about his career, five years before his death, as well as the 1998 documentary on the making of the movie, Fearful Symmetry, which includes interviews with most of the principal players in the movie’s creation.  It’s a must have for any lover of this movie.