The Best Pictures #5: Hamlet (1948)

Continuing in my endeavour to watch and write about every winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, I’ve chosen 1948’s Hamlet. Directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, Hamlet won the 21st Best Picture Oscar, becoming the first non-American film to do so.

I had watched Olivier’s Hamlet once before – alongside a number of other Shakespeare adaptations – and was not particularly impressed. My feelings, I think, were that it was an inoffensive, if lightly boring take on Shakespeare’s most acclaimed play and that it did not deliver the way Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 “full text” adaptation did. My biggest gripe, however, was that Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet was too cold and too theatrica (as opposed to cinematic).

After watching it a second time, I think I was mostly wrong, mostly very wrong. Hamlet is nothing less than captivating. It does not deliver the way Branagh’s does, but it does deliver. Branagh’s unabridged version runs for 4 hours and 2 minutes – in which time a viewer can watch both Olivier’s Hamlet and 1994’s The Lion King and still have a few spare minutes. The excisions made by Olivier for his take were controversial. Gone are Fortinbras, who inherits the kingdom at the end of the play, and messrs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Olivier’s abridgement removes the political aspects (as represented in those characters just mentioned) of the play, leaving behind a wholly personal and psychological story. His Hamlet focuses on the turmoil of the titular character – indeed, Olivier famously “reduced” the themes of the play to: “the tragedy of a man who cannot make up his mind” – and his relationships with the other players.

“Words, words, words”, Hamlet says. And what words those of Hamlet are. I believe now that I failed to appreciate Olivier’s film the first time – and I believe “words, words, words” were a main reason for that. I was too focused, I suspect, on the Words and their delivery. As I said above, I was mostly wrong about Hamlet. After a second viewing, though, I am still convinced that Olivier’s acting in the titular role was far from perfect.

Laurence Olivier won his only Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Hamlet. It is the only time, surprisingly, that an Oscar has been given for a Shakespearean performance; and it was the first time a person directed themselves to an acting award. But the performance is too controlled. Despite himself singling out indecision as the theme of the film, Olivier’s Hamlet rarely seems unsure of what to do – he just rarely seems to do it. The precious words are delivered perfectly clearly and at consistent paces, but there’s no genuine feeling discernible in them. The most famous lines in literature are delivered as if with boredom. When Hamlet is angry neither his body or tone convincingly suggest it, Olivier is just louder. He delivers a stage performance on the screen.

Were it solely a matter of Olivier’s acting, Hamlet would be a failure. “Would be” meaning, of course, that it’s not only a matter of Olivier’s acting. On hand to elevate the sometimes wooden delivery and make the theatrical cinematic is: the director: Laurence Olivier. I wouldn’t like to deprive John Huston of his only directing Oscar (for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and it would be pointless to say that Olivier “deserved” it instead. But, if Olivier should have won any of his individual nominations for Hamlet then he did win for the wrong one. Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet is somewhat uninspired; his realisation of Hamlet is exquisite.

Olivier achieves a synthesis of the theatrical and cinematic. His performance is theatrical, so are the other performances. The whole film, in fact, is a stage performance and that is easy to see. Cast deliver lines from their “marks”, poses are held in a way real people do not. Background characters, when there are any, usually remain still – the exceptions being when scenes begin and end, when they enter and exeunt stage. No pretence is made that what we are witnessing is not literally “staged” – that doesn’t, by the way, excuse Laurence’s delivery of the lines.

Olivier’s direction in other respects, however, embraced the cinematic – and, in doing so, told the viewer about Hamlet what the performance did not. This is achieved in the sets, the camera work and the interplay of the two. Roger K. Furse and Carmen Dillon were awarded the Oscar we now call Best Production Design for the sets (Furse was also award for Costume Design). Desmond Dickinson was the cinematographer but was not even nominated for his efforts.

Furse and Dillon’s sets present Elsinore as vast, empty and labyrinthine. Plainly inspired by German expression such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), corridors appear to go on forever, stairs lead to stairs lead to stairs, a cavernous hall is occupied by a lone chair. Outside Elsinore appears vast and unpopulated, no city or settlement is ever seen from the ramparts. In this setting Hamlet’s dryly-delivered words are imbued with their proper meaning: Hamlet is lost, alone, and trapped.

It is not only the sets that suggest Hamlet’s feeling, though; it is also, and perhaps predominantly, the way in which those sets are filmed. While Olivier’s “action”, what the cast do, is pure theatre, he takes advantage of the fact that his audience’s perspective is not, as in theatre, fixed. The camera is the audience, and Olivier and Derek Dickinson’s camera is far from fixed. Like the Dane, the camera glides through the maze of corridors and stairs that is Elsinore; it swings between or circles the often stagnant players; it swivels wildly and flies upward, to the top of the castle, when Hamlet’s emotion peaks. Sometimes it is Hamlet’s eyes and so, other times, appears to be the eyes of an unidentified and hidden watcher.

As in any film movement is used to indicate what the audience should especially look at within a scene. It’s more important than usual in Hamlet, however, because of the other major feature of the camera work. The film, like Citizen Kane (1941), uses deep focus photography. The backgrounds – the ever-stretching hallways, and wide, empty exteriors – are not, as is the norm, distinguished from the foreground; each is clear as the other, there is “no depth”. Depth, of course, is suggested by shadows and size of the objects, but they seem all to be as close: as if the film were composed of cardboard shapes piled on top of one another.

The elaborate Elsinore, because of the camera’s movement and deep focus, is simultaneously vast and close. It’s a magnificent effect. A change of camera angle in Hamlet can radically change the viewer’s understanding of Elsinore’s geography. Of course, the deep focus also applies to characters in the foreground; who can appear to be piled on top or looming over one another as the scene requires. The camera work in Hamlet is not and was not revolutionary, as already indicated, but it is a stellar example of the “subjective lens” as everything the camera does conspires to put the viewer in Hamlet’s mind – and inform the viewer’s interpretation of the words spoken.

Aside from what’s been mentioned already, Hamlet was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. The Score by William Walton, I thought, served the film well enough. It didn’t particularly grab my attention and I wouldn’t listen to it independent of the film, but it set the scene well enough – and that, I expect, was all that it sought to do.

Jean Simmons was nominated for her Supporting role as Ophelia. Like the rest of the cast, of course, it’s a stagey performance. But Simmons is appropriately tragic in the role, at her best, if such a thing can be said, after Ophelia’s mind shatters – her walking among the other players oblivious to their presence is obviously sad, but Ophelia’s story is a sad one and will always be (unless she’s Nala).

There are a few standouts in the cast for me, though. Firstly, Polonius is always a highlight, he has some of the best lines and scenes in anything written. In Hamlet, Felix Aylmer takes the role and I have no complaints – I’ve seen Poloniuses (Polonii?) I prefer but that doesn’t detract from Aylmer’s solid performance. Basil Sydney as King Claudius is good throughout. But he is at his best in Claudius’ prayer scene, bringing genuine feeling to the part there and elsewhere. The standout, though, has to be Stanley Holloway (of David Lean’s Brief Encounter) as the gravedigger. I was enthralled by his scene, the delivery of his lines is hypnotic, and he’s the only member of the cast that I could believe was speaking rather than reciting.

Other famous faces can be espied in Hamlet. Christopher Lee is, apparently, in there, uncredited – I didn’t spot him myself, but nor was I looking for him. Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor Who, is the Player King in the famous ‘play within a play’ scene. (The ‘play within a play’ is a wonderful scene in the movie, by the way, with the ‘play’ being fully mimed while the camera navigates the stage and its audience.)

Peter Cushing takes the part of Osric and was a big surprise to me. Being used to seeing Cushing as Van Helsing and Star Wars’ Tarkin, I could not quite register, even though I knew it was him, Cushing as the flamboyant Osric. He’s really quite funny, about the funniest part of the film except, perhaps, for some of Polonius’ scenes.

Olivier’s Hamlet is, contrary to what I previously thought, a triumph. Did it deserve to be called Best Picture above the other nominees, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Red Shoes, and the non-nominees released that year, The Bicycle Thieves, Rope? That’s an ultimately pointless question to ask. Hamlet is a brilliant take on the play, but more importantly it’s a great film. The measure of it can, maybe, be taken from the fact that I really want to watch it again, and soon.

Next Time I’ll be discussing the 1st Best Picture winner, 1927’s Wings – which will be part of a “blogathon” hosted by Rebecca at TakingUpRoom (details there!)

Yesterday #4 (May 10, ’22)

**In which the author remarks on reading three of Orwell’s Essays (‘My Country Right or Left’, ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’, ‘W. B. Yeats’).**

These three essays are of the World War II era: published in 1940, 1941, and 1943, respectively. They all touch on similar themes – not all that surprising since Orwell wrote (in ‘Why I Write’, Essays, p. 5): “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism”. The recurring themes here are: fascism, patriotism, and memory & nostalgia. 

My Country Right or Left’ 

In which Orwell remembers World War I and the Spanish Civil War, remarks on the recently begun World War II, and proclaims himself a patriot. 

The essay begins with a remark on memory, how it is not a perfect record of events: 

“Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin.” (p. 135) 

People tend, because of that, towards a ‘good ol’ days’ mindset; and even horrors are recalled with a degree of fondness: 

“I spent the years 1922-7 mostly among men a little older than myself who had been through the war. They talked about it unceasingly, with horror, of course, but also with a steadily growing nostalgia.” (p. 135) 

“As the war fell back into the past, my particular generation, those who had been ‘just too young’, became conscious of the vastness of the experience they had missed. You felt yourself a little less than a man, because you had missed it.” (p. 135) 

Orwell makes it clear that he is fully committed to his country and that he supports the war against Hitler. But that patriotism should not be equated with conservatism; and the British are badly, he says, in need of a revolution. 

“[I knew] that the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through had done its work, and that once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage. But let no one mistake the meaning of this. Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is mystically felt the same.” (p. 137) 

Changing but mystically the same is really quite a brilliant way of thinking about nations. 

Wells, Hitler and the World State

In which Orwell contends the one-time “prophet”, H. G. Wells, has – in the WWII era – become an anachronism; that the success of Hitler is contrary to the worldview suggested by Wells’ work; for these reasons, Wells cannot understand Hitler; and that a “World State” is not viable. 

H.G. Wells, it seems, had written a number of articles on the subject of Hitler – “our [Britain’s] military ‘experts’” he said, “discuss the waiting phantom”: Hitler is nothing more than a “screaming little defective” and his armies are weak compared to the 1914 Hohenzollern army (p. 188–9). Wells proposed a “world state” as a remedy; Orwell likes the idea, but considers it an impossibility: 

“What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing.” (p. 189) 

“Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men… For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.” (p. 189)

Wells, and others who think similarly, Orwell says, misunderstand what motivates people to act: Wells gives too much weight to reason when, in reality, emotion reigns: 

“The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions – racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war – which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.” (p. 190) 

Wells, then, cannot understand the rise of Hitler for a “lifelong habit of thought” (p. 190); and he is “too sane to understand the modern world” (p.193), an age in which “creatures of the dark ages” roam: 

“…nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what [Wells] would describe as sanity. Creatures of the dark ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.” (p. 193) 

Hitler’s success somewhat perverts the imagined worlds of Wells, in which reason (or “common sense”) and science triumph together to create a better world. But: 

But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good… Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition.” (p. 192) 

Since that state of affairs contradicts the “world-view on which [Wells’] works are based”, he cannot accept it to be true. That, anyway, is what George Orwell thought. 

W. B. Yeats

In which Orwell considers the work and philosophy of the poet W. B. Yeats. 

I have a Collected Yeats that I read from occasionally – I will have to remember some points of this essay next time I do so: 

“Yeat’s philosophical system… ‘was at the back of his intellectual life almost from the beginning. His poetry is full of it. Without it his later poetry becomes almost unintelligible.’… Although almost buried under explanations, very difficult to understand, about the phases of the moon, the central idea of his philosophical system seems to be our old friend, the cyclical universe, in which everything happens over and over again.” (p. 235) 

That Yeats’ philosophy manifested politically in a tendency towards fascism “by the aristocratic route”. Yeats’ proposed utopia: 

“an aristocratic civilization in its most completed form, every detail of life hierarchical, every great man’s door crowded at dawn by petitioners, great wealth everywhere in a few men’s hands, all dependent on a few…” (p. 236) 

A passage that is both insightful and ignorant according to Orwell: 

“…in a single phrase, ‘great wealth in a few man’s hands’, Yeats lays bare the central reality of Fascism, which the whole of its propaganda is designed to cover up. The merely political Fascist claims always to be fighting for justice: Yeats, the poet, sees at a glance that Fascism means injustice, and acclaims it for that very reason. But at the same time he fails to see that the new civilization, if it arrives, will not be aristocratic, or what he means by aristocratic. It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters.” (p. 236) 

Orwell makes a comment on the nature of nostalgia, similar to what he said in My Country Right or Left: “all praise of the past is partly sentimental, because we do not live in the past. The poor do not praise poverty. Before you can despise the machine, the machine must set you free from brute labour.” (p. 238) 

And a fact that ought always to be considered when reading: “a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest details of his work.” (p. 238) 

Most, if not all, of Orwell’s essays can be read online for free – but the page numbers quoted above refer to: Essays (Penguin Classics, 2000) 

Yesterday #2 (May 7, 2022) 

In which the author reflects on reading George Orwell’s Essays (The Spike, A Hanging, and Shooting an Elephant). 

These are three essays I’ve read before. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that I’ve read every essay contained in the volume over the years through occasional random browsing – and many, including these three, I’ve read multiple times before. To paraphrase Johnson, when a person is tired of Orwell, they are tired of life. 

The Spike and A Hanging were both first published in 1931; Shooting an Elephant in 1936. The Spike was reworked into Orwell’s book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), for the publication of which Eric Blair adopted his better-known pseudonym for the first time. A Hanging and Shooting both relate to Orwell’s time as a colonial policeman in Burma – in the introduction to Essays, Bernard Crick mentions the questionable “truth” of these two essays: 

“We can argue until the cows come home whether [they] are to be classified as essays or short stories, but what we cannot do is to use them uncritically as autobiography just because they sound authentic. For part of the skill of the essayist… is not just to create that famous ‘momentary suspension of disbelief’ but also a lasting uncertainty about whether we are reading fact or fiction.” (p. xviii) 


‘The Spike’ 

In which Eric Blair takes on the guise of a “tramp”, stays at the casual ward of a workhouse (“a spike”), and illustrates a British tendency to kick people when they’re down (and out, i.e. when nobody knows them). 

It would be quite easy to recast Orwell’s report on the tramp’s life as a sort of dystopic vision. The tramps inhabit aare stuck in a loop: stay at a spike, travel (a considerable distance), stay at a different spike, travel, etc. The cycle dominates their lives, physical and mental: 

“Tramps hardly ever get away from these [same] subjects; they talk, as it were, nothing but shop. They have nothing worthy to be called conversation, because emptiness of belly leaves no speculation in their soul.” (p. 10) 

It can be guessed, since a tramp has a “right to live”, if nothing else, and that Jesus guy – in whom everyone of this era was supposed to believe – was pretty stoked on the poor, that the spikes had some humane motivation. Conscience had always to be tempered with good sense: good sense dictates that if the tramp’s “enjoy” their time at the spike, they won’t get themselves jobs and houses; they should know at all times that help is given out of basic humanity, but it is most certainly not “happily given”; if at all possible, help should be accompanied by punishment for needing help. 

At weekends “residents” are permitted to stay one extra night, two in total – proportionately, they are not permitted to leave the premises on the day between their two nights. Confined alone and then confined with each other and a communal area: the only contents are chairs, tables, and a poster of the RULES. The posting of the rules, perhaps, are a kindness as well as a cruelty, reminding “residents” how they can escape from what Orwell calls their worst evil: 

“I have come to think that boredom is the worst of all a tramp’s evils, worse than hunger and discomfort, worse even than the constant feeling of being socially disgraced… They have not the stuff in them to endure the horrors of idleness. And so, since so much of their lives is spent in doing nothing, they suffer agonies from boredom.” (p. 11) 

A familiar distinction is between the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor. The Tramp Major, ruler of the spike, pegs Orwell as a “gentleman” – as a “gentleman” Orwell can only be the victim of misfortune; as compared with his fellow tramps, who bring it on themselves. The Major treats Orwell favourably, allowing him “dinner from the workhouse table… one of the biggest meals I have ever eaten”. Afterwards, he disposes of the wasted food: 

“I filled five dustbins to overflowing with good food. And while I did so my fellow tramps were sitting two hundred yards away… It appeared that the food was thrown away from deliberate policy, rather than that it should be given to the tramps.” (pp. 11-2) 

Orwell speaks with a “superior tramp”. He holds the view noted above: “If they made these places too pleasant you’d have all the scum of the country flocking into them.” Orwell notes: 

“It was interesting to see how subtly he dissociated himself from his fellow tramps. He had been on the road for six months, but in the sight of God, he seemed to imply, he was not a tramp. His body might be in the spike, but his spirit soared far away, in the pure aether of the middle-classes.  (pp. 12-3)

WORDS? Mentioned is a parcel of ‘tommy’, old British slang for bread. 


A Hanging‘ 

In which Eric Blair, as a colonial policeman in Burma, assists in the execution of a convict, is disturbed as a result, and calls the death penalty obscene. 

In each of the “Burma” essays here, Orwell links an epiphany with a relatively minor thing. In A Hanging, the condemned man, though walking to his death, still steps out of the way of a puddle: 

“When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive… His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles.” (p. 16) 

Orwell suggests, as with imperialism in Shooting, that the death penalty is damaging as much to the executioner(s) as to the executed. The executioners, broadly defined, occupy a strange place, where no-fuss deaths constitute “good”: “The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body, it oscillated, slightly, “He’s all right,” said the superintendent.” (p. 17) 

All right as in dead. All right as in quietly dead. The worst scenario for these executioners is that there be any indication of the magnitude of what they are doing. Any indications that the death is at all unpleasant are dreaded: “We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries – each cry another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him, get it over, stop that abominable noise!” (p. 17) 

The absolute worst, though – far worse than the victim showing a degree of discomfort – would be for them to show reluctance, or, heaven forfend, resistance: 

“ ‘Ach, sir, it is worse when they become refractory! One man, I recall, clung to the bars of hiss (sic.) cage when we went to take him out. You will scarcely credit, sir, that it took six warders to dislodge him, three pulling at each leg. We reasoned with him. “My dear fellow,” we said, “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!” But no, he would not listen! Ach, he wass very troublesome!’ ” (p. 18) 

The literal Galgenhumor, gallows humour, is on display. Orwell finds he is “laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing.” In all circumstances, people must laugh, it’s a defence mechanism. The superintendent’s offer of whisky is another, less healthy, one. A trusted method of self-preservation and -justification is the delegation of the least pleasant tasks, epitomised here: 

“The hangman, a grey-haired convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his machine.” (p. 16) 

Always remember the words of Homer: “Can’t somebody else do it?” 

Shooting an Elephant

In which Eric Blair, as a colonial policeman in Burma, must shoot a musting elephant, and realises the futility of colonial ambitions. 

Orwell’s moment of epiphany on Imperialism. An immense crowd, two thousand strong, has gathered in expectation of him shooting an elephant, which he had not intended to shoot

“And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all… And it was at this moment, as I stood there, with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standard in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet…” (p. 22) 

The effects of colonising on the coloniser:

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy… For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the ‘natives’…” (p. 22) 

Not a comprehensive account of colonialism by any means, of course. Orwell, though, isn’t primarily motivated, in that moment, by ideals, or the interests of Empire – indeed, certainly not the latter, as he opposes Empire. But he speaks, early in the essay, of the “normal by-products of imperialism”, of which there are two: 

“With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unspeakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum [unto the ages of ages, forever], upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” 

Buddhist priests, none of whom “seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans. Like in A Hanging, the worst that can happen to a person knowingly doing a ‘wicked deed’, is for others to remind them of that fact. 

Orwell does, in the essay, shoot the elephant. It becomes a much discussed subject, but Orwell is never able to determine “whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (p. 25). In a later essay, ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’, Orwell that people act most, not on principle or reason, but: “The energy that actually shapes the world comes from emotions…” (p. 190). 

Likewise, in shooting an elephant Orwell was motivated – not, as already noted, by imperial ambitions – but by his own emotions: “To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.(p. 22) 


Each of these essays is available free at The Orwell Foundation – page numbers refer to Essays (Penguin Classics, 2000). 

Yesterday #1 (May 6, 2022) 

In which the author reflects on reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (Book 3, Chapters 5 – 11) and George Orwell’s Essays (B. Crick’s ‘Introduction’ and Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’). 


The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien (Book 3, Chapters 5–11)

In which: Gandalf returns in some new threads, King Theoden is freed from malicious counsel, a battle is fought at Helm’s Deep, some trees destroy Isengard, a white wizard is demoted, and a magical precursor to ‘radio’ is found in that wizard’s possession. 

Despite having been gone from the blog for a while – if consistency is the key to successful blogging I am in dire need of a locksmith – I am still reading Tolkien’s fantasy epic. In my last post, I wrote something about the earlier chapters of Fellowship – I won’t attempt to bridge then and now, except to say that:

I almost quit reading Lord of the Rings after finishing that first Part (Fellowship). This was because, paging through The Two Towers, I surmised that that volume was one of two halves (i.e. “Book 3” and “Book 4”) and that the latter half was dedicated exclusively to the story of Frodo and Sam, while the first half followed the other Fellowship members. I would have preferred, I suppose, alternating between the separate strands throughout. That said, I ended up enjoying “Book 3” a whole lot – to the point, indeed, that I was somewhat saddened to be moving onto the Frodo and Sam half. 

In Chapters 5–11, the following stood out to me…

“For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.” (p. 115) 

First of all, it is interesting to note that I, still relatively young, have long been prone to “a habit of the old”. Next time that habit is questioned I might justify myself on similar terms to Gandalf, the speaker here. 

Throughout the Lord of the Rings there is an emphasis on an idea nicely summarised at p. 244: “oft evil will shall evil mar.” 

In these particular Chapters the absurdity of an ‘evil alliance’ is laid bare. Allies in evil can never fully trust each other. As Aragorn puts it: “It is difficult with these evil folk to know when they are in league, and when they are cheating one another.” (p. 206). Gandalf, true to form, puts it aphoristically: “Yet a treacherous weapon is ever a danger to the hand.” (p. 116). 

Still on evil’s self-defeating tendencies, it is repeatedly made plain that Sauron’s main weakness is believing everyone else is like him, that the motive of every living being is the accumulation of power. He is, per Gandalf, a “wise fool”:

“He [Sauron] supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.” (pp. 115–6) 

Recently, I happened to spend some time with a Pole and while we walked he repeatedly (perhaps excessively) commented on the beauty of the views; every new angle was accompanied by his soft utterances of “beautiful” and the like. Of course, we all know that we can under-appreciate the things we see everyday; and it can be helpful to consider things from an outsider’s point of view. Because of this experience, perhaps, the words of Gimli resonated with me: 

“Strange are the ways of Men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern world, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!” (p. 181) 

After the destruction of Isengard, Saruman’s base of operations, Aragorn makes a brief comment that had me intrigued: “Fate has not been kinder to him [Wormtongue, Saruman’s spy] than he deserves. The sight of the ruin of all that he thought so strong and magnificent must have been almost punishment enough.(p. 217). What, I wonder, would such an experience do to a person? One real-life parallel comes to mind: Vladimir Putin, the former KGB spy who bewails the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Any sensible leader will tell you: don’t misunderestimate your enemies. Specifically, here, I’m thinking don’t mistake kindness for weakness. “Quickbeam [an Ent] is a gentle creature, but he hates Saruman all the more fiercely for that: his people suffered cruelly at the orc-axes.” It’s an interesting notion, linking gentleness and the capacity to hate, but it does make quite a bit of sense if you ask me. 

Lastly, Lord of the Rings is a wonderful place to pick up aphorisms – there’s been (at least) one in this post already. Here’s one from Aragorn: 

“One who cannot cast away a treasure in need is in fetters.” (p. 203) 

That, of course, summarises both the beginning and end of the Lord of the Rings as a whole. In the beginning, Isildur failed to part with the Ring and was captive to it (for a time). At the end, Frodo will face the same test. I could hardly call this a post if I did not mention South Park, so: in ‘ManBearPig’, Cartman has a similar ordeal – having eaten what he believes to be treasure, he almost drowns as a result of the added weight (clip here). 

WORDS? These Chapters introduced me to ‘rill’ (n, small stream; v, flow in a small stream, trickle). 


Essays, George Orwell (Introduction, ‘Why I Write’) 

In which Bernard Crick, author of ‘George Orwell: A Life’, introduces Orwell, his work, and these essays particularly; and George Orwell explains his motives as a writer. 

Crick’s introduction (aptly subtitled ‘An Essay’) raises a number of questions that arise in reading Orwell and his essays. Chiefly, How much of what Orwell wrote is “true”? How different are Eric Blair and Orwell? and Where should the distinction be drawn between ‘short story’ and ‘essay’? Crick also addresses Orwell’s famed ‘plain style’, pointing out that “One can tell lies or spin stories in monosyllables and simple sentences.” (p. ix) Now, to the miscellany… 

Crick writes: “The complete polemicist or propagandist knows exactly what he wants to say, but a natural essayist like Orwell, even when he sets out to write a polemic, will say, as he [Orwell] himself noted, much that is irrelevant. He stops to explore side issues, and enjoys the play of imagination and the actual act of writing too much ever to be either a reliable polemicist or a wholly objective sociologist.” (p. xi) 

That makes me, I suppose, a “natural essayist”. I’ve referred to my own style, such as it is, before as “meandering”, and to myself as a “meanderer”. I’ve not always been happy with that preference, yet it is my preference. It’s something I’ve tried, however minimally and unsuccessfully, to curtail in writing this blog; but going forward I think I ought to just go with my flow. So, should you visit again in the future, expect meandering. 

“[Orwell’s idea] of a just, egalitarian, classless society was not one in which great issues alone were discussed, but one in which there was time to sit and stare, to enjoy nature and leisure; such ideals must not be forgotten, especially in times of deadly crisis…” (p. xii) 

Shortly after the above passage, which requires no further comment, Crick points out that Orwell sometimes “plays a fine old central European cultural role, the ‘wise fool’…” (p. xii). I mention this only because, as noted above, Sauron (Lord of the Rings) is also called a “wise fool”. It seems to me, though, that Gandalf (Tolkien) meant “wise fool” in the opposite manner to Crick (and, therefore, the “European cultural” trope): Orwell – and the trope – appears the fool but displays wisdom; Sauron ought to be wise but displays foolishness. But maybe there’s no difference but in my mind. 

“Life is all right, good even, if one looks at it with the simple wonder of a child exploring everything as new, or with the heightened delight in ordinary things of a stoical person who knows that he or she is to die soon.” (p. xxiii) 

Personally, as is probably quite apparent from my other writing, I tend towards the second mode of appreciating life: it’s valuable because it’s short, the brief candle. 


‘Why I Write’

The essays are presented in this book chronologically, except for this first one, which was published in 1946 – some years after The Spike and A Hanging, both published in 1931. It’s a sensible starting point, though it means The Spike, a brilliant piece, is relegated to #2

Orwell explains, or attempts to explain, why he writes – why he chose the title he did for this essay is unclear. He points to four reasons, each of which, he says, compete in any writer, to greater and lesser degrees. These are: (1) sheer egoism, (2) aesthetic enthusiasm, (3) historical impulse, and (4) political purpose.

The reader will doubtless associate Orwell most closely with reason 4, political purpose. Orwell, though, claims that “by nature” he inclines more to reasons 1–3. But, a writer’s “subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own…” (p. 3). 

“In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” (p. 4). Orwell points to the Spanish Civil War of 1936–7 as his decisive moment: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.” (p. 5) 

One serious work Orwell wrote after 1936 was Homage to Catalonia. In it he recounts his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Had I to recommend just one book by Orwell, it would be Catalonia. 

Despite everything said so far, Orwell ends the essay with an admittance that he isn’t entirely sure why he writes. “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.(p. 7). 

I could take this opportunity to ask myself why I write. But I must first establish the case that I do, in fact, write by, once more, attempting to consistently update these pages. 

WORDS? These Pages contained no new English words for me, but there was the German ‘Galgenhumor (gallows humour) and the German-seemingSattweis (sad and wise). 


Page numbers refer to: The Two Towers (HarperCollins, 1999) and Essays (Penguin Classics, 2000) – some of Orwell’s essays, including Why I Write, are available online for free at The Orwell Foundation website. 

Saturday April 9 – Sunday April 10 

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien 

— pp. 0 – 128: Introductory Material, Prologue, Ch 1 – 4 –

In years past, I have started reading Lord of the Rings more than once only to abandon it before finishing Fellowship. I intend to finish the whole book this time. From previous attempts, it is the number of songs that has left the biggest impression – the frequent intrusion of poetry into the prose was, I think, my main reason for giving up each time. 

In anticipation of that same obstacle, before reading I thought, why not count them? These first four chapters have featured rather less “singing” than I had anticipated – five instances (four songs, one that begins “The road goes ever on and on” having been repeated once) so far. Perhaps their presence was inflated to me because of my own infrequent exposure to poetry itself. Whatever the case, this time around I have not (yet) found the “singing” tedious. Incidentally, I left out of my song count, the “one ring” poem that Gandalf recites. Though obviously indistinguishable in book format from the songs, it is not, by Gandalf, sung. 

I don’t have much else to say about Lord of the Rings right now. I’m enjoying it just fine but not to the same degree I understand many others do. Tolkien’s incorporation of world detail is well known but – so far, at least – he does so without interrupting the momentum of the plot, it’s beautifully done actually. Very much appreciated since I am reading, not to become a Tolkien scholar, but to experience the story. 

Quotes of Note:

“That name [Mordor] the hobbits only knew in legends of the dark past, like a shadow in the background of their memories; but it was ominous and disquieting.” (p.57) 

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.” (p.62) 

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. 

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time given us.” (p. 67)

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.” (p. Eleventy One) 

**Page numbers refer to edition: HarperCollins, Paperback, 1999.**


The Story of Film, Mark Cousins (Introduction, Ch 1 – 4) and The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) (Episodes 1 – 3)

The Story of Film is a book and complementary documentary from Mark Cousins in which he explores the history of film as a medium, rather than as an industry. 

For Cousins, the medium has evolved by “Schema Through Variation”. “Schemata/Schema” is defined in the Glossary as “a unit of technique”. In this case “units of technique” include anything a director – who are the primary innovators, the “heroes”, of Cousins’ survey – comes up with to convey their intent through cinema. “Schema Through Variation” refers simply to the way a filmmaker (director) adapts the “schema” of another filmmaker to their own, new purposes – so, for example, Brian de Palma “borrows” from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin for his own, very different, The Untouchables. 

That is a well known example and there are plenty of others in the book and documentary. Cousins talks the reader (or viewer) through relevant scenes – often just saying what he sees – and makes connections between works. Some of the connections are more abstract, far more abstract than the well-known example just mentioned – for instance, early on, Cousins traces the use of bubbles to suggest a character’s inner turmoil, first by Carol Reed, then Jean-Luc Goddard, then Martin Scorsese. 

The documentary has one obvious advantage over the book: the viewer can see what Cousins sees. There are plenty of stills included in the book, but a still is a poor substitute for a motion picture. The first three episodes and chapters are about the Silent era; Chapter 4, in the Sound era, takes the reader up to 1939 (so, I assume, does episode 4). If anyone had to choose between one medium or the other, I’d say go with the documentary – but the book complements it really well and is an easy and enjoyable  read (so far…). 


The Midnight Gospel (2020) (Episode 1) 

I watched all of this Netflix adult animated show when it first released. I really liked it, though I recall it wasn’t to everyone’s taste (what is after all?). It has an interesting concept, it frames selections of podcast conversations (from The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast) within a sci-fi story. 

Clarence (Duncan Trussell) uses a “universe simulator” to visit worlds in the moments before their respective apocalypses. There he has a conversation with a stranger – the podcast guests – while the end of the world(s) approaches. The subject of conversation varies throughout the series. 

I only revisited the first episode, Taste of the King, this time. Clarence travels to a world about to be overrun by zombies and has his conversation with “Glasses Man” who, it turns out, is the President in his world – and who, in our world, is Drew Pinsky. Clarence and Glasses Man, Trussell and Pinsky, discuss drugs and mindfulness. I was particularly interested in the drugs part, this stood out: 

‘I hate this idea of “good” drugs and “bad” drugs. There’s no such thing as a good and a bad drug. There’s this chemical that’s neither good nor bad, we either created it or it exists in nature, and then it’s the relationship that humans have with the substance that is the issue… And what our individual biology is, and what triggers it and whatnot.’ – President “Glasses Man” (Drew Pinsky) 

Lee Ross and Richard E. Nisbett have a book: The Person and the Situation: Perspective on Social Psychology. I think that phrase is probably a good stand in for what Pinsky is saying – the effects, short- and long-term, of a drug, are determined more by the person and the situation than by the drug itself. 

“The ring had given him power according to his stature.” (p.70-71, Fellowship**) 

The above is a nice line from Lord of the Rings, “him” being Gollum, that, with a little imagination, resonates with what has just been said. The effects of the ring are tempered by the person and the situation. 

One last point on drugs, before I stop typing, that has nothing specific to do with the above. A recent news piece reports: “A [UK] drug testing charity is warning dangerous synthetic cannabis [“spice”], sold as marijuana sweets, could be putting buyers at risk of death.” This boggles my mind – a drug policy that fosters the conditions leading to the substitution of a mostly harmless substance with a far deadlier one is a failing drug policy. It’s a plant that can be grown and consumed safely (in most cases) at home – because that, and a regulated, standards based, trade of the drug is illegal, the plant is within the purview of a “black market” and people have died as a result of that. Mental. 

Anyway, thanks for reading whatever this is. I’ll definitely do it again sometime soon. 

Best Picture Sunday #4: In the Heat of the Night (1967) 

Something about In the Heat of the Night, released in 1967 and winner of the 40th Academy Award for Best Picture, makes it feel special. An inexplicable something. The film is a hybrid of mystery, buddy cop and social issues drama and the plot is a familiar one – in spirit if not in particulars. 

In Sparta, Mississippi – a fictional town – a wealthy industrialist is murdered. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a police officer from Philadelphia, is passing through town that night – though limiting his stay in Sparta to the train station – and is immediately accused of the murder. After proving his innocence, Tibbs is drawn into the murder investigation in uneasy alliance with the local chief of police Gillespie (Rod Steiger). 

The film is a restrained one, in almost every respect. There’s little that could be called action, any potential action – fights, pursuits – are quickly, almost anti-climatically resolved. This lack of action, always so quickly resolving in favour of the police, completely works in context: a primary conflict of the film is not whether someone will be charged with the murder, but whether that person will be the murderer. 

Tibbs is immediately pegged as a “good suspect” because he is black and – from the perspective of the Spartans – a drifter. Yet while the townspeople – and the chief – definitely are bigoted, Tibbs’ initial treatment seems as symptomatic of poor policework as racism. Tibbs does not only represent Gillespie’s reckoning with the subject of race but also his introduction to modern policing. Though the film never strays far from its central mystery, it is the dynamics of Tibbs and Gillespie that dominate.

Both racism and antiquated policing are arguably caused by the same thing: ignorance. The cure for both is exposure and education. If there is a message to In the Heat of the Night, it comes from that Tibbs-Gillespie dynamic and how it changes, and the message is that ignorance can be defeated. Gillespie repeatedly, in part due to the political pressure attached to solving the murder, wants to pin it on anyone who “could be” the killer. Despite that, though, he does, if reluctantly, yield to Tibbs’ expertise (and Tibbs is a homicide expert). 

Rod Steiger’s portrayal of chief Gillespie won him his leading actor Oscar. He’s a fully realised and nuanced character. Gillespie would have been an easy character to make wholly unlikable and he is surprisingly often the foil to his “buddy cop” Tibbs. But he’s not wholly unlikable. Gillespie more than anything else just seems human, his motives are acceptable even when his actions are not. As the film progresses, the political pressure to find the killer grows, as does the threat to Tibbs’ life. 

Sidney Poitier is perfect in the role of Mr. Tibbs. Poitier, in keeping with the rest of the film, brings a restraint, almost to the point of stoicism, to the role. Almost. Though he quietly and calmly explains why he is not the killer at the film’s start, Poitier’s eyes shine with pain and indignation at the accusation and its cause. When, throughout the film, he is discriminated against, he does not rage but accepts it with (I think) a bemused resignation. Tibbs is used to it and does not believe things can change. 

Tibbs is far from perfect himself. His belief that things can’t change is rooted in his own prejudice, a prejudice challenged by his partnership and borderline friendship with Gillespie. Tibbs is at the centre of the film’s two best known moments. The first, “They call me Mister Tibbs”. Second, the retaliatory slapping of wealthy industrialist, Endicott. It’s a slap with consequences, the people won’t be happy and Gillespie tells Tibbs he’ll have to leave Sparta and the case. Tibbs is furious, he can, he’s sure, get Endicott for the murder. Tibbs had pegged Endicott – as a rival industrialist of the victim and a man with a cotton field – as a “good suspect”. At this moment, directly after the slap, Gillespie has a realisation: “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t ya?” Seeing that Gillespie is not wrong, Tibbs is wounded. 

The pacing of the film is relaxed and devotes plenty of time to its characters, both the main pair and side characters. Though the body of the victim is found at the “start”, it is only after we have accompanied a police officer on his patrol through the streets – with some stops that take on a significance later, when Tibbs asks this officer to retrace his route. The staff at the police station provide some light humour, while the citizens of Sparta provide the “political” background to the mystery: the industrialist’s widow, who wants Tibbs on the case; the mayor, who just wants the case solved; a mob, who increasingly want Tibbs out of town. 

As I said earlier, as the film goes on, and Tibbs’ continued presence in the town becomes less tenable, the tension becomes whether the crime will eventually be blamed on the culprit or an innocent. Only Tibbs is capable of solving the crime with accuracy – as Gillespie admits: “I’m not an expert” – but will he have the time to do so? 

I think In the Heat of the Night was a fantastic film – I watched it twice. Its restraint gives it a real down-to-earthness, the performances and characters are compelling, and it has that elusive quality – do films have texture? – that make it feel different from other movies, even similar ones. The film’s positive message seems to me more than just ignorance can be overcome; it’s that it will be overcome, just as Tibbs’ is resigned to present discrimination, Gillespie and the others must resign themselves to looming changes (or welcome those changes). 

So that’s some quick thoughts on In the Heat of the Night, which won, in addition to Best Picture and Leading Actor, Oscars for Adapted Screenplay, Sound and Editing (by Hal Ashby, director of Harold and Maude). Norman Jewison was nominated for, but did not win, Best Director.

I’m playing catch up with my Best Picture Sunday posts. This one should have been posted in the last week of February. Up next, today or tomorrow, is 1955’s Marty. Thanks for reading. What do you think of In the Heat of the Night

March 2022

March. Fun fact – or, at the least, fact – I was born on the 42nd anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death. I didn’t know it at the time of course. Unfortunately it was also the 42nd anniversary of Prokofiev’s death, the 32nd of Patsy Cline’s (who died in 1963 at just 30 years old) and the 13th of John Belushi’s. But focus on the positives: Stalin died. Anyway, I don’t put much stock in birthdays; I quite frequently have to calculate what age I am. 

Here’s what I’ll be doing in March… 


Reading

I’ve decided to toss my “reading plan” for the year out the window. I’m still going to read the same books I was going to, but in a different order – whichever order appeals to me at the start of each month. So I’ve chosen three books for March. 

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – As I thought was a possibility, I didn’t quite get around to SPQR in February. I’m still very much looking forward to it. 

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – This is one of the three World War I memoirs I plan to read this year (along with Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain) and the shortest of the bunch. Having reread All Quiet on the Western Front last month, I think I’d be as well not delaying the other WWI books for too long – though I don’t want to read them all in direct succession. I’ve read one other book by Graves before now, though of a quite different nature: his The Greek Myths – which I highly recommend (though it is more “scholarly” than, say, Stephen Fry’s take). 

Lanark by Alasdair Gray – I’ve mentioned Lanark before as a book I want to reread for the purposes of reappraisal. The first time I read the book, I absolutely loved the beginning but was less than pleased with the direction it took – knowing where the book will go this time, I might be more able to enjoy for what it is. Regarded as one of the finest Scottish novels written, it’s one of those books that I really want to like, so I’m giving it a second chance. 

I’ll definitely be posting a review of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin this month. I also intend to review the two Scottish history books I read this year, but am unsure yet whether that will be a joint post or two distinct ones. On another note, I’ve decided to abandon for the moment, Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy, it’s really good I just haven’t had the time to read it alongside the other things I’m reading and doing. 


Best Picture Sunday

Best Picture Sunday has been a qualified success so far. I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about the films. The “qualified” part refers to the “Sunday” part – so far, one post of four has actually been posted on Sunday. I’ll give it another go in March, failing which I’ll either change the day or simply call the series “Best Picture Day”. 

Related to that, the fourth Best Picture Sunday – discussing In the Heat of the Night (1967) – was supposed to be posted this past Sunday. Instead, I’m going to- I’m hoping to post it Sunday coming, along with the next instalment – which will be: 

6 March – Marty (1955) – #28 Marty, at 90 minutes long, is the shortest film to win Best Picture. Honestly, that’s the only reason I chose it but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. In addition to Best Picture it also won the Palme d’Or, so it must be good. 

13 March – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) – #8 – I’ve wanted to see Mutiny on the Bounty for a long time and I’m not particularly sure why. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I’ll finally get around to it this month. 

20 March – Wings (1927) – #1 – The last two Best Picture Sundays of March are, in anticipation of this year’s Oscars on the 28th, two extremes: first and last. Wings is the first film to win Best Picture and I’ve seen half of it before – earlier this year actually. 

27 March – Nomadland (2020) – #94 Nomadland, on the other hand, is the latest film to take the award. Like most films released in the past two years, I haven’t seen it; I’m not even all too sure what it’s about. But I like Frances McDormand. 


That’s all I’m sure about for now. As has been the case the past two months, I’m sure I’ll post other things on a whim by whim basis. Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great month! 

All Quiet on the Western Front (Book) Review

Not too long ago many book bloggers were writing about books they had found difficult to review. All Quiet on the Western Front, which I reread in the first week of February, before reviewing the film (here), is such a book for me. The problem is I like it too much. In my review of the film I called the book: “perhaps the greatest war novel ever written”. And what more can I say – what more need I say – than that? Practically, of course, I do have to say more; “this is a great novel” only marginally, if at all, constitutes a review. So, I’ll try – again. 

Im Westen nichts neues, its German title, literally “nothing new in the west”, was published in 1929. It draws on the experiences of its author, Erich Maria Remarque, fighting, funnily enough, on the Western Front of the First World War. Despite some correspondences between Remarque’s experiences and those of his main character, Paul Bäumer, it is not a memoir. It is not Remarque’s life story. Yet in a way it is. It’s Paul’s story and Remarque’s story; and it’s Wilfred Owen’s story; it is the story of many men, “a generation of men who, though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” (Remarque’s Preface

You’ll note, perhaps, that while the real Remarque and the fictional Paul are German men, German soldiers, Wilfred Owen was English. Common sense might lead one to believe that soldiers on opposing sides of the conflict must necessarily have different stories, and that much is true as far as particulars go. There is a reason, though, that I have appended a handwritten copy of Owens’ Dulce et decorum est to my copy of All Quiet. They are the same story and it is (was?) a universal one. 

The universality of the novel, of the experiences within, is part of what makes the book “great”. I am not just, by the way, supposing this universality to be the case; it’s a fundamental feature of the book. The preface alone already said as much: “a generation of men”, not a generation of German men. Paul, who, in addition to being the main character, is also the narrator of the story, switches seamlessly between the singular “I” and the plural “we” – and while that “we” often does mean “we, the regiment”, “we, the German army”, “we, the German people”; just as frequently it is “we” on a grander scale. 

As in: “We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it.” As in: “We see men go on living with the top of their skulls missing; we see soldiers go on running when both their feet have been shot away…” As in: “We are superfluous even to ourselves, we shall grow older, a few will adapt, others will make adjustments, and many of us will not know what to do – the years will trickle away, and eventually we shall perish.” 

Thomas Docherty is quoted in this Smithsonian article on the Nazi reaction to All Quiet’s 1930 film adaptation (worth a read): “One of the great legacies of World War I is that as soon as the armistice is signed, the enemy is war itself, not the Germans, Russians, or French. The book captures it and becomes the definitive anti-war statement of the [era]”. Just so. 

There is, actually, little in the way of “war” throughout. To be sure, there is fighting and there is death. But the fighting is not presented, as ought to be the case in “war”, as faction against faction, German against French. The fighting – in stark contrast to what “war” is supposed to be – is devoid of the political; it is only the fighting of the animal, the human animal, the gene “survival machine”; it is the fight against death itself and nothing else. 

“The enemy” are, of course, present in the novel. But they are typically referred to as just that and similar terms – “the others”, “those over there”. They are reduced entirely to a concept, stripped of affiliation, stripped of everything except what, in that moment, they are: an obstacle that Paul, in order to survive, must overcome. Paul, too, is not “Paul”; Paul is also “the enemy”. As Paul laments after successfully executing his function as “enemy” to a French soldier: “Why don’t they keep reminding us that you are all miserable wretches like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain.” Note the merging of pronouns, what begins as “us” and “you” quickly becomes “we”. The dead Frenchman was “the enemy”; Paul was “the enemy”. They are the same. 

They – French, German, Russians – are the same even when mentioned explicitly, even when there ought to be differences. So one soldier can observe: “We’re out here defending our homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?” The same. Paul can observe of Russian prisoners of war: “Any drill corporal is a worse enemy to the recruits, any schoolmaster a worse enemy to his pupils than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again if they were free, and so would they at us.” The same. But he rebukes himself: “Suddenly I’m frightened: I mustn’t think along those lines any more. That path leads to the abyss.” 

In Remarque’s novel, thought itself leads to the abyss of death. In “action” that very part of humanity that “makes us human” – our ability to “think” – has to be ignored. The soldiers, during fighting, are routinely described in two ways: as “animals” and as “automata”. “If we hadn’t turned into automata at this moment we would have just lain down, exhausted, stripped of any will to go on.” To think is to die. To think about “the enemy” as more than a concept, to think of it as another person, to think that some years ago it was named by its parents – to think these things is to hesitate in pulling the trigger. That, too, is to die. 

The danger, of thinking leading to the abyss, is not exclusive to the Front. The threat is pervasive. So the soldier’s life, in Remarque’s telling, is reduced to practicalities, to the bare necessities of life. To think of home is perilous: “He was heading for Germany – that was obviously completely hopeless, and it was equally obvious that everything else he had done was simply stupid. Anyone could have worked that he had only deserted out of homesickness and a momentary aberration. But what does a court martial miles behind the lines know about things like that? Nothing more’s been heard of [him].” To be “selfish”, to think about what I have been through, what I have seen, also dangerous: “Because one thing has become clear to me: you can cope with all the horror as long as you simply duck thinking about it – but it will kill you if you try to come to terms with it.” 

So, as I said, Remarque presents a world in which only the practical can matter. Everything becomes tailored to survival alone. “Happiness” becomes less of a spontaneous reaction to good events, and more an artificial defence against the bleak realities: “It isn’t because we are naturally cheerful that we make jokes, it’s just that we keep cheerful because if we didn’t, we’d be done for.” What’s the saying? – If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. “Prized boots” become just boots; and whatever value “prized boots” have to the owner, just boots are no use to the owner once he loses a leg – “it is only the facts that count. And good boots are hard to come by.” 

From the very beginning of the novel, it is only the facts that count. “It really is a good day” – we are told – “We haven’t had a stroke of luck like this for ages”. The men of B Company, to which Paul belongs have been blessed with double rations. Not, of course, for doing a good job or anything so sentimental – “The army is never that good to us” – but owing to an error on the chef’s part. He cooked for too many. “Fourteen days ago we were sent up the line as relief troops. … The English guns kept on pounding our position, so we lost a lot of men, and only eighty [out of 150] of us came back.” These, in war that reduces men to only their animal tendencies, are the makings of a “good day” – comrades fallen are competitors for resources fallen. These are the “facts”. 

I hope, with all the quoting I’ve been doing, that you’ve already noticed Remarque’s writing (as translated here by Brian Murdoch) is beautiful. Always a good thing. More impressive than the beauty, though, is its simplicity, as if it too has been stripped back to the very rudiments of language. There is a moment, the same moment in which Paul rebukes himself for thoughts that lead to the abyss: 

“That path leads to the abyss. It isn’t the right time yet – but I don’t want to lose those thoughts altogether, I’ll preserve them, keep them locked away until the war is over. My heart is pounding, could this be the goal, the greatness, the unique experience that I thought about in the trenches, that I was seeking as a reason for going on living after this universal catastrophe is over? Is this the task we must dedicate our lives to after the war, so that all the years of horror will have been worthwhile?”

The task of ending war forever. Of emerging from years of division, and years of death by division, without malice and with the knowledge that “we are the same”. Paul is Erich, Paul is Wilfred, Paul is German, Paul is English. It’s a pipe dream, of course. I don’t mean to be cynical but war – as we well know – has not ended. But Remarque’s book, with its simple prose, its honesty, and its universality, has surely gone as far as anything ever has in propagating that pipe dream and making it desirable. 

That is why All Quiet on the Western Front is a great novel and “perhaps the greatest war novel ever written”. 

Thanks for reading! As ever, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the book. If you’ve never read it, have I convinced you to? 

Best Picture Sunday #3: Braveheart (1995) 

Hey! It’s not Sunday (again) – but no matter: I had a great weekend that prevented me from posting, then I had a shitty start of the week that prevented me from posting. Swings and roundabouts. This third Best Picture Sunday is dedicated to a film that I suspect more of my likely readers are likely to have seen than the previous two. 

Braveheart is a 1995 film, directed by Mel Gibson. It was “inspired by” Blind Harry’s epic poem of the 15th Century, The Wallace. The film was winner of the 68th Oscar for Best Picture and was nominated nine other Academy Awards, winning four: Best Director (Mel Gibson), Cinematography (John Toll), Makeup (Multiple) and Sound Effects Editing (Lon Bender and Per Hallberg). 

This was not my first time watching Braveheart. Indeed, as I previously shared, I watched it along with my classmates in high school history class. That was not my first time seeing it either, it does however provide a nice bridge (albeit not Stirling Bridge) to the elephant in the room where Braveheart is concerned. 

Historical accuracy, lack of. Braveheart is an altogether terrible movie to teach or learn history from. Those two purposes aside, however, I think far too much has already been made of that aspect of the film and so I will not dwell on them too long. This, after all, is a film post and not a history post. But here’s a thought or two on the matter.

As the film closes, Mel Gibson narrates: “In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” Warrior poets, seems to me, an interesting thing to say. The inspiration for the film, however loosely, was a Scots poem – and warrior poet is an apt description of the William Wallace the film portrays: a lover first and foremost, and a fighter for love.

Perhaps then, Braveheart ought to be thought of as a poem in film form – since it is certainly no documentary. Aristotle said of poetry: it “is more philosophical and more important than history; for poetry tells us of the universal, history tells us only of the particular.” And complaints about accuracy aside, Braveheart does, I’d argue, offer a universally appealing story. In fact, watching Braveheart, this last time, as “just a movie” I found I enjoyed it far more than I ever had before. 

At just two minutes shy of the three-hour mark, Braveheart comfortably fits into the category of historical (fiction) epic. Everybody, I’d expect, knows what it’s about: William Wallace leads the armies of Scotland against the English army of Edward I, a cruel tyrant. 

Initially reluctant to fight, it is the murder of Wallace’s wife that spurs him to take arms and lead his countrymen. Like Titanic (1997) – Best Picture two years later – love gives the audience an easy rallying point, and here imbues Wallace’s deeds with a certain righteousness. See also: John Wick and his (first) dog. Not even an Englishman could watch the fictional Englishmen of Braveheart‘s deaths and say that they didn’t deserve it. 

Gibson gives a wonderful performance as Wallace throughout, well conveying the sense of a “warrior poet”. Charming, sensitive, intelligent, and witty; yet entirely believable as a man who’d cave in another man’s skull as he sleeps. The accent slips a few times, but as Scottish accents on film go, it’s nowhere near the most egregious, and quite frankly who cares anyway? 

The big bad of the film, Edward I, is played by Patrick McGoohan. This is not a subtle, nuanced take on a historical character. Braveheart‘s Edward is purely and irredeemably evil – as much as, say, Emperor Palpatine or Michael Myers. It’s the stuff of fairytales and it’s a joy – though a rage inducing one – to watch. 

There are, of course, no shortage of supporting characters and I was a little surprised that not one of them was nominated for an acting award. Indeed, since neither was Gibson, none of Bravheart‘s ten nominations was in an acting category. A few worth mentioning: 

Brendan Gleeson as Wallace’s closest friend, Hamish, and James Cosmo, as Hamish’s father, steal any scene they are in. The two typically embody the wilder side of the Scots, in comparison to Wallace’s more thoughtful side. David O’Hara, as the unhinged Irishman, Stephen, is absolutely brilliant. These three, and Stephen most of all, give the film some of its funniest (though not always lightest) moments. 

Wallace’s two love interests are both noteworthy. Catherine McCormack portrays Wallace’s ill-fated wife, Murron, and despite her limited screen time leaves a lasting impression. Sophie Marceau, however, as Isabella – wife of Edward’s son, the future Edward II – is who I would have considered most likely to receive an acting nomination of the cast. Her’s is a character both gentle and strong and Marceau ably switches between these two modes, often conveying both at the same time. 

More could be said of the cast on both sides of the border but those above stand out to me. But Braveheart has as much action as character and so: the battle scenes. These are fairly exhilarating setpieces, each battle offering something new. If – like everything else in the film – they’re not really accurate, that’s completely secondary to how fun they are to watch. There’s definitely some “questionable” editing going on in some of the scenes – the dreaded “continuity errors”, that do render the film’s nomination for Best Editing a little curious. However, such minor details don’t detract much from the overall scale and excitement. Like the rest of the film, battle scenes (including build up – most definitely including build up) manage to balance the seriousness with levity rather nicely. And, this being a fairytale, we know exactly who to root for through triumph and defeat. 

At the Oscars, in addition to Best Picture and Best Director for Gibson, Braveheart was awarded for Makeup, Sound Effects Editing and Cinematography. I can’t say much to the first two, except that in neither respect was there anything particularly jarring – but what constitutes “best” in either category is beyond me (I might, however, more easily recognise “worst” when I encounter it). On the Cinematography front I can confirm that there are some stunning visuals on display. 

But the unsung hero of Braveheart has to be composer James Horner. In the same year he was nominated for this score, he was also nominated for that of Apollo 13 (which I’d consider Braveheart’s biggest rival for Best Picture – since, inexplicably, The Usual Suspects was not nominated). Horner’s score, filled with Celtic sounds, is majestic as a whole. But I have to make particular mention of ‘For the Love of a Princess’ (give it a listen below), which must surely be counted among the most beautiful pieces ever written for film. I was never disappointed by the direction of Horner’s score but whenever the instrumentation swelled I held my breath in the hopes it would lead into that one exquisite melody. Naturally, the first thing I did upon finishing the movie was open ‘Princess’ on Youtube: 

I don’t want to dwell much, in these posts, on whether a film “deserved” its win. For a start, I’d have to watch all the nominees, and even then my two “picks” for 1995 weren’t nominated – The Usual Suspects and Toy Story. But more importantly I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that all the nominees “deserve” to win. I briefly considered calling the series “BP Sunday”, where BP would stand for both the topic, Best Picture(s), and an attitude, “be positive”. Clearly, I didn’t do that, but as I’ve watched the past three films I have been thinking, not “did this film deserve BP?”, but “why did it deserve BP?” 

It’s an attitude I think has been helpful and Braveheart is my first clear proof of that. While All Quiet on the Western Front was new to me and It Happened One Night already counted among my favourites, Braveheart never appealed to me the way I’ve seen it appeal to many others. Until now. It’s not displaced any of my theoretical “top ten” or anything drastic like that, but watching Braveheart only as a movie, which is all it is, I had a hell of a good time. It’s not, to my eye, a revolutionary film, it didn’t redefine what historical, or war, or romantic, epics are or can be; it is just an emotionally rousing and above all entertaining example of such. Whatever else might be said of the film, it’s unlikely you’ll be bored watching it. 

So, to conclude, don’t treat Braveheart like a history lesson – and please, please don’t use it as a history lesson. Don’t use it to inform your opinion of the English, or, indeed, the Scottish. Don’t take it too seriously: watch it to be entertained and in all likelihood you will be. Watch it and then listen to ‘For the Love of a Princess’ on repeat – and if you’re not going to watch it, definitely still do the latter. 

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share your thoughts on Braveheart below.

This coming Sunday – if I manage to post it on Sunday – I’ll be discussing the Best Picture of 1967, In the Heat of the Night, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Goodbye for now!  

You can catch up with the previous two Best Picture Sundays here and here. Or you can check out my fancy new “hub post” – which is just a big table with all the winners. It’s pretty bare for now (though you can see – and, if you wish, mock me for – which of the films I haven’t seen); but over the next roughly 90 weeks, it ought to become completely populated with glorious blue hyperlinks. 

Best Picture Sunday Hub

Hey there! This is my Best Picture Sunday “hub”.

Here you’ll find all the winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. The post will be updated with links as I discuss each film on the blog. Thanks for stopping by!

The previously watched column answers whether I’ll be watching the film for the first time for Best Picture Sunday or not.

No.Film (release year, director) Previously
Watched?
1Wings (1927, William A. Wellman) No
2The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry Beaumont) No
3All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)No
4Cimarron (1931, Wesley Ruggles) No
5Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding) No
6Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd) No
7It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)Yes
8Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Frank Lloyd) No
9The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)No
10The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Deieterle) No
11You Can’t Take It With You (1938, Frank Capra) No
12Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)Yes
13Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)Yes
14How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford) Yes
15Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler) No
16Casablanca (1943, Michael Curtiz) Yes
17Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey) No
18The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder) No
19The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) No
20Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan) No
21Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier) Yes
22All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen) No
23All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Yes
24An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli) No
25Greatest Show on Earth, The (1952, Cecil B. DeMille) No
26From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann) No
27On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)Yes
28Marty (1955, Delbert Mann) No
29Around the World in 80 Days (1956, Michael Anderson) No
30The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean) Yes
31Gigi (1958, Vincente Minnelli)No
32Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler) Yes
33The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) Yes
34West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins) Yes
35Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean) Yes
36Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson) No
37My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor) No
38The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise) No
39A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann) No
40In the Heat of the Night (1967, Norman Jewison) No
41Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed) Yes
42Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger) No
43Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner) No
44The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)Yes
45The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola) Yes
46The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill) Yes
47The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) Yes
48One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)Yes
49Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen) Yes
50Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) Yes
51Deer Hunter, The (1978, Michael Cimino) Yes
52Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton) Yes
53Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford) Yes
54Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson) No
55Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough) No
56Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)No
57Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman) Yes
58Out of Africa (1985, Sydney Pollack) No
59Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) Yes
60Last Emperor, The (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci) No
61Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson) Yes
62Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Bruce Beresford) No
63Dances With Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner) No
64Silence of the Lambs, The (1991, Jonathan Demme) Yes
65Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood) Yes
66Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)Yes
67Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)Yes
68Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson) Aye
69English Patient, The (1996, Anthony Minghella)No
70Titanic (1997, James Cameron) Yes
71Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden) Yes
72American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes) Yes
73Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott) Yes
74Beautiful Mind, A (2001, Ron Howard)Yes
75Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall) Yes
76Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson)Yes
77Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood) Yes
78Crash (2005, Paul Haggis) Yes
79The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese) Yes
80No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen) Yes
81Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle) Yes
82The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow) Yes
83The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper) Yes
84The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) No
85Argo (2012, Ben Affleck) Yes
8612 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen) Yes
87Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro G. Innaritu) Yes
88Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy) Yes
89Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) No
90The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) Yes
91Green Book (2018, Peter Farrelly) Yes
92Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho) Yes
93Nomadland (2020, Chloe Zhao) No
94CODA (2021, Sian Heder) No
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