(There was no week 11 because we were on Spring Break!)

Visual Effects

We watch UFO OVER SANTA CLARITA, a 38-second UFO short on youtube. It is a nice piece of visual effects (I think!) which cleverly disguises itself as phone-type footage, using what in film language we would think of as “mistakes”. The shot goes out of focus, the flying saucer goes out of frame, there are wind noise and extraneous car door sounds: all these things appear unintentional, “real” as part of unedited documentary footage, and so they help to sell the visual effects.

What are visual effects? They used to be called special effects. Special effects are still done – but now that term describes things that happen, apparently for real, on set, courtesy of the special effects crew. A lot of exciting things that used to happen on set – explosions, bullet hits, smoke and flames (remember the smoke machine in LIVING IN OBLIVION?), the images on a TV or computer screen – are today more likely to be added in post-production, in software, as visual effects.

(UFO OVER SANTA CLARITA is 100% CGI — not only UFOs, but the car and the highway exterior are digital animations. You can see the VFX breakdown here)

Today almost any VFX can be done in software, in post-production. Visual effects aren’t expensive — if they involve a large crew, or a lot of work (turning a 2-D picture into a 3-D one, for example) all the visual effects work can be off-shored, in done entirely in India, or Korea, or China. It was not always thus. Before the digital age, visual effects had to be physically created. Sometimes, when money was no object, an amazing set would be built, full size. More often, a fantastical location would be built in miniature. We saw this in KING KONG, and in BLADE RUNNER. The jungle on Skull Island, the exteriors of the Tyrell corporate headquarters, these were model shots.  Often, models, or paintings, would be combined with real actors in what was called a “process” or “composite” or “matte” shot. A static shot, where the actors stayed within one defined area, was the cheapest way to do this. If the camera was moving, it became a “travelling matte” and was much more expensive, as the relationship between live action and miniature had to be readjusted with each new frame.

We look at an early example of these techniques in THE LOST WORLD (USA, 1925). Its model work and animation were done by Willis O’Brien, who ten years later would create King Kong. The wide shots in which the explorers chop down a tree so as to create a bridge to the dinosaur plateau are mattes: a painting of a finger of rock and the edge of the plateau, bridged by the tree, and the upper right area of the frame, where we see live actors preparing to cross the bridge (and earlier saw a pteranodon eating its prey)

LOST_WORLD_stillThe jungle on the prehistoric plateau, like the dinosaur and pterosaur, are miniatures. The trees and rivers were created on tabletops; the giant animals were models with wood-and-metal skeletons, painstakingly manouvered by Willis O’Brien and his team, one frame at a time: a process called stop-motion animation. In silent film days, frame rates varied, and THE LOST WORLD was probably screened at 18 frames per second. With the coming of sound, a frame rate of 24 frames per second became the norm. Either way stop-motion animation sequences involved thousands of frames, with those slight changes in position giving the models the illusion of motion.

This way of doing visual effects – matting live action with animated models, against a miniature background – would be the norm in visual effects for forty or fifty years. It produced art of great beauty. But it was also very time-consuming. In the 1950s the Japanese director Ishiro Honda came up with an alternative visual effects strategy to challenge the classic stop-motion miniature: make the background models bigger, and have the dinosaurs played by stuntmen in monster suits.

The Godzilla vs. Machagodzilla Medley gives a good introduction to this form. It is a fair-use, youtube mashup of GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 1974), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 1975), GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (Japan, 1993), GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (Japan, 2002), and GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (Japan, 2003), set to the song It’s All About the Pentiums by Weird Al Yankovic.

Genre cinema like this may not be the apex of the Seventh Art Form, but it was, and is, very popular: Viacom are more than happy with profits and deals related to the TRANSFORMERS franchise. This transition from miniatures to men in monster suits, and from them to hard drives, has not been without its critics. JURASSIC PARK (USA, 1993) was criticized for the “computery” look of its dinosaurs, compared to the anthropomorphic detail of animated models and even wrestlers in suits. Visual effects designer Phil Tippett remains in demand, in part, because he began his career as a stop-motion animator on STAR WARS (USA 1977), and STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (USA, 1980).  The MECHAGODZILLA franchise, the STAR WARS franchise, and 2001 are in many ways different: yet all are in love with technology, with machines, with visual effects.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (USA/UK, 1968) is one of the last of the miniature-based, analogue visual effects movies – and some of its “miniatures” were 30 feet long.

Ray Chang Picture of Kubrick model

Ray Chang Picture of Kubrick model

Both STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (USA, 1977) are miniature-based VFX movies, but they have been substantially revisited, and visually altered, by the directors, with the arrival of digital technology. And what digital technology can achieve, in terms of a film, is incomparable. Promotional videos for the Hollywood action movie, WHITE HOUSE DOWN (USA, 2013) show numerous tracking or crane shots with multiple visual effects elements. Little was done in the way of actual set construction. Only the facade of the White House was physically built. Otherwise the mise-en-scene is a multi-layered image, created in post-production, by software. WHITE HOUSE DOWN is an example of Monoform filmmaking in which once routine background shots have become visual effects – partially because VFX are now relatively cheap, and also because big features today are shot far from the intended location, due to production incentives or security issues.

Visual effects, used this way, become part of the palate of any Hollywood or independent film. They don’t necessarily entail science fiction-style subject matter. Indeed, Musicals, Westerns, almost all genres have long used visual effects, often for establishing shots. VFX can also involve enhancing the image, perhaps by increasing its dynamic range. On the internet you can find test footage, in which the HDR concept – high dynamic range, often used in digital still photography – is applied to video footage. In HDR, a certain number of different exposures of the same still image – 3, or 5, say – are combined by software to increase the image’s dynamic range — revealing more detail in the shadows, and losing fewer pixels to overexposure. Here’s one HDR video test.

And then, there are VFX at the service of science fiction! 2001 takes place in the prehistoric past, on Earth, and in 2001 and 2003, in space: it is alternative history, imagined back in 1965. It features no visions of an alien city (ICARUS XB1), nor the urban future of Earth (METROPOLIS, BLADE RUNNER). Yet it relies on visual effects’ traditional tool – compositing! In 2001 “a typical effects shot might include (1) miniature models of spacecraft shot in extreme slow motion, (2) front or rear projected film for the moving images in the spacecraft’s window, (3) a separately photographed astronaut or pod tumbling in space (both suspended by wires during shooting) matted in by hand, (4) a field of moving stars in the background shot on the animation stand along with (5) the Moon (a series of actual astronomical plates) and/or an appropriate planet (usually a large painting).”
(Production Calendar, Carolyn Geduld, The Making of 2001, Modern Library, 2000)

There is digital compositing in our own film BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO (USA, 2014), of a more modest kind: for example, in the firing range scene, the actors in spacesuits were filmed in 35mm; their target environment was a miniature; and their death ray beams are lightning bolts, which still must be composited, frame by frame, so that the bottom of each bolt connects to the barrel of the death-ray gun.

Uncomplicated visual effects can make an enormous contribution to a narrative. John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE (USA, 1988) is an unusual, overtly political SF film which uses VFX sparingly, to make its most dramatic points — when the hero dons a special set of sunglasses and suddenly sees propaganda messages (SUBMIT, OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE) behind the advertising signs. In THEY LIVE the VFX succeed because they have been long delayed. Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (USA, 1963) works the same way, taking an hour to set up its human characters before getting to the airborne mayhem suggested by the title.  In Monoform filmmaking, as VFX become “part” of the narrative, do they risk losing their power and significance? If every scene can look like a Salvador Dali dream sequence, what is our interest in that dream?
Visual effects can rescue a mediocre film but cannot make a bad film good. VFX can be banal, but they can also be extraordinary and sublime. On rare occasions, they can even tell a story better than the actors can — as in Terrence Malick’s film TREE OF LIFE (USA, 2011), 139 minutes of bland family drama with 15 minutes of gem-like digital visual effects set in the middle of it, telling the same story – of birth, death, and coexistence – more economically.

A director’s odyssey: Stanley Kubrick

We screen scenes from THE KILLING (USA, 1956) a Film Noir by a young director named Stanley Kubrick. He was around 27 – a couple of years older than Orson Welles when he directed CITIZEN KANE. Welles, as you know, spent the rest of his life struggling to find money to direct features, and struggling with the process when the money came. Kubrick, on the other hand, had no problem with the filmmaking process – was extremely interested in almost every part of it, from the screenplay to the trailer – and led something of a charmed career.

THE KILLING was Kubrick’s third feature, his best so far. It did poorly at the box office, and received mediocre reviews in general, but very good reviews from The New York Times and Time magazine. The NYT reviewer went so far as to compare Kubrick to Welles, writing that he “has shown more audacity with dialogue and camera than Hollywood has seen since the obstreperous Orson Welles went riding out of town on an exhibitor’s poll.”

Kirk Douglas, the actor and aspiring producer, saw THE KILLING and liked it. He writes in his book The Ragman’s Son, “I saw a small picture called THE KILLING. It was made for very little money and it made very little money. It was an unusual picture, and the studio had no faith in it and handled it poorly. I was intrigued by the film and wanted to meet the director, Stanley Kubrick. He had started out as a photographer for Look magazine when he was 17; he was 28 now, but he looked much younger. I asked him if he had any other projects. He said he had a script called Paths of Glory, by Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel about the greed for fame in the high command in World War 1 France that led to the needless deaths of so many men. Stanley told me he’d had no success setting the picture up, but he’d be glad to let me see it. I read the script and fell in love with it. ‘Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it’.”  (pg. 273)

Those are wonderful words for a director to hear – especially when they are spoken by a movie star. Kirk Douglas was something rare – a smart movie star – and he had a good relationship with United Artists, the studio originally set up by star actors and directors. Douglas told them about Paths of Glory, indicated that he might take it to MGM, whereupon UA offered him $3 million to make and star in it.

Locations were chosen in Germany. Douglas recalls, “When I arrived … in Munich, I was greeted by Stanley and a completely rewritten script. He had revised it on his own… It was a catastrophe, a cheapened version of what I thought had been a beautiful script. The dialogue was atrocious … right up to the happy ending, when the general’s car arrives screeching to halt the firing squad and he changes the men’s death sentence to 30 days in the guardhouse …

“I called Stanley and Harris [his producing partner] to my room. “Stanley, did you write this?” “Yes.” Kubrick always had a calm way about him. I never heard him raise his voice, never saw him get excited or reveal anything. He just looked at you through those big, wide eyes. I said, “Stanley, why would you do that?” He very calmly said, “To make it commercial. I want to make money.”

“I hit the ceiling. I called him every four-letter word I could think of. “You came to me with a script written by other people. It was based on a book. I love that script. I told you I didn’t think this would be commercial, but I want to make it. You left it in my hands to put the picture together. I got the money, based on that script. Not this shit!” I threw the script across the room. “We’re going back to the original script, or we’re not making the picture”.”  (pp. 274-275)

In this conversation, Douglas introduced Kubrick to the notion of a prestige production — a film which might not make all its money back, but which – like THE WIZARD OF OZ or CITIZEN KANE – brought good reviews and respect to the studio and the film’s producer and director.

It was a very good lesson, since with three exceptions all of Kubrick’s features thereafter would be in the prestige, rather than the commercial, category. PATHS OF GLORY (USA, 1957) was a beautifully composed and realized film. It got Kubrick his next assignment – again, thanks to the actor Kirk Douglas. Douglas was producing and starring in a Roman epic, SPARTACUS (USA, 1960). He had hired the blacklisted writer (and University of Colorado alumnus) Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. After a week of shooting, the studio, Universal, decided to fire its chosen director, Anthony Mann. Douglas recommended Stanley Kubrick take over the picture. Kubrick read the script and got up to speed in the course of a weekend. The following Monday, without any shutdown, SPARTACUS had a new director. Kubrick finished the film on time, and on budget. But he had another battle brewing with his star, this time over the screenplay credit.

Douglas and his producer, Eddie Lewis, were struggling to find someone to credit the screenplay to. Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter, was still blacklisted by the studios and couldn’t be named. Eddie Lewis refused to accept the credit. The false name on the script, “Sam Jackson”, had problems of its own. Douglas wrote:

“Eddie Lewis was a real person. Sam Jackson didn’t exist. We would have to fabricate a string of lies about him, the way the producers did when Dalton wrote THE BRAVE ONE [USA, 1956 — and won the Academy Award!]. And besides, it fooled no one. What to do? Kubrick jumped in with his solution. “Use my name.” Eddie and I looked at each other, horrified. I said, “Stanley, wouldn’t you feel embarrassed to put your name on a script that someone else wrote?” He looked at me as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. “No.” He would have been delighted to take the credit.” (pg. 323)

Douglas and Lewis decided to give Trumbo the credit, thereby officially taking him off the studio blacklist. Kubrick went on to direct a fine adaptation of LOLITA (USA/UK, 1962), whose script was written by its author, Vladimir Nabokov. Kubrick insisted on shooting the film in England. A second unit shot American driving exteriors and rear-projection footage for the car interiors. The rest was shot in and around London, doubling uneasily for the Midwestern USA. LOLITA was followed by a cautionary comedy about nuclear war, also shot in England, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (USA/UK, 1964), written by Terry Southern. Kubrick had originally planned to make a serious film about the subject, but realized that pitching the project as a comedy was the only way to raise the budget — all this thanks to the popularity of Peter Sellers, one of the co-stars of LOLITA. A studio agreed to finance DR. STRANGELOVE on condition that it would star Sellers, in at least four different roles. The film went ahead, though Sellers ended up playing only three parts after he broke his ankle. Though the studio doubted, the film was very popular with the public, and it gave Kubrick the leverage to raise funding for a big science-fiction film with no stars or comedians, Journey Beyond The Stars – or, as we now know it, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.


In March 2015, Variety reported that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had purchased one of the models from the film for a substantial $344,000. It is the Aries 1B Trans-Lunar space shuttle, 27″ wide, and 32 inches high, and will be part of the collection of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Variety said that, according to the auction house, Stanley Kubrick had deliberately destroyed most of the props, sets, models and costumes from 2001 so that they could not be used in other films.

In his article Shipbuilding (written for the book The Making of 2001), Piers Bizony describes the model in greater detail. “The three foot diameter Aries Lunar shuttle vehicle had motorized legs which extended as they came in to land… compressed air jets in the exhaust nozzles kicked up dust on touchdown, to convincing effect.”

This was a big model for a science fiction film, where these things were normally done on tabletops. But it was by no means the largest — for the spacecraft Discovery, which goes to Jupiter, two models were made – one 15 feet, one 54 feet long. Why were the models so big? Focus. When our eyes see large things, they are seen in focus. A big thing, like a multi-storey Lunar shuttle, in bright sunlight, will be entirely in focus to our eyes. So, with the models. A tiny model, shot up close, will be betrayed by the shallow depth of field.  The front will be in focus, but the back will be soft. The idea of the spaceship Discovery is that it’s about half a mile long, so as to separate the human living area from the giant, radioactive nuclear motors. Kubrick shoots Discovery to emphasize this — the great length of the space craft, how the humans live in a rotating hull which replicates gravity, at one end. Hence the big models, one of which is seen here at the Kubrick exhibition at the LA County Museum.


Clearly some models survived, so perhaps the story of the director destroying the props and costumes is apocryphal.

A film is, or should be, about more than its special effects. I first saw 2001 when it came out — I was 14 years old, and I wanted to see space craft, and aliens. I’ve seen it many times since then, and continue to be amazed by the visual effects, and intrigued by the story – or the three stories, and what, together, they mean.

Kubrick’s principal collaborator was the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, whose short story The Sentinel was the inspiration for the picture. The film was to be called Journey Beyond The Stars. There was no script, at first. Clarke began working on the project as a novel, which Kubrick would collaborate on, or adapt as a film. On the basis of a 50,000-word first draft of the novel, by Clarke, MGM gave the picture the green light, and a budget of $6 million. Actors were hired, sets were built, and shooting began on December 29, 1965, at Shepperton Studios outside London.

Shooting continued throughout 1966. Clarke flew to Los Angeles to promote the film and placate the MGM executives, who had not yet seen a script. This document, which Kubrick’s former assistant, Tony Frewin, kindly gave us, was prepared as an offering for the studio executives. But its form is unique: extracts from a novel, written in the past tense, and a columnar format where dialogue and description run in parallel.

2001 was a landmark of visual effects photography. The job was all analogue, meticulously planned, slowly photographed, painstakingly composited. No wonder the studio was anxious as months went by, and costs rose. The film was originally meant to be finished, and released, in December 1966. But it clearly wasn’t ready. in February 1967, Kubrick fired his composer and concentrated on the visual effects. In March 1968, he returned to Los Angeles. He had lived in England full-time since shooting LOLITA, but his film was very over budget – having cost more than ten million dollars – and his presence no doubt reassured the studio… a little. After a screening for MGM executives, Kubrick cut a prologue and a voiceover narration from the film.

The film premiered in April 1968, in New York and Los Angeles. A day after the premiere Kubrick cut 19 minutes out, bringing the running time down to 2 hours 22 minutes. The shortened version opened the next day at the Cinerama Theater on Broadway in New York, sixteen months late, and $4.5 million over budget.

It is a great film, in many ways. So much attention is paid to the VFX, so let us remember the cast, all of whom play their parts so well: Daniel Richter, who endured the monkey suit, as Moonwatcher; William Sylvester, as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd, astronaut-as-bureaucrat; Leonard Rossiter, as Dr. Smyslov; Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood as the two most-alienated and repressed protagonists of any American film; and Douglas Rain, as the voice of their likeable onboard computer, HAL.

Sixteen months late! $4.5 million over budget! And well worth it.

Did Kubrick see ICARUS XB1 – a deep-space mission which also ends with an encounter with alien life, and a big-close-up of a star child? We do not know, but Kubrick, holed up in his country house outside London, was a voracious reader and watcher of films. He made a point of watching space exploration films before he made 2001, and it is unlikely that he would have missed ICARUS, which had been released in England, and won the Hugo Award for the best science fiction film.

Kubrick followed 2001 with a very different kind of science fiction film, based on Anthony Burgess’ futuristic novel of juvenile violence and political brainwashing, A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick wrote the script himself and did an excellent job, remaining very close to the original material. The resulting picture is hard to watch in its entirety. It is very violent. It is also a very well made, observant film. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is a film set in England, about the English – and Kubrick, who had lived in England for more than ten years now – got it exactly right. The world he depicts is depressing, dark, always cloudy, angry, isolated, trapped by aristocratic hierarchy and brutal tendencies in a meaningless, greedy, violent stasis. Very few films get England so right: Tony Richardson’s LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (UK, 1962) and Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN (USA/UK, 2006) are also heartfelt, personal nightmare visions of my native land.

BARRY LYNDON, which Kubrick made after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, is a remarkable contrast, being the director’s most overtly beautiful work. This is the film he shot by candlelight. The images, quite deliberately, recall the paintings of old masters; skies are always dramatic, landscapes marvelously pastoral. The film relies on a voice-over narration, something its director does seem to default to – but as in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE it is beneficial, and has a fine ironic tone. The studio didn’t understand the film at all, and Kubrick – who no longer travelled by aircraft and preferred to remain in England – did little to promote his most expensive project. BARRY LYNDON died at the box office, but remains one of his most fascinating pictures, and certainly the best-looking. It was the last film which involved Kubrick in foreign location work, being shot in Ireland and Germany.

After BARRY LYNDON, Kubrick came to a fork in the road. Some critics consider all his work excellent, but I think that the popular (and to some extent critical) rejection of BARRY LYNDON led him to rethink what he had been doing. He could continue to pursue literary and intellectual subjects, or he could play it more safely, and  make choices that were based on his conception of popular demand. In other words, it was the same decision he had confronted in 1957, when he and Kirk Douglas fought over the creative direction (and likely box office) of PATHS OF GLORY.

PATHS OF GLORY, LOLITA, DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and BARRY LYNDON had all been original, unpredictable projects. For his next project, Kubrick went in a deliberately commercial direction by adapting The Shining, a bulky horror-novel written by Steven King. Four years earlier, Brian diPalma had made a very successful horror movie based on a Steven King book, CARRIE (USA, 1976). The previous year had seen a successful, King-based TV miniseries, SALEM’S LOT (USA, 1979). THE SHINING (USA/UK, 1980) would be Stanley Kubrick’s contribution to a Steven King cycle of studio films which included CREEPSHOW (USA, 1982), CUJO (USA, 1983), THE DEAD ZONE (USA, 1983), CHRISTINE (USA, 1983), and CHILDREN OF THE CORN (USA, 1984).

THE SHINING, for me, is an OK horror film. Some critics and some Kubrick fans consider it a masterwork. Colorado has, of course, a local connection, in the form of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, which apparently inspired Steven King to write a book about a vast, ghost-haunted, sinister hotel, and which hosts an annual festival of horror films. There is also a fascinating conspiracy theory involving Stanley Kubrick, the Moon landings, and THE SHINING.

There is nothing inherently wrong with conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy? It is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. Conspiracies happen all the time, and we can certainly theorize about them. One conspiracy theory popular on the Internet is that the US did not send live astronauts to the Moon, but instead faked the Lunar landings. As this theory developed, one variant suggested that Stanley Kubrick was involved, as the technical genius behind the visual fakery. Is there evidence to support either of these theories? You can do the research and decide. But a similar fascination has arisen around THE SHINING. We can’t call this a conspiracy theory, since no crime is involved. Various Kubrick enthusiasts are convinced that THE SHINING contains secret messages or puzzles, hidden in the dialogue or in the art direction, or only visible when the film is watched backwards. One of these theories suggests that THE SHINING is Kubrick’s confession that he faked the Moon landing, decodable via certain symbols in the film.

This is one of the theses of a feature length documentary, ROOM 237 (USA, 2012), which depicts various interpretations Kubrick enthusiasts have placed on THE SHINING: cryptically revealing the faking of the Moon landings being only one of them. I’m not seriously suggesting that Kubrick did fake the Apollo program. What I find interesting is that, even where Kubrick clearly made a commercial horror movie, and did it with less than his usual conviction or energy, die-hard Kubrick enthusiasts were determined to make more of it: for them, the fact that Kubrick made the film meant it must have deep significance, even if the evidence is minimal, and the thesis ludicrous.

All this stems from the notion that Kubrick, a professional news photographer at age 17, an avid chess player, a talented, meticulous filmmaker, was – beyond that – a profound genius in his own right. The press he got around the time of 2001, reinforced by the Playboy interview and other interviews he gave, reinforce this notion. But it wasn’t necessarily so. Kubrick was a clever man and a brilliant filmmaker. But some of the stuff he says in that Playboy interview – how death is just a curable disease, like diptheria or smallpox, how he would be cryogenically frozen if the technology was in place – seem silly and inappropriate in 2015, in a world threatened by population growth, widespread drought, food and water shortages and the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

To his credit, Kubrick was seriously concerned about the danger of thermonuclear warfare and made the very best movie about it, DR. STRANGELOVE. His mid-career was a run of intelligent, original, disturbing films which no other director could have made. His late career showed less originality. After THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET (USA/UK, 1987) was Kubrick’s contribution to the Hollywood Viet Nam cycle of war films. It differs from the others in that it was shot almost entirely in England (second unit was done in Asia). Its “message” is one of astonishment that there were women in the North Vietnamese Army. Kubrick’s mystique, still strong in the wake of his science fiction films and BARRY LYNDON, continued to accord him seriousness – until the release of EYES WIDE SHUT (USA/UK, 1999), a soft-porn sex thriller set in New York, but shot in London. The filming of EYES WIDE SHUT was troubled, and ran late. When Kubrick asked one of the cast, Harvey Keitel, to return to London for additional re-shoots, Keitel declined. Kubrick fired his actor, re-cast a film director, Sydney Pollack, in his role, and re-shot all Keitel’s scenes. Unsatisfied with the material (which revealed reflections of the camera and crew in shiny surfaces), Kubrick was planning further re-shoots when he died, in March 1999. He was 70 years old. The film was released in July 1999.

When I was young, Kubrick was like a god. He was the Auteur filmmaker. All young filmmakers loved Kubrick, and wished that we could make pictures of such originality and technical brilliance. In retrospect, in terms of their philosophical content, I think only one of his 13 features achieves philosophical gravitas. That film is 2001. Its message, obscure at first, has become clear over the years, after repeated viewings: to become human, one must be a murderer. The monolith inspires Moonwatcher to use tools to kill his own kind; HAL becomes convinced he can save the mission only by killing its human components – in his illogical madness, has he not become human, too? And to become the “star child”, Bowman must first kill HAL, by depriving him of the consciousness he values so piteously.

This is a pessimistic and original message. It sits well with Kubrick’s recurring themes: hierarchy; military and quasi-military systems of control, and discipline; crazy rebellion against those systems – by human and non-human rebels, all of which end in failure, if not disaster.

For my class at CU, I wanted to pick a scene from EYES WIDE SHUT but couldn’t find anything I really wanted to watch with the students. So we returned to that early Film Noir which got young Stanley his break: THE KILLING. By the end of the picture, alll the characters, save for the hero and his girl, have met grisly fates. Now Johnny (played by Sterling Hayden) and Fay (Coleen Gray) are making their getaway with a suitcase full of money. And they make a mistake none of us would make today: they take that suitcase to the airport. We watch the finale of THE KILLING.

Further reading:

Shipbuilding, by Piers Bizony, The Making of 2001, Modern Library, 2000

The Ragman’s Son, by Kirk Douglas, Simon and Schuster, 1988

Stanley Kubrick, Playboy Interview, Sept 1968



What is a genre? A type of story, or book, or television drama — and in our case, narrative film. Not just any type — the category cannot be too broad, for example, “action” isn’t a film genre. There are too many kinds of action film, distinctly different from each other. War films, Westerns, martial arts movies, gangster movies, these can all be called genres. You can usually identify a film’s genre just by looking at stills from it. Genres have visually distinct locations, situations, costumes, character types.

Think of a musical – brightly coloured, all the characters leaping in unison, with outstretched arms. Think of a war film, with the guys gathered in their tent, or in their tank, or in their trench, the night before the battle. Think of a Western: two men with big hats and big guns, facing each other in an empty street. Think of a samurai movie, two ronin with big swords, facing each other against a background of acolytes. Genres are distinct, and at the same time they borrow from each other. Containing familiar elements, yet simultaneously able to evolve, genre movies have always made up the bulk of Hollywood film production, and continue to do so. Commercial cinemas in other countries – India, Japan, China, Korea, Europe – all developed their own genres, or borrowed those of other cultures.

Of the three directors whose work we discussed last week, only one of them began his career with a genre film – a biker movie. The others made films outside any existing genre – art films, original films without clear precedents. “Art films” were popular with the critics, objects of some esteem, but audiences were traditionally less taken by them. Genre, for all the studios, paid the bills.

The first American narrative film was a genre film: THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (USA, 1903) is a story of a horseback-riding gang of outlaws who rob a train and are pursued and shot by a posse. For at least three decades, the Western was the most reliable film genre of all. Smaller studios survived on Westerns alone, and larger studios relied on their box office revenue. It was a bad Western which didn’t make money.

But Westerns are only one of a porous panoply of film genres. I’ll talk about some of these genres today, but the great thing about this area of film study or filmmaking is: it isn’t fixed. New genres are constantly developing; old ones die off. In the 1970s Hollywood experimented with a genre called the Disaster Movie in which earthquakes destroyed cities, or people were trapped in upside down ocean liners, or caught in burning skyscrapers. It produced some good entertainments – in particular THE TOWERING INFERNO (USA, 1974) – but never got traction. After 9/11 it resurfaced briefly with WORLD TRADE CENTER (USA, 2006) and UNITED 93 (USA, 2006), then vanished again. Indeed, WORLD TRADE CENTER and UNITED 93 seem more like an attempt by Hollywood to “bolster” the official version of the 9/11 story in the face of popular disbelief and a subversive documentary, LOOSE CHANGE (USA, 2005), than to resurrect an unpopular genre.

For forty years musicals were a staple Hollywood genre. How many are made today? Twenty-five years ago, the notion of an industry focused almost entirely on cartoon superhero franchises would have been unthinkable. But the comic-book superhero franchise is certainly a genre now, having come to dominate production in recent years.

And what of the “mockumentary” – a genre which didn’t exist prior to THIS IS SPINAL TAP (USA, 1984), but which proves increasingly popular (see also MORE THAN FRYBREAD (USA, 2011) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (New Zealand, 2014)?

Some genres are national. The Bollywood musical still thrives. Some national genres become international: Westerns, samurai films and kung fu movies all crossed state boundaries to become international forms: quite often, international coproductions with a Hollywood studio as a partner.

Genres are recognizable but not fixed. There can be uncertainty. We can say that the Italian Western is a sub-genre of the Western. But what is the spy film: the form which contains the James Bond and Bourne franchises? Is it a genre in its own right, or a sub-genre of the thriller? Is the gangster movie a genre or a sub-set of the crime film or the detective film?

Your opinion is as good as anyone’s in these arcane areas. At the same time, there are also genres which are readily identifiable. And it is to these that we now turn. Here is a list of genres; to its right are sub-genres. But this is merely my list. Is the biker movie a genre or a sub-genre of the crime film? Is the spy film or the film noir a sub-genre, or a genre of its own?

Science Fiction
Thriller                    sub-genre spy?
Crime                    sub-genre film noir, detective, gangster?
Comedy                    sub-genres rom-com, screwball, dumb
Road Movie
Martial Arts                 sub-genre samurai, kung fu

In Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz identifies four stages in the development of a genre. For him, these are the different phases (with my notes):

1. Experimental — in which the conventions of the genre are established

2. Classic — the genre is entirely known and accepted by its audience

3. Refinement — the genre expands its range of “typical” elements; new characters or locations; sub-genres appear.

4. Baroque — the genre becomes “mannerist” or self-reflexive; established plots and characters are inverted; parodies are popular.

Genres form somewhat like stars — from multiple, disconnected elements, pulled together over time. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY joined together the disparate elements of the outlaw gang, on horseback; armed robbery; a posse of pursuers; and a violent settling of accounts, ending in the death of the “bad.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these were all elements of Owen Wister’s Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published a year previously in 1902 (though the theft in the novel is cattle rustling, not robbing trains). This was the experimental period of the Western film genre, when its elements were still being chosen, before they solidified into something the audience could rely upon.

That reliability was important. Audiences go to see genre films because they know in advance what kind of story they are in for. They want to be entertained, rather than surprised (perhaps for this reason, or else due to studio reluctance to make them, “genre-breaking” films are comparatively rare). Schatz writes about two different types of genre: one tells stories of the enforcement of order, the other stories of integration, of community.

“Order” genres include Westerns, crime, and martial arts films. They feature lone male heroes and rely on violence for their resolution. “Integration” genres include musicals, comedies, and melodramas. They feature couples or collective groups, usually female-dominated, and they rely on the embrace – the expression of love – for their resolution.

War films, horror films, and science fiction could go either way. Often these genres feature a group rather than an individual (though war and horror films also depict a process of violent attrition, leaving us with one hero or heroine by the end). Science fiction can be the story of a group (the STAR TREK and STAR WARS franchises, ICARUS XB1) or of individuals – for example, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (USA, 1957) or 2001, which has three stories and three protagonists.

Genre is a big subject, and a flexible one. I’ll show you some examples taken from genre films, which seem to me to illustrate those four developmental stages.

1. As an example of genre’s experimental stage we view the road movie TWO LANE BLACKTOP (USA, 1971), made when the genre was still inventing itself. It follows Francis Coppola’s THE RAIN PEOPLE (USA, 1969) and was made the same year as another early example of the form, VANISHING POINT (USA, 1971).

Cars and highways had long featured in films, but in TWO LANE BLACKTOP the elements of the road movie coalesce. The film has a rural environment. People survive on junk food. The protagonists are men (after THE RAIN PEOPLE, which has a female protagonist, the form rapidly veers towards male loner heroes) who care about cars and have difficulty relating to women. Women find these men boring. Dialogue is minimal, and there’s an uneasy mix of professional actors, pop singers, and amateurs. Soundtrack music tends to feature country, and rock and roll.

2. As an example of the classic stage of genre, we view a detective picture, THE MALTESE FALCON. This was the first film written and directed by John Huston, in 1941. It’s based on a novel, written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929. Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective and a strike breaker, and was the inventor of “hard-boiled” detective fiction, a form which greatly impacted the detective film. Huston’s was the third film adaptation of the novel, which had also been shot in the days before the Production Code, in 1931, and re-made, as a comedy titled SATAN MET A LADY, in 1936.

In the first ten minutes of THE MALTESE FALCON we see the urban environment, meet the detective hero, the duplicitous woman client, are shown his ambiguous relationship with the police, and are presented with a mystery, potential for romance, a grave threat to the hero’s freedom, and a motive for revenge. This classic set-up would be used by many other detective pictures, and films noir.

3. Now for an instance of a genre refining itself – becoming more sophisticated, and developing concerns that weren’t part of the original package. A movie musical, in its experimental form, was a light-hearted affair. Classical musicals could address social issues: SHOW BOAT (USA, 1936) and WEST SIDE STORY (USA, 1961) both dealt frankly with racism. But Bob Fosse’s CABARET (USA, 1972) – an American film set in Berlin in the 1930s – went beyond agreed-upon norms, with positive depictions of gay sexuality, and a truly disturbing depiction of the appeal of Nazism, in its famous production number, Tomorrow Belongs to Me. This sequence is very sophisticated, going beyond the simple depiction of Nazis as ugly and evil, and probing how such a vile political movement could attract regular, good-looking people of both sexes to its cause.

4. As a genre develops, it soon reaches the point where it is not only fair game for parody, but where it parodies itself. Most of the performances of Arnold Schwartzenegger are so tongue-in-cheek that whatever he’s supposed to be – a robot from the future, a Special Ops war hero – invariably renders the film parodic: a self-reflexive entertainment, impossible to take seriously. This is the baroque phase of genre, where not just the actor’s performance, but the film itself ironically comments on the genre. At this point decadence kicks in. Audiences have seen so many of these films that they want more stimulation, and the baroque genre entertains them with role reversals, hero-villains, unhappy endings, or simply generic overkill.

The horror film has been around almost as long as the Western, and by the 1970s both forms were fairly exhausted. The Western didn’t survive, but horror films did, reinventing themselves as serial killer one-offs, or POV-stalker-killer franchises like FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, HALLOWEEN, and SAW.  Most baroque genre films are quite terrible, but some are sublime. An example – which both exploits the sheer dumbness of the night-in-the-old-dark-house movie while reveling in multiple opportunities to shock the audience and reference other horror films – is Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II (USA, 1987).

It’s worth noting that IMDB, which categorizes films according to genre, lists EVIL DEAD II in two categories, Comedy and Horror. Popular genres have often overlapped. There are a number of Western comedies, BLADE RUNNER is a crime/science fiction movie, and the ALIEN franchise is a series of horror films which take place in a science fiction setting.

Further reading on genres: Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System, by Thomas Schatz, McGraw Hill, 1981

The Western

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, made in 1903, was the first American narrative film, the first genre film, and the first Western. What is a Western?

Strictly speaking, a Western takes place west of the Mississippi. So John Ford’s film DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (USA, 1939) – though it’s a tale of frontier pioneers fighting Native Americans – doesn’t count. The Western, as it’s developed, has a specific time frame: from the Civil War (which ended in April 1865) through to the second decade of the twentieth century. Westerns taking place in the twentieth century tend to be located in Mexico, and set against a background of the Revolution there.

The term “Cowboys and Indians” might suggest that a principal concern of the genre is the conflict between the European settler and the indigenous American. In fact this isn’t so. Westerns rarely feature Indians, except as background extras or as a distant, potential threat. In the classic Western, women, Native Americans and other minorities are rarely seen, and have little agency. Contrary to what one might expect, animals are largely irrelevant, also. Of course, plots sometimes revolve around a cattle drive, involving numerous steers. The cowboy has a horse, but how often do we know the name of the horse? Roy Rogers’ horse is called Trigger. The Lone Ranger’s is Silver. John W. Burns, hero of one of the last great American Westerns, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (USA, 1962) has a Rocky Mountain Horse called Whiskey. Beyond this, animals are anonymous. The real West was full of dogs and cats and mountain lions and coyotes and javelinas and lizards and snakes and other critters. Rattlesnakes appear from time to time because they add to the danger, emphasize the hostility of the environment. But when did you ever see a Western where the hero has a dog?

The classic Western is a story of isolation and suffering. Jane Tompkins writes in her book West of Everything:

“The land revealed … in the opening shot of a Western is a land defined by absence: of trees, of greenery, of houses, of the signs of civilization, above all, absence of water and shade…

“It is an environment inimical to human beings, where a person is exposed, the sun beats down, and there is no place to hide. But the negations of the physical setting – no shelter, no water, no rest, no comfort – are also its siren song. Be brave, be strong enough to endure this, it says, and you will become like this – hard, austere, sublime. The code of asceticism founds our experience of Western stories. The landscape challenges the body to endure hardship – that is its fundamental message at the physical level. It says, This is a hard place to be: you will have to do without here. Its spiritual message is the same: come, and suffer.

“For the setting by its hardness and austerity seems to have selected its heroes from among strong men in the prime of life, people who have a certain build, complexion, facial type, carriage, gesture, and demeanor: who dress a certain way, carry certain accoutrements, have few or no social ties, are expert at certain skills (riding, tracking, roping, fistfighting, and shooting) and terrible at others (dancing, talking to ladies).”

For many years, the American Western hero was personified by an actor named John Wayne. Wayne made his Hollywood debut at the age of 23, in a big-budget Western directed by Raoul Walsh, THE BIG TRAIL (USA, 1930).

THE BIG TRAIL was a very early talking picture, quite remarkable for its ambition and its achievement: huge sets and a big cast on remote locations, live sound recording, shot simultaneously with multiple cameras, in Academy 35mm and widescreen 70mm. As a result, there are two versions of the film. THE BIG TRAIL, even though it was not a financial success, set the tone for the Westerns that came after it, particularly with its flashback-based revenge theme.

In an early scene the director establishes the character of the hero – the white man who knows Indians, and is good with a knife – the nature of his vengeance trail, and the identities of the villains. The scene is urban, located in a bustling, trail-head town. Westerns were often urban, especially as the genre settled into its refined phase. But every Western must get out of town at some point, to confront that hostile, comfortless landscape, and THE BIG TRAIL does this in a spectacular way, in the scenes in which the wagon train confronts an immense cliff-face.

No special effects were used. The crew went out with oxen and Conestoga wagons, and lowered them down sheer cliffs, on ropes. The reach of THE BIG TRAIL was massive. The shoot began in Santa Fe, and travelled across five states, ending in California, just as the wagon trains did. Note, in this early Western, there are still significant roles for women: not only the attractive, intermittently imperiled heroine, but the tough matron who takes the first hit of whiskey from the jug after her grandchildren are born. Here the Western was still in its experimental stage, and there was still an element of the communality of genre comedies and melodramas. The lone-wolf hero had yet to dominate.

THE BIG TRAIL ends in a dappled grove, the wagon train having reached its destination, hero and heroine united among the big trees. Such an ending would be increasingly rare as the Western genre progressed, and its hero became more lonely, less talkative, less likely to marry the girl. The film did poorly – the depression had begun and theater owners showed no interest in installing 70mm projectors – and it was almost a decade before big-budget Westerns returned to the screen. John Wayne spent the 1930s acting in very low-budget, two-reel Westerns and even tried his hand at being a singing cowboy – “Singin’ Sandy”. Then, in 1939, two big Westerns broke the genre’s run of bad luck. The films were STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford, starring Wayne, and JESSE JAMES, directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power.

Both films tell the story of a heroic outlaw, but they are different in significant ways. Richard Slotkin has written a three-volume history of popular fiction and the mythology of western expansion. In his third book, Gunfighter Nation, he makes a distinction between “populist” Westerns, which emphasize community, and loyalty to the family or outlaw group, and “progressive” Westerns, protagonized by a lone individual whose quest – usually for revenge – brings order in its wake.

John Ford – born in 1894, died in 1973 – was one of the most prolific, popular, and revered directors of the American cinema. He began as a director of short silent films, many of them Westerns, and directed his last feature in 1966. Today many of his talking pictures are regarded as classics, including STAGECOACH (USA 1939), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (USA, 1940), MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (USA, 1946), FORT APACHE (USA, 1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (USA, 1949), THE QUIET MAN (USA, 1952), THE SEARCHERS (USA, 1956), and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (USA, 1962). All but two of these films are Westerns.

The original trailer for STAGECOACH begins with shots of aircraft, locomotives and a space-age bus – as if to say, this film is no antique: the Western is still relevant, still with us! Ford’s name is prominently featured. STAGECOACH is a “progressive” film. Its hero, the Ringo Kid, is an outlaw bent on revenge. Having killed his men, he departs with the heroine for Mexico. The Kid is still a killer on the run; she is a prostitute. He has brought order and improved public safety by killing the Plummer boys, but there is no room for him, or her.

Jesse and Frank James, in Henry King’s film, are folk heroes, forced to become outlaws by a corrupt system dominated by railroad money and its hired gangsters. There is no question as to their integrity, or their place in the community. The first scenes show railroad goons forcing poor farmers to sell their property for a dollar an acre. Jesse and Frank drive them off with fists and guns. When they are forced to go on the run, they do so with the blessing of family and friends. In this “populist” Western, family and community loyalty lead both brothers to outlawry and one of them to a violent demise.

Frank James was played by Henry Fonda – a clean-cut actor who for many years portrayed uncomplicated heroes. A few years later he worked for John Ford on a film often regarded as his and Ford’s best work: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (USA, 1947). This, like JESSE JAMES, is a fictionalized story of a real person – the gambler, brothel guard, saloon-keeper, and U.S. Marshall, Wyatt Earp. Earp died in 1929, having moved to Los Angeles and spent several years massaging his legend with writers and Hollywood film directors. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is partial to Earp and his faction, and hostile to their adversaries. Unhistorical but highly exciting, its climax is a celebrated Western shootout, the gunfight at the OK Corral, and provides a template for how gunfights might be choreographed thereafter.

It’s worth restating that none of this is history. What was, in reality, a messy afternoon affair, most of whose protagonists had been drinking, is transformed by John Ford into a necessary ritual of revenge and civic improvement, at dawn. The unappealing outskirts of Tombstone, Arizona, are replaced by the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, some of the loveliest landscapes on earth. These are Westerns, fantasies from optimistic times. It would be three decades before Henry Fonda (who played Wyatt Earp, and Frank James) would portray a villain by the name of Frank in the Italian Western, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

By the late 1940s, Ford had become frustrated with the Hollywood bookkeeping system known as creative accounting. This term, frequently used within the industry, refers to the studios’ ability to keep adding charges to the accounts of any film, in the form of distribution costs, marketing, advertising, and overheads (studios routinely add a 20% “overhead” to the budget of any film they finance — money which is then owed to the studio) so that the film never “breaks even”. This meant (and still means today) that while the director, producer and lead actors may be well paid up front, they will never share in the profits of the film, because, according to “creative accounting”, there are no profits to share.

Clearly this is an unfair state of affairs, and over the years filmmakers and actors have tried various ways around the problem. John Ford tried, partnering with the co-producer-writer-director of KING KONG, Merian C. Cooper, to form an independent production company, Argosy, which they hoped would let them own their films. In 1946, Argosy made a deal with RKO to distribute their first four pictures. But the company’s first film, THE FUGITIVE (USA, 1946) was a failure, earning less than a million dollars at the box office. After RKO deducted their distribution fee, Ford and Cooper were left half a million dollars in debt.

In the 1940s, John Ford was the most popular director — of Westerns. His other films, even if critically admired, tended to do less well at the box office. So Ford and Cooper decided to make a Western to recoup their company’s fortunes. Ford wanted to make a Cavalry picture, about a US garrison deep in Indian country. Ford was famously economical as a director, but much of the film was to be shot in Monument Valley, on the Navajo reservation, and two sets were to be built – a partial cavalry fort there and complete one  in Corriganville, outside Los Angeles. For both sets, a full cast and numerous extras and horses would be needed. It was impossible to keep the budget down.

In his biography of Ford, Print the Legend, Scott Eyman writes,

“A preliminary budget drawn up for FORT APACHE mandates a sixty-day schedule, and a cost of $2.29 million. Ford was down for $150,000, Merian Cooper for $50,000, with the script costs divided between an uncredited Frank Wead ($25,000) and [Frank] Nugent ($15,000). [John] Wayne, [Henry] Fonda, and Shirley Temple got $100,000 apiece. Victor McLaglen received $52,000, and Pedro Armendariz got $20,000. Behind the camera, art director James Basevi got $17,325 for 21 weeks of work, while chief cinematographer Archie Stout received $9,600 for twelve weeks’ work, and William Clothier got $4,000 for that same twelve weeks as second cameraman. For writing the score, Richard Hageman got $8,000, with another $30,000 allocated for recording. For housing the unit in Monument Valley, Harry and Mike Goulding were to receive $9,750.

“Argosy signed for another large note – $1.64 million from Security First National Bank. They then borrowed $360,000 from Leo McCarey’s Rainbow Pictures, and prevailed upon McCarey to deposit another $220,000 for the Completion Bond. Argosy then went to RKO and got a loan of $610,000 so they could repay McCarey, and pay Ford and Cooper their salaries. Ford and Cooper got John Wayne and Henry Fonda to defer $25,000 apiece from their salaries in exchange for 5% of the profits apiece. As security for this morass of debt, Argosy pledged the picture itself. In addition to their distribution fee, RKO’s share of the profits was increasing, from 33.3% on THE FUGITIVE to 40% on FORT APACHE.

“In almost every respect, it was a wretched deal. Before Argosy saw a dime, RKO deducted their distribution fee, the bank got their loan money with interest, and Fonda and Wayne got their deferments with interest… Merian Cooper could feel the noose tightening, and wrote Ford accordingly: “… I will depend on your ingenuity to cut off a few days – if possible – from the shooting schedule.”

Scott Eyman concludes that the deal Ford and Cooper got “gives some idea of just how badly the cards were stacked against independent production in Hollywood.” Particularly egregious was the requirement of a completion bond — an extra form of insurance by which third parties agree to finish the picture if the director and producer fail to do so. At $220,000, the bond cost almost 10% of the picture’s budget. This was a ludicrous, unnecessary additional expense, which the bank insisted on. It was ludicrous and unnecessary because Ford and Cooper were highly experienced professionals. Both men’s careers would have been over if they abandoned a project during production (something neither ever did). Nevertheless – because they were working outside the studio system – they were obliged to buy a bond. Completion bonds remain a problem faced by independent filmmakers to this day: though the cost has dropped to around 5% of the budget, a completion bond remains, for most professional filmmakers, an entirely unnecessary expense.

John Ford listened to his producer, as good directors should, and shot FORT APACHE in 45 days. When it was released, it grossed just over four million dollars – enough to break even, but not enough to make any real money for Argosy. The company existed till 1956, when Ford and Cooper shut it down. Argosy had made nine features, some of which were outstanding, and one of which – THE QUIET MAN – made a lot of money. Ford and Cooper had failed to make a killing, but they had made a decent living.

And what of the film itself? FORT APACHE is one of John Ford’s finest Westerns. It was shot in the location he loved best and returned to most often, Monument Valley, during the gap between the Second World War and the Korean War. It’s loosely based on the story of General Custer, who led his troops to defeat at the Little Big Horn. FORT APACHE depicts several well-intentioned people’s attempts to avoid a war, and one bigot’s ability to provoke it. John Wayne, as in THE BIG TRAIL, plays the white man who knows Indians; Henry Fonda plays his adversary and hierarchical superior. The scene where Capt. York (Wayne) challenges Col. Thursby (Fonda), and throws down his glove, has been overlooked by film critics: Wayne’s character, doing this, is challenging his superior officer to a duel. This is the highest form of military insubordination – yet Capt. York is right, and Col. Thursby is a racist ass whose vanity will bring about disaster.

FORT APACHE is uncommon in that it has Indian characters with names (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor, Miguel Inclán) who exercise autonomy, respond rationally, and aren’t savage, mysterious, or unknowable. Several times, Ford leaves us in no doubt as to the racism and immorality of Thursby; then, in a mysterious coda, Capt. York opposes the film’s message up to this point, insisting that the heroic memory of Thursby must be maintained, to promote the reputation and prestige of an ongoing, unspecified, military mission. Was the last scene a late addition, or always part of the story? World War Two had recently ended; US troops still occupied Germany, Italy, and Japan; the Korean War was only two years away.

Westerns are Westerns, set in the 19th century west of the Mississippi, yes. But they are made in the context of other films, of contemporary events, and as the genre refined itself, Westerns started to function as allegories. HIGH NOON (USA, 1952) was the story of a sheriff (Gary Cooper) desperate to raise a posse, whom no one would assist: it has, ever since its release, been regarded as a critique of popular passivity in the face of McCarthyism, witch-hunts, and the blacklist. RIO BRAVO (USA, 1959) was made as a riposte to HIGH NOON and told the story of an embattled sheriff (John Wayne) who needed no help, but got it anyway.

In the 1950s, Westerns became darker and began to doubt what the genre and its practitioners had previously known for sure. In THE SEARCHERS (USA, 1956), John Ford told the story of a man who both knows Indians and is dedicated to their extermination, Ethan Edwards (not surprisingly, played by John Wayne). By the early 1960s, the Western appeared to have run its course. 1962 saw two great ones, Ford’s LIBERTY VALANCE (again, with Wayne) and David Miller’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, starring Kirk Douglas. One was a progressive Western, the other populist; both were deep, respectful meditations on the disappearance / irrelevance of the old-style Western hero.

And just as it staggered ignominiously into the sunset, the Western was saved – by the Italians. Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy was vastly successful in Italy. Its wider distribution was delayed: Leone had “borrowed” the plot of his first Western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Italy/Spain, 1964), from a Kurosawa samurai film, YOJIMBO (Japan, 1961), and Kurosawa soon wrote to Leone,

“Signor Leone, I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film. As Japan is a signatory to the Berne Convention on international copyright, you must pay me.  – Akira Kurosawa.”

A lawsuit between the Kurosawa Company and Leone’s producers ensued. Kurosawa won the Japanese rights and a share of the international profits. The film and its two sequels cleaned up abroad, as at home. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY made Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef movie stars, and gave a the genre a burst of energy – in the form of multiple shootouts, sadistic acts of villainy, striking sets and landscapes, and loud electric guitars. This was the Western in its baroque phase – as any of the set pieces of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (especially the final gunfight in a huge graveyard) will demonstrate.

Not all Italian Westerns had the budget or scale of Sergio Leone’s films. Leone is certainly the best-known director of the sub-genre, but there were other fine filmmakers working in the form. One of them was Sergio Corbucci, who like Leone began his career as an assistant director of gladiator movies. Corbucci made Westerns which were darker and even more violent than Leone’s. The most famous of these was DJANGO (Italy, 1966) — another film banned by the British film censor for many years. I’m going to show you the end of another of his films, perhaps the finest of all Italian Westerns, THE GREAT SILENCE / IL GRANDE SILENZIO (Italy, 1967).

THE GREAT SILENCE is the story of a mute gunfighter, played by the French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who makes his living as a killer of bounty hunters. When a group of innocent farmers are taken hostage by the villain, played by the Polish actor Klaus Kinski, Silence agrees to face him in a fair gunfight — even though his gun-hand has been badly burned in a fire. This is Corbucci’s take on the Western gunfight. Very different from Ford’s, it shows the hero gunned down and killed by villains who lie in wait for him. This is the way most Western gunfights went! I have researched these things, preparing for a Western on this very subject, and face-to-face showdowns, in daylight, like the one at the OK Corral, were extremely rare. Almost all the shootouts I have read about were ambushes, like the one Corbucci depicts (while the delicacy and beauty of Ennio Morricone’s score works in counterpoint to the horror of the scene). Nevertheless Corbucci’s pessimistic ending was considered extreme even by Italian standards, and the director – who as you might guess could be quite cynical about these things – shot an alternative ending, in case foreign distributors wouldn’t go for the original end. That ending (which can be found on the internet, with Italian dialogue) resurrects a subsidiary character, who rides to the rescue of Silence at the eleventh hour.

The Italian Western had a profound effect on the American Western. Many American directors simply chose to imitate the Italian form, shooting their films in the same Spanish locations as the Italians did. Even directors who didn’t simply copy the Italian aesthetic made films which were clearly informed by the Italians’ art direction and rich visual style. Consider McCABE & MRS MILLER, directed by Robert Altman four years after THE GREAT SILENCE, in 1971. Like THE GREAT SILENCE it is a populist Western, with a strong female protagonist and a pessimistic conclusion, set in the snow. Unlike Vonetta McGee (whose role in THE GREAT SILENCE was limited to a revengeful love-interest), Julie Christie plays a character every bit as strong as the male hero (Warren Beatty), who is more than able to best him in their verbal duels.

Further reading:

Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film: A Director’s Perspective, Kamera Books, 2016

Further reading about the Western:

West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, by Jane Tompkins, Oxford, 1992

Print The Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, 1999

Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America, by Richard Slotkin, U. of Oklahoma Press, 1998

10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Italian Western, by Alex Cox, Kamera Books, 2009, 2nd Edition 2019


Today we follow the rise of the Hollywood studios, and their occasional challenges. This has been our subject in days past, also. So far we’ve watched four studio features – THE WIZARD OF OZ, BLADE RUNNER, CITIZEN KANE and FANTASIA – in their entirety, and seen clips from many more.

It’s probably impossible to have an Intro to Film class without dealing with the work of the studios. Film – le Septieme Art as the French called it – was the original art form of the twentieth century, and Hollywood overhangs that art form like a colossus.

Yet Hollywood, as a base for the industry, happened entirely by chance. In the early years of the 20th century filmmaking was based on the east coast, and dominated by one major patent holder, Thomas Edison. It was to avoid the power of Edison that other producers decided to head west and seek a regime less oppressive, and much sunnier. Films were in those early days frequently made out of doors, and the better the weather, the more shooting could be done.

So the story goes, scouts for the emergent studios headed west on a train for Arizona, a state famous for its numerous sunny days. Then, as now, if you were crossing the country by rail you changed trains Chicago. There, in Chicago, the scouts boarded a train for Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff, as you know, is in northern Arizona. It has an elevation of 6,900 feet – higher than Boulder. And like Boulder, it gets lots of snow. The train arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. The film crew took one look at the blizzard, got back on the train, and carried on to California. Had they only taken the other Arizona train, the one that goes through Tucson, the history of film, or at least of the studios, might have been very different. Instead of Arizona, California – and specifically Hollywood and Culver City, in Los Angeles – became the home of American film.

Today Los Angeles is still a corporate headquarters, but less of a production base. Hollywood films are made abroad, or in other states where “production incentives” encourage the outsourcing of the shoot. But for several decades in the 20th century, Hollywood and Culver City was where American films were actually made. Studios, big or small, had offices for writers and producers, workshops and costume shops, sound stages, and editing rooms.

There were some fifty small studios, and almost a dozen large ones. The biggest studios were vertically integrated – that is to say, they produced the films, distributed them, and owned the cinemas in which they played. In those days every major city had a movie theatre called the Paramount, and another one called the Fox, owned by those studios. We still have a Fox in Boulder, though it no longer plays films.

All the major studios made Westerns, because for thirty years the Western was the most popular film genre. Beyond that, most of them specialized in certain types of film.

MGM – the studio which made THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND – made bigger-budget pictures and was famous for its musicals. It aimed to make a film a week: 52 films a year.

United Artists was a small independent studio set up by the actor/director Charlie Chaplin, the actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and the director D.W. Griffith. It aimed to retain creative control for its filmmakers, and distributed films for independent producers. UA began the James Bond franchise. In 1981 it merged with MGM.

Warner Bros. was famous for its gangster movies, and its Merrie Melodies cartoons.

RKO was a lower-budget, “quality” studio. It made KING KONG, CITIZEN KANE, and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It also distributed films for Disney, a studio without a distribution network. In 1948 it was acquired by the aviation millionaire Howard Hughes. In the fifties Hughes sold the studio to General Tire and Rubber, which ran it for a few years, then shut it down.

Universal produced ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, then settled into a series of low budget “franchise” horror films about the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man.

Disney produced full-length animation films, and later live-action films for children. In 1953, it created its own distribution company, Buena Vista.

Republic Pictures made inexpensive Westerns till the sixties, when it was acquired by CBS TV.

Columbia (later Sony), Paramount and Fox were bigger studios without a specific specialty – though they all made Westerns! This lack of specialization has become more common today, as the surviving studios concentrate on the same type of product: superheroes, talking animals, broad comedy, and special effects. In 1983, a Universal executive told me that the studio directed its output towards someone with a mental age of 15. One can only speculate what mental age Hollywood targets today.

It’s also worth comparing the contemporary output of Disney – the one studio which specifically targets children – with the work it once did. In 1937, as you may recall, Walt Disney’s studio took a risk and made the first full-length American animation feature: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.

This wasn’t the first feature-length cartoon. That honour goes to Lotte Reiniger’s film THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (Germany, 1926), a silent animated film based on the stories of Schaherazade. But Disney’s film was the first full-colour animation feature, and the first with sound. Budgeted at $250,000, it’s final cost was almost $1,500,000 – a huge sum for any feature, unheard of for a cartoon.

It was a gamble which paid off. Within a year, SNOW WHITE had earned triple its budget at the American box office. The film was a success, and that success inspired the other studios to emulate it. MGM began work on an even-bigger-budget colour children’s film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Paramount insisted that Max Fleischer – creator of Popeye and Betty Boop –  produce a full-length, full colour cartoon feature, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Animation films take time to make, and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS wasn’t ready for the theatres till Christmas 1939, by which time Disney had completed a second cartoon feature, PINOCCHIO. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, Disney’s animations had multiple directors. For PINOCCHIO there were two supervising directors, five “sequence directors” (including one T. Hee) and eight animation directors. PINOCCHIO’s budget, like SNOW WHITE’s, had skyrocketed, from $250,000 to $2,500,000. But again it was a critical, and ultimately a financial, success.

PINOCCHIO opened in February 1940. In November of that year, Disney premiered yet another animated feature. But this one was no fairy tale. It was a deliberate attempt to make animated high art: FANTASIA. This is a portmanteau film, of several segments. The credited director was Norman Ferguson, but there were ten uncredited directors as well — each working on a cartoon to accompany a piece of classical music – by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Schubert, and other composers.

Particularly memorable, for this viewer at the age of eight, were the music and images of the Stravinsky Rite of Spring sequence, and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

The musical score took two months to record. It was conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and recorded onto 35mm film on nine “sound cameras”. 33 microphones were used. A new sound system, “Fantasound”, was developed for theaters, most of which proved unwilling to purchase and install it. All sound films up to this date had a mono soundtrack: FANTASIA was the first feature made available in stereo.

Probably no studio would make FANTASIA today. Some of its scenes have a certain risque quality; there is nudity, there is black magic, there is a depiction of the theory of evolution. It was a risky venture in 1940 – not initially popular with audiences. An advertising campaign to make it seem less high-brow  – “FANTASIA – It’ll Amaze Ya!” did not succeed. Finances aside (the film cost $2.25 million, and enjoyed multiple re-releases), FANTASIA is an extraordinary achievement. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, CITIZEN KANE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, it’s an example of what a studio does well – spends money, and employs skilled artists and technicians with the goal of making a high-end work of cinematic art.

We screen FANTASIA.

In recent years, the studios have complained that “piracy” of their products causes jobs to be lost. But this is a specious argument, since reduced production and runaway production are official policy. Philippe Daumon, the head of Viacom (which owns Paramount, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET and Comedy Central) said that the huge profits of TRANSFORMERS justified a corporate strategy of “reduced inventory” – i.e. fewer films, with more money spent promoting them.

In fact, over the years the studios have suffered comparatively few setbacks. In 1918, the Webb-Pomerene Act exempted Hollywood from anti-trust regulations abroad. Thereafter, the studios were able to operate as an export cartel, fixing prices, and essentially running a monopoly in the distribution of American films. In the 1930s the studios pre-empted a censorship movement by creating their own Production Code Administration, which set “standards” and influenced what films were made.

Domestically, the Paramount decision of 1948 – United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. – broke the vertical integration of the studios. The Supreme Court decided that their control of production, distribution and exhibition violated anti-trust laws, and the studios were obliged to sell their theaters and to cease “block booking” practices (by which, in order to screen one of studio’s pictures, a theatre was obliged to book them all).

At the same time, television was perceived as a direct competitor, to which Hollywood responded with more colour films, and various widescreen formats. The 4X3 frame of CITIZEN KANE was now the aspect ratio of a television set, and by the mid-1950s films advertised themselves as being shot in Cinemascope, Panavision, Vistavision, 70mm, and even Cinerama, a three-camera system with approx. 2.6:1 aspect ratio.

In the wake of the Paramount decision, the studios reduced levels of production and increased print rental fees. The idea of making fewer, bigger-budget films appealed to the producers, but not to the exhibitors, many of whom preferred a wide variety of product for double features, and lower rental fees. Ironically, the studio reduction led to an increase in independent film production, as small, black-and-white production companies picked up the slack. On September 10 1958, Variety – the daily record of studio production – made its first mention of a company called American International Pictures: AIP.

“American International Pictures, with a background of more than 50 films over a four-year period in the $100,000 to $250,000 cost bracket, has earmarked an upcoming feature, EVE AND THE DRAGON, for a $1,000,000 budget.
“Stan Shpetner will develop film from his original idea which entails early man and late monster in a prehistoric adventure setting. Shpetner also will produce pic, slated to roll in the Matto Grosso jungle of South America late this year.”

None of this was true. AIP didn’t make a million-dollar dinosaur movie in South America. But they got a mention of their company in Variety. And, if the story was otherwise accurate they, had already achieved something considerable — producing and distributing over 50 independent films in only four years. Instead of EVE AND THE DRAGON, Sam Shpetner wrote and produced a gangster film, THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (USA, 1958), for AIP.

AIP was the brainchild of James H. Nicholson, a film salesman, and Samuel Z. Arkoff, a Hollywood lawyer. They made and distributed low-budget features targeting the teenage audience – films like I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (USA, 1957), HIGH-SCHOOL HELLCATS (USA, 1958) and HOT-ROD GANG (USA, 1958). Nicholson and Arkoff fell in with a young director of Westerns, Roger Corman. For a while they concentrated on teenage movies, gangster, and science fiction films. Then in 1960, Corman directed a horror movie based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, HOUSE OF USHER (USA, 1960). It was a big budget gamble for AIP – costing $300,000 – and was their first film in colour. The gamble paid off and led to a series of films directed by Corman, based on Poe stories – including THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (USA, 1961), THE RAVEN (USA, 1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (USA, 1964).

(We view the splendid trailer for THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.)

The Corman/AIP/Poe cycle was financially very successful. It – together with the other films Corman directed at that time – provided work for a generation of American actors and filmmakers at the very beginning of their career. Jack Nicholson, Robert DiNiro, Francis Coppola, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese all worked for Corman the director, or Corman the producer.

Corman was famously fast. He aimed to make his films in 15 days, and decades later that was still his philosophy: he advised me and Jon Davison to shoot SEARCHERS 2.0 in 15 days, when we shot that film for him in 2007. In 1963, Corman completed shooting of THE RAVEN in 13 days. To take advantage of the cast and crew – still under contract – Corman swiftly concocted and shot another film over the remaining weekend: THE TERROR (USA, 1963), starring Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff.

!n 1966, Corman made a different type of “youth movie” for AIP – an outlaw biker film, entitled THE WILD ANGELS, starring Peter Fonda. It wasn’t the first of these films – Marlon Brando had played an outlaw biker in THE WILD ONE in 1953, and many low-budget films dealt sensationally with “juvenile delinquency” – but the biker movie proved especially popular, and AIP followed it with a series of similar films, including THE GLORY STOMPERS (USA, 1967), starring Dennis Hopper. Another independent company, Fanfare, made an outlaw biker movie titled HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS (USA, 1967), starring Jack Nicholson. And that same year, Corman directed a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson about the LSD scene in Los Angeles, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. THE TRIP (USA, 1967) cost $100,000, and made $10 million at the box office.

We view a clip from THE TRIP in which Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern go to score LSD from a “Psychedelic Temple”. Note Corman’s mise-en-scene! Even though this is a low-budget, swiftly-made film the sequence contains a 360 degree pan (following a joint around the room) followed by a 360 degree crane shot (following Fonda and Susan Strasberg around the upper balcony).

Today, THE TRIP and the biker films seem a little dated, even quaint. It’s hard to believe that these were ground-breaking motion pictures. But back in the 1960s THE TRIP and THE WILD ANGELS were important films. Hugely popular with American youth culture, they were banned by the state film censor in England for decades. THE TRIP only received a British release – on DVD – in 2004.

Aware of the challenge from Corman and AIP, the studios attempted to make hipper, “youthier” films as well, encouraging younger talent like Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, and Faye Dunnaway. Dennis Hopper, in the only essay or manifesto he ever wrote, spoke of his generation’s reverence for post-war European cinema.

“Who needs Disneyland with-glass-sound-stages-so-people-can-watch Studios? Props? Heavy equipment? Thirty people on a crew? … Big old-fashioned sound stages that cost them more to run and build sets on when the whole damn country’s one big real place to utilize and film and God’s a great gaffer. Shoot natural light! Use light-weight reflectors! Bergman makes films with six on a crew. Wouldn’t you?”

Dennis refers to Ingmar Bergman, the director of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sweden, 1955) and THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden, 1957). His generation admired a variety of directors, but they all revered some kind of European film.

The writers of BONNIE & CLYDE, Robert Benton and David Newman, wanted a French director – Francois Truffaut, or perhaps Godard – to direct that film. They thought only a European could bring the light touch, the small-crew aesthetic, their script needed. Fortunately they were wrong, and in 1967 an intellectual American director, Arthur Penn, turned their screenplay an American masterpiece.

We watch BONNIE & CLYDE.

BONNIE & CLYDE wasn’t a masterpiece in the traditional Hollywood vein. It broke all the rules of the Production Code, which had forbidden illicit sex, disrespect for authority, and sympathizing with criminals.

And in 1968, the confluence of Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper – misunderstood by Hollywood, nourished by Corman – came up with the outlaw biker movie to end all outlaw biker movies, the film which came to symbolize this new, rebellious American cinema: EASY RIDER.

Dennis Hopper, the director of EASY RIDER, had been through “old school” Hollywood as an actor, playing juvenile delinquents and making Westerns with John Wayne. But it was Roger Corman, and another independent production company, BBS, which gave him the opportunity to direct.

We screen a clip from EASY RIDER, in which Captain America and Billy (Fonda and Hopper) are arrested for parading without a license, and meet the lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in jail.

By the late 1960s, whether they were working for a studio, like Penn and Peckinpah, or whether they were independent, like Corman and Hopper, a new generation of American auteur directors had taken over the industry and were crafting the best American films in years.

Some called them the “New Hollywood”. I prefer the term the New American Cinema, since Hollywood would soon exclude so many of its brightest young directors. All shared a youthful, rebellious aesthetic. They knew how to make films quickly, independently, on their own terms. For a brief few years the film industry was genuinely in touch with its audience – coming from the same place, sharing the same concerns, opposing the same war, listening to the same music, doing the same drugs. In the late sixties and early seventies, the audience – you – wasn’t just a “demographic”. These filmmakers weren’t yet members of the White LA MIllionaires’ Club known as the Directors Guild. They were the audience’s peers.

Dennis Hopper’s enthusiasm – for low-budget films the filmmaker actually cared about, and for the individuals who would make them – was contagious. He wrote, before becoming a director, in the most optimistic and heroic style,

“Film is an art form, an expensive art form, it’s the Sistine Chapel of the Twentieth Century, it’s the best way to reach people. The artist, not the industry, must take the responsibility for the entire work…
“But where are the angels? … Better still, WHERE’S THE CASH?
“But even better still, WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE TO GIVE THE CASH TO?? Not to worry. No, not to worry. They’ll be here when it’s their turn to change the balance of power in the good old American Way; then my generation will have its say. Our grandfathers and fathers made it what it is today, they invented it. Can we sustain it? Because we’ve lost it. Can we fill the movie gap? And take back our invention? And surpass the Europeans? Yes, when that Individual comes to town. Remember him? The Individual? Well, then, when it’s his turn. Yes, we’d better do it then. Or I’m going to die a very cranky Individual, and I won’t be alone. It’s time for a transition shot.

Directors’ Odysseys: Orson Welles, Dennis Hopper, Charles Burnett

These three directors are all considered auteurs. Being an auteur director isn’t an easy thing. If you work in the mainstream, as a director-for-hire, you will have a reasonable expectation of a job, and of a decent pay day. An auteur comes up with his or her own project, and develops it into a screenplay, then looks for money to get the screenplay made. Unless he or she is very fortunate and has a “development deal” with a financier or producer, the auteur is going to end up spending their own money developing projects which may, or may not, get made.

Welles, Hopper and Burnett – though very different individuals – have one thing in common: their first feature was exceptionally original. There had never been a film like CITIZEN KANE, or EASY RIDER, or KILLER OF SHEEP. So it was easy for critics to compare these directors’ later work to their first film, and to say, “Ah, Orson Welles never made a movie as good as CITIZEN KANE!” Whereas it wasn’t so easy for any of these directors to raise the budget that they needed, or to recreate the circumstances of their first work — even if they wanted to, which probably they did not.

Orson Welles was born – a little like Charles Foster Kane – into a wealthy, distant family. He was a prodigy. His fame as a radio and theatre actor/director got him an invitation to Hollywood. His first film, CITIZEN KANE, was recognized almost immediately as a masterpiece, yet it won him few admirers. Welles was too unique, too original, too secure in his belief in his own genius, to make many friends in Hollywood. KANE didn’t make money, but RKO were proud of it, and keen to make another picture with Welles.

Welles returned to directing theater, and began work on a quasi-documentary called IT’S ALL TRUE, to be shot in Latin America, with a message of unity meant to counter Nazi influence there. He also planned to produce, direct and star in an anti-Nazi thriller, JOURNEY INTO FEAR. One of the few Hollywood directors who befriended Welles was King Vidor – who had directed the black and white scenes of WIZARD OF OZ. Vidor invited Welles to a two-week stay aboard his yacht. Welles took advantage of the time to write a screenplay based on a novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington (In 1939, Welles had adapted the book for a radio production by the Mercury Theatre). It is the story of an upper-middle class, white American family in a midwestern city, and its decline, over several decades.  Welles had a crew in Mexico, shooting IT’S ALL TRUE, when he began rehearsals for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, the film. In October 1941, only five months after CITIZEN KANE opened, production of AMBERSONS began.

While shooting in Los Angeles, Welles screened the Mexican rushes of IT’S ALL TRUE, whose Mexican shoot he had entrusted to another director, Norman Foster. He was also anxious to film the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, himself, in mid-February. So, somewhat astonishingly, Welles began to rush his work on AMBERSONS, shooting from 8 a.m. till late at night and fighting with his DP, Stanley Cortez. Welles fired Cortez on New Year’s Day, 1942. Production ended on January 22. Welles began preparations to direct JOURNEY INTO FEAR, talking to actors and selecting a cinematographer. Then he changed his mind, shut down production of IT’S ALL TRUE, and assigned Norman Foster to direct JOURNEY INTO FEAR, instead.

What a waste of money and energy! Meanwhile, AMBERSONS was over budget – planned to cost $850,000, the total spend was now over a million. In the process of getting out of his JOURNEY INTO FEAR contract with RKO, Welles gave up his right to a “final cut” on AMBERSONS.

Reading about Orson Welles, one gets the impression that he was happiest when working on multiple projects simultaneously. Directing plays and films, or live radio and films, are different things. In a play, or a live broadcast, the performance is everything. When the curtain rises, the director’s work is done. Of course the director may watch the show and give the actors and technicians notes, and may make changes to be incorporated into the next evening’s presentation. But then, again, the play is in the actors’ hands. In a film, the editing is everything. Good editing can make a weak performance strong. Skillful selection of images, juxtaposition and timing can create tension or make an audience laugh, or weep. Film is an editor’s medium. And good editing takes time, and demands the attention of the director. Welles clearly understood that editing was important – he was working with a great film editor, Robert Wise – and perhaps he thought that this was something he could leave to others. Unfortunately this was not so. Auteur directors certainly need to give their cast and crew autonomy, but they also need to be involved and present at every stage of the process. If they aren’t there, somebody else will be.

Pickup shots on AMBERSONS were done in Welles’ absence. Some of the scenes he had rushed through were re-done. Carnival ended, but Welles remained in Rio, planning to shoot some more. On March 15 1942, he received a print of AMBERSONS, and cabled Wise to make changes. But it was too late. RKO had previewed the picture in Pomona, California, and the audience response was poor. Wise removed several minutes but a second preview also proved negative. Welles said he could make changes only if Wise brought another print to Brazil. RKO instructed Wise to remain in Los Angeles. More scenes were re-shot, in Welles’ absence. Wise cut the picture down from 135 minutes to 88 minutes. In desperation, Welles proposed a happy ending to the studio; it seems likely that RKO had already shot one.

Even in its shortened version THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was admired by some critics; but audiences had little time for it. It opened on a double bill with a Lupe Velez comedy, MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (USA, 1942). The United States was now at war with Japan and Germany, young men were being conscripted into the military, and most people had more urgent concerns than the fate of Indianapolis aristocrats.

Welles remained in Brazil until RKO shut down the still-unfinished IT’S ALL TRUE. He gave up his interest in the picture, and over the years much of the negative was thrown away. A version cut from the surviving footage was released in 1993, eight years after Welles’ death. In that film, Welles is seen describing IT’S ALL TRUE as “a large Technicolor documentary.” But all the remaining footage from the film is black and white.

This was quite a unique achievement. In the wake of CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles had embarked on three films simultaneously, and completed none of them. If you search for him on IMDB, he is listed as having 47 film director credits. But this is entirely misleading: the list includes short films, films that were never finished, films that were directed by other people (such as JOURNEY INTO FEAR), and “making of” documentaries.

After his post-KANE debacle, Welles completed very few features. This is not to say that he was idle. He was always busy, mounting stage plays, acting in other people’s films, raising money to make his own films, starting to shoot projects, then abandoning them.

As a studio director he made two notable films noir – THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (USA, 1947) and TOUCH OF EVIL (USA, 1958), whose opening sequence we earlier considered.

(What is film noir? Another French expression which we’ll look at more closely when we turn to film genres. For now, a film noir is a type of pessimistic American crime thriller, shot in black-and-white, with a visual style which references both German “Expressionist” cinema, and CITIZEN KANE.)

Remarkably, Republic Pictures – home of the B-Western – approached Welles in 1948 and proposed a “dream” project: a feature film of MACBETH, starring and directed by Welles. There were strings attached: Republic was a low budget studio and they wanted the film shot in 15 days. But Welles complicated matters by deciding that, to save time, the actors would mime to a pre-recorded version of their dialogue, playing over loudspeakers. This was a crazy idea, demeaning to the actors, and to Welles himself, playing the lead role. When the shoot was done, Welles left for Rome. The cast re-dubbed their performances in his absence.

In 1949 and 1950, Welles directed and starred in a feature version of OTHELLO, shot in Morocco and Italy. He ran out of money frequently, and was baled out by Fox Studios, which acquired 60% ownership of the film for $75,000 cash – money which Welles then took to the casino in Monte Carlo. He finished OTHELLO in 1952, and it was raptly received at the Cannes Festival. But it received a limited release.

In 1957 Welles began shooting a feature version of DON QUIXOTE in Spain –  a project he would never complete. In 1962 he directed a remarkable version of THE TRIAL (France, 1962), based on the novel by Franz Kafka, in Zagreb and Paris. The lead actor was Anthony Perkins, fresh from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (USA, 1960), and Welles gave Perkins the best note possible for the actor playing Joseph K, usually thought of as an innocent man caught in a totalitarian machine. “You are guilty”, Welles told Perkins just before the camera rolled. “Of what? Of what?” Perkins asked. But Welles said nothing more, and the actor made the film haunted by the knowledge that his character was guilty, of an unknown crime.

THE TRIAL is visually outstanding, though its soundtrack is mysteriously bereft – as if someone lost interest in the film in post-production, and the usual tapestry of dialogue, audio effects and music – what we now call sound design – had not been made.

Welles kept working on DON QUIXOTE. In 1964, he directed a Spanish-financed Shakespeare mash-up, based on scenes from the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. Though it was largely ignored on its release – a black-and-white film in a time of colour, a Shakespeare film when such things were not popular – it remains a fine film, and a testament to what Welles could do, as an actor and director, with a proper budget and shooting schedule.

He continued to initiate projects, and struggled to raise money to fund them. Acting was his ace in the hole. Welles was a great actor, not shy about accepting inappropriate or even stupid roles, all of which he invested with energy and inspiration. My favourite example comes from a film which almost no one knows about. It appears in none of Welles’ biographies. It’s an Italian Western called TEPEPA (Italy/Spain 1969), and Welles plays a Mexican general, during the time of the Revolution. If you see an English-language version (there is one, called BLOOD AND GUNS), the most impressive aspect of Welles’ performance is his refusal to adopt a faux-Mexican “Frito Bandito” accent, in the manner of lesser American actors. Welles simply says his dialogue in his normal voice, and is entirely convincing.

Another independent director who was able to support himself, indeed, to grow quite rich, from acting was Dennis Hopper. Dennis was the child of a single parent who grew up in Dodge City, Kansas. He acted in high school, and earned himself the nickname of the “Shakespeare Kid.” He enjoyed an auspicious beginning, studying at the Actors’ Studio and being made a studio contract player, acting opposite James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (USA, 1955) and GIANT (USA, 1956). Dean only made three features before his death in a car wreck at the age of 24 – but his rebel style and genuine talent made him a role model for a generation of young American actors. When Dennis fell out with an old-school director on a John Wayne Western, he found himself blacklisted. Unable to work, he fell in with the screenwriter Stewart Stern and came up with a story called THE LAST MOVIE, which he planned to direct. He wanted it to be an authentic American art film, in the European vein.

Hopper found work in low-budget, non-studio pictures for AIP. When he directed EASY RIDER, he mixed professional and amateur actors, and made a film which reflected the cultural polarization and violent undercurrents of the day, with a great rock and roll soundtrack. EASY RIDER cost $400,000; it earned its distributor, Columbia Pictures, more than $60 million, worldwide. Universal offered Dennis $850,000 and final cut on the next film he made, which would be THE LAST MOVIE. This was the deal Orson Welles had got. In 1941 it had been a good one. In 1969, it wasn’t a good deal, at all.

For reference purposes, consider the average budget of Hollywood films at this time. In 1969, Warner Brothers spent $1.5 million on an Elvis Presley B-Western, CHARRO!, and $6 million on THE WILD BUNCH;  20th Century Fox spent $6 million on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, and $24 million on the musical HELLO DOLLY!; and Paramount spent $20 million on a Western musical, PAINT YOUR WAGON.

THE LAST MOVIE was to be shot with an American cast in Mexico or Peru. It was a complex picture, and given Dennis’s proven bankability as a director, it should have received a budget in the $2-4 million range. For Universal, $850,000 was no risk at all. Whereas the director was risking everything: if the budget went over one million, Dennis forfeited his profit participation and his right to the final cut.

Like Orson Welles, Dennis was a powerful, complex character who sometimes worked against his own best interests. THE LAST MOVIE was shot on budget and on schedule, in eight weeks, in Peru, but the editing took a very long time. Under the influence of two directors whom he admired, Nicholas Ray and Alejandro Jodorowksy, Dennis radically re-structured the picture, abandoning its linear narrative, failing to screen a finished cut of the film. He also allowed a documentary crew to come and film him,at work and play, for a film they called THE AMERICAN DREAMER.

In the documentary AMERICAN DREAMER, Dennis discusses Welles, and his own future prospects:

Q: “What’s going to happen if THE LAST MOVIE isn’t accepted as EASY RIDER was?”

Hopper: “What’s going to happen to me? Nothing can happen to me. Because, you know, I was sleeping on a mattress when I edited EASY RIDER, and I can sleep on a mattress again. I have friends. But, you know, THE LAST MOVIE is gonna be accepted. It is gonna be accepted. It’s gonna be much better than EASY RIDER, and if it’s nothing more than like, you know, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, which was like Orson Welles’ second film, and CITIZEN KANE was his first, and made no money, and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS made no money, I’ll be a very happy man. Because it’ll be that good, and if the audience can accept it that’s another thing. Because if the audience doesn’t accept it, then it’ll be a long, long time before we can dream about that audience I thought was there. I could become Orson Welles, the poor bastard. He’s just been turned down by the studio that I’m making this movie for, Universal International, for a half a million dollar picture. You know, for half a million dollars. And if they can’t build up Orson Welles, making a movie for a half a million dollars, and show it in the universities, then fuck ’em! Then fuck the universities, fuck everybody, man. Because then, like, there’s no audience.”

Universal detested THE LAST MOVIE when they finally saw it. It won a critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1971, but received little or no distribution. (If you wish, you can see my documentary about the film here.) Dennis, who had been allowed to return to Hollywood as an actor, now found himself blacklisted as a director: he would direct no more films for the studios, though he found copious work playing bad guys in Hollywood movies like BLUE VELVET (USA, 1986) and SPEED (USA, 1994).

I worked for Dennis Hopper as an actor and screenwriter, and found him to be a uniquely talented director who made a pair of great films and thereafter struggled to raise money to do work of quality. Interestingly, that was Dennis’ take on Orson Welles, as well.

Charles Burnett’s first feature, KILLER OF SHEEP (USA, 1977), was shot on 16mm, over a year of weekends. Its total cost was $10,000. In subject matter and tempo it is entirely different from the films of Hopper, or Welles. It has a gentle, measured aspect, and depicts scenes of daily life in a non-violent, ironic, yet sympathetic way. It relies on amateur actors, on natural light. It is totally original and inspired, one of the first films to be selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. KILLER OF SHEEP was Charles’s MFA thesis film at UCLA, the film school I attended. It was an inspiration to all of us who saw it. Years later I got to meet Charles, and we became friends. He told me he’d gone to UCLA for entirely pragmatic reasons. It was the late sixties, and as a young black man, Charles had a very good chance of being drafted, and sent to fight in the infantry in Viet Nam. He didn’t want to do this, so he enlisted instead in the UCLA Film Program, hoping to become a cinematographer.

If Charles had gone to a more technically-focused school, this might have been possible. But at UCLA, everyone in the production program was a director. That was what we did, that was what we wanted to do when we got out of school. So Charles became a director, scripting and shooting his own films. He made two shorts, and then – in 1972 – he started work on KILLER OF SHEEP, shooting where he lived, in Watts, Los Angeles. Charles finished the picture in 1977.


When we made our films, back in those days, we didn’t think about copyright issues. We just shot to the best of our ability, and then chose some music to go along with it. Charles created a great soundtrack, with songs and music by Etta James, Dinah Washington, Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Paul Robeson, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Unfortunately, he didn’t own the rights to any of it. So, outside of school, or private screenings, KILLER OF SHEEP could not be shown. The film remained legally unscreenable for almost 30 years. (This is why we have a class on fair use, and copyright.)

The music rights to KILLER OF SHEEP were finally acquired by a US distributor in 2007, for $150,000, and a 35mm print was at last made. I don’t know anyone who has seen KILLER OF SHEEP and not been profoundly impressed by it. Armond White wrote in Film Comment that “KILLER OF SHEEP represents the highest example of contemporary black American life put on screen because of Burnett’s integrity to view it purely, without typical corrupted Hollywood devices.” Michael Tolkin, the actor and screenwriter, declared, “If it were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.” Even when the absence of music rights was still an issue, industry executives were surely aware of the film, and could arrange their own screenings. Yet, like Welles and Hopper, Burnett struggled to find money to make feature films.

His second feature, MY BROTHER’S WEDDING (USA, 1983) was largely ignored – another irony, since it’s a fine film, and a colourful, theatrical departure from KILLER OF SHEEP.

We watch a sequence from MY BROTHER’S WEDDING in which the hero, Pierce (Everett Silas) runs to work at the dry cleaners his parents own. The first shot shows an LAPD cruiser following him. A police car following a young, running black man leads us to expect action, a chase. But there is no chase. The cops ignore him. Pierce is running because he’s always late. Pierce takes over from his parents, who leave the store to go to church. A beautiful woman appears in the doorway of the cleaners, and takes off her wedding ring. Romantic music plays as the scene fades to black. But the music does not end. Instead, Burnett fades up on a laundry line hung with baby washing, as the song continues. In both cases the filmmaker plays on our expectations – action, romance – and undercuts them with ironic reality in the next shot.

Charles received a MacArthur Award and used it to write and develop a bigger-budget feature starring Danny Glover and Carl Lumbly, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (USA, 1990). He told me this was a difficult project: this $1.4 million film had no less than twelve producers, none of whom was particularly helpful or experienced at making films. It received critical acclaim and limited distribution. Charles followed with a fourth feature, a comparatively conventional police drama told from the point of view of a black LAPD officer, THE GLASS SHIELD (USA, 1994). Most of his subsequent work has been television drama and documentaries, plus a feature – NAMIBIA: THE STRUGGLE FOR LIBERATION (Namibia, 2007) also starring Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover.

Is there a lesson from these three careers – which in Burnett’s case continues? Only that it isn’t easy being a truly independent film director – but that, in all three cases, it has its artistic rewards.


Into the Issue of the Good Old Time Movie Versus the Good Old Time, by Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider published screenplay, Signet Books 1969, pp. 7-11

School of Hard Knocks:Charles Burnett Interview, Film Comment, December 2002

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind, Simon & Schuster 1999, pp. 26-36 (on the making of BONNIE & CLYDE)

Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, by Charles Higham, St Martin’s Press, 1985


Today we return to Hollywood cinema, and how and why its films are made. I grew up during the period of the Vietnam War, and as a result developed a negative view of war and of the corporations and politicians who promote and profit from it.

Today this is a somewhat antique viewpoint. When I wrote my first professional screenplay, for United Artists, the studio decided not to pursue the project because, in their words, it was “too English, too expensive, and too anti-war.” This was a story about an Englishman, set during the First World War, so I plead guilty to the first two criticisms – but the third? I didn’t know it was possible to be too anti-war.

This was especially the case with the First World War — still famous for its unbelievable and gratuitous loss of life. In one battle, Verdun, which lasted from February to December 1916, there were almost a million casualties, including 300,000 dead. The battle was as prolonged as it was indecisive. When it ended, the front lines between the Germans and the Allies were almost the same as when the battle had begun.

One Hollywood studio, Universal, tried to make a film that was an authentic representation of the terrible slaughter of the First World War: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (USA, 1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. Some of you have seen it. This early talkie is a sophisticated piece of work, with expertly choreographed battle sequences and a script and performances which convey the cruelty and futility of that war.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is unique in that it depicts a war from the point of view of our enemies. The film was based on a book by a German war veteran, Enrique Maria Remarque, and depicted the lives of German infantrymen. So powerful was the film that it attracted the attention of an up-and-coming right-wing politician, Adolf Hitler. Hitler seized upon the film for two reasons: it exposed his own rhetorical techniques, and it was something for his Nazi followers to unite over, and protest against. Hitler understood the power of movies. He would hire a talented filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, to craft a documentary which glorified the Nazis, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (Germany, 1934).

As you’ve seen from our first reading (Ben Urwand, The Collaboration, pp. 21-37) ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was popular in the United States but came under sustained attack from the Nazis in Germany, and from the German consulate in Los Angeles. Remarkably, the studios seemed concerned solely about their bottom line, and fearful of losing market share in Germany. So Universal re-edited ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT in line with the Nazis’ demands, and no more films with anti-war or anti-Nazi themes were made. As Urwand writes (pg. 37),

“Not only Universal Pictures but all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government, and when Hitler came to power in 1933, the studios dealt with his representatives directly.”

When the US entered the Second World War in 1943, the prohibition against anti-Nazi films was waived. But there was no sign of an anti-war film along the lines of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT following that war, or during the Korean War (1950-1953) – which saw almost three million people dead and ended in stalemate, based around the border where the war began.

Occasionally, a foreign filmmaker was able to make a film which was deeply critical of war and those who benefit from it. Fernando de Fuentes’ VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA! (Mexico, 1936), Kon Ichikawa’s NOBI / FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Japan, 1959) and Elem Klimov’s IDI Y SMOTRI / COME AND SEE (Russia, 1985) are unambiguous narratives in the vein of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Stanley Kubrick also made a film unambiguous in its hostility to war with PATHS OF GLORY (USA, 1957).

But in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War grew increasingly unpopular, Hollywood sided with official policy and remained actively pro-war. Warner Brothers released THE GREEN BERETS (USA, 1968), directed by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne. The US Information Agency hired veteran director John Ford to produce a pro-war documentary, VIETNAM! VIETNAM! (USA, 1971). The same year an independent film, WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (USA, 1971), directed by Richard Compton, dealt with returning veterans: it was the first of several films to depict them as psychopaths. This was a double-bind for the veterans, most of whom were still sane and had been politicized to oppose the war (in his book The Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke estimates that of the returning veterans, as many as 70% supported the Vietnam Veterans Against The War movement).

As long as the war lasted, Hollywood made no films which questioned or opposed it – though Robert Aldrich’s Korean War comedy, MASH (USA 1970) came close. Arthur Penn directed BONNIE AND CLYDE (USA, 1967), and Sam Peckinpah made THE WILD BUNCH — violent stories of outlaws at war with the authorities, with unprecedented levels of bloodshed. Both were thought of as referencing events in Vietnam.

The war ended in 1975, with casualties in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos estimated at two million. In the late seventies, studio-backed Vietnam War films began to appear: first Michael Cimino’s DEER HUNTER (USA, 1978), then Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (USA, 1979). The next decade saw Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (USA, 1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (USA, 1987).

Though they were made by directors who probably thought of themselves as liberals, none of them has a clear anti-war focus. Instead there is an ambiguity about them: a ‘We were bad, but so were they’ approach which objectifies the Vietnamese, and encourages us to identify with the American protagonists.  When Coppola said he made APOCALYPSE NOW ‘to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam’ that ghost didn’t require exorcising. It needed to remain seated at our table, like the skull on the desk of the philosopher, reminding us of our mortality, and of our duty to avoid war, as an environmental disaster and international crime.The Nuremberg judges in 1946 had established that “to initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

These ‘liberal’ Vietnam movies opened the floodgates for a number of right-wing, studio films such as RAMBO (USA, 1982), HANOI HILTON (USA, 1987) and WE WERE SOLDIERS (USA, 2002). But whatever the politics of the filmmaker, the studio Vietnam films  were told from the perspective of ‘our’ troops, who often behaved heroically, in a war not of their choosing, against an objectified or demonized ‘other’.

This is so common today as to appear, perhaps, inevitable. But remember ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — the anti-war, Hollywood studio movie, which told its story from the point of view of our enemies, the Germans, and showed that they were no different from ourselves.

In 2003, Anthony Swofford, having served in the US military during the First Gulf War, wrote a book called Jarhead, in which he pointed out the inherent difficulty in making a an anti-Vietnam-war movie:

“Actually Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick, or Coppola, or Stone intented… The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn.  Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”

Swofford’s argument doesn’t just relate to soldiers or potential soldiers watching war movies. Films and television and games tend to rely on violence as a means of problem-solving. Drama has traditionally done this. Shakespeare’s tragedies are all resolved through serial acts of violence. Think about that and about all the movies you’ve seen, or games you’ve played, where the solution to the immediate problem is to kick some ass. Consider the Westerns, and the war movies, where the right thing, the heroic thing to do, is kick some ass. Think of the TAKEN franchise (France, 2008, 2012, 2014) in which Liam Neeson’s various family members are kidnapped. What would we do in such a situation? Rely on the police? Raise money for a ransom? Not Liam, who portrays a hard-charging former CIA agent, not afraid to get out there and kick some ass!

Imagine, for a moment, that we behaved in our daily lives as people do in movies. You’re sitting there taking notes and someone comes in late and lets the door slam loudly. What do you do? In reality, ignore them, or give them a look. If this was a movie or a first-person shooter, what would you do? You’d kick their ass!

Real life is not a movie. Real people can’t afford to be constantly beating up on each other. We’re inherently cooperative. Most of us, in the words of Rodney King, just want to get along. Those who resort to violence at the drop of a hat are thought of as bad people. And that was the point of all that violence in those old dramas of the Elizabethan stage. When Hamlet decides to kill Claudius, when Macbeth agrees to usurp the Scottish throne, when Vindici in REVENGERS TRAGEDY (UK, 2002) decides to take personal revenge against his enemies, they seal their fates: the original plays were written at the turn of the seventeenth century, and their playwrights both showed the audience ingenious and entertaining acts of violence, and reminded them that revenge was wrong, and that those who engage in it must die.

That was the moral message of the Elizabethan stage, a venue just as bloodthirsty as any Italian Western or Tarantino film. Somewhere, in the intervening four hundred years, that moral message got lost.

I think it has to do with popular novels, such as James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). Cooper and Wister combined a violence-prone hero with a happy ending. This was somewhat revolutionary. It fit the progressive notion of forward movement and conquest, of Manifest Destiny, but it reversed the moral message of Hamlet, whose hero must die precisely because he has committed acts of violence and revenge.

Both books became popular films, repeatedly. Films which suggested an alternative – financially or politically motivated – reason for violence were few. Interestingly, in this context, is one of the “missing scenes” which Coppola incorporated into APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (USA, 2001).

We watch the scene – devoid of any violence – in which Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, attempts to convince Willard, played by Martin Sheen, that the Vietnam War is being won. To do this, Kurtz has imprisoned Willard in a shipping container. This might seem arbitrary to us today, but shipping containers – the modular metal boxes that we see on trucks, and ships, and railroad freight – were a US military invention – first attempted in the Second World War, perfected in Vietnam.

In her book, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, Deborah Cowen writes (pp.40-41):

“Initially developed to solve the logistic challenges of the US military during and after World War Two, the container would eventually help to transform the organization of civilian life. While there were earlier experiments with container technologies, it was the US military’s use that led to its development and standardization. More than fifty years after its  introduction as an efficient means of moving military equipment to the front, the container has been celebrated as the single most important invention in the economic globalization of the decades that followed.”

The US military-industrial complex has produced amazing things: the internet, the shipping container, the art and science of logistics, spacecraft landing on the Moon and Mars. Whiz-bang things of this nature are thrilling to studio executives… well, maybe not the shipping container, but the other stuff. And there are other reasons why Hollywood makes pro-war movies. First and foremost is the simple issue of product placement. Since the 1950s studios and TV producers have made money by strategically placing certain products in the frame. In BLADE RUNNER we saw prominent product placement for Coca-Cola, Atari, and Budweisser. Roy Batty died in front of a glowing sign advertising TDK, a Japanese electronics company.

Product placement is now a very big business, worth $8.25 billion per annum worldwide, according to a 2013 analysis, with almost five billion of those dollars being spent in the United States. Most of that money was spent on placing products in sports and television shows, but a substantial amount went to the Hollywood studios. The US military isn’t allowed to offer money to the studios, but it doesn’t need to: it has facilities, tanks, aircraft, aircraft carriers and free extras to trade instead.

As you’ll have noted from our second reading (David L. Robb, Operation Hollywood, pp. 177 to 188), all the branches of the US military offer resources to the studios in return for the right to vet screenplays and require changes. One example he gives is the film THE RIGHT STUFF (USA, 1982), which the US Navy viewed as an excellent recruiting tool. However, the Navy refused to provide the producers with assistance until they agreed to make several changes to the script, and to reduce the amount of swearing in the picture. Since the film was a tool for recruiting young people, the Navy needed it to receive a PG rating, rather than an R. Studio, director and screenwriters speedily complied. Mission accomplished.

Dramas are apt to be biased. In a time of war and paranoia they are apt to be biased in favour of paranoia and war. AMERICAN SNIPER (USA, 2015) was originally to have been directed by Steven Spielberg, a Democrat. Spielberg dropped out because he wanted a budget of $160 million, and Warner Bros. was only prepared to spend $60 million. Clint Eastwood, a Republican, did the job instead. This was a disagreement about money, not about the bias or moral direction of the sniper bio-pic. AMERICAN SNIPER is a bipartisan film.

Documentaries can be biased, too. They are different from journalism, I think, because the people who make them have an unconcealed point of view, and want to share it with the audience. COLLATERAL MURDER (Australia, 2010) is a short documentary based on footage and audio from a US helicopter on patrol in Iraq. This is genuine war material, and may serve as a corrective to the the ambiguous or enthusiastic tone of Hollywood’s dramatic features.


Operation Hollywood: How Hollywood Shapes and Censors the Movies, by David L. Robb, was published in 2004 by Prometheus Books. A new edition is forthcoming, from Penguin.

The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand, was published in 2013 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford, was published in 2003 by Scribner.

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke, was published by NYU Press in 2000.

The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, by Deborah Cowen, was published in 2014 by the University of Minnesota Press.

New PQ Media Data: Global Product Placement Spending up 12% to $8.3B in 2012, Feb 22 2015,