Rolling Thunder • You Light Up My Life • The End of the Game • The Island of Dr. Moreau • The Empire of the Ants
• ROLLING THUNDER will probably be one of the more controversial films of the year. At last Hollywood has dared to touch on Vietnam—not the war itself, but its aftermath for those who were imprisoned for years in North Vietnam. This film is primarily about the psychological aftermath—without that background the plot would be quite implausible—and as such it is a powerful dose, not for queasy stomachs. There is more violence in it than there is in most violent films, and yet the audience applauds because (I hope it is because) the use of force by the protagonists is retaliatory.
Whether the retaliatory use of force to the degree in which it occurs in this film is justified, is a question that will spark much controversy, but I cannot speculate on it here without giving away the plot. Persons differently constituted, those who had not gone through the Vietnam experience, would have reacted differently to what happened on their return to Texas. The question is, a la Aristotle, whether these men, in the wake of these experiences, could or would probably have acted as these characters were depicted as acting. The film says they would, and the film is pretty convincing.
Those who applauded Charles Bronson's actions in Death Wish will probably applaud this one too, only more so. Those who believe with Jane Fonda that stories of American prisoners being tortured in North Vietnam are fabrications, will be certain to dislike it, probably citing "too much violence" or "taking the law into one's own hands" as the reason.
What is not controversial is that the mood and the plotting are expertly handled. Interspersed in the action there are revealing atmospheric touches, such as the dismally dull conversation at a house party by people who have endured nothing, and its effect on those who have endured everything. From the opening shot the film shows exactly where it is going; no detail is wasted, even though the audience might think otherwise at the time; and just when one sits back thinking "Oh, that's what it's going to be" there is a plot twist and it turns out to be something else. Whether one gives the actions in the film moral approval or disapproval, it is difficult to fault the rendition of the story, which is totally absorbing.
• If Rocky was the original of the new make-you-feel-good films, and One on One its carbon copy, then YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE is a second carbon. This one is rather smudged. Some of the acting by young newcomers is praiseworthy, and some of the scenes have an uplifting, even inspiring, quality about them. In the light of this it is regrettable that so much of the film is so crudely and inexpertly done, that this keeps getting in the way of the experience one would like to have had from it.
• Very few films are made in Switzerland, and in the light of THE END OF THE GAME, it would not be unreasonable to wish that there had been one fewer. There have been distinguished films from Switzerland in the past, such as (perhaps the most remarkable of all medical films) The Eternal Mask and the unforgettable performance by Mathias Wieman. But it has now become a widespread assumption by actors that their acting abilities also enable them to be good directors: e.g., Clint Eastwood, George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, and now Maximilian Schell. Unfortunately the assumption is not justified, and the two kinds of talent are quite different. Schell, a remarkable actor, apparently thought it would be a good idea, for the box office at least, to film it in English, knowing that Americans don't like to read translations at the bottom of the screen, and to import two good American actors (John Voight, Robert Shaw) and a competent French actress also known in America (Jacqueline Bisset). Schell's second "good idea" was to begin with an interesting (to some) premise, "A person can commit murder in front of witnesses and get by with it," and then develop it. The trouble is that he doesn't develop it very well. The whole mix never quite jells. The collection of characters is not individuated enough for us to become involved in what happens to them, and if one tries one finds that their motivations aren't very plausible. As for the plot, it becomes so unwieldy that by the time it's all over we decide, if we hadn't done so long before, that it wasn't worth the trouble to try to follow it closely. A few of the Swiss backgrounds are nice, but not as nice as looking at a free travel brochure extolling the beauties of the Alps.
• Novels by H.G. Wells have fared rather spottily on the screen. His best novel, Joan and Peter, has never been filmed, but his books of science-fantasy have all been adapted. In the 1930's Things to Come was a sensation for its time; the futuristic sets, though now outdated, are still interesting to watch on late-night TV. In the 1950's The War of the Worlds was well plotted, and its special effects scary enough, though only a few of the interesting features of Wells' novel were included. Now comes THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, whose outcome is so predictable from the outset that almost no tension is evoked. So we sit back to watch the latest innovations from the special effects department, which in this case consist of men made into monkeys, lions, pigs, and a grisly assortment of other creatures which are still recognizable as men. Neither seeing people or seeing pigs is offensive (as a rule), but seeing an attempted combination of the two is visually repellent in the extreme. Nor is there anything in this dull film to repay viewers for having to suffer through all of this hideousness.
At least no bad aftertaste is left by EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, unless one takes extreme exception to the sight of large and not very convincing insects. The story builds slowly, to the point of being dull through the first half, and the characters are such cliches as to be total bores. The film has an interesting plot twist toward the end, with political implications which might have made the whole enterprise worthwhile, except that it is never developed, and the film ends inconclusively, as if uncertain where to go. It is safe to say that Mr. Wells would not have been pleased by either of these adaptations of his work.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".