â€¢ Survival Run
â€¢ The Thirty-Nine Steps
â€¢ Spirit of the Wind
â€¢ We Are Not Alone
â€¢ The Fifth Floor
â€¢ There have been amazingly few films made about people who are accustomed to the comforts of civilization and then suddenly find themselves in a situation in which none of these comforts is available. (Science fiction films about future generations, yes, but not about what could happen now.) What happens to them, whether they survive and how, can be a fascinating tale. Back in 1962 one such film was made, a sleeper (at the time) called Panic in the Year Zero, in which Los Angeles is obliterated by a nuclear bomb and a family driving away from the city tries to find some way of surviving in the mountains during the months of chaos following the blast. Judging by its frequent appearance on late-night television during the last few years, this film has turned out to be very popular.
Now comes another, SURVIVAL RUN, starring Ray Milland (also the star of Panic) and Peter Graves. Though the film is no masterpiece, it deserves a better fate than death by neglect. Six high-school studentsâ€"three boys and three girlsâ€"plan a romantic-erotic weekend in Baja California in a camper. When their camper overturns far away from any road in the midst of the Baja desert, they are left to their own devices, with no supplies and no idea how to reach any semblance of civilized life. When they do at last find other people, "civilized" is about the last adjective applicable to them. The story that ensues has many of the clichÃ©s of a stereotypical hunt-and-chase film, but it is well done and keeps one absorbed throughout. If one goes to see it, however, in hopes of gleaning useful information about how to survive in the wild, it will prove only about one percent as helpful as Panic was.
â€¢ The week of Sir Alfred Hitchcock's death, the second remake of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS was released in the United States. It is an absorbing mystery-detective story, well plotted, well scripted, well acted (though one still misses Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll), and as worth seeing as anything in that genre that is currently doing the film circuits. For those who haven't seen Hitchcock's version, it is an exciting tale, elegantly presented.
For those who have, comparisons are impossible to avoid. The new version wisely chooses to set the drama in the same era in which the novel (from which the film was taken) is set: pre-World War I England in 1914. The plot is much the same, with a few embellishments Hitchcock didn't include. Still, Hitchcock's 1936 film was done with such style and panache, and such a flawless sense of timing, that the present version, competent though it is, lacks the distinctive qualities with which Hitchcock imbued the tale: spareness, with not a wasted gesture or motion; surprise and terror when you least expect it; steadily mounting tension as inexorable as a coiled spring. By contrast, the new version is more leisurely and atmospheric, and one indulges oneself in the beauty of the Scottish landscape even while wondering how the fugitive is going to escape. Ironically, the most brilliant atmospheric touch occurs when a plane is trying to gun the fugitive down on the Scottish heath and there is only bare open country with no place to hideâ€"a scene inspired by Hitchcock himself in his North by Northwest.
â€¢ SPIRIT OF THE WIND is a true story, set in 1946, of an Eskimo boy in a remote part of the Alaskan wilderness whose parents live by hunting and fishing. The boy contracts tuberculosis and spends seven years at a hospital in Sitka. When he returns to his parents he is caught between two disparate worlds, wishing in some ways to be back in the white man's world, yet proud of his Eskimo heritage and deeply tied to its way of life. This is a story of how he endeavors to resolve that conflict.
The color photography, all of it in Alaska, is magnificent; so are the shots of Alaskan dogs, nurturing their young and running races across the tundra. The constant background of the Alaskan wilderness is indescribably beautiful. Most interesting of all perhaps is the detailed visual depiction of the methods by which, in this harsh climate, the native Eskimo survives.
Alas, what the film so movingly shows us is becoming a thing of the past. Today, as you visit Eskimo villages, you see the inhabitants living in shanties, surviving on booze bought with their welfare checks. HEW has decided it knows what's good for Eskimos better than the Eskimos do themselves; the result is a radical change in their way of life, and many of them are no longer able to survive in the wild. At least the Siberian Eskimos are given incentive payments by the Soviet government for raising reindeer, to help solve the Siberian meat shortage. HEW, however, has outdone the Soviets (with our tax money) in deciding how others should live. Realizing this as one watches this film, one experiences not only an appreciation for the native Eskimo way of life, and of their day-to-day heroism in coping with its rigors, but also a sad nostalgia for a mode of living that, thanks to the moral busybodyism of government, is now passing into history.
â€¢ Not much has been heard abroad of the Danish film industry since the death of the greatest of all film directors, Carl Dreyer. A recent exception is WE ARE NOT ALONE, whose unlikely subjectâ€"day-to-day life in a boys' prep schoolâ€"is handled with frankness but also with care and sensitivity. The principal objection one might make to it is that the whole thing is seen so much from the youngsters' point of view (no error in itself) that the adults are depicted as blind and intolerant ignoramuses. One wonders how a person with so little insight into the problems of adolescents as the headmaster exhibits ever got a job above the level of a ditch-digger. If he had been made a bit less of a clod, the film would not have appeared so one-sided. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of both tears and laughs in this film, and enough thought-provoking material to rouse many viewers from their dogmatic slumbers concerning what kids know that grown-ups supposedly don't.
â€¢ Movies about nonvoluntary incarceration in mental hospitals are set-ups for viewer identification with the victim: locked in, no phone calls allowed, every valid complaint about mistreatment and abuse put down as the paranoia of a mentally deranged patient, each incident ending with more tranquilization by needles ("for your own good") rather than by any attempt to listen to the truth. As an artistic achievement THE FIFTH FLOOR doesn't begin to compare with One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the situation depictedâ€"a girl mistakenly believed to have attempted suicide, and thus required by state law to be placed in a mental hospital "for observation"â€"is more grim, less leavened with humor, and more calculated to arouse the viewer's hatred and resentment. Though some of the outcomes are quite predictable, the film will be exciting to viewers in proportion to their imaginative identification with victims of coercive behavior surrounded by people who refuse to take one seriously. If it helps to improve conditions in mental hospitals by even a little, the film will have been worth making.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.