â€¢ The old Lucky Strike ads used to tell us, "Nature in the raw is seldom mild." The makers of THE BLUE LAGOON would have done well to keep this observation in mind. When you are on an island, even a lush tropical island, without tools or any means of sustenance, your first concern is survival. Food is a problem even there, and in the tropics there are hostile animals, insects, and snakes, as well as constant dangers lurking under water. None of this comes out in the film. The two principals seem no more bothered about survival than if they were romping about in an English garden. Nor are the frequent quarrels between them noticeably different from the day-to-day domestic squabbles in a middle-class English home. For realism, this film deserves an F.
An F is also the proper grade on its script, which is a collection of tired clichÃ©s. Nor do the principals (Brooke Shields, Christopher Atkins) exhibit much ability to act. The natural background, a Fijian island, is quite beautiful, at least as photographed, though there is an annoying tendency toward self-conscious arty effects. Exhibitions of the human body au naturel go much further than they did a generation ago when Jean Simmons starred in a film from the same book, but the I.Q. level seems to have dropped in proportion. What the film caters to is the ever-recurring but quite fallacious belief in primitive innocence on an island paradise, where existence is blissful and life is pleasantly indolent, while the standard of living remains high with very little in the way of labor or insecurity. The benefits of civilization are brought home to one (as never happens in this film) the moment anyone needs a shot of penicillin.
â€¢ The film isn't exactly about ORDINARY PEOPLE. They are more than usually affluent, but on the surface one would say they are an unusually happy family. But bit by bit the cracks begin to show. The film builds slowly, piling up bits of seemingly trivial but very significant detail, and gradually and inexorably the drama unfolds.
The film is totally honest and uncompromising in its attempt at psychological truth. It eschews all false melodramatics, all hints of phoniness. In its almost clinical examination of a family relationship, it cuts much more deeply beneath the faces people put on to meet other faces than does any recent American film. (Such psychological probing is much more frequent in French pictures.) The realism is so unsparing as to be unsettling to film audiences accustomed to standard clichÃ©sâ€"for example, two people being silent for several minutes and then bursting into speech at the same moment. It is all observed and recorded with meticulous care, giving the film a strong ring of truth.
Though Donald Sutherland seems a bit less than totally successful in the role of the father (perhaps because the character he portrays seems less coherent), Mary Tyler Moore as the wife and Judd Hirsch as the psychiatrist and most of all Jim Hutton as the teenage sonâ€"intense, jumpy, and hostileâ€"give utterly convincing and flawless performances. The film shows us, perhaps more than any other since James Dean starred, how enormously difficult it is for even the most well-meaning laymen to reach those who are mentally disturbed. We are made to feel how irrelevant to the son's problems the reactions of his parents are, but their own problems are not lost on us either. There are no heroes and no villains, just the complexity of human interaction and the great difficulties of communication.
In this, his first film as director, Robert Redford manages to elicit more complexity and intensity of feeling from his actors than he expressed in all his acting roles put together.
â€¢ In the stage play THE ELEPHANT MAN, the leading part is played by a normal-appearing man, and we have to imagine his deformity from the horrified reactions of those around him. In the movie, we are granted no such illusions. The full deformity is visually present, though it makes him look more pathetic than horribleâ€"and it is in no way sensationalized. We are quite a way through the film before we even see him without a cloth to cover his face. The film is based on the real-life history of John Merrick, a victim of neurofibromatosis in London in the 1880s, and the background is tellingly delineated (happily, in black and white) in this singular British film.
There are at least three heroes in the enterprise. One is director David Lynch, who could have made it maudlin or melodramatic but gave in to neither temptation, instead making it a film of great power, with nuances and visual imagery that trigger primordial responses deep in the viewer's psyche. The second must certainly be the make-up designer, Christopher Tucker, who contrived the haunting face (not to mention whoever spent six to eight hours a day putting it on). Finally, there is that most remarkable actor, John Hurt (the elephant man), who came into prominence 10 years ago in a fine British film, Ten Rillington Street, and has been seen numerous times since, most recently as the English junkie in Midnight Express. This part must have been the most difficult of all to do, with no facial expressiveness possible, except for the enormously revealing eyes, and having to take on a new voice (and feign difficulty in speaking at all because of the deformity); yet the performance is so masterful that we feel an immense surge of sympathy for this hideously deformed creature. John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, and Anthony Hopkins, as usual, turn in superlative performances.
As history the film is somewhat flawed by some contrived scenes toward the end, which may, however, have been dramatically necessary. After we have observed the poetic and sensitive soul that lies beneath the deformity, it is almost unbearable to see him thrown into a cage of baboons. There are other scenes also that are gut- wrenching in the pathos they evoke, and the cruelty of those who use him as a sideshow freak arouses audience indignation such as one seldom sees. It is an emotionally involving film, sensitively handled and flawlessly performed, but it is certainly not for everybody: it holds a mirror up to human nature with too much brutal honesty for that. And perhaps the real villain is Nature herself for producing such a gross deformity in one so undeserving of such a fate.
â€¢ Akiro Kurosawa has probably had more influence on film history than any other director now alive, and his work in turn was greatly influenced by the work of two other great Japanese directors, Ozu and Mizoguchi. He caught the attention of American audiences in the '50s with Rashomon, a murder mystery seen successively from four perspectives, and Seven Samurai, the adventure story to end all adventure stories. His Hidden Fortress was the main inspiration for Star Wars (whose director, George Lucas, co-produced this film), and his Ikuru starred an old man weary of a meaningless bureaucratic job and determined to make his last months memorable. Kurosawa's sensitive and probing treatment of this theme rendered this film the equal of De Sica's acclaimed picture on the same theme, Umberto D. Kurosawa's 1976 film, Dersu Uzala, starred a benevolent old Siberian trapper and was an enduring paean to man's closeness to nature. (It's still my favorite film of the last five years.) And now comes his latest, KAGEMUSHA (The Shadow Warrior), in which Kurosawa returns to the samurai theme of his earlier films such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro. If you enjoyed seeing Shogun on television (set in the same period of Japanese history), you might enjoy seeing the real thing in Kagemusha.
The realistic scenes of war and carnage will not be to everyone's taste, but the psychological penetration into the main characters should, as will the story line: a petty thief who is about to be crucified for his crime turns out to be an exact double of the local warrior-king, and to save his own life he is ordered to impersonate the king after the king's death, thus keeping the clan together. The problems involved in keeping this pretense alive are fascinating as well as sometimes funny; memorable too is the tragedy that ensues when the one-time thief has been inwardly transformed into a regal personality, but his retinue isn't aware how ably he is now impersonating the dead king. The theme of "the double" seems to have a constant allure, as seen in remakes of The Prisoner of Zenda and The Great Impersonation (the latter is still the greatest cliff-hanger of all novels on this theme, though the film made from Oppenheim's novel was far from adequate).
But Kurosawa's luminous imagination transcends the others, and his story is Homeric in its epic sweep (the three-hour-long film is condensed from a longer version shown overseas). As always in Kurosawa, the story line is clear, coherent, and absorbing. He proceeds at his own meticulous pace, and his refusal to be hurried provides enrichment and depth. Nor does Kurosawa hesitate to go in for such "uncinematic" devices as long conversations in one place, with protracted facial close-ups. The characters are treated with great understanding and compassion. Best of all perhaps is the entrancing visual imagery with which the film is saturatedâ€"never flashy or arty, but with a kind of stately autumnal majesty, as if Kurosawa, who is now 70, is saying to us, "Whatever happens, beauty and order endureâ€"see, here it is, surrounding us even in the midst of chaos and destruction."
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts will be published this year by Prentice-Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".