Melvin and Howard
The Dogs of War
My Brilliant Career
The Big Red One
• One looks forward eagerly to any new cinematic treatment of the masterpieces of Thomas Hardy. His Tess of the D'Urbervilles has been filmed before, but never with the atmosphere, the historic touches, the languor of Roman Polanski's new film TESS. The plot remains substantially unaltered, and the Wessex landscapes (actually filmed in Brittany) are beautiful and evocative, as is the entire recreation of the period. There are some lovely touches in the film, and here and there a strong emotional chord is struck. Polanski chooses a slow, leisurely pace—the film is three hours long—and, though this enables one to sit back and soak up atmosphere, the film is really too long to sustain high interest throughout, and not much happens that strikes the jugular. It's not wooden and awkward like Schlesinger's film of Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd a few years back, but it isn't imbued with Hardy's strong vitality, either.
Why is it that Hardy's novels are so terribly intense and the films made from them are so emotionally diluted? Doubtless there are many factors, but the main one surely is Hardy's inimitable literary style, whose stately, solemn rhythm grabs the reader and places him in the fate-ruled world of Hardy's creation. Films, of course, cannot render this unique style, and no films of Hardy novels, not even Polanski's, succeed in immersing the viewer in this Hardyworld; in the film, there is simply a succession of misfortunes that happen to Tess, rather than the overpowering sense of malevolent destiny that Hardy evokes.
His two greatest novels, The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure, have yet to be filmed. If they were done so as to communicate the impact of the Hardy-universe, they would be among the most powerful films ever made, supercharged with atmosphere and feeling like few things ever done. And yet one dreads it, too, for even the most faithful rendition of the story will not convey the "affect" of the most powerfully atmospheric of all novelists. In view of the monumental quality of Hardy's achievement, it is no wonder that something always happens to his novels on the way to the studio.
• The opening shot is of Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) alone on the Nevada desert, racing a motorcycle. He falls off, injured. After the screen titles, the headlights of a pickup truck reveal him lying down, and Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) rescues him. There is an eerily fascinating scene of the two conversing in the truck. Dummar deposits Hughes in Las Vegas: "Shall I leave you off at the Salvation Army?" "No, this will do," says Hughes near a skyscraper hotel, and that is the last we see of him.
The remainder of MELVIN AND HOWARD deals with Dummar's life, his two wives, his unrealistic ambitions, his endless changing of jobs, his cars that are always repossessed, the one-step-forward, two-steps-back course of his life. A recital of the facts of his life wouldn't make very interesting reading, but the treatment of it in this richly comic and sentimental film, thanks to Jonathan Demmes's perceptive direction, makes fine viewing. His eye for relevant detail never falters. The man and his wife (beautifully played by Mary van Steenburgen) make excellent counterpoint: he the bumbling idealist who always loses, easily swayed by others but absolutely resolute in not permitting her to dance in a go-go joint; and she, the hard-headed realist who looks ahead, estimates her goals, and leaves him (until she hears of the will). Only his inarticulate dreams keep him going, though everyone else sees them to be hopeless; but in the midst of one self-caused disappointment after another, he will not permit them to be trifled with. The film is a sympathetic projection of the American dream, low-life style.
The will was invalidated by a Nevada court, and no new one has ever appeared. The film takes no position on whether the will was genuine. But it is so richly detailed in taking us into the lives of the characters that it makes us wish that the will had been admitted as valid, even knowing that if it had the money would soon have been wasted away.
• An Idi Amin-style dictator holds a sway of terror over a central African nation, killing all who oppose him and having citizens shot for dissent. No one dares venture out at night, and the dictator's goon squads are omnipresent and vested with virtually unlimited powers. An American mercenary, hired to check out the nation for stability before the company starts mining minerals there, is beaten and tortured. The company doesn't want to deal with a dictator, so it spends several million dollars on weapons and an invading army of natives who had fled when the dictator took over the country.
The first third of THE DOGS OF WAR, in which the audience gradually imbibes the atmosphere of a nation in the grip of terror, is effective and suspenseful. The remainder of the film, devoted to the logistics of the invasion operation, is somewhat less so. The surprise ending, however, is a blockbuster.
Christopher Walken, who displayed such a wide and subtle range of emotionality in The Deer Hunter, is here limited to the role of an efficient killer, though one enlisted in the extirpation of evil. But the use of evil means to good ends itself tends to promote evil: the company that financed the invasion demands a monopoly of the country's mineral resources, and one can never be sure whether a new head of state will be an improvement over the old.
The film provides many occasions for such moral reflection. Can the death of innocent people, inevitable in a coup d'état, be justified by the good end it may serve? To succeed, the invaders must be almost as ruthless as the dictator's army. Yet if no one killed to unseat the dictatorship, its reign of terror would continue. The psychological effects on the participants must also be counted: they become inured to death and killing, and one wonders at the end whether to read Walken's face as exhibiting moral triumph at the extermination of evil or satisfaction at having done his deadly job so efficiently. Lovers of violence who see this film audibly express satisfaction at every exhibition of lethal weaponry and every volley of shots that hit their mark; but lovers of peace will be disturbed by many questions about the morality of that occasionally necessary evil, the use of mercenary troops, whose very efficacy enables peaceful citizens to walk about in safety even while they condemn the use of violence.
• In the back country of Australia in the 1890s, parents arranged their grown daughters' employment and marriages; even the young woman's cousin tells her that marriages of friendship are preferable to those of love. Women don't have careers; they become wives and mothers and raise children and cattle in dusty barns and farmhouses. It is all shown us with vividness and a passion for relevant detail. In the midst of this Victorian atmosphere arises a young woman of iron will and independent spirit who wants none of this environment but seems chained to it by circumstances. Instead of being able to pursue music and literature, she is indentured to become a servant in the family of relatives.
This minor Australian masterpiece is extremely touching and has a fine feeling for historicity, atmosphere, and characterization. For anyone interested in the women's independence movement, it is a must; for everyone else, it is a dramatic exhibition of the condition of women before their emancipation. Nor is it propagandistically one-sided: "We all have such impulses, believe me," an aunt says to her, "but remember, loneliness is a terrible price to pay for independence." But this is the story of one for whom the price was not too high. In a remote Australian farmhouse she wrote the novel MY BRILLIANT CAREER, from which this film was taken. It was published in Edinburgh in 1901.
• Western movies have gone out of fashion. So, for the most part, have war films, at least those in the Old Tradition. This tradition is revived in THE BIG RED ONE—a rambling, episodic film with no great mounting tension, as in war classics like Air Force, Objective Burma, and Battleground; but somewhat more introspective and less rah-rah-rah, more like A Walk in the Sun. It does not shrink from detailing the horrors of war, but it concentrates more on the triumph over hardship and constant danger, an upbeat emphasis that has not been present in the spate of anti-Vietnam films. This one is about World War II, with Lee Marvin and four infantry privates, from Africa to Sicily to Omaha Beach to the liberation of a Nazi death camp. The camaraderie that grows best under conditions of extreme danger is nicely developed. Most of all this film is like The Story of G.I. Joe, though it lacks the greatness of that film; but, like it, it celebrates the day-to-day life of the infantry soldier slogging through the mud and cold of successive campaigns. That, in spite of all the suffering and death, there was victory at the end of the road does much to account for the spiritual difference between films about World War II and those about Vietnam.
• TRIBUTE is Jack Lemmon's movie, as it was his stage play when he did it on Broadway a few seasons ago. He is the same character: the show-biz father who studiously refuses to take life seriously, who makes no emotional commitments to anyone, and for whom the sound of his own voice doing clever one-liners and the sound of audience applause are the most gratifying things in his life. It is little wonder, then, that his son feels cheated of a father and that he should rebel against him—and that the father, once the diagnosis of terminal cancer is certain, should want, too late, to capture the love and respect of his son. Robby Benson plays the self-righteous son well enough so that we want to kick him in the teeth, but the best scenes, the only ones that are really emotionally involving, are between the father and his ex-wife, Lee Remick, who does a marvelous job in a bit part and gives the film its best moments of genuine feeling and spontaneity.
It's an old-fashioned plot, and it works its way without letdown to an effective climactic scene. But the film is different from the stage. In the intimate atmosphere of the theater, the interaction between father and son is moving and eloquent. As a film, this intimacy is lost; and the one-liners, clever though they are, tend to make the film talky and stagey and far less engaging than it was as a play.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".