Movies: Déjà Vu Again


Hollywood is often referred to as the Dream Factory. Lately, it has seemed unable to dream—preferring, instead, to produce, with factory-like detachment, a slew of remakes of old movies, serials, and television shows. Consider some of the titles of recent big-budget films: Batman, Dick Tracy, Cape Fear, The Addams Family, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—old subjects in new clothes, better sets, and crisper cinematography.

Where is the imagination, the courage, the artistic vision to create new work? Has our beloved Hollywood succumbed to the pressures of crass commercialism?

Now that all the cynical, whiny, black-and-white-loving movie snobs are salivating, I'd like to disassociate myself from those remake-haters. I'm more of a remake-monger.

Excuse me for my plebeian sensibilities, but I like gee-whiz special effects, beautifully clear soundtracks, and, well, color. Most of the remade pictures of the past few years have been the best ones to see, among a field of sappy love stories, teenage flicks, and brainless horror films. The chance to glimpse Sean Connery as King Richard the Lionhearted, even for a few moments at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was much more exciting than the prospect of seeing entire movies about rich, troubled Southern families, or South African anti-apartheid activists (mostly white), or hilariously funny, hip, violent street gangs.

Not to mention the fact that the movie remake dates back to, what, the second Hollywood film or something? Remakes, with varying degrees of allegiance to the original, have always been a sustaining element of filmmaking.

The Robin Hood tale has been done as many times as any story: as a silent film in the 1920s; with Errol Flynn in the 1930s; in serial form in the 1940s; by Disney studios in the 1950s (and also as a character in Ivanhoe, starring Robert Taylor); as a Rat Pack nightmare, Robin and the Seven Hoods, starring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby as Alan-A-Dale in the 1960s; by Disney animation, though uncharacteristically badly, in the 1970s; and by numerous television production companies throughout the 1980s, including one series appearing on the Disney channel (I sense a pattern).

Last year, two films, one starring Kevin Costner and the other starring Patrick Bergin, aspired to tell the tale of Robin Hood as never before. (The Bergin film, originally planned for theatrical release, was shown by the Fox network.)

Legends, of course, are easier to remake than most plots. In medieval England, tales of Robin Hood's background, exploits, and loves were hardly consistent (sometimes he was a commoner, sometimes a nobleman), so filmmakers have their choice of stories and themes to play with. The Robin Hood story has often been employed as a political morality play to justify soaking the rich, though as a movie plot that kind of theme is a fairly recent invention. Earlier Robin Hood films, including the famous Flynn version, focused a lot more on the Saxon vs. Norman and King Richard vs. Prince John angles, with the hero's concern for the poor being justified by their oppressive taxation rather than their class as such.

In the 1950s Disney version, the peasantry is hardly spoiling for class warfare: They want their Norman (yet just) King Richard back. But by the time Hollywood decided to revisit the stories again with the Costner and Bergin remakes, attention had swung to class solidarity and the struggle between serf and nobleman. While Costner has to justify, to himself and others, his ability as a nobleman to fight on behalf of peasants, Flynn's Robin Hood assumes that as a Saxon nobleman he naturally should lead a Saxon revolt. Only he is truly noble. Flynn, in other words, knows who he is and what he's doing. Costner's Robin Hood is played more as a Hamlet, or more simply, as a ham.

Yet perhaps the most often criticized—and in my opinion most successful—element of the recent Costner remake was a new legend, the introduction of a Moorish hero, Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman. Though charges of affirmative action and political correctness flew fast and furious, this film easily dodged them. Azeem got the most good lines and some of the best scenes in the film, because 1) nobles in the Moslem empires were more advanced culturally, technologically, and scientifically than their boorish Crusader enemies, so the character rings true, and 2) Freeman looked and acted the part, unlike Costner, who was horribly miscast.

The best remakes are the ones that make an old story interesting by updating characters, settings, and cultural references. One of the most successful series of remakes in Hollywood history was of Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur's play The Front Page. The story of a wisecracking, cynical, and talented reporter, a domineering publisher, and a hapless love interest first made it to the screen in 1931. It won several Academy Awards.

In 1943, the title changed to His Girl Friday, the reporter, Hildy Johnson, changed from a man to a woman played by Rosalind Russell, and the schemer-publisher character gained increased prominence as Russell's ex-husband, played by the rising romantic-comedy star Cary Grant. Russell's husband-to-be in the film, played by a young, sweet Ralph Bellamy, also became a more interesting character.

This film, even more effective than the first, reflected the new phenomenon of women in the workplace while keeping the story relatively intact. It also reflected the talents of and chemistry between the actors much better than the original, with some of the remake's classic lines and scenes actually being improvised by Russell and Grant or added as inside jokes. (In one scene, the Bellamy character is described as a good-looking fellow who looks "a bit like that movie actor, Ralph Bellamy.")

After another remake in 1974, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the story was last updated in 1988, as Switching Channels. Update is the key word. The news reporter became a go-anywhere-for-the-story cable news reporter/anchor, played by Kathleen Turner. The conniving publisher trying to keep his reporter from quitting and getting married became Turner's news producer and ex-husband, with much the same intentions, played by Burt Reynolds. And the would-be husband, once played by Bellamy as a humble insurance salesman wanting to move to Albany, became a vacuous, materialistic, '80s yuppie retailer of sports equipment, played by Christopher Reeve (no stranger to remakes himself), who wants to settle Turner in his condo across from the United Nations.

In the original story, the reporter hid an escaped murderer, the pawn in a political struggle, in a rolltop desk on the eve of the murderer's planned execution. The unfortunate man, an addled socialist, accidentally killed a black police officer, and the mayor, up for re-election, needed the black vote to win. In Switching Channels, the murderer (played by Laugh-In veteran Henry Gibson) is a heroic figure who killed his dead son's drug dealer, a crooked cop. In the 1980s, you see, drug dealers became the villains of choice, supplanting communists.

Anti-communist McCarthy types, however, remain villainous. In the film, Ned Beatty, who is running against the governor, pronounces the murderer a communist (as did the mayor in the original movie). Turner hides Gibson from the police, and from scummy TV reporters, in a copy machine (instead of a desk), but otherwise the dramatic situation is about the same.

Yes, there are remakes that should never have been made, that should never have even been considered, such as D.O.A., The Big Sleep, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose few merits included giving Leonard Nimoy a non-Spock role. Actually, that doesn't seem so meritorious in retrospect.

When all a producer can bring to an old cinematic gem is excessive sexual license (Cat People), silly yet modern special effects (The Thing), or Robert Englund (Phantom of the Opera), disappointment is inevitable.

But with the incredible success of Turner Network Television, American Movie Classics, other oldies cable channels, and video clubs, reworking old stories in new movies will be a constant reality in the future. Look for more 1940s-style action movies, like Rocketeer and the earlier Indiana Jones films, that recycle Nazi villainy (drug dealers aren't enough of a conspiracy to sustain many more films). Gangster films just won't die; some will be good (like Goodfellas and The Untouchables) and some horrid (like Harlem Nights and the neo-Brat Pack Mobsters).

Old thrillers and film noir classics are irresistible, if only to give today's actors the chance to play their idols of yesteryear. Remakes cost less for story development, in a Hollywood climate where cost savings have become increasingly important, and rely on ideas that, presumably, have already made it around the block at least once before.

The bad news is that sometimes the new model barely makes it out of the driveway. The good news is twofold: 1) Remakes are often very good, especially when modern filmmaking techniques add excitement and effects to an already entertaining story, and 2) if desired, the originals are always available on video. Yet again, technology comes to the rescue.

Contributing Editor John Hood is editor of Carolina Journal and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.