05 April 2018

The 'suicide club' of the early US Air Mail Service

In August 1918, the [US] post took over airmail operations from the military, and the department's own civilian pilots began to fly its own biplanes, which were either custom-built or remodeled for postal service. (De Havilland's DH-4, which had a more powerful 400-horsepower engine, superseded the Jenny as the fleet's workhorse). Much like the Pony [Express] riders, the aviators were expected to satisfy their employers' obsessions with speed and sticking to the schedule regardless of conditions. They raced their finicky, flimsy, unreliable aircraft through dense fogs, blizzards, and towering mountain ranges, protected mostly by the small planes' responsiveness and slow speeds. Of the 200 pilots who belonged to the service's "suicide club" between 1918 and 1926, 35 died on duty, but many more emerged bloody and battered from crashes.

Somehow, the Air Mail Service managed to complete 90 percent of its flights, although emergency landings were common. Pilot Dean Smith telegraphed a cryptic explanation to headquarters after his engine quit in midair, causing an unusual disaster: "Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith." While carrying the mail from Elko, Nevada, to Boise, Idaho, Paul Scott was forced to land by a broken oil line; then, followed by a pack of wolves, he walked 27 miles for help. When Henry Boonstra's carburetor froze during a snowstorm, he set the plane down on a 9400-foot-high Utah mountain, grabbed the mail, and stumbled through heavy drifts for 33 hours before reaching a ranch house. The resident shepherd lent him a horse, and the pilot finally reached the nearest village and phone three days later. The aviators accepted such hair-raising risks less for the salary than from the desire to hold one of the few jobs in the world that allowed them to fly. As Smith put it, "Alone in an empty cockpit, there is nothing and everything to see. It was so alive and rich a life that any other conceivable choice seemed dull, prosaic and humdrum".

Thrill-seeking behaviour has a strong genetic component, and the right stuff clearly ran in the family of Katherine Stinson, the first woman authorised to fly the US mail. Her parents operated a flight school in Texas, her sister Marjorie trained combat pilots in World War I, and her brother Eddie founded the Stinson Aircraft Company. The "Flying Schoolgirl" took America by storm with her loop-the-loops and skywriting, to say nothing of her leather garb and trousers, then still a rarity for women. In 1913, she amazed the crowd at the Montana State Fair by dropping mailbags from her sketchy wood-and-fabric plane, then went on to enthrall fans abroad before volunteering to be a combat pilot in 1917. She was rejected because of her sex but helped the cause by flying for pledges that brought $2 million to the Red Cross. In 1918, Stinson signed on as a regular Air Mail Service pilot and, despite a crash landing en route from Chicago to New York, managed to break a record for covering 783 miles in 11 hours. (Around 1920, tuberculosis forced her back to earth; she moved to New Mexico for her health, became a successful architect, and lived to the age of 86).

- Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America, New York, 2016, p224-5.

See also:
Blog: From London to Amsterdam, 1922, 20 February 2017
Blog: Seattle Museum of Flight, 25 April 2013
Blog: Le Bourget Air & Space Museum, 18 March 2011

03 April 2018

Marlene Dietrich's 1929 screentest for The Blue Angel

Last night's viewing was Emil Jannings & Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). The 1930 film produced in both German and English-language versions made Dietrich a trans-Atlantic star and landed her a hefty Hollywood contract with Paramount, which desperately needed some European glamour to rival MGM's Swedish star, Greta Garbo. And when this is your screen-test - replete with its feisty, unconcealed disdain for the risible material - why wouldn't you get the gig? The 1929 screentest was thought lost for decades until it turned up in Austria in 1992, just before Dietrich died. Unfortunately I can't find a version that will permit embedding, but just follow the link below.
Marlene Dietrich's Screen Test for Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel from Justin Bozung on Vimeo.

23 March 2018

Pilate's role in the crucifixion and its use for anti-Semitic purposes

Author Ann Wroe discusses the depiction of Pontius Pilate's role in the crucifixion and how the early church writers turned it to the service of anti-Semitism:

'...[F]antasies [of far-fetched miraculous cures by Jesus] would be laughable if they did not carry a dark undercurrent: the determination of early Christian writers in every branch of the church, whether Greek, Coptic or western, to shift the blame for the crucifixion from Pilate to the Jews. This could reach grotesque levels, as when Origen in his commentaries on Matthew and John simply pronounces Pilate innocent, and ascribes to the Jews all the cruelties that were clearly inflicted on Christ by the Romans. Once the gospel-embroiderers had lost sight of the fact that crucifixion was a uniquely Roman punishment, uniquely in Pilate's power, they could take Jewish 'responsibility' to absurd lengths: even, in the Coptic apocrypha, causing the Jews to crucify Pilate himself as a loathesome 'Egyptian'.

The reason for these inventions, at least at first, was not simply to hurt the Jews. For at least three centuries after Christ's death, as the new religion struggled to establish itself, it was vital to have a Roman official who would say, repeatedly, that Jesus posed no threat to the empire. Pilate had to be Christ's advocate, even his friend, and this made the Jews the villains. As Christianity became accepted and official - starting with the Edict of Milan in 312, when Constantine recognised it as a religio licita throughout the empire - Pilate's fortunes fell into steep decline, and he became a villain in his own right. The Nicene Creed of 381 could state unequivocally that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, with no mention of the Jews.

Nonetheless, medieval anti-Semitism was still based squarely on the notion that the Jews had killed Christ. Pilate - who has always been used as men want to use him - became a witness to their supposed intractability, their emotionalism, their capacity to sow evil in the world. Although there was probably a core of truth in Pilate's reluctance to kill Jesus - for whatever reason - it was expanded and embroidered. Even the most tyrannical Pilate put the Jews in a bad light. In invented story after invented story he complained that they had misled him, made him do what he had never wanted to do. He had tried every subterfuge to save Jesus, but they had insisted on his death'

- Ann Wroe, Pilate, London, 1999, p.315-6.

15 March 2018

Highlander vs Ladyhawke

This past weekend I was able to compare two mid-80s fantasy films, one of which I'd never seen and one that I'd not viewed since its cinematic release. The former was Russell Mulcahy's 1986 trans-Atlantic immortality shtick Highlander, which was screening in the main theatre at the Embassy, and the latter was Richard Donner's 1985 fantasy romance Ladyhawke, which I bought years ago on DVD in the UK and finally got around to opening and rewatching on Sunday.

Many big films passed me by in the 1980s, and I never caught up with Highlander or its many sequels on TV either. Many Gen-X movie-watchers are still fond of Mulcahy's film, and there was a strong Friday night turnout for the screening. Finally, this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about - after all, the Embassy is known for its canny scheduling of vintage crowd-pleasers, like last year's screening of the bonkers Flash Gordon, which attracted a 'lively' post-work audience bent on whooping at scenes they recognised.

With a suitably hokey premise of immortal warriors duelling throughout the centuries and the striking Scottish scenery as a counterpoint to the opening, grimy New York setting, Highlander is an exercise in high camp dressed up as a blockbuster. In the American scenes it's shot in fast-edited music video style, with the odd flourish of a grandiose crane shot in the opening wrestling match scene and a God's eye-view shot of a hospital ward, aping a famous Taxi Driver shot. There's plenty of fire sprinkler action to facilitate the mandatory 80s neon reflections, and the fast cutting breaks the action scenes into dozens of often nonsensical shots. In Scotland there's some fine set-dressing as the stunning Eilean Donan Castle serves as the hall of Clan MacLeod, and the spectacular vistas of the highland mountains and glens, little known to Hollywood audiences, give the film a rare scenic beauty. This is not matched, sadly, by its script.

While sporadically impressive to look at, Highlander is also hamstrung by its weak lead actor, with Christopher Lambert failing to summon much charisma as the undying Connor. At least his Scottish accent is a fair attempt for a Quebecois. It's far from convincing, certainly, but it's probably not actually offensive to Scots. It's just a pity that the blank performance Lambert offers isn't counterbalanced by any evident physical prowess in the combat scenes (and a lot can be forgiven in such cases: see Tony Jaa and Gina Carano, for example). As a rule, a film like Highlander lives or dies on the quality of its fight scenes, and due to a combination of lacklustre choreography, nakedly overdubbed sound effects, comically late exploding rocks and excessive editing all the fights bar the admittedly visually appealing finale are curiously unexciting.

Of course Highlander also features Sean Connery in Scotland playing a Spanish-Egyptian something-or-other, not sounding a jot different to the way Sean Connery normally sounds. I love the fact that the film credits a Spanish dialogue coach for Connery, when he clearly can't be arsed and is just using the film money to extend his mansion in Marbella. But despite slumming it, Connery at least looks like he's enjoying himself - well, it's certainly no stretch for him, is it? There's also creditable support from the surprisingly age-appropriate female foil, expert metallurgist Brenda (Roxanne Hart) and the unhinged scenery-chewing villain The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who is afforded his very own definite article.

The one major advantage Highlander has is its rock soundtrack by Queen, and in Freddie Mercury they found possibly the only person over-the-top enough to channel the lunatic excess of the film with sincerity. This musical partnership with Queen afforded some genuinely memorable songs, including Mercury's A Kind of Magic (although in a version with fewer hooks than the single version, or indeed the Live Aid one) and Brian May's genuinely wistful Who Wants to Live Forever.


By rewatching Ladyhawke, on the other hand, I was running a risk of spoiling a fond childhood memory of a film that while perhaps not as gob-smackingly fantastic as Labyrinth or Back to the Future, was certainly untainted by any negative connotations. And it featured that safest of mid-80s bets, a lead performance by Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, WarGames, Biloxi Blues). Watching it a second time as an adult, I can appreciate that it's solid, mid-range fantasy fare, with a few features that enable it to punch above its weight and justify its presence.

First up, director Richard Donner is a sure bet for a well-helmed film project. The man with The Omen, Superman 1 & 2, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, The Lost Boys and Scrooged to his name is not one to be trifled with.

Secondly, the Vittorio Storaro cinematography and locations are superb, with its winter shoot in Italy affording some stunning vistas, with Broderick stumbling through a snowy mountain valley being a particularly memorable scene. The whole sunrise-and-sunset motif also permitted some lovely camerawork at dawn and dusk and creative light effects to demonstrate the whole lycanthropic romance aspect. The tumbledown castles featured apparently belonged to the family of renowned Italian director Luchino Visconti (Il Gattopardo, Death in Venice), and are a thoroughly convincing counterpart to Highlander's polystyrene set for the showdown between The Kurgan and Ramirez. With Storaro in charge Ladyhawke emerges with the dignified visual presence of a much more respectable film. (I caught an excellent photo exhibition of his film work at the Robert Capa Photography Centre in Budapest last year; Storaro's credits include three Oscars, Apocalypse Now, 1900, Reds and The Last Emperor).

Ladyhawke's acting is clearly superior to 'the Scottish film'. Broderick, in a role originally envisaged for Dustin Hoffman or Sean Penn, is engaging in the role of fast-talking pickpocket Philippe the Mouse, and without being particularly showy about it, knits together what could be a difficult story in which the two other protagonists, the knightly Captain Etienne (Rutger Hauer) and the regal beauty Isabeau d'Anjou (the then 26-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer), spend almost no screen time interacting. (He's a wolf during the day; she's a hawk during the night: it's a complicated relationship). Hauer is a treat in a role originally offered to Kurt Russell - imperious and implacable, yet displaying a touching vulnerability as he battles an evil curse. Pfeiffer is stunning as the titular avian, bringing an old-school Hollywood royalty glamour to what could easily have evolved into B-grade schlock in lesser hands. And Leo McKern also adds a dash of English eccentricity as the unruly monk Imperius.

I have to admit though that my favourite performance in this film is always that of English actor John Wood as the tortured, malevolent antagonist, the Bishop of Aquila. His declamation is positively Shakespearean, and he finds pleasing nuances in even the simplest of dialogue. His denouement in Ladyhawke is also the very definition of a grand finale. Wood, of course, had only recently performed in another film with Broderick, when he appeared as the elusive and fatalistic Prof Falken in 1983's WarGames; before Ladyhawke he had just shot Woody Allen's lovely The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The film also contains what I think is the very first film soundtrack that grabbed my attention as a youth. Alan Parsons' synth-pop orchestral score is both stirring and evocative, capturing the heroism of the tale while also being strongly evocative of its mid-80s era. The Philharmonia Orchestra really fills the opening theme out beautifully - seen here with Storario's expert credits sequence:

So overall, while Highlander undeniably offers a certain appeal of kitsch excess, following a second viewing 33 years after the first, in my humble opinion Ladyhawke is still a more enduring slice of film entertainment.