Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (1998)

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to fuck her. And if I don’t want to fuck her, she shouldn’t be in the movie’ (Don Simpson, President of Worldwide Production, Paramount Pictures, after seeing a showreel of Shelley Duvall, quoted on page 370)

Turns out lots of the senior people in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s were know-nothing scumbags.

Also turns out the movie business is first and foremost a business i.e. even the most ‘radical’ far-out types in the late ’60s-early ’70s were concerned to make a profit – lots and lots of profit – win prizes, gain respect, engaged in extremely serious, dog-eat-dog competition with their peers and rivals. Basically, same old same old.

And it turns out that these young New Hollywood types were into awesome amounts of sex, adultery, free love, were ‘pussy addicts’, ‘pussy struck’ (p.212) and ‘pussy hounds’ (p.208), propositioning any girl who walked by, had multiple mistresses, girlfriends, even ordering up partners from modelling catalogues (a technique pioneered by Brian de Palma who recommended it to Steven Spielberg).

And that they ingested a whole heap of drugs – at first everyone smoked pot, riskier types took acid, and then in about 1971, the whole town discovered cocaine. By 1980 Hollywood was a winter wonderland of white powder. Martin Scorsese alone seems to have been a one-man pharmaceuticals factory (p.377).

None of these things are, by themselves, that much of a revelation. What makes this book such an epic read is the awesome amount of detail that Biskind goes into on all these and many other topics, and the amazing eye-witness testimony he appears to have coaxed out of everyone who was there.

Easy riders

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a big, intensely researched and hugely absorbing book, turning in at just over 500 pages of smallish print, including the index and ‘Cast of characters’.

The idea is simple. The later 1960s saw the final collapse of the Old Hollywood which had dominated from the 1920s, with its rigid studio systems, production quotas, stars under strict contracts, subject to carefully managed images and appearing in movies with, by and large, squeaky clean subject matter (Doris Day & Rock Hudson) or, if a bit more gritty (gangster movies, Westerns), nonetheless featuring clear heroes, baddies and well-upholstered love interests.

In this Old World, directors were simply hired hands who took pride in subsuming their own style to the requirements of the studio and the project (mostly – though you could still tell a Howard Hawks movie from a John Ford movie etc).

The late 1960s saw the arrival of a Completely Different Approach, with writers and directors and actors determined to tear down all the old restrictions, to portray more explicit violence and sex and controversial political and social themes in their movies, and to have a lot more say about the kinds of movies they wrote and directed. They wanted to be auteurs, not just directors but film-makers, free to convey their special visions in their own personal ways.

The new young generation of writers, directors and actors who came through at the end of the 1960s created a Golden Age of Independent Cinema in a new kind of Hollywood, which slowly adapted to more grown-up, controversial and ‘difficult’ themes.

The audiences were younger, too, and better educated, college kids who wanted to see the unsettling reality of the world they lived in – the endless carnage in Vietnam and student protests and Black Power and drugs and free love – portrayed up on the screen.

All of this is fairly well known, as is the list of New Hollywood directors:

  • Robert Altman (b.1925) M*A*S*H*, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville
  • Mike Nichols (b.1931) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Teach Me!, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge
  • Roman Polanski (b.1933) Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, Tess
  • William Friedkin (b.1935) The French Connection, The Exorcist
  • Woody Allen (b.1935) Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall,  Manhattan, Stardust Memories
  • Peter Bogdanovitch (b.1939) The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, Nickelodeon
  • Francis Ford Coppola (b.1939) The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now
  • Brian de Palma (b.1940) Carrie, Scarface
  • Martin Scorcese (b.1942) Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull
  • Terence Malick (b.1943) Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • George Lucas (b.1944) THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars,The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • John Milius (b.1944)
  • Steven Spielberg (b.1946) Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The key New Hollywood actors:

  •  Warren Beatty, James Caan, Robert de Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Jon Voigt, Ryan O’Neal, George Segal

New Hollywood movies

And the movies themselves. In this list I’ve 1. highlighted in bold the movies Biskind treats in real detail 2. and indicated their directors. The others are included as context. And I’ve included the movies which won Best Picture Oscar for each of the years. The idea is that there a few forerunners in 67 and 68:

1967 – Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Cool Hand Luke – Best Picture Oscar: In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)

1968 – Bullitt (Peter Yates), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski): Best Picture – Oliver! (Vernon Harris)

But 1969 was the year of the Big Breakthrough:

1969 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper), The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Best Picture – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)

1970 – M*A*S*H (Robert Altman), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson), Catch-22, Little Big Man (Arthur Penn), Woodstock: Best Picture – Patton (Franklin Schaffner)

1971 – The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovitch), Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby), Dirty Harry, Klute, THX 1138 (George Lucas): Best Picture – The French Connection (William Friedkin)

1972 – The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson), Cabaret, Deliverance, Jeremiah Johnson: Best picture – The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola),

1973 – American Graffiti (George Lucas), The Exorcist (William Friedkin), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman), Mean Streets (Martin Scorcese), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovitch), Badlands, Sleeper: Best Picture – The Sting (George Roy Hill)

1974 – Chinatown (Polanski), The Conversation (Coppola), Daisy Miller (Bogdanovitch), The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham 123: Best picture – The Godfather part II

1975 – Nashville, Shampoo, Love and Death, Jaws, Three Days of the Condor: Best picture – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Foreman)

1976 – All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory (Hal Ashby), Marathon Man, The Omen, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Taxi Driver: Best picture – Rocky (John G. Avildson)

1977 – Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Best picture – Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

1978 – Coming Home (Ashby), Days of Heaven (Malick), Blue Collar (Schrader): Best picture – The Deer Hunter (Cimino)

1979 – Apocalypse Now (Coppola), 1941 (Spielberg): Best picture – Kramer v Kramer

1980 – Popeye, Heaven’s Gate (Cimono), American Gigolo (Schrader), Raging Bull (Scorsese), Tess, The Elephant Man: Best picture – Ordinary People

1981 – Reds (Beatty), Raiders of the Lost Ark: Best picture – Chariots of Fire

Qualities of New Hollywood movies

To summarise: the ‘New Hollywood’ was a brief historical window when a new generation of writers and directors, unfettered by Hollywood traditions, felt empowered to tackle challenging new subject matter, shot more cheaply on location (away from the technical and stylistic limitations of studios), starring attractive young actors (Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway), with more graphic treatments of violence and sex.

And a troubled, haunting tone. The best New Hollywood films capture a wistful sense of the loss of shared values and social certainties besetting late-60s America, exacerbated by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and the general disillusionment with politicians and the ‘old’.

Matching this disillusionment, many New Hollywood films specialise in an atmosphere of uncertainty – uncertainty about plots and characters and values.

The demographics are interesting. In the 1950s and into the 1960s movie-going audiences tended to be middle-aged, high school-educated i.e. not too intellectual. The Sound of Music suited them just fine. But the arrival of the New Hollywood period coincided with a marked shift in the movie-going public, which changed to a younger, more affluent, college-educated demographic. By the mid-1970s, 76% of all movie-goers were under 30, 64% of whom had gone to college. Radical students. Peace, man. Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.

It was a more studenty audience ready to lap up more extreme violence and full-frontal nudity undreamed of by the Hollywood of the 1950s. The old studio heads couldn’t understand these pot-smoking hippies at all and the New Hollywood period can be seen as a hiatus while the Old Guard gave unprecedented autonomy (and money) to a bunch of new, young, wannabe directors.

In reality it only took 4 or 5 years (Martin Scorsese says the period lasted from 1971 to 1976 ‘because we were just starting out’, p.233) before a new generation of studio executives figured out new ways to cater to / exploit the new audience, new genres, subjects, and approaches to marketing and releasing movies, which would restore big money profits and revenue streams to the studios, and the era of happy-go-lucky experimentation ended (see below).

The stories

Gossip Biskind loves gossip. His book is basically a gossip fest. Donna Greenberg has a rich husband and lives in a big beach house in Malibu. She knows Julie Payne, daughter of John Payne and child actress Ann Shirley. Julie has a perfect American body. She is fierce and wild, chainsmokes and drinks, is liable to turn up at Donna’s house at one in the morning, screaming: ‘I want to use your swimming pool to have a fuck.’

There’s lots of stuff like that. If you find that kind of thing interesting or entertaining, then this is the book for you.

Wanna know about the time Dennis Hopper threatened to pull a knife on Rip Torn in a bar? Or ordered 50 nubile young women up to his apartment for an orgy he could film (p.134)? Or beat his wife, who eventually ran away with the kids, terrified he was going to kill her? Or was married for six days to a gorgeous dollybird he met on the location of his second movie – but that once he got her home he took to roaming round the house, off his face on drugs, firing live ammunition, slapping her about, and handcuffing her to the bed so she couldn’t get away… until after six days of this, at a moment when the cuffs were off, she fled?

It’s all here, plus hundreds and hundreds of other stories of the same ilk. The way Warren Beatty’s Winebago on location was besieged by nymphets and spent hours rocking up and down, day and night, as he screwed them? Studio execs lounging by the pool giving all the bikini-ed nubiles who passed by numbers out of ten, Bert Schneider trying to persuade his wife to screw all his friends so he’d feel less bad about his flings, powerful men thinking it run-of-the-mill to say things like ‘Nice tits, honey’ to every woman they met.

The hundreds of outrageous stories behind the bloated, disaster-struck production of Apocalypse Now (the drugs, the no script, Brando’s refusal to act, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, the typhoon which destroyed the set, Coppola’s nervous breakdown), the extraordinary drug intake of Martin Scorsese which almost killed him (pp.386-7), the overdose which saw Hal Ashby being stretchered off to hospital after a hard night partying with the Rolling Stones (p.353).

Sex Biskind loves this stuff and loves describing the sex lives of the directors and executives and stars. Once Peter Bogdanovitch arrives in Hollywood, he and his wife do a good job inveigling their way into the highest Old Hollywood circles.

When their friends went away, they house-sat. Like X-rated Goldilockses they went through the closets of Beverly Hills mansions trying on clothes and fucking in every bedroom. (p.115)

Yes, ‘fucking’. The book starts with everyone being foul-mouthed as you can imagine, and then goes downhill. Everyone was fucking everyone else. Well, to be more precise, pretty much every male in the book is unfaithful to whatever partner they have (wife, mistress, girlfriend). Some, like Beatty, are natural babe magnets. Others set out to systematically screw the wives and girlfriends of all their friends.

A whole lot of women are interviewed who give a lamentable collective portrait of a generation of ‘pussy addicts’. Ted Ashley, chairman of the Warner Brothers film studio from 1969 to 1980 was, according to producer Don Simpson, ‘the pussy freak of all time’ (p.82). Peter Bogdanovich casts his girlfriend Cybill Shepherd in flop after flop because he is ‘pussy struck’.

Once Francis Ford Coppola made it big (very big) with The Godfather he bought a huge house with a pool in San Francisco, gave big parties, as soon as his wife went to bed, he was touching up all the nubiles in the pool. ‘It was no secret that Francis was a major pussy hound,’ says Marcia Lucas (p.208).

Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson emerge as particularly colourful characters. As Biskind puts it, ‘Bert [was] a man for whom the term ‘mindfucker’ was invented…’ (p.130) and he screwed his way through an armada of women, a highlight of whom was the beautiful actress Candice Bergen. He tried to get his wife, Judy, to sleep around too, so he wouldn’t feel so guilty about his affairs, and encouraged his friends to hit on her (p.129). He drove Candice (Candy) mad by his incessant lecturing her about life, how to behave etc, acting Svengali to her Trilby.

Bob Rafelson directed one of my all-time favourite movies, Five Easy Pieces, but is bluntly described as a ‘bully’, raving, shouting, blustering and browbeating everyone around him (p.119).

Drugs And the drugs. Obviously drugs of one sort or another had been around for a long time but mostly on a tiny marginal fringe. The success of Easy Rider made every young producer, director, actor or executive worth his salt feel like he had to be au fait with hash and pot, and the radical ones tried acid. Biskind describes some of the small independent production houses where the secretaries had the task of rolling the joints in preparation for big meetings.

Drugs were even involved in the actual production of the films. Bob Rafelson controlled the pacing of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Five Easy Pieces by managing his drug intake. He and the producer would discuss whether it was best to give Jack some hash or some grass before each scene, depending on the acting requirements (p.119).

Everyone knew Dennis Hopper would scarf down any pharmaceuticals from anywhere within reach. During his acting career, some directors never used him after lunch, when he would be trolleyed; another director sent Hopper calls sheets which included annotations suggesting which drugs he should use before which scenes (p.136).

Then cocaine came in. It went from being a secret vice to a social norm. Bowls of cocaine were laid out at the best parties. Wearing a little gold coke spoon on a necklace became a fashion statement. ‘Cokey’ becomes an adjective. The movie Personal Best is powdered with the stuff.

It was a cokey set. A production designer referred to [the movie’s writer-director] as ‘old write-a-line, snort-a-line Towne’. (p.395)

Scorsese at the Cannes Film Festival had good coke flown in from Paris for himself and his entourage. When studio executive Robert Evans flew out to visit the set of Robert Altman’s movie, Popeye, shooting in Malta in 1980, his luggage contained large consignments of coke for the director and crew, which made it embarrassing when his luggage got lost and opened by customs. Biskind tells a wild story of a panic-stricken Evans ringing studio head Don Simpson in the middle of the night, making him realise the stakes were that a senior exec and a major film could go down in a drugs scandal, and telling him to get no less a personage than Henry Kissinger on the case! (p.370).

Business All this sex and drugs stuff is initially entertaining, but after a hundred pages has got a bit oppressive. More interesting is the insight into the movie business as a business. We are told about umpteen ‘business meetings’ where decisions are made about greenlighting numerous projects, or where Old Hollywood executives are persuaded to fund risky experimental new ventures, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios. That said, they’re not like the meetings I used to go to at government departments, which go on for one, two or three hours with an agenda, minutes and action logs. In Biskind’s hands most of these ‘meetings’ quickly turn into shouting matches, where executives and directors shout and swear at each other.

It wasn’t exactly a meeting, but it gives you a flavour of the business relationships to learn that whenever super-producer Robert Evans phoned Francis Ford Coppola with yet more criticism about the Godfather project, Coppola invariably ended up yelling obscenities, slamming the phone down, and kept a hammer nearby so he could smash the phone to pieces (p.153). After which a secretary replaced it with a new one.

When producer Stanley Jaffe, at a pre-production meeting for The Godfather, was so insistent that Marlon Brando wouldn’t be in the movie that he slammed his fist on the table, Coppola feigned having an epileptic fit, and fell to the floor in spasms, to convey just how imbecilic the suggestion was (p.153).

Money And there’s a lot of talk about money, about how much a project will cost, how much the studio will put in, the shape of the deal i.e. will director and stars get cash up front or a percentage of the profits, and how those profits could be calculated differently, taking into account all kinds of overheads, what John Landis calls ‘numbers and deals and phone calls’ (p.245).

Warner Bros exec John Calley pays $125,000 up-front to direct the screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? Brando gets $50,000 for appearing in The Godfather while Coppola only got $110,000 (plus 6% of the take, which ended up making him a multi-millionaire). Robert Towne was paid $250,000 to write Chinatown plus 5% of the gross. Lots and lots and lots of financial detail like that.

The process So, putting to one side the sex and drugs gossip, it’s interesting to get really embedded into the way the whole system worked: the way producers, directors, actors and execs were constantly having business meetings and/or social gatherings, hanging out in bars, discussing books or plays which have the potential to become movies, discussing who would be right to develop it, to turn it into a treatment or a script, who to offer the parts to, and the complexity of schedules and commitments, which meant your first choice of director or star actor or whoever, were continually being changed, adjusted, projects dropped, projects revived and so on. Like spinning plates. Like moving between multiple stages where multiple producers, directors, writers and actors are all spinning multiple systems of plates, an awful lot of which crashed and shattered, often very expensively.

And Biskind seems to have staggering access to it all. He seems to have carried out interviews and garnered eye-witness accounts from everyone present at all the key moments, parties, meetings, phone calls and sets. Some critics have complained that Biskind distorted evidence and stories and accounts in order to fit his wildly cynical and jaded narrative, but he indicates where accounts conflict and anyway, who cares? The point is rarely in the detail, it’s in the overall atmosphere of grotesquely appalling behaviour at every level, in every way.

As a small example of how it works – legendary cinéaste and would-be director Peter Bogdanovitch – before he’d directed anything – and his wife production designer Polly Platt, were sent by a magazine to write a feature about the making of what turned out to be John Ford’s last movie, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. They got friendly with young actor Sal Mineo, the only person on the set their age. Sal gave Polly a dog-eared copy of a trashy paperback titled The Last Picture Show and said it would make a good movie and he’d love to be in it.

Thus began the long process which led to the eventual production of the movie, The Last Picture Show, released in 1971, one of the defining movies of the New Hollywood, Bogdanovitch’s first and arguably greatest film. During filming he fell in love with the female lead, Cybill Shepherd, aged 20 at the time, and left his wife who – the book emphasises – had played a key role in not only adapting the book, but even on set, helping to direct it. Biskind describes in excruciating detail the torment Polly went through as she helped her husband with every aspect of the day’s filming, only to go back to their apartment alone as he spent every night with pneumatic young Cybill.

None of which stops The Last Picture Show being a masterpiece and one of my favourite movies.

So from the hundreds of examples in the book, you get a good sense of the very extended series of accidents, insights, conversations, commissions, scripts, hirings and firings which are all involved in the convoluted processes which lead up to the production of any movie.

Networks And you get a good sense of the extended network or matrix which all this takes place in. Parties mattered. As a small example, Peter Fonda’s agent, Sue Mengers, had parties where people hooked up and did deals: Ann-Margret met director Mike Nichols and got a part in Carnal Knowledge; Burt Reynolds met director Alan Pakula and got a part in Starting Over; Lauren Hutton got chatting to director Paul Schrader and got a part in American Gigolo (p.132).

The socialising was important. Anything could happen at tonight’s party, someone could tip you off to the script going round, or that so-and-so’s looking for a director or actor for some project they’re considering… and it could be the Big Break. You never knew.

‘I went to every party, talked to everybody I could to get a picture made. I looked at people in terms of whether they could help me.’ (Scorsese, quoted page 238)

So this is why personal relationships really mattered. This is where the gossip comes in. Information about who was up and who was down, who was friends with who or had fallen out with who, who was looking to take revenge or sabotage someone else – all this was potentially vital business information as it made the landscape of opportunities much clearer.

That said, almost all the friendships, marriages and relationships in the book sooner or later turn sour, and often toxic. Because of the nature of the business.

Beatty and Towne had been friends since the ’60s. They were as close as two men could be, but it is hard to maintain friendships in Hollywood where the stakes are so high, where there are vast disparities of money and power, where the lines between affection and business are blurred, and people never know whether their success is earned or accidental. Enough is never enough, and the poison of envy eats away at the fibre of friendships. (p.305)

Types of director

The dark, yellowy feel of The Godfather derives almost entirely from the Director of Photography, Gordon Willis. I was surprised to read Biskin stating that Francis Ford Coppola’s strengths were not really visual – he was good at story-telling, writing dialogue and getting on with actors. Willis gave The Godfather that unparalleled look.

Obviously there are different kinds of directors, but I hadn’t quite realised just how different. Whereas Coppola loved actors and working with them, Polanski hated them and behaved like a dictator, like Napoleon. ‘Who gives a fuck about your motivation, your paycheck is your motivation, just say the fucking words’, he shouted at Faye Dunaway on the set of Chinatown (p.189). On on occasion she was sitting in a car holding a coffee cup while Polanski yelled at her, until she finally flung it in his face, at which point he realised it was full of pee. Hers, or co-star Jack Nicholson’s, sitting grinning next to her?

Hal Ashby, by contrast again, was immensely easy-going with his actors, one of the greatest ‘non-directors’ of all time according to Nicholson, but the downside was scenes often lacked bite and intensity so that the script got washed out (p.179).

Robert Altman created a ‘wonderful atmosphere’ on his sets, where he worked alongside the actors to get at the ‘truth’ of a scene (p.215). But he also ‘fucked everybody over’, limited other people’s pay but made sure he got the full rate, sacked crew members arbitrarily and was, of course, a womanising s.o.b.

William Friedkin was a very technical kind of director, very involved with the lenses and the technical effects, but he didn’t like actors, he went on record as saying he’d rather direct tree stumps (p.218). And we hear about the time he permanently injured Ellen Birstyn’s spine, during a special effect for The Exorcist.

And Terrence Malick (Badlands) was so notoriously indecisive that he took two years (!) to edit Days of Heaven (finally released in 1978), after which he retired from the business for decades.

One of the best bits of the book, I thought, was the one-page biographies of all the key directors.

  • Hal Ashby was raised on a farm and one day found his dad in the barn who’d put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger; he never recovered, bottled it up, but it came out in titanic rages.
  • Coppola was stricken with polio when he was eight-years-old, and spent a year in bed, all friends and most family forbidden from visiting him, lonely and isolated, a sense of loneliness and victimhood he carried into adult life.
  • Scorsese was a short, skinny, sickly momma’s boy with allergies to everything and bad asthma, ‘filled with phobias and anxieties’ (p.238). He was timid, bordering on cowardly, hated confrontation, always smiling. But he bottled up the rage from being a short skinny kid in a rough neighbourhood – he was a wall puncher, a phone thrower (p.239) – and projected his anger into his films – which is why I’ve never liked them (p.227).

He was not very confrontational. Which is one of the reasons I think he gets so confrontational in the films, he’s just letting all that out. All the stuff he can’t do in his day-to-day life. (Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver)

  • William Friedkin grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Chicago and was arrested for armed robbery (!). After the success of French Connection and The Exorcist, he thought he was a genius and behaved intolerably to everyone, many enemies being thrilled when his next movie, Sorcerer, shot on location in the Dominican Republic, was a catastrophe.
  • Paul Schrader’s upbringing was one of religious terror and beatings by his pious mother and father. The God-fearing upbringing of screenwriter Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard, with its parental beatings and hellfire terrors, is itself the stuff of fiction (or nightmares). His obsession with suicide, with always having a loaded gun by his bedside, the fantasies of mass violence, all this was to spill onto the screen in the script of Taxi Driver.
  • Steven Spielberg was the nemesis of the counter-culture, immune to politics, never took drugs, shared his parents’ values, wanted to do good business and entertain.
  • George Lucas very similar, brought up in provincial nowheresville by philistine parents, small, frail and ill (he had diabetes cf. Scorsese’s asthma and Coppola’s polio). On his arrival in LA he initially thought he wanted to be a rebel like the swaggering cool dudes, de Palma and John Milius and Paul Schrader – till he had a eureka moment when he realised he wanted to make people happy, he wanted to entertain them – which led to the good-time American Graffiti (1974) and then the epoch-making, childish simplicities of Star Wars.

Lucas and Spielberg were in the vanguard of the counterattack by small-town and suburban values that were to reclaim Hollywood as their own. (p.343)

This is partly because it sheds light on the individuals. But also because they’re one of the few places where you get a bit of depth and variety, and an insight into other lives, other American settings and contexts, outside the pussy-grabbing, dope-smoking, egomaniac film world.

The end of an era

The very same ‘film school brats’ who helped to pioneer the new age, unwittingly brought about its demise.

The air of artistic freedom which had come in with Easy Rider (1969) began to reverse itself when the commercial success of Jaws (1975) and then the epic Star Wars (1977) led the studios to realise the potential of a new kind of blockbuster, whose profits could be amplified by careful control of production, marketing and merchandising. Slowly that heady air of half-amateur experimentalism and freedom of subject and tone drained away.

Films like Alien (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) incorporated all the technical innovations pioneered in the previous decade, but had somehow morphed them into a slick new professional look. The moral and stylistic ambivalences of the best New Hollywood movies of the very early 70s had been turned into slick product which went on, as we all know, to become highly profitable franchises, complete with TV spinoffs and a world of merchandising.

Alongside the invention of a new type of blockbuster, went a further change in the demographic of people consuming movies. If 60s radicals had applauded the change in demographic from middle-aged to student-aged audiences, they were not so happy when this downward trend continued towards actual children.

By the mid-1970s 50% of the American movie-going public was aged 12–20. The thing about actual children is they tend to be as socially conservative as their parents, and so the downward trend in the age of the movie-going public was accompanied by a move away from the brief political radicalism of the early 70s towards a reborn conservatism of subjects and approach.

George Lucas understood this extremely well. He is quoted as saying American Graffiti was targeted at 16-year-olds, Star Wars at ten to 12-year-olds (p.318) and that is the basically childish demographic where most movies have stuck ever since.

The Indiana Jones series, like the never-ending Star Wars series, are, basically, films for children, and they were the future, the grandparents of today’s endless X-Men and Marvel Superhero franchises.

Film critic Pauline Kael realised this at the time and wrote essays warning about the trend towards juvenile feelgood movies, not least in an essay titled ‘Fear of Movies’ (p.342). Biskind quotes Spielberg himself as saying he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind entirely to conjure up that child’s sense of wonder, and goes on to point out how the movie’s protagonist abandons his adult responsibilities to his wife and son, regresses to childhood enshtusiasms and then, by entering the alien mothership, effectively goes right back to the womb, relinquishing all adult worries.

It’s hard to think of a more infantilising vision. (p.363)

Biskind’s analyses

Biskind provides fascinating accounts of the random conceptions and lengthy travails of all the key movies of the 1970s, accounts which are drenched, as I’ve said in gossip about personalities, sex and drugs, along with the intricate wheeler-dealing between directors, stars agents and studio executives, that more often than not continued right the way through the shooting, editing and preview stage of the films, sometimes even after they’d been officially released.

But at the point where the narrative reaches the actual release of each of the signature movies of the movement, he also subjects the key movies to interesting ‘criticism’ and ‘analysis’.

Thus he as a very insightful (to me, at any rate) page about The Exorcist which he sees entirely as ‘a male nightmare of female puberty’, drenched in fear of emergent female sexuality, which is why the movie can be seen as a conspiracy of all the male characters to torture and torment the pubescent girl, Regan, back to her pre-sexual innocence (p.223).

Biskind is good on how the unique visual look of The Godfather owes everything to director of photographer Gordon Willis (pp.156-157) but he goes on to give an insightful interpretation of how the movie as a whole, despite its status as the masterpiece of the New Hollywood’s leading figure, Coppola, is in fact a profoundly conservative if not reactionary movie, in its psychological and cultural tendency – promoting the huge importance of family and loyalty at a time when the counter-culture was busy trying to undermine The Family as a bourgeois, sexist construct (p.164).

To bring this out Biskind usefully contrasts the scene where Michael and the Don acknowledge their love for each other with the comparable scene in Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicolson’s character completely fails to communicate with his stroke-bound father.

The Godfather embodies a type of blockbuster sentimentality which points towards the neo-conservative values of the Reagan era, whereas Five Easy Pieces embodies the low-key, on-location, moral and psychological ambiguity and frustration which was the signature note of the New Hollywood. Which is why, although I can acknowledge that The Godfather is a masterpiece, I prefer the low-key, realistic ‘truths’ and perplexities of Five Easy Pieces more.

On another level, Biskind discusses the role of genres. He details the struggles Coppola had to get the movie made, not least the scepticism of every studio exec that gangster movies were passé, and so brings out how its unexpected success marked the beginning of the rehabilitation of old genres in a new blockbuster style.

This reinvention of worn-out genres would turn out to be the modus operandi of Spielberg and Lucas, reinventing scarey (Jaws), science fiction (Star Wars) and adventure (Indiana Jones) in the new blockbuster idiom.

Biskind neatly calls their achievement ‘genre gentrification’, and that captures the way a rough, edgy, arty neighbourhood (New Hollywood) ended up being taken over by smooth-talking young urban professionals (Spielberg, Lucas) and how the tired old Hollywood genres were made over, given a technological lick of paint, and resold at vast profits (p.342).

When you read Biskind’s very useful potted biographies of Spielberg and Lucas, what comes over is what utterly conventional personalities they are, coming from bland provincial backgrounds, completely lacking in political edge, timid and unworldly, who knew about life mainly from TV, who arrived in the Sodom and Gomorrah of 70s Hollywood but didn’t sleep around and didn’t take drugs, just wanted to make movies.

Their lack of rock’n’roll behaviour should have warned all the other bullshitting blowhards of the movement (de Palma and Schrader and Friedkin and Rafelson spring to mind) that here was something new, and quiet and understated, which was going to steal the carpet from under their feet.

Biskind sees this triumph of the homely, the popular, the regular guy and the mass popcorn-eating audience embodied in the story of Jaws itself. In it the rough, tough, right-wing macho man Quint gets eaten. ‘The intellectual Jew of the left’ (Biskind’s words, p.279), despite all his college talk, is ineffectual and runs (or swims) away. It is the unreflective, unflashy, everyman cop, Brody, who saves the day. The movie’s representative of precisely the kind of ‘familymanregularguy’ who Spielberg would aim his following movies at (with such dazzling success).

Politics and society

I warmed to lots of Biskind’s analyses because he relates the movies to their social, cultural and political context, which is much the same way as I think and write about art and literature in this blog.

1969 was the high point of the Vietnam War, protests against the war, and the hippy counter-culture, Woodstock etc. Easy Rider provided images, characters and a popular soundtrack which crystallised that cultural moment. But by spring 1975 it was over. In fact the Paris Peace Accords ended the war in January 1973 and by March 1973 all US forces had been withdrawn. There followed two more years of conflict before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army in April 1975, but the entire raison d’etre of the anti-war movement evaporated in 1973. Alongside it, the enmity of all right-thinking left-wingers and liberals to Richard Nixon’s presidency were vindicated when Nixon resigned in August 1974, rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.

So by 1974 the main bogeyman and the central issue of the counterculture had both disappeared, depriving the movement of its focal points and energy. Instead, America had a whole new set of worries. The country was stricken with an energy crisis from the autumn of 1973 which brought to a juddering halt the run of economic growth which had fuelled increasing affluence ever since the end of the Second World War.

A huge middle ground of public opinion, which had been prepared to let the hippies get away with the benefit of the doubt, who had let themselves be persuaded that America was an evil imperialist power or had dabbled with pot, now found themselves unemployed and scrabbling for work.

George Lucas is quoted several times as saying ordinary people were fed up of being told by New Hollywood directors that they were wicked racist imperialist pigs exploiting the workers. They wanted to see movies which would leave them feeling happier as they walked out the cinema than when they went in, not wretched and depressed (pp.363)

Hence American Graffiti, a feelgood movie deliberately set in the early 60s before the whole shitstorm of Vietnam and the counterculture kicked in. And then Star Wars, the ultimate in apolitical escapism, set in a universe long ago and far away, where the good guys wear white and the bad guys dress in black.

You can hear it in the rock music, too. In 1969 hipsters listened to the hairy ugly dudes in Steppenwolf, singing their signature track Born To Be Wild which runs through Easy Rider, ‘head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure’. Young film studio executives were taking pot, even acid, experimenting with open marriages and free love.

Just four years later (in 1973) The Eagles released Tequila Sunrise, laden with slick worldweariness, and the young studio execs were now wearing carefully ironed jeans and cheesecloth shirts, everyone was snorting cocaine and looking for the next Godfather.

By the late 70s Bert Schneider, the buccaneering executive behind BBS Productions which funded a lot of the early New Hollywood productions, now felt tired and old. The BBS building on La Brea, once the headquarters of everything hip and happening, now felt like a dilapidated old ‘head’ shop, covered in yellowing posters from the hippy era, relics from a different age (p.299).

When Barry Diller, who came from heading TV channel ABC arrived as new CEO of Paramount, he sacked a lot of the old staff and installed a young Michael Eisner as President.

When Eisner came in as president, the atmosphere at Paramount changed completely. They wanted to do what they had done at the [TV] network, manufacture product aimed at your knees. (Richard Sylbert, Head of Production at Paramount at the time, quoted on p.297)

Biskind explains that it was the ‘TV regime’ at Paramount that ‘helped to put the New Hollywood in its grave’ (p.397).

New ways of doing business

The era of experimentation came to an end when Hollywood discovered new ways of making big, big money from blockbusters. Frankly, I didn’t understand the minutiae of the new ways of funding projects which Biskind describes, but I did understand the three other key elements which were ‘new’:

1. Breaks Previously movies had been released in a relatively limited number of cinemas round the country, and in waves or ‘breaks’ – alpha cinemas first, then, when the first wave of popularity had passed, in beta cinemas – all in a bid to stretch out a movie’s paying life. With Godfather, the studio opened it across a much larger number of cinemas right at the start – and made a ton of money (total box office something like $280 million). Having seen this work so well, Universal Pictures copied the tactic with Jaws – its first weekend it opened in 409 cinemas and made a huge profit – the total take ended up being $470 million. So mass openings right across the country became part of a new ‘blockbuster’ strategy.

2. TV promotion Conventional wisdom throughout the 1960s was that television was the rival, the competitor, which was slaying the film industry, taking ads away from the screen, but much more importantly, allowing people to slump on their sofas after dinner and watch high-grade entertainment without having to schlepp through bad weather and wait in line to get into a movie which may, or may not, be any good.

It was a business strategy breakthrough when marketing departments realised that heavy investment in TV commercials could make a massive difference to box office. Seems obvious to us now, nearly 50 years later, but it was a revolutionary breakthrough at the time. Thus Universal spent $700,000, an unprecedented amount, on half-minute ads during prime time TV slots to promote Jaws and the results were spectacular.

Jaws change the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks – the number of theatres would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade – and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws. (p.278)

3. Merchandising The third aspect of the ‘blockbuster revolution’ was merchandising. There’d always been book tie-ins and cheap trinkets, but they had never been commercially important. Once again it was Jaws that began the process, with toys and t-shirts, but Star Wars which took it to a whole new level. What’s fascinating to learn is that George Lucas knew this from the start.

Until Star Wars, merchandising was a relatively trivial cash centre. Lucas understood its importance (p.320)

Lucas was fascinated by money, studied the bottom line, analysed the sources of profit and realised from the start the immense potential of Star Wars merchandising. After all, from the get-go he conceived it as a movie for kids, and you sell kids toys, right? He aimed to make ‘the most conventional kind of movie I can possibly make’ (p.321), and recoup the money on the toys.

Star Wars drove home the lesson of Jaws, that kids and young adults would come back again and again to a movie without stars… It woke up the studios to the potential of merchandising, showed that the sale of books, T-shirts, and action figures could be a significant profit centre. Star Wars‘s merchandising efforts, instead of merely promoting the movie, as had been the case in the past, took on a life of their own and sucked up well over $3 billion in licensing fees as of the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy in 1997, adding an incentive to replace complex characters with simple figures that could be turned into toys. (p.341)

Taken together, massive ‘breaks’, TV advertising and mass merchandising (combined with the more obvious element of ‘popular’, mass-audience-pleasing subject matter) provide a good working definition of the ‘blockbuster’ phenomenon and are, quite clearly, the exact opposite of the low-budget, improvised, ambiguous art movies that New Hollywood directors got to make in their brief window of opportunity.

Which is why critics and insiders date the New Hollywood era from 1969’s Easy Rider, which seemed to blow the film world right open, to 1975’s Jaws when the window for interesting art movies began to close, and then 1977, when Star Wars slammed it shut.

Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big budget, comic-book mentality. (Screenwriter Paul Schrader, p.316)

Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars is like when MacDonalds got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. (Director William Friedkin, p.344)

Dennis Jakob coined the term ‘twerp cinema’ for the movies of Lucas and Spielberg.

No-one knows

One of the most fascinating things about the book, is no-one knows when a movie is going to be a hit or a flop. I found it riveting to read about the disasters which plagued the production of Jaws, I had no idea it was such a screwup all the way through the filming and editing, and right up to the last minute Spielberg and a lot of the suits thought it was a disaster. Even more amazingly, Lucas was at moments suicidal about Star Wars which he thought was a piece of junk, incoherent twaddle, and so did many of his friends and family!

It’s fascinating to see just how contingent so many of the films were. Nobody knew, not even the makers, whether they would, by the time of the final edit and the final sound mix, be Oscar winners or humiliating failures.

This helps explain the relentless anxiety, the uncertainty, paranoia and angst of the leading directors. As the budgets got bigger, the pressure on them, and the producers and studio execs, became unbearable. Here’s one snapshot from hundreds:

Scorsese went into Raging Bull twisted into a knot of bitterness, defiance and self-doubt. He was overwhelmed by a sense of fatality… Scorsese was edgy and irritable as ever, prone to sudden outbursts of anger… Scorsese had such a severe anxiety attack on the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo that he couldn’t catch his breath and was convinced he was having a coronary… (pp.391-2)

One consequence was the drugs, which were easily available and were the easiest way to escape the crushing anxiety of each day. But it also explains the prevalence of adoring groupies and yes-men which Biskin describes the uber-directors as surrounding themselves with (Friedkin, Ashby, Bogdanovich, but especially Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese). Because the closed-shop of adulatory groupies was like the drugs – a vital prop, a psychological survival strategy for men who came under immense pressure, not only to deliver big budget hits, but from their own inner demons telling them they ought to have been making the artistic masterpieces they’d come into the business dreaming about.

It was a recipe for endless malaise, anxiety, anger, frustration and depression. And masses of drugs. And the terrible treatment of women.


Jews in Hollywood

I don’t particularly care whether there are or have been lots of Jews in senior positions in Hollywood. It’s well known that some of the most prominent executives who set up the first studios in the 1920s were Jews who’d moved out from New York (Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg), but a lot weren’t. Similarly, a number of key players in the New Hollywood movement were Jewish… and a lot weren’t.

But it does appear to matter to at least some of the characters themselves, and it palpably matters to Biskind. He consistently note a person’s Jewishness, and quotes their own remarks about their Jewishness:

  • [Robert] Towne’s melancholic, hangdog expression and pale, feverish eyes, along with the Talmudic slope of his shoulders gave him a rabbinical cast he would never entirely shake. (p.30)
  • [Robert Towne] was a born kibitzer. (p.50)
  • [For The Graduate, director Mike] Nichols turned the [originally Gentile] families into Beverly Hills Jews and gave the part to Dustin Hoffman. (p.34)
  • [Bob Rafelson] was handsome in the Jewish way, a shock of dark brown hair over a high forehead, rosebud lips frozen in a permanent pout under a fighter’s battered nose. (p.53)
  • Director Henry Jaglom remembers [Bert Schneider] from Camp Kohut, for Jewish kids, in Oxford Maine…(p.55)
  • Bert and his princess Judy [Feinberg] were truly Jewish royalty. (p.56)
  • ‘These were people who didn’t feel authentic,’ says Toby [Carr]. ‘Artists suffer and upper-middle-class Jewish boys from New York didn’t feel they had…’ (p.58)
  • Evans, according to his number two, Peter Bart, ‘idolised gangsters, but he was fascinated by Jewish gangsters – Bugsy Siegel – not Italian ones’. (p.142)
  • Evans and Bart screened mob movies, realised they had all been written and directed by Jews (p.142)
  • Everyone who worked for [Charlie Bludhorn] was certain he was Jewish, but if so he took great pains to conceal it. (p.144)
  • Bart recalls, ‘We were in London together, going out for dinner. I picked Frank [Yablans] up in his room. He was finished dressing, looking at himself in the mirror, and he said, “You know, I’m a really ugly man, I’m a homely fat Jewish man.”‘ (p.145)
  • [Robert Towne and Roman Polanski bickering over Chinatown] ‘What’s her name?’ ‘No, it can’t be that, it’s too Jewish.’ ‘Who says it’s Jewish?’ (p.166)
  • [Transamerica bought the struggling studio United Artists.] ‘There was a lot of resentment because UA had had twelve, fifteen years of success, then the Jews had taken the goys for a fortune…’ (p.214)
  • According to Jennifer Nairn-Smith, ‘William [Friedkin] denied his whole background…He hated being Jewish. Think Yiddish, dress British.’ (p.220)
  • Says Friedkin, ‘If The Exorcist had previewed it would never have come out ’cause people would have written on their cards, “This is terrible, you have a little girl masturbating with a crucifix, you dirty Jewish bastard.”‘. (p.222)
  • [Verna Fields] was a large, warm lady with short brown hair and half glasses, hung on a string, perched on the tip of her nose. She was like a Jewish aunt, except that instead of talking gefilte fish recipes, she talked editing. (p.237)
  • Spielberg’s mother opened a kosher dairy restaurant in Beverly Hills, but her son avoided it. He disliked his stepfather, who was an Orthodox Jew.Some of his more Jewish-identified friends regarded him as a self-hating Jew. (p.331)
  • ‘Can you imagine Walt Disney turning over in his grave, just thinking about opening his doors to do business with a Jew!’ (p.371)

And Biskind also sprinkles the text with Jewish or Yiddish vocabulary. I had to look up terms like:

  • meshuggah (craziness, or a crazy person)
  • a macher = big shot, important person (p.39)
  • a gonif = a thief or dishonest person or scoundrel (p.101)
  • tsuris = aggravating troubles (p.111)
  • zoftig = [of a woman] a full, rounded figure, plump (p.132)
  • a pisher = a neophyte, somebody new to a job (p.152)
  • a mensch = a person of integrity and honour
  • a nebbish = pitiful, ineffectual man (p.239)
  • a shiksa = a Gentile woman, often blonde and bosomy
  • kibitzing = chatting informally (p.284)
  • shtick = a person’s routine, talent or area of interest (p.287)
  • mishegoss = craziness; senseless behaviour or activity (p.319)
  • alter cockers = older generation, granddads (p.413)

Why does Biskind dwell on the Jewish origins of his characters, and litter the text with Yiddish idioms? I don’t know and I don’t much care, but I found it a persistent and intriguing aspect of the book.

And it added piquancy to one of the promotional quotes on the back cover, from the critic of the Spectator magazine who described Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as having ‘the most dislikeable cast of characters since William S. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’.

That’s a brilliantly insulting quote, but it’s given added – and, I assume, unwitting – undertones by the Jewish flavour of a lot of the text.


Women in Hollywood

1. Husbands dumping their wives

  • Director William Friedkin lived as man and wife with partner Jennifer Nairns-Smith for three years until she announced she was pregnant. When she had the baby, in November 1976, he dumped her (p.311)
  • Martin Scorsese had a relationship with writer Julia Cameron and got her pregnant. During the filming of his musical New York, New York Scorsese started an affair with star Lisa Minnelli. When Cameron had his baby, he dumped her (p.326)

Just a few flagrant examples of the way these powerful, egotistical men treated their women. And the hundreds of examples of the everyday sexist attitudes of all the men on display are far too many to quote.

#metoo

This book was published in 1998, almost twenty years before the outing of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the #metoo social media campaign.

What puzzled me about #metoo was that it seemed to come as a shock and a surprise to so many people. Hadn’t they read this book – which catalogues the appalling way most women were treated by powerful men in Hollywood throughout the 1970s (and into the 1980s)? Or its sequel, Down and Dirty Pictures, published in 2004, which chronicles the appalling behaviour of, yes, the exact same Harvey Weinstein? Or any of the hundreds of other exposés of Hollywood’s ‘dark underbelly’? Wasn’t the exploitation of a lot of the women who worked there a core part of most people’s vague impression of Hollywood?

When I was a kid I read books about the silent movie starts which chronicled the ‘scandalous’ sexual behaviour of the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks and the outrageous incident of Fatty Arbuckle and the wine bottle. When I was only 12 or 13 I read David Niven’s memoirs of Hollywood, which revolved around sex, especially when he shared a house with Errol Flynn.

From hundreds of references, articles, jokes, on TV, in novels and biographies, I acquired a solid impression of Hollywood as a Sodom and Gomorrah of know-nothing executives ranting, of preening stars making impossible demands, and dictatorial directors reducing their leading ladies to tears; of wild parties, booze and drugs and shameful, disgraceful behaviour.

And a key part of this lurid mythology was the widespread cliché about ‘the casting couch’ and how generations of leading ladies had had to screw or give blow jobs to all manner of directors and execs in order to get jobs. Hadn’t people read about the sexual humiliations Marilyn Monroe had to put herself through before she ended up killing herself, stories which have been repeated in umpteen documentaries and sensationalising biographies.

My point being, I thought that the sexual harassment and abuse of women in Hollywood was common knowledge and one of the most basic aspects of anyone’s mental image of Tinseltown.

‘In Hollywood men put enormous pressure on women to fuck them, even if it’s only once. It’s like the dog that pisses on the lamppost, even if it’s only once. They want that kind of connection and then maybe they can relax.’ (Actress Beverley Walker, quoted on p.234)

It seems that the #metoo revelations about Harvey Weinstein took place when a handful of brave women decided to finally stand up to the climate of fear which Weinstein and others like him were able to exert over Hollywood’s female population. And it struck such a nerve because it turned out that millions of women in not just film but all kinds of other industries, and not just in America, but around the world, had had to, and were continuing to have to, put up with outrageously exploitative, bullying behaviour from men in power.

All well and good. I wholeheartedly support the #metoo movement and all its goals. I’m just bemused by the way so much of this information was already out there. It suggests something about books like Biskind’s – that they can be bestsellers, widely read and reviewed and yet… somehow, not change anything.

It points towards the difference between static channels like books, and even magazine or newspaper reports – and the much more dynamic medium of twitter, where what are, in essence, the same kind of accusations, could go viral very quickly and create momentum, create a movement.

There’s a lot more to be said on these issues, #metoo and the (in)effectiveness of books to change anything, but I thought it was worth recording a few thoughts here.

3. Strong women

Meanwhile, Biskind does make the point that not all the women are downtrodden wives and bimbo girlfriends; that there were some very strong, achieveful women in the Hollywood of the time. One of the most striking gossip-type facts to emerge was the important role played by their partners in both Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson’s early successes.

Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, was a production designer but all accounts have her intimately involved with the actual directing of his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, sitting beside his director’s chair, discussing shots. He dumped her to begin his infatuated affair with Cybill Shepherd, and never made such a good film again.

Similarly, Bob Rafelson’s wife, Toby Rafelson was also a production designer, and had a big impact on his early masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces. After his womanising and drug-taking drove her away, Rafelson never made a good movie again (a point made by actress Ellen Burstyn, quoted on page 273).

There were also a number of notable women film editors.

Verna Fields edited Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc? but really made her reputation co-editing American Graffiti and then almost single-handedly saving Jaws, whose rushes were an epic mess (and for which she won an Oscar).

Marcia Lucas, George’s wife, also had an editing role on American Graffiti,then cut Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, New York New York and – seismically – Star Wars.

(It’s worth noting that Woody Allen – who doesn’t feature much in the book, being neither a New Hollywood rebel or a New Blockbuster mogul – has always used woman editors, Susan E. Morse 1977-98, Alisa Lepselter from then to the present.)

I don’t want to just repeat the outrageous attitude of most of the men in the Hollywood of that era, but also want to put on record the achievement of strong, talented women who managed to survive and thrive in it.

A craft, not an art

I use the term ‘movies’ throughout this blog to describe the way American films are, ultimately, products of American hyper-consumer capitalism and not works of art.

I myself have worked as a television producer/director, directing about a dozen commercial videos, and have also hired and employed very talented TV directors for a period of six years (1994 to 2000). I’ve worked very closely with producers, directors and editors (in television).

Granted, TV is not the same as film. But these experience are the basis of my opinion that film is a craft and not an art. Some people in these areas really are amazing, genius craftsmen and women. But, in my opinion, to call it an ‘art form’ is ludicrous – specially when you read scene after scene of blustering, know-nothing executives shouting and yelling about who or what they insist is in the movie, when you read how many ‘great’ movies were in fact bodged and botched and stitched together out of ramshackle compromises, deals, bankruptcies, disagreements, technical and logistical disasters.

As a small example, I was struck by the fact that producer Philip D’Antoni told William Friedkin, director of 1971’s The French Connection, that part of what had made Steve McQueen’s 1968 classic, Bullitt, so great was the epic car chase, so he should put a car chase into Connection. So Friedkin did (p.204). It’s a great car chase, a really brilliant car chase. But it’s not ‘art’.

Similarly, I hadn’t realised that the actual filming of Jaws had been such an epic catastrophe, taking three times as long, and costing three times as much, as budgeted. The script wasn’t finished when they began filming, so many of the scenes were improvised in the evening in Spielberg’s hotel room, with the scriptwriter, Carl Gottlieb, jotting down the best bits – and then filming these ad-libbed scenes the next day.

They made three giant plastic model sharks, but one sank and the others looked terrible, and so it was only because of the accidental fact of their ridiculous look and impact in the early filming that led Spielberg (or others, depends whose story you believe) to completely rethink the script and re-edit the movie so that the shark rarely appears until the end – thus you don’t see it in the first half of the film, which, combined with the brilliant music by John Williams, makes its unseen menace infinitely more threatening and scarey.

Most of the movies described here involved similar amounts of chaos, bad planning, script crises, changes of mind or emphasis, random elements chucked in at the last minute, the studio insisting on reshoots or re-editing the whole thing, and so on and so on.

That’s not art. It’s a shambles. It comes as a shock to learn that Spielberg, at one point, suggested that, at the climax of Jaws, after Chief Brody has blown up the shark and been reunited with Dreyfuss and as they paddle towards the shore, that, in a black joke, they see a fleet of shark’s fins appear on the horizon heading towards them!

‘Art’ is an excuse

Here’s another way of thinking about the ‘Is film an art?’ question.

It’s an excuse. A lot of these people behaved appallingly, not so much the obvious sexism and getting drunk and hitting people, but the shouting at everyone, the bullying coercive behaviour, the exploitation of young women, ripping everyone off, sacking people arbitrarily, using people’s life stories without crediting them, using their ideas, scripts and stories without credit, stabbing their business partners in the back – the book is an awesome catalogue of despicable behaviour.

And their justification? “It’s art. I’m making great art. I am a great artist.”

So all this ‘art’ talk can easily be reinterpreted as an excuse to justify monstrous egotism and abusive behaviour. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls contains more than enough examples of the jaw-dropping egotism, selfishness and the brutal mistreatment of women by some of cinema’s greatest ‘artists’ to wither and kill your opinions of them forever.

(It also kills your respect for ‘film critics’, people employed to suck up to monsters and overlook their abusive behaviour in the name of promoting their ‘art’ — and for ‘film studies’ academics, trying to persuade their students that these hugely compromised products of consumer capitalism are some kind of ‘art form’. Films can be very well crafted – having produced and directed broadcast TV I understand that very well, and how you can take to pieces all aspects of a script, of the techniques of direction, framing, lighting, editing and sound mixing a movie, yes. But that doesn’t make Jaws or Star Wars, let alone Rocky or Finding Nemo or Home Alone 2, works of art. They’re just very well-crafted products designed to be consumed by a mass audience and as nakedly intended to generate profits for their investors as MacDonalds chicken nuggets or a Samsung Galaxy.)

Pictures, not movies

I use the term ‘movies’ to indicate the blunt fact that movies’ are products of American hyper-capitalism, and deliberately don’t talk about ‘film’ or ‘films’ as this is what pretentious ‘film studies’ people say when they start talking about auteurs and ‘artistic vision’.

So it was interesting to realise that everyone in this book, including Biskind, refers to movies as ‘pictures’ – as in the title of the memoirs of über-producer, Robert Evans, The Kid Stays In The Picture, or the obvious fact that the Academy Award each year goes to ‘Best Picture’. Everyone in the business, including Biskind, seems to call them ‘pictures’, not films or movies. Pictures.

And that reminds me of a story which Oscar-winning producer Sam Spiegel tells in his autobiography about an earlier era, about the time when director Elia Kazan had made his first Hollywood movie, and the studio liked it but, after the screening, a studio executive took Kazan aside and told him he had to change his name to something less ethnic. ‘How about Cézanne?’

Kazan was appalled. ‘But Cézanne was a great artist, I couldn’t possibly compete.’

‘Nah,’ says the executive. ‘You make one good picture, everyone’ll forget the other guy.’

Credit

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind was published in 1998 in America by Simon & Schuster. All references are to the 1999 Bloomsbury paperback edition.

Tim Page’s Nam (1983)

No one was really sane, everyone on the point of a total numb shock, of hysteria, a madness that shrinks have only now begun to diagnose. (p.98)

The times

Page is a legendary figure about whom legends were weaved during the climactic years of a war which itself became the stuff of legends, during the legendary 1960s.

I read Michael Herr’s book of journalism from the war, Despatches, which features Page as a central character, when it came out (1977), and bought this book when it was new in 1983. I saw The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) in cinemas when they were released, and in 1980 went hitch-hiking across the USA, getting a long lift through the mid-West from a Vietnam vet who’d had a leg amputated and was stoned all the time. In Boston I hung out with a would-be rock band which featured ‘Weird Ira’ (on bass) and ‘Angry George’ (on frantic guitar), both very fucked-up Vietnam veterans, who lived in a permanent blur of drugs I’d never heard of.

That whole milieu, its culture of ‘dropping out’, drifting through casual jobs, insubordination to all authority, growing long hair, festooning yourself in beads and bangles, smoking dope, popping mandies or quaaludes or snorting speed – it all seems a long, long time ago. Another world.

The biography

In the early 1960s Page left his boring life in Orpington, a suburb of London, and made his way across Asia to Indochina, where he got aid-related jobs in Laos and taught himself photography by the age of 18. He was lucky enough to be in Laos during a coup and took photos which he was able to sell to news agencies. Then he moved across the border to Vietnam, just as the US army presence was ramping up from 1965 onwards, and as he turned 20.

Page began ‘stringing’, working freelance for whichever agencies would buy his pictures. He had survived a motorbike crash a few years earlier, and considering himself living on ‘free time’, took risks and went to places other photographers refused. He established a base in ‘Frankie’s House’, a bar-cum-hotel-cum brothel, with other western journalists and formed a close friendship with fellow photographer Sean Flynn – son of Hollywood megastar Errol. Their escapades formed the basis of a TV mini-series, Frankie’s House, broadcast in 1992.

Page’s colour and b&w photos from 1965 onwards capture all aspects of the war, military and civilian, with a raw immediacy which got them placed in news magazines especially Time-Life. He was wounded four times – the last time, in April 1969, when a soldier stepping out of a landing helicopter ahead of him trod on a mine, which blew his legs off. Page, right behind him, received a 2-inch piece of hot shrapnel in the head. He was considered dead at the scene but choppered back to the hospital, where they discovered he was alive. He was moved on to a series of hospitals back in the States where they removed part of his brain the size of an orange and stuck his skull back together.

Initially paralysed down his left side, Page slowly regained full movement, but his war days were over. He worked for a while rehabilitating other wounded and PTSD soldiers, before returning to work as a photographer for rock magazines in the 1970s. I remember finding out who Page was from a downbeat BBC ‘Arena’ documentary about him broadcast in 1979. I vividly remember him saying that these days he spent a lot of the time getting stoned and masturbating. Even then it felt like the notion that getting stoned and being ‘shockingly’ candid about sex would change anything (as they seemed to believe in the heady 1960s) was long out of date.

Tim Page’s Nam

It’s a large format book from the art publishers Thames and Hudson. Its 120 pages are divided into seven sections:

  • Chopper blitzkrieg
  • Portraits
  • The mechanics
  • Rock and roll flash
  • CV of carriers
  • Sufferings
  • The Dao of peace

A selection of images from the book is available on Page’s website.

Tim Page Nam photos

Blurbs on the back and online talk about the images’ ability to shock – but do they? It’s fifty years since many of these photos were taken, during which we have had plenty of shocking images – and even more shocking movies – depicting the killing fields of Cambodia, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War (with those images of skeletons in tanks on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait), anarchy in Somalia, the massacres in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, the American-Afghan war, the war in Iraq, and now the rise of ISIS.

We have drunk deep of horrors on TV and the press, made all the more ghastly by the CGI-enhanced violence of Saving Private RyanBand of Brothers and the hundreds of subsequent movies which have copied their terrifyingly realistic depiction of the effects of modern weapons on the vulnerable human body.

The work

For me the immense cloud of legendariness, and the repeated telling of Page’s wildness and his injuries and the brain surgery and paralysis, tend to show that people find it easier to talk and write about the biography of an artist, than about their work.

The most obvious thing about the work is its copiousness. He took a lot of photos, of everything he saw. And he went to dangerous places where other photographers didn’t venture – out on patrol with the GIs and flying all over in the choppers, as well as trips out to the huge aircraft carriers, and in patrol boats. As well as being alert to everyday scenes, particularly of Vietnamese civilians. So Page’s work demonstrates great copiousness and an impressive variety of subject matter.

Next there’s a variety of styles. Nothing is staged in a studio, but, at a formal level, some of the portraits of soldiers or civilians are carefully posed and framed. At the other extreme, he catches images of people in the street or in crowds, blurred, in action, just as he catches unrepeatable moments of choppers taking off or landing. There is a genre of ‘photos of the injured’ along with ‘photos of the dead’.

These people shots are the ones I think the critics are referring to when they write of ‘shocking’, ‘realistic’ and ‘brutal’ images of war. But it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous beauty of many of his photos, where the composition, framing and colour all combine to produce visual images as composed and complete as any painting. Especially featuring machinery – there’s a sequence of an Australian artillery piece where the contrast between the muscular men’s bodies and shining metal is beautiful. The helicopters played a key role in the war, and all the photos taken from choppers give a serendipitous frame and structure to the images.

I will always think that they make a great camera platform, but a better frame… (p.21)

So if you set aside the fact that it was a somewhat violent conflict, to a photographer the Vietnam War provided an enormous range of human situations, of types of human – soldiers, civilians, peasants, urbanites, the young and fit, the old and fearful, the dead – of intense or incongruous situations, and an enormous variety of ways human interact with beautifully-designed modern machinery – steering, guiding, flying, aiming, shooting – a really broad range of 20th-century Homo sapiens.

Some types of photos

The prose

Each of the sections is introduced by a page or two of prose. They’re made of stream of consciousness sentences, running to numerous clauses, listing equipment, feelings, impressions, studded with military jargon and acronyms.

A Delta day at 105 in the shade, 90 humidity pre-monsoon, when the air can be carved with a machete; extracting up out of 12.7 range, the airconditioned luxury of 1500 feet is truly magic, a whirl towards the PX normalcy, a sense of security after the endless plod humping 20 keys of gear through the bad dream (p.17)

The aim is to create a stoned overload of sense impressions threaded with knowing references to military hardware, and all radiating a strong sense of insiderness.

On the black you could get a hot chopper, a can of Cs or a PBR that fell of the back of a truck on the way to the front. (p.42)

Can you dig it, man? Page’s prose screams out, ‘We were there, nobody explained anything or took any pity on us, and so you readers are just going to have to work out for yourself what I’m talking about.’ The continual deployment of GI jargon maintains the author’s superior cool.

Sitting in the door gunner’s seat in a Huey fragged by PIOs of the 25th Div, getting lost over Charlie’s turf up by the Fish Hook and watching those blue-green tracers of 12.7s hover towards you… (p.21)

Don’t know what a Huey is, or the 25th Div, a PIO or a 12.7? Who Charlie is? Where the Fish Hook is? Come on, newbie, keep up!

There’s no map because you’re expected to know where all these places are, as you’re expected to know so much else. Meanwhile, have a puff of this and enjoy Page’s helter-skelter of quick intense impressions, sketches of:

… field trips, scout tracks, refuelling in the monsoon, more GIs voting for noone, Ranger advisers deep in the Plaines des Joncs on assignment for Match, black machine-gunners stoned and leech-infested south of Saigon, and LURP deer-hunter look-alikes in the Michelin sorting out Victor Charlie for Georgie Patton Junior’s 11th Armoured cav, tank drivers boring at you out of their steel hutches, the black dude from Force recon after a week out there, legs, officers, corpsmen, ARVN, ROKs, the whole lot a kaleidoscope of survivors, dead or alive. (p.32)

What comes over is how much he loved it, the glamour and excitement and fear and stylishness of it all:

So many of the lethal gadgets had a pure and simple sexiness, the romance of power over life, ego-saving, black and white decisive life and death, the ultimate blast, the final wave on the best-equipped board in the surf. I am not sure if most, even in the depth of the soul-searching hawk and dove debates, really weren’t out there mainly for the hell of it, for the kicks, the fun, the brush with all that was most evil, most dear, most profane… the camaraderie, the sheer adventure of it all, were the biggest isms that could ever frag our hearts and minds. (p.51)

This is what so many anti-war campaigners find hard to understand or underestimate – that for some men, war is the most intense experience available, that it feeds and fulfils something deep in their souls. And even the calm, polite, gentlemanly men among us, many even of them from time to time fantasise and imagine themselves into warlike situations to live out those animal needs, urges and drives. Wars happen because men like fighting.

There are disappointingly few references to the actual craft and art of photography. It would be good to have a page explaining which cameras he used for different subjects, and which lenses, and why, and with what results. Nope. Maybe there’s more about this in his autobiography. The prose here isn’t explanatory; it is designed to replicate the immediacy and confusion captured in so many of the photos. Thus the camera doesn’t appear here as the tool of a trade, but as a psychological technique:

The camera became a filter to the madness and horror, a means of portraying it…It was a passport to witness the most insane events man can put together… There was too much to shoot. Too many frames to be made. No time to do it… (p.86)

Conclusion

If you’re happy to swing with the insider argot and submit to the bombardment of sense impressions, Page’s prose is immensely enjoyable, and the pictures – the more you look at them – the more they not only convey with force the place and time and people, but also say something else, about the man’s eye, and technical ability, and range of seeing. From the formally framed to the chaotic, he finds the core. It is the consistency with which he caught ‘frames’ in all kinds of situations, which builds up a tremendous sense of artistry and instinct.

You learn absolutely nothing about the origins, history, key events, strategy, geopolitics and diplomacy, battles or outcome of the war. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

The 1979 Arena documentary

Related links

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after Captains Courageous was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’‘ began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the Barrack Room Ballads in 1892.)

The Nigger is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang which is almost unreadable:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, through doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear. (Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception – the horror of existence. The word ‘horror’ is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though this is never made explicit).

Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying.

I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, Heart of Darkness, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as Heart of Darkness, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, Stalky and Co., learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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