Saturday, January 28, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.10: John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King/Wise Blood

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King.

Grade: 92 (A)

The Man Who Would Be King was one of John Huston’s dream projects. Originally conceived in the mid-1950s, it would have starred Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable as a pair of British soldiers (back at a time when this sort of thing was commonplace in Hollywood). When Bogart and Gable died, Huston then focused on Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. In the 70s, Huston’s eye shifted to Paul Newman (a two-time collaborator on the acclaimed The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and the execrable The Mackintosh Man) and Robert Redford. But these were new times, and a new verisimilitude came with New Hollywood. Newman saw this and suggested Huston cast Michael Caine and Sean Connery. The result was two of the actors’ best performances, and one of Huston’s very finest films.

Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Connery) are a pair of ex-British soldiers in late-19th century British India. Carnehan and Dravot have decided that India is far too small for men of their ambition. As told to English reporter and fellow Freemason Kipling (Christopher Plummer), their plans are to travel to the land of Kafiristan (modern day Afghanistan), conquer the land, and become as rich as kings. Kipling thinks the two are mad, but he gives them his Freemason emblem as a sign of good will. Their journey is perilous, but the two come upon their goal, organizing the people into an army against marauders and conquering the land…until everything goes wrong.

Huston always said casting was the greatest element of his directing, and he casts the roles perfectly here. Plummer as Kipling (modeled after Rudyard Kipling, the original author of the short story) takes a minor role and invests it with enough weight that it doesn’t feel superfluous. The character’s greatest purpose is in the film’s ingenuous framing device: Peachy arrives at Kipling’s office, ragged, dirty, and half-crazed. Kipling barely recognizes his old acquaintance, and becomes a confidant to Peachy, who tells the tale of how everything went wrong. A potential sour note, Huston makes it seem essential enough that it ends up being another part of strong storytelling.

Caine and Connery are ideal here: the two have terrific chemistry, and they bring effortless charm and charisma with their personas. In a way, it’s easy to see them as the British Bogart and Gable. Caine, with his sardonic wit and outsider status, seems a good fit for Bogart’s role, while Connery, with his rugged good looks and suave charm, is perfect for Gable’s. It counts that the two bring their likability to the roles, as well: Peachy and Danny aren’t the nicest people. Peachy is shown in an early scene mistreating an Indian, and the two miss no opportunity to rip off superstitious villages. Not to mention that they seek riches and power over a people and bring their British arrogance everywhere they go. Yet we like them all the same, because c’mon, they’re Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

Huston was always a master of bringing the particulars of a location to life on screen, but he’s working on a completely different level here. It seems that David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia inspired Huston to focus on aspects of Indian life and culture the way Lean did with his feature. So often the film takes time to bask in the color and wonder of the culture and the land, leading to an engrossing experience. The film feels closer to reality, however, as Huston seems to have also taken cues from the New Hollywood movement, with meticulous focus on detail and verisimilitude not unlike what Scorsese or Friedkin did in their portraits of New York. Huston also focuses on Indian rituals in a fashion worthy of Coppola’s wedding scenes in The Godfather. The film is so full of life that the interludes of Indian custom are almost more thrilling as the battle sequences and character moments. This is not to say that Huston’s penchant for brisk pacing is gone, however: even at 129 minutes, the director keeps things moving so that the film’s scope never seems bloated. It’s a matter of taking old-school craftsmanship and adding in New Hollywood flavor. Michael Caine perhaps best described Huston’s method when he compared other directors using cameras like machine guns, where Huston used a camera as precisely as a sniper.

The Man Who Would Be King features another of Huston’s classic doomed quests in Peachy and Danny’s quest for glory; in this case, the quest is hardly noble. The two want riches, fame, and power, and they don’t care how they get it. They bring their British arrogance wherever they go, disrespecting the locals and often sneering at customs they find barbaric. They’ve come to conquer, never mind the warning that the land is impossible to hold (I recall Russia having some trouble in the 80s, America in the 2000s) and has only been conquered once, by Alexander the Great (more on that later). They’re British men, damn it, and they feel no need to respect or fully understand the law of the land, and when they do, they do so only to gain a leg up. It’s a stunning portrait of imperialism and its dangers (the two don’t do so well in the end) hidden in a rousing swashbuckling story. That’s part of Huston’s genius: he takes a story from pro-imperialist Rudyard Kipling and completely subverts it, all while crafting a satisfying adventure.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: Luck plays a good deal in Peachy and Danny’s fortunes, and here’s where Huston’s wry sense of humor comes in. When the two travel the snowy mountains, all seems lost as they come upon a gorge. They build a campfire and sing classic British military songs around it, only to cause an avalanche that fills the gorge. Later, when an arrow strikes Danny and is stopped by a bandolier under his clothing, the Indians interpret it as a sign that he is a god. When a high priest doubts it and moves to kill him, he finds the Freemason emblem given to Danny by Kipling. This emblem was used by Alexander the Great, and the priest takes it as a sign that Danny is the long promised son of the god Sikhander (or “Alexander”). Danny is made king, and Huston gets a lot of mileage out of framing Connery above the rest of the world. All good things come to an end though: Danny abuses his power, and his luck turns against him and Peachy. When he takes a human wife against the will of the priests (it is not proper for a god to marry a human), she draws blood from him out of fear, proving he is not a god. From there, it’s all downhill.

With The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston proved himself a still vital director in a world full of young upstarts conquering Hollywood. It was his last true adventure film, a fitting end to the films that made his name. The director’s next film, Wise Blood, would feature another quest of sorts, but a far less literal one. Adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Huston’s adaptation does away with the source’s Southern Gothic trappings in favor of a direct, modern day story of a man on a doomed mission.

Grade: 80 (B+)

Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) has had a difficult life. His grandfather, a preacher, used Motes as a prop for his sermon. He has just returned from war (WWII in the novel, likely Vietnam in the film). Motes tosses his service uniform in favor of a preacher’s suit; but Motes is quick to point out that he’s no preacher. In fact, he doesn’t believe in anything, and he’s leaving for the city to “do some things he’s never done before”. After a run-in with blind preacher Asa (Harry Dean Stanton) and his crazy daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), Motes comes up with an idea: a new movement, a “Church without Christ”, to do away with all the trappings of religion and false prophets.

Wise Blood follows Huston’s typically economical template. Informed by its Southern location, the film is in no hurry, but there’s no mistaking its deliberate pace for dead air. The story zips along at a spry 108 minutes even as Huston allows the characters to take their time to act. Huston’s strong sense of place is also in effect:  Motes returns from the war to find the ruins of his hometown. The small town South has been left behind in the tumultuous decades, its dilapidated homes the skeleton of a world that refused to move on from old traditions. The city of Taulkinham isn’t much better. From the beginning, we know where we are and what the dynamics of the town are. Add in Huston’s mastery of feeling the space of relationships for an even stronger brew: Dourif’s reedy protagonist overpowers and enchants listeners, but there’s a limit to his power. Something as simple as a more confident man on a higher plane can overshadow him. All of the sudden, Motes’ journey to liberate the town from old habits, even one as central as religion, seems outright noble.

Is Motes’ journey noble? It’s important to consider the perspectives of both writer and director. O’Connor was a Catholic in the Protestant South, and her stories contain religious fanatics and hypocrites (many eccentric Southern religious types in art are influenced by O’Connor’s writings). As director, Huston’s agnostic viewpoint wins out: Motes isn’t fighting merely against fanaticism, but against faith in the unproven in general, and his doubts and struggles with his faith are mostly thrown aside. The result is an even less hopeful ending; Motes’ journey ends not with the possibility of redemption, but with outright failure.

And how could it not? Huston’s films often see religion as a fantasy to be overcome, with real love and real values as a focus. Wise Blood is no different, but O’Connor’s Southern grotesques remain. Shortly before blind preacher Asa and his daughter Sabbath Lily arrive, Motes finds a con man selling a novelty product on the street. It’s an apt comparison: Asa isn’t really blind, but a con man appealing to Southern faith and gullibility. Lily’s lust for Motes in an earlier scene starts to make more sense when it turns out she’s no preacher’s daughter.

There’s an even bigger swindler in Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty, a false preacher and crass businessman for the second time after Network). Shoats interrupts Motes’ anti-sermon with an antireligious stance of his own. He doesn’t believe in a thing he’s saying, but he’s got experience in fooling people, and he knows a good thing when he sees one. Soon enough he’s the one everyone’s listening to. It doesn’t help that Motes is wild-eyed and easily flustered (Dourif is perfectly cast here), or that his most devoted disciple, Enoch (Dan Shor), is a dim man-child obsessed with “clean, wise blood” who takes Motes’ call to replace Jesus as a literal search for a new idol.

Here’s where Huston’s wry sense of humor comes in; Wise Blood could be a shrill satire of modern religion, but instead it’s a dryly funny drama that never overplays the carnival sideshow element of Southern preachers. From the beginning, Brad Dourif’s conversations with the local yokels gives a clear sense of the dynamic between the crazed but purposeful Motes and the everyday people. A typical exchange: “I don’t believe in anything.” “Well that’s the problem with you preachers, you’ve all gotten too damn good to believe in anything.”

Huston falters a bit when he brings broad comedy in a strange subplot involving Enoch’s interest in a traveling ape. When it turns out that the ape is a man in a suit (another sideshow), Enoch kills the man and takes his suit to greet an elderly couple. What was no doubt unsettling in the novel is played too broad and too goofy here; it’s one of the film’s handful of bizarre shifts in tone. Alex North’s rustic score also gives way to a distracting oddball gleefulness.

These are small complaints, however, to an otherwise strong showing. Huston’s film deals with an important topic: religious nuts and those who swindle him. It was 1979, and the decade of televangelism was upon America, not to mention the rise of new religions (see: Scientology). Huston’s films often had a strong sense of prescience, and Wise Blood is no exception. It’s a typical Huston tale: a man struggles to do right in the world, only to find that he didn’t know all of the angles.

No comments:

Post a Comment