1975, the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative which to put in movie terms is like in Star Wars Episode I when Palpatine became leader of the Senate.
Anyway, back then we didn’t know the total tyranny we’d taken a step towards and instead could enjoy an awesome year of movies. Some of them didn’t even have a giant Shark (see last issue when I unashamedly go down on the greatest movie of all time).
So as always, I pick three films that I adore from one year and meant something to me. I also pick a WTF? moment highlighting something dated, weird, inappropriate or maybe even God awful from movies of that year.
The Man Who Would Be King
The Man who Would be King is one of those movies that while I can’t recall the first time I saw it exactly, I do know I was young enough to have a bedtime as I remember my parents allowing me to stay up a little extra to see how the film ended. Spoilers: the ending was so sad and downbeat I was probably traumatised, but then again most movies I saw as a kid ended on a downer which probably shaped my fatalistic attitude to life. Cheers 70’s movies.
I’m not surprised I was eager to stay up though. Man who would be King is a fun romp of a movie, an adventure film of British scoundels, comedy and some scary arse religious monks. It also featured a team up of epic proportions, with Sean Connery who I knew from James Bond and Michael Caine who I knew from pretty much nearly every other movie I seemed to watch at the time (just check out how many times Mr Caine has popped up in my previous Couchzone instalments).
Now there are those who may cruelly claim that neither actor hold a massive range when it comes to their acting performances (there is an argument they’re using the same tone and voice in most of their roles), what such appraisal misses is that both exhume an absolute rainbow of charisma. In this film that charisma from both gels together in a display of natural chemistry, forming a partnership that would carry any movie.
The Man who would be King was a film some twenty years in the making as director John Huston had orginally wanted to make it in the 50’s with another mouthwatering team up in Humprey Bogarde and Clarke Gable. Throughout the years other incredible pairings were considered, such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole and Robert Redford and Paul Newman. With Caine and Connery it finally got made to tell the story of two former British army Sergents in the late 19th Century who set out to swindle their way through adventures in India and Afghanistan where they intended to act as mercenaries for local warlords with an eye to backstabbing and overthrowing their employees.
While fighting in the service of one such Chief, Connery is struck by an arrow and when he emerges from the incident without a scratch (by chance the arrow gets stuck in his uniform and never pierces his skin) he’s taken to be a God by the natives. The duo exploit this to build up their own army of followers and become a powerbase in the region. However their fame attracts the attention of a religious order which leads to complications as Connery begins to believe his own mythology.
It’s a fun adventure romp, with shades of the Flashman novels in it’s portrayal of British scoundrels pursuing their own private Imperial conquest in the Middle East. There’s action, scheming and above all comradeship and brotherhood with Caine and Connery bantering so well together. They are an endearing double act mixing tons of macho adventuring with some truly touching moments of friendship and with an ending that is sure to bring that film dust to the eye.
Monty Python’s The Holy Grail
I was doomed as a kid. Not only did my Dad apparently play Pink Floyd’s Animals LP at full blast when I was in my cot as a baby, he also introduced me to his own warped comedy tastes at a young age by sitting me down to watch reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus with him. My loner status as a kid on the playground was forever worsened when I tried and failed to convince my classmates that banging a dead parrot on a table and screaming in it’s ear was really funny.
Naturally when we got our state of the art Betamax Video recorder in the early eighties, one of the first video tapes we rented from the shop in the dodgy side of town was a Monty Python movie. I was considered too young for Life Of Brian (not because of the blasphemy controversy but because of it’s liberal use of the F-Word, always a no-no in our household and a sure way to get a tape ejected mid film), however Holy Grail was considered safe for a ten year old despite it featuring one of the most violent comedy scenes in movies ever.
I speak of course of the fight scene between Graham Chapman’s King Arthur and John Cleese’s indestructible Black Knight. As a kid I loved it and found it hysterically as the dramatic sword fight degenerates into farce as the Black Knight loses limb after limb while Chapman lets slip his Royal manner in frustration at his opponents refusal to coincide.
I giggled uncontrollable as Chapman walks away from the Black Knight who now has only blood spurting from where his arms were severed but continues to goad the King with kicks. “Look you stupid Bastard you’ve got no arms left!” Chapman screams with exasperation before cutting off the Knight’s legs. It’s just one of many splendid scenes in Holy Grail, a spoof on the King Arthur and Camelot legend, as Chapman recruits his knights of the round table and sets off on a Holy crusade to find the Grail, resulting in a series of sketch like adventures.
There are some truly iconic scenes. From Chapman’s argument with Michael Palin’s Socialist peasant farmer (“Come and see the violence inherit in the system!”) , the Trial of a witch (“She turned me into a Newt….I got better”), John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot violently storming a peaceful wedding celebration and slaughtering the guests to an argument over taking a still living plague victim on the death cart, the film is filled funny situations and infectiously quotable one liners and monologues. All the while there is the ongoing gag of the knights pretending to ride horses with a servant clapping together coconut shells to simulate the clip clop of horses hoofs (this in itself was a way to cut costs and avoid the expense of using actual horses).
Transferring the humour of Monty Python into a film that is accessible to general audiences is a remarkable achievement. While I think Life of Brian is better and consistently funnier film, Holy Grail is more true to the Python style with a surreal “you get it or you don’t” sense of humour and an anarchistic tone that plays around with film conventions in the same way Flying Circus did with television (such as when the knights are saved from a giant creature when the artist animating him has a heart attack). Holy Grail even takes breaks to showcase Terry Gilliam’s iconic animation pieces.
Narrative wise, Holy Grail is a collection of sketches loosely connected to the story of a quest. Most of the time the indivdual scenes are great but for me Holy Grail has moments that don’t quite hit, particularly in the second half of the film. The much quoted Knights who say Ni always left me cold, as did the subsequent hunt for a shrubbery. Likewise an encounter with a three headed knight really goes nowhere. However the film manages to turn things around late on with a hilarious battle with a little white rabbit and a epic final battle charge that is interrupted by the police who are hunting for the murderers of a historian making a documentary on King Arthur and who bring the film to a sudden halt.
Monty Python helped to launch the directing career of Terry Gilliam who had a real baptism of fire on the set. He had to deal with leading man Graham Chapman’s anxiety and alcoholism, as well as the transition of the Monty Python team’s anarchistic approach to comedy from television to the world of film, something they were totally inexperienced in. Gilliam also clashed with co director Terry Jones and tensions would run high on the production with the cast having to suffer the harsh, wet Scottish climate while wearing chainmail and finding little comfort when filming ended for the day as the accommodation provided were dirt poor in keeping with the low budget available. In truth the Python’s didn’t know what they were doing with regards to film and this rock n roll approach was further cemented by much of the funding derived from rock stars Elton John, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Of all the members in their solo careers, it’s Gilliam who seems to have kept with the spirit of Monty Python in his movies.
Holy Grail is one of the best things the Python team ever did together and always crops on on top ten best comedy lists, surprisingly on both sides of the Atlantic (I was always surprised that the Python’s has a following in the US) although it’s always placed lower than the Life of Brian. But it shouldn’t languish in the shadow of it’s stablemate, because in it’s own way in the scenes when it hits the right note, Holy Grail is just as funny a film.
Rocky Horror Picture Show
I would like, If I may, to recount the story of a young man and his first encounter with a film called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was a film watching experience he would not forget for a very long time.
I’m not sure that any film has ever proved as big a shock to my system, but in a pleasing way, more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was introduced to the film when I was a student by one of my housemates. She was such an avid fan that her copy of it was a VHS rental, her prize possession obtained by making the video shop owners an offer to part with it. This being in the days when owning an actual original tape was quite the rarity.
My first viewing was startling to say the least. Growing up in a tough, working class, industrial town and never having even met anyone who was openly gay when I left town to study at the oh so distinguished institute of Crewe and Alsager College (we beat Oxford in the boat race final one year, honest) meant the concepts of unbridled camp and gender bending on display were totally alien to me. In fact as I write this I realise that in many ways I was as innocent and sheltered as Brad and Janet, those straight laced lives are changed forever when their car breaks down outside a secluded mansion and are forced to spend the night surrounded by flamboyant and sexually adventurous aliens.
I certainly shared their stunned, wide eyed expressions shortly after the frantic and enjoyable rendition of Timewarp (I’d drunkenly danced to this song in nightclubs many times without ever realising this film was where is came from) when I beheld one of the greatest entrances in cinematic history of possibly one of my favourite characters in a film ever.
Tim Curry as Dr Frank-N-Furter already makes a startling impression when he appears in the lift, his face a splendour of punk rock and horror makeup. The camp builds beautifully as he struts and swaggers without a care in the world, admitting he’s “Not much of a man by the light of day but by night I’m one hell of a lover” and as declares himself a “Sweet Transvestite” throws off his cloak to reveal he’s wearing a basque, complete with stockings and suspenders, a lip biting smirk on his face as he looks right into the camera while grinding his hips. The song that follows is a spellbinding tribute to indulgence, hedonism, living your life and frankly not giving a fuck about whatever anyone thinks.
Frank-N-Furter is fascinating, a toxic mix of extreme masculinity and femininity. He is obsessive in his craving for pleasure and indulging in joy, but at the cost of anyone around him. He abuses his undeniable charm and charisma to seduce, manipulate and discard both men and women when he’s bored or had his fill of them. His scientific genius he uses to build the perfect masculine specimen in “Rocky” which he purely uses as his own fucktoy and leads to his ultimate downfall.
He’s funny, witty has a wonderful lust for life. He’s also a complete shit, manipulative and predatory. He has a violent, nasty side that awakens whenever he gets jealous as seen in the terrifying scene where he witnesses Rocky dancing during Eddie’s song “Hot Patootie” (in a riotous cameo by Meatloaf) and proceeds to take a pickaxe to poor Meatloaf. The demented grin on Curry’s face as he approaches Eddie for the kill is truly disturbing.
It’s safe to say with it’s cross dressing, bisexual main character I’d never seen a film before which such in your face rampant sexuality. It was wild and runs out of control as by the end of the film, Brad, Janet and even it seems the wheelchair bound Dr Scott have thrown in with Frank-N-Furter and indulged in his floorshow performance and the swimming pool orgy during “Don’t Dream it, be it!” And as a viewer I’d fallen under the spell myself. That year as a student I watched that film time and again, until the old video recorder we were using chewed up one of my tapes and I dare never again risk the same happening to my friend’s treasured possession.
If I ever listed my top movies I’m sure that Rocky Horror would be in the top ten. It’s just a relentless cascade of extreme, rock and roll attitude and indulgence. The songs are incredible and rival and other musical for consistent, dance inducing sing a long numbers. Aside from the already mentioned Time Warp, Sweet Transvestite and”Don’t Dream it, be it!” , there is the beautiful homage to classic horror movies “Science Fiction,” The sexy “Touch me” that heralds the sexual awakening of Janet and the haunting, dark, somber finale “Super Heroes.” My personal favourite is Frank N Furter’s final song, the strangely touching and heartwarming “I’m Going Home.”
Rocky Horror is really a film that rewards constant viewings. There is a lot going on in the film that can fly over the head, even after the watching it for the third, fourth and fifth time. There are hints of a conspiracy, as Frank-N-Furter, Riff-Raff, Magenta and Columbia are clearly present at the wedding Brad and Janet attend at the film’s opening, something picked up on by the Narrator Charles Gray. Likewise Frank-N-Furter’s reaction to Brad and Janet’s tale of a flat tyre that forced them to seek help at his Castle (a wink to the camera and a “how about that?”) at least opens the possibility that the whole encounter is not an accident. Especially intriguing is the “coincidental” arrival of Brad and Janet’s mentor Dr Scott, who it’s hinted at by Frank-N-Furter may have been one of the former Nazi scientists “recruited” by the US at the end of WWII. (Incidently the Red Triangle that Frank-N-Furter wears on his green smock is how the Nazi’s would identify homosexuals in the concentration camps). Wisely the film never confirms any of these theories and leaves it open for the fans to speculate.
While the reception of Rocky Horror on it’s initial release was lukewarm, the film became a genuine Cult Classic. Regular theatres pulled the film quickly, but it found a home in midnight showings, especially at the Waverly Theatre in New York. It’s there that the same fans would go week after week and a community began to develop where viewers would heckle and banter at the screen and this would grow to props been brought to showings such as rice to throw in the wedding scenes and newspapers to put over their heads like Janet when making her way through the rain. The interactive party atmosphere naturally led to fancy dress and a whole culture developed, resulting in an unofficially script of responses to the dialogue. This fandom ensured the film’s status as the longest running cinema release of all time.
A “regular Franky fan” I may have become, but my love for Rocky Horror has always remained firmly with the 1975 film. I’ve never been to the live musical, probably because I love all the characters and performances so much their roles played by other actors and actresses would be off putting (I mean Jason Donovan as Frank-N-Furter?). Naturally I wasn’t keen on the recent television live show and thought Laverne Cox far too flippant and was a poor Frank-N-Furter. Although I did enjoy some of reinterpretation of the musical numbers with Adam Lambert being a fitting Eddie and I really enjoyed Ivy Levan’s rendition of “Science Fiction” and having her being an usherette, leading Rocky fans into the movie theatre was a clever reworking of the opening.
Forty years on, the original Rocky Horror still feels daring and exudes a fun anarchism and lust for pleasures of the unconventional. Perhaps it has not dated because deep down the judgement of a still conservative, straight laced world of which it rallies against has not altered too far either.
What the hell is this?………One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
In this instalment of the “What the hell am I watching?” segment (I will settle on a catchy, clever title for this bit one day) I’m drawing one from the “You couldn’t get away with this today” drawer.
In this Walt Disney movie, a bumbling spy hides a mysterious microchip in the skelton of a dinosaur in a London Museum. It’s up to a team of nannies to keep the microchip out of the hands of Chinese spies by stealing the Dinosaur skeleton on the back of a truck.
So who to play Hnup Wan, the fiendish leader of the Chinese spies? why none other than that well known Chinaman, Peter Ustinov. That’s right Academy award winning Peter Ustinov went and Orientled himself up (I don’t really know the correct term for it) with a racial sterotype role, including an Oddjob style bowler hat.
However when I saw this as a kid on video I’d be lying if this culturally insensitive casting struck a nerve with me. In truth, I was just thrilled to see Carry On star Joan Sims driving a Brontosaurus Skeleton through the foggy streets of London.
By the way that Microfilm, the big twist at the end is that it turns out to be a recipe for Wonton Soup.
Something that this film reminds me of is that for a long time this was the only kind of Disney movie that fans could get to watch in their own home. Surprisingly Disney held off in exploiting their animated classics for video release and it wasn’t until the mid 90’s that the likes of Jungle Book and Snow White were available to buy (and in some cases only for a limited time). In the rise of video rental stores the “Disney section” consisted only of their live action movies, so kids of the 80’s were deprived of the joys of Bambi’s mother ending up on the hood of a hunter’s truck and had to make do with The Cat From Outer Space, Herbie and if you lived in the UK the Slavery apology movie “Song of the South.”
So join me next time when I will be following up my look at 1975 films surprisingly by a look at 1976 films.
By which time we’ll all have seen Infinity Wars!!!!!!!!