By Scott Ross
When multinational corporations, most of them in no way related to the various entertainment industries that provided the bulk of what Americans read, saw and heard, began to take over the major movie studios beginning in the early 1960s — these would eventually include oil giants, insurance holding companies and even a firm known primarily for its parking lots and, later, a major soda-pop maker* — a vital change took place in how the people who ran them thought about movies. No one who has studied the big Hollywood studios even cursorily can fail to observe that, crudity, vulgarity and lack of education to one side, the men who ran M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, the Goldwyn Studio and Warner Bros. genuinely loved movies, and in a way that would be completely alien to the suits who later took over their dream factories. Moreover, these men understood that, however much they ran after mass public taste and tried to cater to it, each new picture they made, no matter how like the last successful picture they made, was unique. Unlike a shoe or a car or a service station or a parking lot or a bottle of Coke, no two movies were identical. It was that basic fact of movies that the corporate types failed to grasp, and which led to the idiotic five-year industry-wide chasing after of a Sound of Music style hit musical, the heedless (and fruitless) pursuit of which nearly bankrupted the lot of them.
The inability of the corporate mind to comprehend something as variable as popular art is the primary reason a) for the cookie-cutter mentality of most big movies and b) why corporations should steer clear of movie-making. It was noted, in the ’90s, that Japanese manufacturing concerns were baffled by the American entertainment companies they had purchased. They were unable to fathom a product that was not based on the mass-production model, which movies cannot. Motion pictures, as I noted above, are not a line of tape decks. Not that this basic fact of enterprise has stopped the businessmen owners of most studios from trying to make them that way. It’s one of the reasons sequels are so popular among the suits.
Look: It’s always been difficult to get anything worthwhile made in the movie industry, where the cost of production is high and courage is required to gamble on a picture that challenges the viewer, upsets the established norms or otherwise threatens to be of interest primarily to those above the common denominators of native intelligence. And that’s where pop movie critics came in.
These reviewers — for genuine critics they were not — tended to write for newspapers, where they could be counted upon by their editors (and, of greater importance to their publishers, the paper’s corporate advertisers) to praise dreck and pan originality; to maintain the established order and smack down anyone who threatened to upend it. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was the model in this, although he was hardly alone. When the big newsweeklies gained ascendancy, they too offered up a parade of styleless hacks and soulless nonentities, which is one of the reasons no one at Time or Newsweek knew what to do with men like John O’Hara, Manny Farber and James Agee. It took a critic for a general interest magazine (Pauline Kael at The New Yorker) to elevate the discussion, and that more than a decade following Agee’s death and after she had floundered at popular venues like McCall’s and The New Republic. And in the period during which Kael was establishing herself and proving to be the best thing that had happened to movie criticism since the days when Farber and Agee were writing for The Nation, the paperback capsule collection took off, a phenomenon that likely warmed any number of corporate hearts, turning movie criticism as it did away from sharp, idiosyncratic (and thus, unpredictable) rumination and back to easily digested consumer guidance.
I first discovered the late Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV in my 5th grade teacher Miss Anderson’s bookcase of paperbacks, which she graciously allowed us to borrow from, in late 1972 or early ‘73.† As I was then slowly becoming more interested in movies (beyond Disney animated features, I mean) leafing through Scheuer’s book and reading his capsule reviews was, for a budding film novice, an exciting activity. I was curious about how he judged movies I had seen, mostly on television, but also about those I’d heard of and hadn’t yet viewed, and those I’d never heard of at all. Discovery is half the fun, after all, of examination. A couple of years later I got a copy of the updated edition (Scheuer’s first was published in 1959) in my Christmas stocking, as well as the new reprint of Leonard Maltin’s then-titled TV Movies, which had debuted in 1969 when its compiler was all of 19. When I had money of my own, I purchased new editions every two years (the schedule both used until Maltin began updating yearly), and used them, as I still do, as reference material. Yet even at the age of 14 I recognized that Scheuer’s was the better book; being less concerned with quantity than quality, his reviews were longer, and more obviously written as genuine (if necessarily brief) criticism: Scheuer was less tolerant of trash, and less influenced by Hollywood; his reviews were tougher, and more literary (or at least, stylish) and he more often pointed his readers to worthwhile movies they might never have discovered on their own. It was in his book, for example, that one found reference to the largely unknown, or forgotten, X-rated 1970 cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer starring Rip Torn, which I have never seen cited anywhere else since. Where Maltin & Co. bested Scheuer, aside from including more entries, was in a greater accuracy regarding running-times, and including longer cast lists. TV Movies (published by Signet; Scheuer’s was a Bantam book) was also laid out in a superior typeface, and the asterisks in Maltin’s capsule reviews were both more elegant and easier on the eye.
Despite my own adolescent addiction to these books, with which I sometimes argued vociferously, I sincerely hope no adult ever used either to decide whether to watch a movie or to avoid one. (Although in my heart I know many did.) Especially as, to conserve space, both Maltin and Scheuer began cutting some reviews entirely and drastically shortening others, removing the very thing that made them interesting to begin with: The occasional quirky line or observation that stuck in the heads of movie-besotted teenagers. (My best friend and I each had our favorite quips from the mid-’70s, which in subsequent editions we discovered were missing.) As with that other influential consumer guide, the Siskel and Ebert show with its reduction of movie criticism to thumbs up or down, the Maltin and Scheuer books, whatever their relative virtues, not only helped dumb down discourse on film; they also, to a dismaying degree, kept potential viewers away from pictures they might otherwise have seen, and enjoyed. As a young man, I let what George Lucas later termed (for the nasty two-headed dragon in his doleful collaboration with Ron Howard, Willow) the “Eborsisk”‡ steer me away from movies when they were new which I later saw, and in a number of cases loved, on my own. Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz is a good example, and two very fine pictures I watched recently, both of which I would, if I took either Scheuer or Maltin as gospel, have avoided, will also serve as paradigms.
The first — commended to me by Eliot M. Camerana, whose exceptionally sane and perceptive blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already — was the 1970 British historical film Cromwell with Richard Harris as the redoubtable Oliver and Alec Guinness as Charles I, a picture I have known of for decades (Miss Anderson’s bookcase again; she had the tie-in novelization) but had never seen.
Here is Maltin:
“(**) Turgid historical epic has everything money can buy, but no human feeling underneath. Harris is coldly unsympathetic… one feels more sympathy for King Charles I… which is not the idea.”
Maltin (or whoever on his editorial team wrote this capsule) is correct that the battle sequences, photography (by the great Geoffrey Unsworth) and period costumes (by Nino Novarese) are splendid, and that Frank Cordell’s score is “amateurish.” It is, frankly, stupid music, in the worst Max Steiner tradition, with dialogue sequences underlined by crashing chords and keening strings as if great dramatic events are being portrayed when they are merely interesting rather than earth-shattering. The only time Cordell’s music bestirs itself into appropriate life is when, in the first of the big battle sequences, it apes Alex North’s score for Spartacus.
But as to that “coldly unsympathetic”… Did Maltin not understand that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan? How bloody warm did he expect the man to be? And just because Charles is soft-spoken, or we see him behave with kindness toward his eldest son and Papist wife, or delightedly playing blind man’s bluff with his daughter and younger son does not mean he is, ipso facto, a sympathetic character. Sociopaths, madmen and blood-soaked tyrants are as capable of affection to those they know and love as saints. Need we, perforce, judge them as more worthy of our empathy than the colder man whose passions, however coolly expressed, embrace such concepts as democracy, the need for representative government, and an opposition to tyranny?§ If John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked” — his own words — would we not still rather have him than George III? And leaving aside my own abhorrence at rating movies as if they were restaurants, that two-star designation should be taken with, at the very least, skepticism. Maltin is, after all, the man who gave The Avengers three-and-a-half and called Oliver Stone’s Alexander “boring.”
Scheuer at least liked the picture, but gave it only a rating of **1/2. For this reader and movie aficionado, two-and-a-half stars are what you give pointless nothings like Shreck or handsome, overblown epics like Becket — mediocrities, in other words — not to something as sharply written and beautifully crafted as Cromwell. And here, again, we are at the nub of my argument: Had I left it to Maltin and Scheur, rather than relying on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and perception I trust, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cromwell, and would therefore have deprived myself of an exceptional movie experience.
That is the basic value thoughtful, nuanced criticism has over consumerist capsule reviews. Not that a thoughtful critic can’t also steer you wrong, but if you read any writer regularly over time, you begin to suss out his or her thinking. You know, if you read Kael for any length of time, roughly what she is likely to dismiss and what she will embrace. (I speak of her in the present tense because while the individual issues of the magazines for which her reviews were written have long since moldered in landfills her writing is still alive, and, collected in books, can be read at one’s leisure.) The same was true of Agee, and John Simon. And the only way to really develop a relationship with a critic is to read long-form reviews… although, with Kael, you can get a measure of her tastes even in the capsules that used to be published in the listings pages of The New Yorker and which were reprinted as 1001 Nights at the Movies. But I argue that her briefer critiques — and Agee’s, when, as he sometimes did, he wrote up several movies in one review — are no less valuable as writing than her (and his) fuller pieces, whereas what you find in Maltin’s books is, in essence, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sometimes written with wit, but most often merely functional.
Cromwell succeeds, for me at any rate, on every level: As drama, as historical re-creation, as character study, and as martial epic. Its screenplay, credited to the director Ken Hughes (the playwright and scenarist Ronald Harwood received consultant credit, suggesting he polished if not re-wrote Hughes’ script) is both expansive and intimate, stinting neither on the battles of the English Civil War nor the internecine intrigues that inform governance. It is true that some momentous events, such as the siege of Bristol by the Parliamentary forces, occur off-stage, but here budgetary concerns may have overcome dramaturgy (the movie cost £9 million, or 8 million in U.S. dollars) and in any case there is such a thing even in epics as battle-fatigue. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and has gotten to the point in the final volume where he can no longer distinguish one clash of arms from another knows the feeling. (It was the same in the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King, only more so; what was dull on the page became both annoying and enervating on the screen.)
Cromwell explicates a complex series of historical events with remarkable concision. Even if you know nothing about the Roundheads, or Charles’ reign, or the Civil War he precipitated by such anti-democratic actions as suspending Parliament for twelve years, you are given the relevant information in complete, and graspable, terms, and without obviousness or pedantry or — and this is the great scourge of historical movies — the cheating of hindsight. The dialogue is intelligent, limpid and witty, and if Harris tends, as he always did, to extremes either of the under-emoted or the rhetorically explosive and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert overdoes the sneering popinjay, he at least redeems himself in his final scene, finally shocked into recognition that the king’s opposition is a force to be reckoned with and that Charles is exactly the man his enemies believe him to be. (It’s a realization that also occurs, too late, to Nigel Stock’s Sir Edward Hyde.) The other performers, particularly Guinness, are splendid and if I wish there was more of Robert Morely as Manchester, Charles Grey as Essex and Frank Finlay as one of Harris’ estate peasants, brutalized by the King’s enforcers, surely wanting more is preferable to its opposite.
John Stoll’s sumptuous production design adds both luster and verisimilitude and Hughes’ direction seems to me exactly right. While it perhaps lacks a certain panache, it also never falters, or falls into grandiosity — historical pomp and ostentation because the budget permits it and a crass producer demands it. I was particularly taken with the almost Shakespearean depiction of opposing prayers to the same God, on either side of a looming battle, for victory. “Every man who wages war believes God is on his side,” Cromwell tells Ireton. “I’ll warrant God should often wonder who is on his.” There is also, in the manner with which Harris turns away from the public spectacle of Charles’ execution, and leans his head against the wall in pained regret, a genuine and moving eloquence. Whatever his quarrels with the king, this is not the outcome Cromwell desired.
Its general excellence as a motion picture aside, I have a further reason for appreciating Cromwell. And although I am generally chary of Symbolism (and its furtive little brother Allegory) and while I’m aware that the picture occasionally plays a little loose with the facts, it is almost impossible for a modern viewer of this movie to see it and not reflect on the all too clear parallels between 16th century Britain and 21st century America. Is Robert Morley’s Manchester saying, “if we in Parliament cannot gain from ruling the country there’s really very little point in our being here at all” really that far removed from Nancy Pelosi’s repeated crowing about being “the biggest” fund-raiser in the House? No wonder Cromwell calls Parliament a brothel. With economic and social inequity at its greatest in this country since what it pleased Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to call “the Gilded Age”; with a line of increasingly imperial presidencies stretching from Johnson to Trump making it abundantly clear that banks and investors own our leaders, and our needs are not to be met if it is to cost them a penny; with armaments our only real product and endless war our most important export; with our international (and, increasingly, national) matters of interest wholly subject to the mad whims of a National Security State that murders president and citizen alike, here and elsewhere, as it pleases; with our legislation in the hands of the most nakedly corrupt Congress and Senate in American history — and don’t think for a moment that one of our permanent ruling parties is the moral superior of the other when it comes to graft made wholly legal by their enactment of the laws that protect them; with the allegedly liberal party now routinely rigging primary elections and both of them busily disenfranchising as many voters as they can; as a people we are facing a decision, and it is apt to be both more vital, and faster in coming, than we suppose. To wit: Do we live up to our platitudes about democracy, or do we shrug shamefacedly and admit that we have, as Twain also once suggested, sold our liberties for a slogan? Would we sit back and let an American king dissolve the other two branches of our government for a dozen years, as Charles did, and only return them to some sort of limited power when he needs to raise funds for yet another pointless war? Do we now, as we did in 2001 and 2002, surrender all freedoms for the anemic (when not downright sinister) promise of security? Or is the American Experiment well and truly over? I suspect that in the events currently unreeling here (and over a virus that, so far, has killed a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population compared to the tens of thousands taken every winter by other forms of influenza) and in our common response to them, may well lie the answer. I’m not exactly what you would call hopeful about it. But if ever we needed an Oliver Cromwell to restore some semblance of the Republic, it is now. The question is, would he, or she, be a Cincinnatus… or a Stalin?
I’ll close this section by noting that another 1970 picture, Tora! Tora! Tora!, cost almost three times what Cromwell did, returned only a fifth of that in revenues, and Richard Fleischer, its producer and director, went on to enjoy a lengthy and increasingly profitable career in Hollywood. Ken Hughes, meanwhile, who said of Cromwell — the highest-grossing British movie of its year — that it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” was reduced in the coming years to personal poverty, and to directing such deathless milestones as the Mae West bomb Sextette and, finally, a 1980s slasher flick called Night School.
Christ, but The Show Biz is a miserable bitch.
The second item whose pleasures both Maltin and Scheuer warned me away from — or would have, had I read their capsules, and heeded them — was the writer-director Burt Kennedy’s delightful 1973 comedy-Western The Train Robbers. While certainly far less consequential than Cromwell and, I would argue, badly titled (John Wayne’s gang of adventurers are not bandits, and his character is motivated by the effects of a robbery) watching this charmer was just about the best use of 90 minutes I’ve indulged in all year.
If you are predisposed, as I am, to liking Kennedy’s Westerns (among other things he wrote and directed an effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and was the director of the delicious James Garner spoofs Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter and likely an uncredited writer on both) you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship, and the easy wit, on display here. Wayne, with one lung gone, is notably raspier but no less relaxed or authoritative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) than he ever was, but your appreciation of Ann-Margaret’s performance as the woman behind the mission will depend, I suppose, on how you feel about pneumatics. The supporting cast is a treat, however, and includes Ben Johnson, Christoper George, Rod Taylor, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Gatlin in Wayne’s gang and Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious, cigar-smoking gunman following them. Curiously, none of the other characters, all but one of them part of a band of outlaws against which Wayne’s troupe arrays itself, is identified, or even seen except from a distance or during pitched gun battles. I don’t know that their facelessness makes them notably more threatening — William Goldman and George Roy Hill pulled that business off much more effectively with their Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — but it’s an interesting conceit, and leaves us free to enjoy, without distraction, Wayne and his compatriots; to mark the often pungent dialogue (Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it”); to chuckle at the twist ending; and to gawp at one of the most striking sets you’ll ever see in a movie: A train, upside down in the desert sands. Like the ship in the Gobi in Spielberg’s revamped Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of those unexpected images that stick with you.
The picture was shot by the gifted William H. Clothier, who was also the cinematographer for John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the exceptional and underseen Firecreek, Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s extraordinary black-and-white-in-color chamber Western Track of the Cat. Here his images shimmer, and Kennedy’s direction throughout is sure, sharp and beautifully composed. Albert Whitlock provided some nice matte paintings and Dominic Frontiere’s score is just about perfect, with a martial undertone that is both grand adventure accompaniment and a subtle reminder to us of Wayne, Johnson and Taylor’s shared past as prickly Union compatriots. And if there are in the picture a couple of odd echos — of the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the credit sequence where Johnson waits for an incoming train, and of Richard Brooks’ own entertaining Western caper The Professionals — they’re more than made up for by Kennedy’s otherwise keen originality.
What has Maltin to say of The Train Bobbers in his **1/2-starred capsule? “Low-key film emphasizes character instead of action.” Again, one wonders what movie he saw. Yes, Kennedy’s script is character-driven; but it has at least three major action set-pieces, and several smaller incidents along the way that should be enough to satisfy Western fans. Indeed, The Train Robbers has at least as much action as Rio Lobo, to which Maltin assigned three stars. Could it be, perhaps, that this is because Rio Lobo was a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks is a critics’ darling? I liked that specific picture well myself, and like Hawks pictures generally, so this isn’t a matter of relative merit but of critical consistency.
Maltin’s critique, however, is a rave compared to Scheuer’s: “(*1/2) Dull Western…”¶
As always, these things are a matter of taste, and individual reaction. But how a crisp little exercise like this one, with a witty script, charming performances, an unusual plot and some equally unique action sequences can be called “dull” is at best a mystery, and brings us back to the beginning: When criticism devolves into nothing other than consumer guidance, it ceases to function, as it needs to, as a corrective to mere P.R. flackery.
“In this age of consumerism film criticism all over the world — in America first but also in Europe — has become something that caters for the movie industry instead of being a counterbalance.” — Wim Wenders
In other words: It elevates trash, and shits on originality.
*Only one of the majors — Universal — was purchased by an entity involved in entertainment, and that was largely innocuous pop music; MCA already knew how to market offal.
†Miss Anderson also let me take a book of my choice at the end of the school year, I suspect because I was her most ardent and frequent borrower, as well as the student she saw as the most likely future writer.
‡Lucas also named his chief villain in Willow “General Kael.” I’ll bet that sent Pauline to her fainting-couch.
§Richard Harris’ Cromwell is as heatedly passionate as I think anyone could ask, so I’m not even sure what Maltin means by that “coldly”; indeed, Harris is, if anything, sometimes overly emphatic.
¶I said before that Scheuer’s were the better-written reviews, but I’m quoting in this essay from the last edition (1993) of his book, and by that time he’d cut his previously more fulsome capsules down to the bare minimum. A lot of style was leeched from these as a result, and most of the reason for reading them in the first place.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross