31 May 2010

Movie review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
Directed by Mike Newell. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, Alfred Molina.

I appear to be transforming into Black Gate’s “movie reviewer.” A natural development, considering that I’m a voracious film-goer who sees most new movies during their opening weekends (a benefit of living a block away from one of best multiplexes in Los Angeles), and that the studios have tossed quite a few fantasy spectacles our way so far this year that appeal to the magazine’s demographic.

I am indeed thankful that the Great Movie Gods are providing us with more epic fantasy. I just wish they were providing us better epic fantasy. What do I need to sacrifice to get something more worthwhile from Middle Eastern fantasy than Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? Goats just aren’t doing it, apparently, and my apartment manager has informed me that this is in violation of health codes. So I’m stuck, for the moment, with a sand-and-sorcery epic based on a video game franchise.

I had some slight hopes for Prince of Persia, despite the usual and wise caution viewers have about any movie adapted from a console video game. My hope was in the form of English director Mike Newell, who has helmed some witty comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, scored critically with the excellent gangster drama Donnie Brasco, directed one of the best of the Harry Potter movies, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and most crucially directed one of the finest forgotten films of the 1990s, Into the West, a contemporary fantasy that I keep waiting to turn into a cult classic.

However, whatever magic Mike Newell has in his director’s bag of tricks, he didn’t pull out any of it for this movie. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is not an extraordinarily awful film. It’s not even bad. It’s simply mediocre, and for a Memorial Day release it’s shamefully slight, like a spring movie designed to bolster up the action crowd until summer, but which got hastily moved into a prime slot when the studio noticed that it didn’t have a Memorial Day anchor. A lot of dinars went into the movie, but what came out is standard blockbuster fare that passes the time and then vanishes as if the sands of Arabia had covered it up.

Read the rest of the review at Black Gate. . . .

28 May 2010

Re-Cap, Part 14: The Kirby Kontroversy

Wow, three episodes of “Re-Cap” in one month!

Jack Kirby’s return to Captain America, in the triple role of artist, writer, and editor for issues #193–#214, was anticipated with almost messianic delight in the letter columns. Kirby was a living legend and Cap’s co-creator, so the readers’ excitement is understandable. So too is the divisive anger that followed over the direction the artist-writer would take the magazine. The conflict got its own editorial name: “The Kirby Kontroversy.”

I’ve waited until reading through at least the first story arc, eight issues, of Kirby’s run before attempting to sum up what the readers were attacking/defending and offer my take on it. I’ve read some of the issues from this period before, but never all of them consecutively and as part of a whole Captain America gestalt. Now I feel I can look critically at what readers of 1976–1977 were experiencing.

27 May 2010

Book review: The Ice Schooner

The Ice Schooner (1969)
By Michael Moorcock

What I’ve always appreciated about speculative fiction author Michael Moorcock when he’s at his best is how much economy he brings to work while creating both excitement and introspection. He writes lean novels that are packed with tension and drama, and few other authors could create an entire world setting in such a brief space as he could.

Moorcock also has a knack for creating philosophically challenging pieces without compromising the exciting promise of thrills in fantastic worlds. He is an action and adventure novelist who finds ways to get beyond the surface sheen of what the words “action and adventure mean”—but he still delivers both. This is “escapism” that is never purely escapism.

The Ice Schooner isn’t one of Moorcock’s better-known works from his prime period in the 1960s and ‘70s, and that’s probably because it is a loner among series material. The Ice Schooner was published as a one-shot novel with no connection to Moorcock’s famous sword-and-sorcery heroes like Elric, Von Bek, Corum, or his science-fiction characters Jerry Cornelius and Kane of Old Mars. Although the book is sometimes published in “Eternal Champion” collections, it doesn’t seem to have many overt links to that multiverse setting. Is it’s complex hero Konrad Arflane an embodiment of the Eternal Champion in the struggle between Chaos and Order. Perhaps, but none of those terms ever appear in The Ice Schooner, and this may account for why it doesn’t get as much attention from the period in its author’s career.

Although The Ice Schooner is a Moorcock vehicle worth riding, since it embodies his robust, intelligent storytelling skill and intriguing world building in the customary concentrated package. The pages fly past, but it’s not a fast food waste of time.

Movie review: Destry Rides Again

Destry Rides Again (1939)
Directed by George Marshall. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Una Merkel.

This is my third review of a movie from the five classic Westerns of 1939, the quintet that re-shaped the genre for the next twenty years: Union Pacific, Dodge City, Jesse James, Stagecoach, and the only one that’s an outright comedy, current topic Destry Rides Again. It’s this lightweight take on the fictional West that makes Destry so important. Western comedies were already a common subgenre, but this 1939 star vehicle with the heavy influence of the “screwball” comedy became the standard of humor in the Wild West until Burt Kennedy’s movies in the 1960s.

Destry Rides Again is also the most famous movie based on a novel by Frederick Faust, a.k.a. Max Brand. However, the movie has almost zero connection to Faust’s 1930 novel, to the point that the opening credits say it is only “suggested” by the book, and gives an “original story” credit to Felix Jackson. There’s almost nothing of Faust’s tale of a man avenging himself on the jurors who sent him to jail in the 1939 movie except for the last name of the main character, so I’m not going to mention the novel again. Thanks for reading this paragraph, and I’m sure Faust (who was working in Hollywood at the time) appreciated the paycheck.

24 May 2010

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1

After reading the Batman/Doc Savage Special, I didn’t imagine I would return to pick up any monthly Batman comics—or any monthly comics—for a span. I’m a trade paperback fellow who follows news of monthlies so I know what to buy in larger bound form when it reaches the bookstores.

Then I saw the sneak of the cover for issue #2 of the limited series Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. And I screamed “Solomon Kane!” and rushed to find out what writer Grant Morrison was doing with this series. I learned that he was going to give me six issues of pulpy adoration, with Batman filling in a series of legendary pulp hero roles throughout history: barbarian Stone Age warrior, puritan witch-finder, pirate swashbuckler, and hard-boiled P.I.

Okay, I was on board for this, even though it rises out of the confusing mess of recent crossovers and events in the DC Universe, a mix-up that has alienated a lot of Bat-fans.

Read the rest of the post at Black Gate. . . .

23 May 2010

Devil Dinosaur Prologue

While in the midst of reading Jack Kirby’s very odd 1970s run on Captain America, I felt the incredible urge to read through another of Kirby’s Marvel-works from his last stint with the company: Devil Dinosaur. Not only that, but I knew I wanted to review on the blog every issue of its original run, one issue per post. I’ve always wanted to attempt such an extensive review of a series, and this one is short and interesting enough to make it a prime candidate. Consider this entry the prologue before I start with issue #1.

Devil Dinosaur is the last series that Jack “King” Kirby created at Marvel, and like most of the other projects he worked on during this period, it didn’t catch on with readers and lasted only a short time. Devil Dinosaur ran for nine issues in 1978 and then unceremoniously closed out with the words “Thus Endeth the Chronicle” in Prince Valiant font. Its two stars, the title red Tyrannosaurid and his primitive human pal Moon-Boy, have done some guest shots in the Marvel Universe since those days, and many artists and writers have show genuine sympathy, as well as outright love, for the Devil.

22 May 2010

Book review: The Space Vampires

The Space Vampires
Colin Wilson (Random House, 1976)

For someone who has written about his general aversion to picking up books about vampires, given how popular culture has done a superb job of desanguinizing them, I seem to keep turning back toward them when I stare at the unread volumes in my tower o’ books. This time, I grabbed my used Science Fiction Bookclub edition of Colin Wilson’s SF-and-vamps novel The Space Vampires. I can’t think of a more straightforward title than that. At least it comes from an era when this sort of vampire angle would have seemed fresh.

However, The Space Vampires is leagues away from straightforward; it’s nothing like what you might expect from the title, but then it is the work of Colin Wilson, a man far beyond the ordinary—even for a speculative fiction author.

What I appreciate about British author Colin Wilson is that he’s an existential philosopher who also writes science-fiction novels with titles like The Mind Parasites and The Space Vampires. He once wrote: “Philosophy may only be a shadow of the reality it tries to grasp, but the novel is altogether more satisfactory. I am also tempted to generalise and say that no philosopher is qualified to do his job unless he is also a novelist.” (Voyage to a Beginning.) I like that attitude.

With his philosophy background, you might expect something more akin to the fictional dissertations of Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men and Star Maker from Wilson, but although his work is highly cerebral and focused on idea more than action and character, his novels still can have broad appeal to speculative fiction readers, something Stapledon can’t claim.

(Clarification: I’m actually a huge fan of Stapledon’s work, especially Last and First Men, one of my favorte SF novels of all time. But Stapledon’s writing and themes are immersively cerebral and presentational to almost the point of defining both terms. And they don’t have enough naked hot space vampire sex action for most people. Also, I’m not familiar with Wilson’s philosophy, so I’ll avoid making any assumptions about his beliefs in discussing the novel.)

20 May 2010

Ultraman Villains Threaten London Olympics!

Bloggers have started to weigh in on the London 2012 Olympic Mascots Wenlock and Mandeville. The duo were shown yesterday for the first time to rehearsed cheers and then complete bewilderment as the world press collectively wondered if the organizers of the 2012 games had lost their minds in a moment of shared panic attack.
Wenlock and Mandeville are cyclopean amorphous shape-changing . . . uh . . . things that are supposed to represent the digital age. Ostensibly created by the advertising firm Iris and equipped with an origin story that has them seeping from steel sludge, they look much more like a collaboration between Joan Miró (back from the dead and loving it) and Adult Swim. The media is shooting furiously at them as ugly and totally nonsensical. This Yahoo! promoted blogger is typical.

17 May 2010

Movie review: Robin Hood (2010)

Robin Hood (2010)
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Max Von Sydow, Oscar Isaac, Matthew Macfayden, William Hurt, Mark Addy.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

For the past three decades, versions of the Robin Hood legend have followed an unwritten maxim that they must be dark, realistic, epic, and not a touch of fun. It’s as if artists have done all they can to avoid looking or acting like the 1938 Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn movie The Adventures of Robin Hood.

By St. George, why? Why wouldn’t you want to catch some of the glory of one of the most beloved adventure stories ever put on film? I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that The Adventures of Robin Hood is the most successful and important version of the Robin Hood legend in the entire seven-plus centuries that it’s been in existence. Who is Robin Hood? He’s Errol Flynn. Nothing will ever change that.

I’m fine with somebody trying, however. But I wish one of those somebodies would recall the thrill of Flynn and Curtiz and not fear it. (I think they’re afraid of green tights. Fine, make ‘em gray. Get over the stupid “tights obsession” already!) They should also consider well the old lays that made Robin Hood both a hero and a humorous trickster figure. This is what I want to see, and I’d wager it’s what most audiences want to see as well. Rob from the rich, give to the poor, make rich buffoons look even buffoonier, and wield the sharpest-shooting bow and arrow in the kingdom. Not much to ask for, really.

14 May 2010

Movie review: Dodge City

Dodge City (1939)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, Victor Jory.




I seem to be riding away fast from the Italian Western. First it was the U.S. Western Vera Cruz, which at least had a huge impact on the Eurowestern, but now I’m riding all the way back to the classic U.S. style of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the birth of the Technicolor Spectacular.



In my review of Union Pacific, I talked about the “Great Western Year of 1939,” when the genre exploded out of the B-picture rut in which it had spent most of the decade. To re-cap, five Western A-pictures came out that year that turned into substantial hits: Union Pacific, Destry Rides Again (based on a Frederick Faust novel; or at least suggested by one), Jesse James, Stagecoach, and today’s topic, Dodge City.



Of this quintet of the cinematic Wild West revolution, Dodge City is the most straightforward. It’s an action spectacle picture, plain and simple. It’s the most accessible of the movies for audiences today—after Stagecoach, of course, which is flat-out one of the greatest films ever made and therefore accessible.

11 May 2010

Re-Cap, Part 13: The King’s Coming! Clean This Place Up!

At this point in “Re-Cap,” my continuing voyage through all the issues of Captain America, there are four more numbers left in 1975. Starting in 1976, Jack Kirby makes his return to the comic, as artist and writer and editor. The announcements in “Stan’s Soapbox” and in the letters page put the fans into a frenzy about the return of Marvel’s most famous artist to the Marvel Universe—where he would create Devil Dinosaur! (I’ve always had a love for that character.)

The letter writers also take a few more angry swings at current artist Frank Robbins, and the editors sort of grudgingly admit that, yeah, Robbins was a controversial choice and few people seem to have liked him. (That’s a serious understatement. One letter writer called for the Red Skull to kill Robbins. That’s a bit extreme.) I think that Robbins improved on these last four issues, as if he were finally get the hang of how to draw the cleaner and sharper world of Captain America, but still, I’ve never felt better about having an artist leave this title so far in my journey through its history.

Admittedly, I thought that Gene Colan was a strange choice for regular artist when Jack Kirby first left, and his style felt too dark and shaded for Cap, but I ended up enjoying the unusual slant, and it gave a harsh realism to some occasionally weak stories. Robbins’s art style, however, is too twisted and stretched to ever completely gel with the Star-Spangled Avenger.

A quick quote on “Pulps vs. Slicks”

The post at Black Gate today was short, as it will itself explain, so I’m simply cross-posting it . . .

As you read this, I’m in Atlanta to see my brother graduate from medical school. Which means that this is “time-bomb post” I put in the queue to automatically go off and post itself while I’m away. Which also means that I’m keeping this a bit short, as I don’t have the weekend to write up something more in-depth.

What I’ve decided to do instead is let somebody else do most of the work for me. I’m going to share a quote about the pulps that I came across when I was doing my research for my two posts about Frederick “Max Brand” Faust. This comes from Jon Tuska’s essay “Frederick Faust’s Western Fiction” from The Max Brand Compnaion (Greenwood, 1996). Tuska makes an interesting comparison between writing for the pulps and writing for the “slicks,” the glossy magazines that offered supposedly greater prestige for writers who could break into them. Tuska shows a reversal of how people view pulp literature vs. “mainstream” literature:
Both [Faust] and [his agent] Carl Brandt agreed that the only way to cope with the depressed economy was for Faust to move into slick magazines which paid much better. Faust, studying the market, readily realized that restrictions in the slicks were more rigid and confining than they ever had been in the pulps. Writing for Western Story Magazine, he had to concern himself with such general notions as a pursuit plot, which [editor] Blackwell preferred, or delayed revelation. Writing for the slicks, he realized that the editors sought to dominate a contributor’s mind. Attitudes and ideas were everything. Beyond entertainment, which both pulp and slick fiction alike provided, slick fiction had to deliver an ideological message to readers which agreed with the editorial policies of the magazine and these were dictated by the advertisers and their agencies. Perhaps it is for this reason that so much of the slick fiction of the 1930s and 1940s had become hopelessly dated while pulp fiction from that same period still pulsates with imagination and iconoclasm. Ideology is time-bound.
In other words, take that Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s! Long live Black Mask, Weird Tales, and Astounding! (And Black Gate carrying on their legacy.)

See you next week.

08 May 2010

Clark Ashton Smith Collection: Out of Space and Time

Out of Space and Time (1942)
By Clark Ashton Smith

Out of space and time . . . that’s how I felt when I tried to move in one day into a tiny apartment.

(Rim-shot.)

I always wanted to start a review of a Clark Ashton Smith book with a really bad joke. It just seemed the perfectly antithetical way of discussing the great prose poet of fantasy.

Ahem . . . so, Out of Space and Time is the first Arkham House collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s work, and the first time the general public had access to reprints of his fiction. Before Out of Time and Space, the only collections of Smith’s stories to appear were in tiny volumes he self-published, such as The Double Shadow and Other Phantasies. The 1942 publication of Out of Space and Time was therefore a monumental event in Smith’s history. He was still alive at the time (and still making occasional returns to fiction) and selected the stories for the volume himself.

Many Clark Ashton Smith collections have followed Out of Space and Time, but it’s pleasing to have this original back in print. The 2006 Bison edition is a facsimile of the last Arkham House printing in 1971 (which includes a few print errors), and also contains a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer, which is strangely negative about the author. Skip over it and go right to the August Derleth and Donald Wandrei original introduction, and then into the twenty works that follow. After that you can come back to the introduction and see if you agree with Vandermeer's opinions. I don’t.

Most of the stories in Out of Space and Time are excellent; Smith was a good judge of his own work, and at least ten of the stories contained within these covers I count among my personal favorites in the CAS canon. The arrangement of the contents also makes for a good introduction to readers making their first approach to the Mysteries of Klarkash-ton.

05 May 2010

Book review: Crossroads

Crossroads (1920)
By Frederick Faust writing as John Frederick

This spring has turned into a Frederick Faust Festival for me. I haven’t read the great Western pulp author in concentrated doses in a while, and getting to know this remarkable pulp master again reminds me of why I find his work so inspiring and humbling.

I recently reviewed one of Faust’s most unusual novels, Luck. Crossroads is its sequel, and it started its serial run in Argosy five months after Luck concluded, under the pseudonym “John Frederick.” (Like everything else Faust wrote, it’s now published under the “Max Brand” name.) Crossroads makes for a strange sequel, because the hero of Luck, Jesuit novice Pierre le Rogue, never appears in it except in passing mention. Faust chose instead to follow the exploits of his unusual heroine, outlaw daughter Jacqueline “Jack” Boone, who inherited the mystical Cross of Meilan from Pierre in the closing chapters of Luck.

The story does not open on Jack, however, but on its new male hero to replace Pierre, Dix Van Dyck. In the classic Faust mold, Dix is a tough but not malicious man whose trouble and reputation come from an inability to hold back a primal violence akin to the West itself. Dix angers the powerful sheriff of Guadalupe, Señor Oñate, because he killed the sheriff’s brother in self-defense. Sheriff Oñate is not a man who forgives, and so Dix and leaves the Southwest: “His destination was—the world.”

Re-Cap, Part 12: Cap on a Second Down-Time

Considering all the news I’ve been reporting about the upcoming Captain America film—only fourteen months away now!—I would be remiss in not returning to my overview of the history of Cap in his own comic book, which I am now retro titling “Re-Cap.” I go in starts and stops on this series, since I tend to ride story arcs and writer/artist runs, and temporarily lose interest when a big shift occurs.

Last time in “Re-Cap,” the year was 1975 and the issue was #183. We had just reached the close of one of the greatest of all storylines in the Star-Spangled Avenger’s history: the Nomad Saga. Steve Rogers finally picked up his adamantium shield, slipped back on the Red, White, and Blue of Captain America, and answered the call . . . to kick the Red Skull in the shins. Really hard. Bastard has it coming.

Yes, the Skull has returned, after a three years’ absence. The writers and editors must have felt that Red Head had gotten overexposed in Captain America’s early run—and they were right. But with all the enthusiasm rising from the Nomad Saga, the creative team had to find something to top it and keep the momentum going. So not only did they bring back the Red Skull, they also decided to drop a massive, continuity shredding bomb of a surprise: the Red Skull created and controls the Falcon, Steve’s partner since issue #117!
This produces a three-issue arc (#184–#186) which ends Steve Englehart’s great tenure as Cap’s master plotter. Unfortunately, it’s a relative threadbare patch in his otherwise richly woven work on the magazine. One of the problems is Frank Robbins’s art, controversial with readers at the time and for solid reason: it’s too grotesque and mangled. His Red Skull especially looks distortedly ridiculous. But most of the storyline’s weakness comes from a feeling of desperation around the “reveal” on Falcon’s nefarious background. It’s too much of a gimmick, a way to try to top the Nomad Saga. Englehart doesn’t feel as engaged here, either, already halfway out the door.

04 May 2010

Hugo Weaving is officially The Red Skull

About time, Marvel.

I’ve known since early March, along with all the rest of fandom, that Hugo Weaving would play the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. Marvel has finally provided official confirmation that Weaving will be playing the most famous of all Cap’s villains. The press release also confirms that this will be the “Johann Schmidt” version of the Red Skull who was developed in the Silver Age (although he wouldn’t get that alter ego name until the 1980s). Not a surprise there, either, since this is the best-known incarnation of the Red Skull, the youth whom Adolf Hitler himself personally trained as the ultimate Nazi spy and symbol of terror.

The Captain America cast roster is now quite full: Chris Evans as Cap/Steve Rogers, Hugo Weaving as Mr. R. Skull/Johann Schmidt, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Shaw as Bucky Barnes (and future Winter Soldier?).

Mark your calendars: Cap arrives next year on July 22.

Although my favorite Red Skull get-up is his Hugo Boss SS uniform (with Mauser in hand), I had to post a Jack Kirby illustration for the character. Kirby is Cap’s greatest artist, and when I think of the Red Skull, I always see Kirby’s rendition first in my mind.

03 May 2010

The Spider Revival, Part III: The Spider vs. The Empire State

The Spider vs. The Empire State (2009)
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Ever wonder what it would be like if a semi-Nazi fascist group took over the government of New York State in 1938? Me neither. That’s Norvell Page’s job.

I have previously written about the revival in trade paperback of the adventures of The Spider, the bloodiest of all 1930s pulp heroes. My reviews of The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham and The Spider: City of Doom, both published by Baen, contain plenty of background about the character and his main author, Norvell Page, so if you’re unfamiliar with the blood-soaked vigilante insanity of this region of the pulp universe, I’d advise that you start there.

This third collection of Spider adventures comes from a new publisher (Ace of Aces Books) and presents for the first time three connected novels that were originally published consecutively in The Spider Magazine. These three novels, which ran in the September, October, and November 1938 issues, form “The Black Police Trilogy,” one of the darkest episodes in the character’s history. Norvell Page and his editor Harry Steeger decided to put newspaper headlines and national fears into their pulp adventures: an allegory for Nazism, viewed as it might arise in the middle of contemporary New York State. It Does Happen Here might serve a good alternate title.

I want a re-make of First Blood. Seriously.

Sylvester Stallone has confirmed this week that, despite some chatter to the contrary, he isn’t planning on doing another Rambo movie. The previous installment in the series, which was simply titled Rambo, did well enough that a fifth wouldn’t be out of the question. Stallone had mentioned possibly doing a science-fiction geared outing (basically, “Rambo vs. Pseudo-Predator”), and then changing over to Rambo shooting up people in Mexico. But Stallone apparently no longer believes there’s more material to mine from the cinematic Rambo.

He’s probably right . . . as far as the Stallone-continuity “John Rambo” is concerned.

But what about the “No-First-Name Rambo” from David Morrell’s original novel First Blood?

Yes, I’m going to advocate for something that I usually oppose: a re-make.

I want a new version of First Blood. Period-set (early ‘70s) and staying closer to the book than the 1982 movie.

If you’ve never read Morrell’s 1972 book, I can’t give a high enough recommendation. It’s one of the best popular literature novels from its decade that I’ve read. The 1982 movie adaptation starring Stallone that started the character on his journey to ‘80s iconography is a very good piece of work—easily the best of the four films in the series—but it made major changes to Morrell’s book. Principally, it toned down the violence. This sounds amazing: a Sylvester Stallone movie that’s less violent than its source material? Considering how many people Rambo guns down, explodes, and knifes into cucumber slices in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo, this seems an incredible statement.

Yet it’s true: John Rambo in the film First Blood maims many folks, but is responsible for only a single death, the accidental knocking of a rifleman from a helicopter. In the novel, No-First-Name Rambo kills . . . well, even Morrell admits that the death toll is “uncountable.” I would put the slaughter at somewhere around sixty people, but I can’t be sure if the author isn’t.

Morrell’s original intention in writing the novel was “to bring Vietnam home to America.” The bloody, insane wilderness violence of Vietnam would manifest itself in the drowsy Midwest. For this concept to work, huge numbers of people had to die in bush warfare.

It’s clear that the 1982 movie was trying to make Rambo an underdog figure an audience could cheer on, much like Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. The character simply couldn’t brutally slaughter U.S. law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen in droves and expect the sympathy vote from viewers. At least, not in ‘82, before Platoon changed how people viewed Vietnam-themed films, and not with Stallone in the part. So the killer Rambo became less lethal, and his adversary, Sheriff Teasle, was changed into a nasty, irredeemable redneck jerk.

That’s another aspect of the novel First Blood that will surprise first-time readers: Teasle is the co-protagonist with his own complex character arc. He’s much more sympathetic than Rambo, who is truly a murder machine unleashed on a quiet Kentucky countryside. (The movie shifted the location to Washington State, mainly for weather considerations. Then a snowstorm temporarily shut down production because nature loves to screw with people like that.) Nearly half the novel centers on Teasle as a POV character as he struggles with a personal crisis in the middle of a public crisis that has changed his legal jurisdiction into a blood-splattered war zone all because he hassled some longhaired kid on the road.

The poles of the Teasle/Rambo conflict make the appearance of Trautmann, Rambo’s former C.O., much more ambiguous and mysterious. Trautmann is not a POV character, and because of it he is this almost sinister force. It’s very different from how Richard Crenna’s Trautmann appears in the movie.

And then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it would make a sequel rather, uhm, tricky to pull off. The movie did shoot a conclusion similar to the novel’s, but ditched it for what appears on screen now. (The DVD contains the unused ending among its bonus features.)

The usphot of all this: there’s still a great story to be told from Morrell’s novel, and a version of the story set in 1972, with a younger Rambo who kills kills kills, and the sympathetic Teasle, could be astonishing. It would take a brave group of filmmakers, however, since the name “Rambo” is so closely connected with Stallone’s iteration and ‘80s politics. This movie would have to sell itself with a campaign telling people to “forget everything you’ve seen before.”

Filmmakers might be lured to update the story to modern times, making John Rambo a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. I hope they resist this temptation and make it a period film set in early ‘70s. There’s a huge appeal in showing a story of the U.S. losing its innocence in the slaughter of the very confusing Vietnam conflict. The story is powerful without having to get updated to make it “current.” If this re-make does happen—and I don’t think it’s likely to occur in the next five years, at the very least—I would urge its makers to keep it in 1972.

I’m sure that I am not the first person to think about re-filming Morrell’s book. Somebody in a position of power in Hollywood has thought of it as well, and thought of going ahead and doing it. Now that Stallone has said there will be no further movies about his Rambo, it’s time to consider going back to well. There’s no way they could possibly make it more violent than the fourth movie, which is the most graphically over-the-top mainstream action film I’ve ever seen.

If I haven’t made it clear already in this post, the novel First Blood is more than worth your time. I may not love it as much as my cousin does—it’s his favorite book and he owns a first edition—but I still love it.

01 May 2010

Movie review: The Inglorious Bastards

The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Starring Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart, Michael Constantin, Debra Berger, Raimund Harmstorf, Ian Bannen.

Reviewing Enzo G. Castellari’s nonstop action Italian Western Kill Them All and Come Back Alone made me realize that I had an obligation to review what is—as of last year, at least—the director’s best-known film: Quell Maledetto Treno Blindato, a.k.a. The Inglorious Bastards.

Rumor control, here are the facts: Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds (which I think is the best work he’s done) is not a re-make of Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards. It is an important influence on Tarantino’s film (why else would he choose such a similar title?), and it’s also a World War II adventure featuring an “American soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines” plot. But as you’ll see from reading the storyline of Castellari’s movie, the two films have much different narratives and characters. Burning theater and a vengeful big face anywhere here? Nope.