Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

 

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

 

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

 

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

 

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

 

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

 

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called “Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

 

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

 

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

 

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.dom

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

Based upon Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the story of a 19th century English gentleman named Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in eighty (80) days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Produced by Michael Todd, the Academy Award winning film starred David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton. 

Could someone please explain how ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” managed to win the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award? How on earth did this happen? Do not get me wrong. Ever since I first saw ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” on television years ago, I have been a fan of the movie. The idea of someone taking a long journey around the world – especially in an age before air travel – greatly appealed to me. It still does. I like the idea of travel, whether I am doing it myself or watching it on the big screen or on television. And even after all of these years, I still enjoy watching this movie. And yet . . . I simply cannot fathom the idea of it being considered the Best Picture of 1956. Even more surprising is the fact that John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe all won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps the reason behind the movie’s accolades centered around Hollywood’s amazement that first time movie producer, Mike Todd, had succeeded in not only completing the film, but also creating an entertaining one. Two men directed this film – Michael Anderson, an Englishman who had only directed seven movies before ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”; and John Farrow, a well-known Australian director who had co-written the film’s script. Farrow, by the way, did not receive any credit for his work as a director of this film. Which makes me wonder how many scenes he actually directed. Considering the movie’s running time of 183 minutes (3 hours and 3 minutes), I find it surprising that it took only seventy-five (75) days to shoot it. Along with the four leading actors, the movie featured over forty (40) stars, 140 locations, 100 sets and over 36,000 costumes. No wonder Hollywood seemed amazed that Todd managed to finish the film.

Set around 1872, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” told the story an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) who claims he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. He makes a £20,000 wager with several skeptical fellow members of his London gentlemen’s club (Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie included), the Reform Club, that he can arrive back within 80 days before exactly 8:45 pm. Together with his resourceful valet, Passepartout (Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”), Fogg sets out on his journey from Paris via a hot air balloon. Meanwhile, suspicion grows that Fogg has stolen his £20,000 from the Bank of England. Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) is sent out by Ralph the bank president (Robert Morley) to trail and arrest Fogg. Hopscotching around the globe, Fogg pauses in Spain, where Passepartout engages in a comic bullfight; and in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue young widow Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from being forced into a funeral pyre so that she may join her late husband. The threesome visit Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and the Wild West. Only hours short of winning his wager, Fogg is arrested upon returning to London by the diligent, yet misguided Inspector Fix.

The main differences between Jules Verne’s novel and the movie centered around Fogg and Passepartout’s efforts to leave Europe. Quite frankly, the novel never featured Fogg’s journey through Europe. In the novel, there were no stops in either France or Spain. Fogg had considered using a hot air balloon in Chapter 32, but quickly dismissed it. Also, Fogg never punched Detective Fix after being released from jail near the film’s finale. He simply insulted the detective’s skills as a whist player.

I might as well stop beating around the bush. What is my opinion of the movie? Like I had stated earlier, I still find it entertaining after all these years. I love travel movies. And I found the movie’s caricatures of the different nationalities that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Fix encounters on the journey rather amusing – including encounters with a boorish American politician portrayed by John Caradine, Charles Boyer’s Parisian travel agent/balloonist and Reginald Denny’s parody of an Anglo-Indian official. The movie’s funniest moment featured Fogg and Aouda’s encounter with a Chinese gentlemen portrayed by Korean actor Philip Ahn, who proved that his English was a lot better than Fogg’s Chinese-English pidgin. The locations in this movie are absolutely gorgeous, especially Fogg and Passepartout’s trip over France, and the rail journeys through India and the United States. And Lionel Lindon’s Oscar winning photography is accompanied by the memorable score written by another one of the film’s Oscar winners – Victor Young. In fact, the most memorable thing about ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is Young’s score. Even after 52 years, it is the first thing many fans mention about the film.

I was surprised to learn that Cantinflas had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his portrayal of Passepartout. Frankly, I found this as astonishing as the movie’s Best Picture Oscar. Mind you, his performance was a little more animated than David Niven’s portrayal of the stiff-upper lip Phineas Fogg. And his dance with a young dancer at a Spanish cantina was entertaining. But a Golden Globe award? I cannot think of one actor or actress in that movie who deserved any acting award. As for Niven, I think he may have gone a little too far in his portrayal of the reserved Fogg. There were times when he came off as a bit inhuman. I have to wonder about Todd’s decision to cast a young American actress from Virginia to portray the Indian Princess Aouda. Shirley MacLaine, ladies and gentlemen? She is the last person I would have chosen for that particular role. I must give her credit for not succumbing to some clichéd portrayal that would have left moviegoers wincing and instead, gave a restrained yet charming performance. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the persistent detective, Mr. Fix, was just as restrained. Which turned out to be a miracle, considering his reputation as a cinematic ham. Sadly, Newton passed away from a heart attack before the movie’s release.

One might ask why I had expressed astonishment at the thought of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1956. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the movie deserved such a major award. Sure, the movie is entertaining. And that is about the best thing I can say about the film. Granted, Victor Young’s score and Lionel Lindon’s photography deserved its Oscars. But I feel that the movie did not deserve to be acknowledged as 1956’s Best Picture. Not over other films like ”THE KING AND I””FRIENDLY PERSUASION””GIANT””THE SEARCHERS” or even ”THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. Nor do I feel that the three men who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay deserve their statuettes. Heck, the movie featured a major blooper carried over from the novel – namely Fix’s revelation to Passepartout in Hong Kong about the British authorities’ suspicions that Fogg may be responsible for robbing the Bank of England before his departure. Passepartout told Aouda about Fix’s suspicions . . . but neither of them ever told Fogg. Not even when they were about to reach the shores of Britain. Why?

Another scene that continues to baffle me centered around Passepartout’s bullfight in Spain. Impressed by the manservant’s cape work during a dance in a cantina, a Spanish-Arab sea captain named Achmed Abdullah (Gilbert Roland) promised to give Fogg and Passepartout passage to Marseilles if the manservant would take part in a bullfight. What started as a comic moment for Cantinflas turned into a bullfight that promised to never end. The damn thing lasted five minutes too long and I felt more than happy when Fogg and Passepartout finally arrived in Suez.

I have read Jules Verne’s novel. At best, it was entertaining fluff. I could say the same for the 1956 movie. Like the novel, lacks any real substance. For me, both versions struck me as nothing more than a detailed travelogue disguised as a series of vaguely written adventures. Unfortunately, the movie’s entertaining fluff lasted slightly over three (3) hours. Three hours? I like the movie a lot, but an obviously dated three hour movie based upon a piece of fluff like Verne’s novel just does not seem worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Despite the movie’s undeserved Oscar, I still find it entertaining after all these years.