Archive for hero

Southern Comfort: R.I.P. Powers Boothe

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

When I was in my late teens, my buddies and I, fans of Walter Hill’s recent hit 48 Hours (1982), somehow stumbled upon his earlier not-such-a-hit Southern Comfort (1981). I’m thinking it was shown on cable, and/or had come out on video, but the upshot is I watched the film several times, and loved it. Action films per se aren’t usually my thing, mostly because the vast majority of them are so formulaic, and on top of that, as a general rule, I find onscreen violence for its own sake (fist fights, gun play, explosions) exceedingly boring without, at the very least, some sort of angle to make it interesting. Walter Hill ALWAYS brings such angles to the table. In fact, 48 Hours was a great example — it hybridized two different genres, comedy and the police thriller, in a way that ended up being extremely influential. It’s not Hill’s fault that now there are a million comedy-buddy-cop-movies. He can take pride in having created the template.

Southern Comfort has a million such angles: a Louisiana bayou location; exotic Cajun culture, a moody Ry Cooder soundtrack. And it has the only kind of macho hero I’m interested in: one who has palpable brains. Actors with this quality are rare enough that I can easily rattle off the ones I like: William Holden, George C. Scott, Tommy Lee Jones. With such heroes at the center of the picture, whether it’s present in the script or not, you can at least project some kind of higher battle onto whatever’s transpiring. It not just “man vs. man” but “man vs. society” (usually the dregs of society) in such pictures. For me, Powers Boothe had this quality, and in Southern Comfort, you don’t have to project it, Hill’s script is all about it.

The film is about a unit of Louisiana National Guardsmen who are sent out on maneuvers in the bayou, and, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and ineptitude, run afoul of local Cajun trappers…with fatal consequences. And so this is another reason the movie is a favorite of mine: one of my favorite story structures is the “And Then There Were None” scenario. We meet a diverse group of people who are thrust together for whatever reason,  and then, just as we are getting to know and like them, one of by one, a malevolent force picks them off.  The formula is generally used to good effect in disaster movies and war pictures. It’s also used in slasher movies, generally to much worse effect, because the whole concept hinges on character; if it’s poorly written and acted, the structure has no impact. In Southern Comfort, Hill not only wrote a riveting script, but put together a terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Boothe, it’s Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Alan Autry (billed as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, et al as the Guardsmen; Brion James stands out as one of the Cajuns.

For the most part the Guardsmen, stand-ins for the human race, are all idiots. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief — that a group of guys from Louisiana would be so ignorant of this cherished local culture, and so lacking in respect of people on their own home turf. By “respect” I don’t just mean manners, but also a healthy fear and wariness of those with superior skill. The Cajuns have lived in these parts for generations. They know every inch of the terrain, whereas the Guardsmen are hopelessly lost, the proverbial Babes in the Woods. The Cajuns live off the land as trappers. THEY LAY TRAPS. And the nearest law is very far away. But the Guardsmen provoke them needlessly, steal their boats, scare them with their machine guns (which only fire blanks, but the locals don’t know that). It seems very much a metaphor for Vietnam (and Hollywood hadn’t yet fully rolled out Vietnam as a genre. That would come during the second half of the decade.) It also anticipates by a decade some real life domestic run-ins like Ruby Ridge.

Aloof and above all these assholes are Boothe and Carradine, who manage to keep their wits about them and emerge from the ordeal with their hides intact. Boothe was an inspired choice, one not every producer or casting director would have been smart enough to make. At the time, he was best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Jim Jones in the CBS tv movie The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). He had been so good in that part, so creepy and chilling, it was hard to imagine he could ever be a hero in anything, let alone ever be anything but Jim Jones ever again. But, when we saw him in his many subsequent roles, a palpable decency came to seem one of his fundamental qualities. A strong, silent type with a thoughtful nature. (Although, with that dark brow, he could still play a villain, as in in his memorable turn as Curly Bill in 1993’s Tombstone).

At any rate, despite the many things I’ve seen him in over the years, Boothe’s role in Southern Comfort will always be the one I think of first. It’s not a part that required much emotional range or anything, his character is merely sensible and stoic, but I like what the character represents, and how Boothe inhabited that character, in an old fashioned Hollywood kind of way. He passed away yesterday at age 68, of what we are told were “natural causes”. (Not too natural, 68 is pretty young). He was always a welcome sight on screens big and small and will be missed by fans like me.


The Glory That is Heston

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2012 by travsd

Behold, His mighty hand.

Today is the birthday of Charlton Heston (1923-2008).

When I was a kid, my third favorite movie (behind The Wizard of Oz and The Poseidon Adventure) was The Ten Commandments (1956). I was an extremely religious kid, and was encouraged to be so, so I watched the film annually when it was broadcast on television with absolute credulity, as though it were a documentary concerning literal, true events (even as my nascent libido was being fanned into existence by the hot scenes between Heston and Anne Baxter. This is why Cecil B. Demille was a genius).

Or was he? Heston as the Jewish lawgiver? Demille said he cast him because of the uncanny resemblance between him (see above) and the famous Michaelangelo sculpture. But although the “look” above may be more in line with what we think of when we think of the actual Moses, when I think of “Heston’s Moses”, what I’m really picturing is Heston: something more like this:

That is, Moses as He-Man, Superhero, and Slave-Chile Hercules. He and Demille collaborated on a reinvention of this semi-historical, semi-mythical figure from our past. They Americanized him. In retrospect, one asks: a macho Moses? Well, okay. Andre Bazin wrote a terrific essay about this peculiar phenomenon, calling Heston an “axiom of cinema”. Meaning, I think, that Heston the movie star acts upon our consciousness on a symbolic, not a naturalistic level. Even a theoretically Judeo-Christian movie like The Ten Commandments is really a kind of Trojan horse for paganism; the real God to be worshipped here, the Idol, the Golden Calf is Heston. (Although I have done plenty of worshipping of Anne Baxter).

Odd to think, a half century after his heyday, that I find myself nostalgic in a way for Heston’s softer edges, for (of all things) his subtlety and humanity. For when I think of his successors I think of wayward progeny run amok. He was replaced as Hollywood’s physical Ubermensch in the 1980s by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the incarnation is hypertrophied, grotesque, a Germanic rather than an American ideal. A beast lacking all sensitivity, Arnold is not (as Heston was) an underdog rising to the occasion. He is an overdog, looking to swat insects. As such, Schwarzenegger represents an unfortunate sea change in American culture. Once we were looking to “make the world safe for democracy,” battling long-established, powerful empires in order to do so.  Now we “take the fight to the enemy” pre-emptively in order to “protect our interests”, invariably against adversaries far weaker and poorer than we are. This is reflected in our movies, where the supposed hero is usually some kind of robot monster who simply mows down those who get in his way and feels nothing about it.

And what of another man of the Right, another maker of Biblical epics? That role has largely been filled by Mel Gibson. But where Heston played Jewish heroes (Ten Commandments, Ben Hur), Gibson is an anti-semite. Where Heston wears the hairshirt and suffers through heroic ordeals, Gibson takes the ritual to sado-massochistic levels. Heston, like any normal person, waited until he was an old man to turn into a cuckoo. Gibson tumbled head first into ranting dementia in the prime of life. Ranting dementia — the coin of the realm in 2012.

Who today has got the heroic dimensions PLUS a moral compass? The Russell Crowe of Gladiator perhaps. (Although I never heard of Heston throwing a telephone at anyone).

I think it was the association of Heston with Biblical heroism that made him transition so well into the films of his career Renaissance of the late 60s and 70s, the tales of Apocalypse and disaster: Planet of the Apes (1968) and its first sequel, Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), and Two Minute Warning (1976). He had already braved plagues, floods and deserts; such trials were nothing new. Even The Greatest Show on Earth [1953] had a train wreck — one of the most realistic in movie history, I might add.

I had the pleasure of hearing him speak once. He introduced (actually spoke at length on) Touch of Evil at the Virginia Film Festival. The film is usually counted among his mis-steps (“Charlton Heston as a Mexican?! Haw-haw!) but though he is woefully miscast, I think perhaps his portrayal is a tad more salutory than that of, oh I don’t know, Eli Wallach’s in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, don’t you think? And without Heston’s judgment and advocacy, we wouldn’t have had Orson Welles’ last studio film, which is a masterpiece of its kind.

Brownface ain’t too hip, but in his favor one can’t help but point out that two years later, Heston was marching with Dr. King for civil rights, in a time when for a Hollywood actor to do so was considered risky. Later, he tacked far to the right, when that too was considered risky for a Hollywood actor. Hiring Welles? Risky. I think the bottom line is that he was a bit of a contrarian, one with a Jeremiah (or, if you must, a Moses) complex. What’s the virtue in preaching to the converted?

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