The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen:RoboCop aka What it is to be Human

(contains spoilers)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action/sci-fi classic RoboCop is not just a hilarious satirical masterclass, a special-effects showcase replete with religious symbolism (RoboCop is Jesus!), or one of the best action films ever made. It absolutely is all of these things, but it’s also a study on identity and what it means to be human, and what better way to explore such a complex subject than in a film that features a shoot-out in a cocaine factory?

To explore how RoboCop does this it’s beneficial to consider phenomenology. Phenomenology is the philosophical study of how the human experience and consciousness is shaped by phenomena (any existing thing, “something that exists and can be seen, felt, tasted, etc” (Cambridge dictionary definition)). How does this apply to film, and especially, how does it apply to RoboCop? There are many avenues of phenomenological exploration in film:

“the emphasis can either lie on the film-as-intentional-object or the viewer-as-experiencing-subject. Moreover, one can distinguish various degrees of generality and specificity: from a general description of the experience of film as such (Harald Stadler, Vivian Sobchack) to an investigation of very specific aspects that we experience when watching films. Think of the lived body experience of senses like touch (Laura Marks, Jennifer Barker) or smell (Vivian Sobchack), the spatial experience of video images (Steve Lipkin) or depth in film (Trevor Elkington), the temporal experience of documentary films (Malin Wahlberg) or slow cinema (Jakob Boer), the collective experience of the cinema auditorium (Julian Hanich) or the aesthetic experience of film worlds (Daniel Yacavone).” (Ferenc-Flatz & Hanich, What Is Film Phenomenology?)

German philosopher Edmund Husserl describes phenomenology as “the reflective study of the essence of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.” (Smith 2007), and if we consider the “first-person point of view” to be that of the camera, we can see how it can be imagined that a film is something that actively perceives phenomena, as well as consider the viewer’s experience of what the camera shows them, and how it is presented. In The Film and the New Psychology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about how films are constructed in a precise way which elicits a particular response from the viewer, a rhythmic amalgamation of sound and image, “the ensemble tells us something very precise which is neither a thought nor a reminder of sentiments we have felt in our own lives.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964 pg. 56). In the most simple terms, film can make us feel.

But what does this have to do with RoboCop? We can compare two scenes to get an idea of the different ways film can make us feel, both in emotionally (laughter, sadness, anger, etc) and physically (discomfort, pain, etc). In both the ED-209 boardroom scene and Murphy (Peter Weller)’s death at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and friends we witness the gruesome and bloody murder of a man, but the audience response to each is entirely different. In the boardroom, newly designed enforcement droid ED-209 malfunctions while being demonstrated and shoots an executive named Kinney to death. The tragedy is brushed off as a “glitch”, and the atmosphere in the room is one of annoyance due to money lost in developing a malfunctioning product rather than horror at the needless loss of human life, with the violence being so excessive that it ventures into the cartoonish. The audience doesn’t feel any tragedy or horror, only a satirical jab at corporate America, entirely down to what we are shown and the tone that is set by how it is shown to us. When we watch Murphy’s death scene, we come away with an entirely different feeling. It’s uncomfortable, it’s horrifying, and there’s a much greater feeling of pain and tragedy. What we see, what we hear and the way see and hear it creates an entirely different tone, and creates an entirely different feeling. When Clarence brings Murphy to his knees by striking him with his shotgun, there’s a close-up of the impact and an accompanying meaty thud to drive home the force for the audience. Clarence toys with Murphy, taking his time and revelling in his torture of him, the camera lingering as Clarence slowly aims his shotgun at different parts of Murphy’s body, the stoic yet faintly fearful eyes of Murphy contrasted with the joyful malice etched in Clarence’s face. When the shotgun blast obliterates Murphy’s hand there is a short shot of the impact, enough to see the devastation, before quickly cutting to Clarence and friends’ reaction of laughter. The criminals take glee in the violence they perpetrate against Murphy, and it serves to emphasise the cruelty and malice of the event. Much more time is devoted to Murphy’s experience of this violence compared to Kinney in the boardroom scene. We see Murphy cradle the ruined stump of his hand as he staggers in pain around the room before hearing his anguished screams when the rest of the criminals unleash volley after volley of shotgun blasts into him. The violence here, while still graphic and abundant, is much less excessive and gore-filled than Kinney’s obliteration, keeping the horror grounded in reality. We also see the shock and horror in Murphy’s partner Lewis (Nancy Allen)’s face as she witnesses the assault, unable to help. The difference in the depiction of and reaction to the violence in each of these scenes creates two entirely different feelings for the viewer, and when Clarence shoots Murphy in the head at the end of the sequence, “killing” him, the camera focuses on Murphy’s lifeless face and glassed over eyes, and it’s at this point that the film begins to explore what it means to be human.

Clarence Boddicker torments Murphy as one of his fellow thugs looks on laughing

As Murphy’s lifeless body is wheeled through a hospital corridor we witness the pronouncement of his death through Murphy’s POV. The tubes and harsh lights visible in the shot accompanied with the closeness of the men attempting to resuscitate Murphy create a claustrophobic and dire atmosphere. When the medical staff use the defibrillator on Murphy, we hear the jolt of electricity and cut to Murphy, eyes glazed and wide open, jolting along with it. The marriage of what we hear and what we see here magnifies the impact of it, creating an impression that the viewer can almost feel the shock themselves. Inserted in this sequence is a shot of Murphy’s wife and son standing outside his home, waving goodbye and smiling, and the camera pulls back from them at a rapid pace signifying the death of what makes Murphy human; his memories, emotions and personality. The medical staff verify Murphy’s death, the screen fades to black, a moment of stillness, and then the film seems to boot up like a computer, the POV now noticeably different. There seems to be an overlay with scan-lines and green text, like a computer system. It is through this difference that the change from Murphy to RoboCop is evident. We see engineers testing his vision, hearing, and other capabilities and see these functions represented graphically on screen such as soundwaves modulating what he is hearing, and a textual representation of the “program” that is being used, e.g. “Voice/Stress”. All of this serves to emphasise the now mechanical nature of our protagonist and his change from Murphy to RoboCop, but also allows the audience to feel the life in these interactions as we experience them in the same way that RoboCop would, all from his POV, which somewhat paradoxically makes him seem somewhat more alive and present for the audience, rather than just the object or property that Omni Consumer Products now views him as.

Engineers test RoboCop’s capabilities

The film continues in this way, with various scenes establishing RoboCop as different from the usual police officer, with shots of his robotic and unnatural way of walking and accompanying mechanical sounds of his limbs and joints moving, the shooting range scene showing the difference in his weaponry and capabilities, and a series of scenes showing RoboCop thwarting crimes in his own, somewhat impersonal style. At this stage of the film, it seems RoboCop has lost his humanity with even his voice seeming more robotic in pitch, tone and delivery. He seems not much more than a machine designed to fight crime, only stopping to recharge in a specially constructed chair and consume a nutrient paste (‘It tastes like baby food!’). Even at this stage however traces of Murphy still remain, such as the signature spin of his pistol before holstering it, in some of the phrases he uses and in his style of driving, but these seem buried deep in whatever subconscious that still remains in the brain contained within RoboCop. His old partner on the force Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognises these behaviours and comes to believe Murphy is still alive through RoboCop.

RoboCop “sleeps” as engineers monitor his activity

RoboCop begins to experiences memories of his previous life as Murphy, including something of a nightmare replaying his death at the hands of Clarence & co, and becomes fully aware of his previous life as Murphy after an encounter at a petrol station with Emil (Paul McCrane), who was one of the thugs involved in Murphy’s murder. RoboCop comes across Emil in the midst of an armed robbery and proclaims ‘Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.’ in much the same manner as Murphy did when he came across Emil and friends in the steel mill before his murder. Emil reacts in shock exclaiming ‘We killed you!’, before causing a fire and explosion at the petrol station. We see RoboCop react to Emil, frozen by the revelation, and feel his shock and burgeoning understanding. This is played against the replay of Emil’s exclamation through RoboCop’s memory, which plays to the audience through POV in a mechanical way with the overlay of scanlines and a “playback” caption. RoboCop subdues and arrests Emil, then finds information on Emil’s associates and suspected crimes through the police database, accessed mechanically with a spike built into his hand.

RoboCop replays Emil’s revelation in his “memory”

This leads RoboCop to visiting the address listed for Murphy, his old home, and this sequence definitively blurs the lines between Murphy and RoboCop through its use of POV and choice of shots to convey memory and flashback. As RoboCop walks through the now empty and for-sale house Murphy lived in with his wife and son not so long ago, there are various flashbacks, and it is how these flashbacks are presented that effects the impression the audience gets about who is remembering. What is most important is that first, RoboCop surveys the scene in the usual POV style we have come to associate with him; with overlay scanlines and green text as if on a computer screen. There is a burst of static and the scene changes to signify that this is now a memory of Murphy. The POV during the memories is devoid of the signifiers we have come to associate with RoboCop, the scanlines and green text are now gone. This is important because we have already been shown how RoboCop remembers things, he literally plays them back in his head using his operating system, but when RoboCop’s memories begin to manifest in the house this is all gone, it’s organic and much more natural than mechanical. This signifies we are seeing Murphy’s memory, and that Murphy is slowly becoming a greater part of RoboCop. If Murphy’s memories are RoboCop’s memories too, then it stands to reason that Murphy and RoboCop are one and the same.

RoboCop remembers his life as Murphy, the digital overlay melts away

All of this leads to a quest for justice for RoboCop, seeking to punish those who were responsible for Murphy’s death. This results in the aforementioned shoot-out in a cocaine factory where Clarence is arrested and puts RoboCop on the trail of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), a senior executive at OCP responsible for much of the ills and crime inflicted on the people of Detroit, and in confronting Jones, RoboCop (and the audience) is served a stark reminder of his mechanical nature and the restraints that represents. When RoboCop attempts to place Jones under arrest, a hitherto classified directive in RoboCop’s programming makes itself known, stating RoboCop is unable to arrest any senior OCP staff, and attempting to violate it sends RoboCop’s systems haywire. We see this through RoboCop’s POV, the word’s “Product Violation” flashing in green text on the screen and bursts of static affecting the video feed of RoboCop’s vision as Jones explains ‘We can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?’.  Another OCP ‘product’ ED-209 is called in to finish RoboCop off, but RoboCop manages to escape, heavily damaged, and is rescued and taken to an abandoned steel mill by Lewis to recover.

A helpless RoboCop attempts escape

It’s at the steel mill that we first see RoboCop without his helmet, and the construction of the shot where we first see how he looks reveals multiple layers. The shot focuses on Lewis holding up a sheet of metal as a mirror for RoboCop which we can see his reflection in, and also shows the back of RoboCop’s head and part of his shoulder, slightly out of focus on the far left of the frame. So here we are seeing Lewis’s sombre but muted first impression of her old partner’s new look alongside RoboCop’s himself seeing it for the first time, as well as seeing what human elements remain of RoboCop ourselves as an audience. The distorted reflection itself helps to highlight the blurring of the lines between man and machine, and reflects the doubt and struggle RoboCop is himself having about his identity as Murphy.

Murphy (and Lewis) see what he has now become

RoboCop chooses to leave his helmet off for the remainder of the film, and it is in this manner that he bursts in to the OCP board-room in the final scene of the film to once again confront Dick Jones. He lays out Jones’ charges in front of OCP chairman the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy) and explains he is unable to act against an OCP executive due to his programming. RoboCop presents his proof using the data-spike in his hand to playback a video of Jones admitting to the murder of another executive, and Jones reacts by taking the Old Man hostage at gun point and making demands. All the while, there are shots of RoboCop’s POV throughout the sequence, with “Directive 4” flashing in green text to highlight the mechanical restriction against his free will to act. Jones is fired by the Old Man and we see the green text disappear, RoboCop thanks the Old Man and, in true RoboCop fashion, riddles Jones full of holes and sends him through the high-rise window to fall to his death. The film ends as the Old Man asks for RoboCop’s name, who replies ‘Murphy’ with a smile and the film cuts to credits.

This is why I love RoboCop. Not only for it’s glorious action set-pieces, suitably slimy and irredeemable villains, dark sense of humour or hilarious satirical elements, but also because it is, rather unbelievably, a potent and stirring philosophical study on identity and what makes us human. The film shows us Murphy, then shows us RoboCop, and finally shows us how the two are one. The fact that it explores all this us while also featuring a shoot-out in a cocaine factory, a Toxic-Waste Man, a robot falling down the stairs and about two tonnes of broken glass is just a bonus.

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

(contains spoilers)

Don’t Look Now has the unique honour of being the first (and so far only) thing that I have studied for a class and ended up enjoying even more afterwards. Usually, when you put something under the microscope and try to pick it apart and analyse it, it can take away a bit of the romance and mystery of it, but when I went back and looked deeper into the construction of Don’t Look Now, especially its editing, it made me appreciate it even more. It leads you long the same way of thinking as its main character John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), but on subsequent viewings when you know the full picture, you can see that everything was there for you to find the truth of it, if you only knew where to look. As John himself says in the beginning of the film, “Nothing is what it seems.”.

Synopsis

Shortly after a tragic accident at their home in which their daughter Christine drowns in a pond, John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) are in Venice where John is doing work restoring churches. They meet a woman named Wendy and her blind sister Heather. Heather claims to be psychic, and tells Laura that she can see Christine, and that she is happy. John scoffs and doesn’t believe, but Laura is taken in by them, with her mood even improving after these interactions. John himself keeps seeing a child-sized figure  around Venice wearing a red coat similar to Christine’s. Laura returns to England after receiving a phone call from their son’s boarding school that he has been in an accident, and after she leaves John sees her on a boat in Venice with the sisters. Fearing she has been tricked or abducted, John contacts the police who arrest and hold the women until John receives a call from Laura in England. Their son is fine and she is returning to Venice. John goes to the station to have the women released, and after seeing then back to their hotel leaves and walks in the Venetian night. He sees the red-coated figure, and follows them to a deserted building. John approaches them, thinking it is a child, saying he is a friend. The figure turns and we see that it is in fact a monstrous female dwarf, who slices John’s neck with a large knife, killing him. The film ends with Laura and the sisters on a funeral boat on the Venetian canals, just as John had seen them in what is now revealed as his own psychic flash earlier.

An anguished John pulls Christine’s lifeless body from the pond

When I think about what I like about Don’t Look Now, I always think of its editing,and how they are put together to create distinct associations in our minds. I think about an editing experiment devised by Soviet film-maker Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s. In the experiment, he used an image of a man’s face and juxtaposed it with a variety of different images.  Each sequence would elicit a different response, if the man’s face was paired with an image of food, the viewer would think the man looked hungry, if it was paired with an image of a girl in a coffin, audiences would find him to look mournful. This is the known as the Kuleshov effect, and the idea is that the way in which you sequence images can be manipulated to elicit the desired response from an audience. I think of this in relation to Don’t Look Now because there is so much juxtaposition between the images it shows us, and I was totally led by these images down the same path as John in the film, focusing on the red-coated figure.

The opening sequence in which the main characters John and Laura Baxter’s child Christine drowns introduces the audience to three main images and associations that appear throughout the film; the colour red, water, and glass. The sequence features John and Laura inside the family home cross-cut with shots of their two children playing outside out of sight of their parents and a fair distance away. We see Christine’s red raincoat reflected in the water followed by a graphic match cut to the fireplace in the home, then shortly after a close-up of a red hooded figure in one of John’s slides graphic match cuts to a shot of Christine in her red coat reflected in the water. John spills a glass of water on the slide causing the red dye on it to run, expanding in size, and in the climax of the sequence there is another graphic match cut from this slide to John pulling Christine out of the water, with the red shape on the slide appearing foetal in nature and matches Christine’s body position in the next shot. The shot of the slide is intercut with John pulling Christine from the water in anguish and is shown multiple times, cementing the image in the mind of the audience.  The red of Christine’s coat is burned into our minds and the colour becomes intrinsically linked to Christine herself.

John’s slide, with colours running after he spills water on it

Glass and water are also prominent in the opening sequence, with a telling cut that marries the two together. A shot of Christine’s foot splashing into a puddle is followed by an immediate match cut to her brother cycling over and shattering a pane of glass on the ground, creating an association of fragmentation and adding violence to the displacement of water.  The breaking of glass itself becomes a powerful image in the course of the film; whenever we see a shot in which glass is broken, it marks a fatal (Christine’s drowning and John’s murder) or near-fatal (John’s fall at the mosaic) incident. This is further underlined in the scene where Laura faints in the cafe and knocks over the table, sending its contents to the ground. We cut to a shot of two glasses on the floor, still intact, and following this accident Laura recovers and seems in better health and mood than before, strengthening this association and importance of glass in the audience’s mind. Water and glass seem ever-present in Venice (water more-so, of course), so it’s never long before John and Laura (and by extension, the audience) see it again to remind them of Christine’s death.

The editing of Don’t Look Now also contributes greatly to the audience’s impression of the strength and love of John and Laura’s relationship, and closeness of the family. For example, in the beginning of the film, Laura puts her hand to her mouth and there is a graphic match cut to Christine making a similar gesture outside as she plays, and in the same sequence as Christine throws her ball in the air there is a cut matching this motion to John throwing a packet of cigarettes to Laura. Shots of this type help to emphasise the closeness of the family and show them as intrinsically linked members of a unit.  In John and Laura’s sex scene this feeling of love and tenderness is deepened as shots of their lovemaking are cross-cut with them getting dressed and preparing to go out together afterwards. The passion and intensity of their lovemaking is juxtaposed with the normality and peacefulness of their preparations for the evening, and the association created by the use of these images is that there is love and tenderness in even the more banal aspects of the Baxter’s relationship, and again we see the film’s associative editing in action.

Thrashing rain dissolving to a shot of the glassy, unseeing eyes of Heather

There are many other examples of editing of this type throughout Don’t Look Now, and generally work towards creating a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity in what we are seeing, leading us (like John) to the wrong conclusions.  One such example is when John is in a police inspector’s office and talking to him about Heather and Wendy. The inspector looks off-frame, and there is a cut to the two sisters outside in a courtyard seen through the window as if matched to the inspector’s eyeline, but we cannot be sure if this is what the inspector sees as he passes no comment on it. This type of editing, where we are shown carefully selected images which create specific associations, cause the audience to react in a certain way, though we do not realise the true nature of these images and their importance until the film’s conclusion.

A further two examples of this type of ambiguity are delivered through shots of the sisters placed at opportune and sinister moments. The first example comes as Laura implores John to come visit Heather and Wendy with her as they attempt to contact Christine, and John refuses. Laura says, “She’s going to try and reach her.” and there is a cut to the sisters laughing uproariously in their room, then back to John and Laura’s conversation. This of course appears unsettling, as if the laughter is in the face of Laura’s comment, but no ulterior motives are revealed during Laura’s visit to the sisters. A second example occurs when John is working and inspecting mosaics which had recently arrived. As he climbs the ladder to the platform high above a shot of Wendy laughing is superimposed over him, These shots associate the sisters as something sinister and underhand, to be suspicious of, but as we will come to see by the film’s end, this is not necessarily the case.

Wendy laughing, ominously superimposed on a shot of John ascending a tall ladder

Though we have been shown many images throughout the film that have created specific associations in our minds, we will come to realise what was important and what was misleading through the sequence at the end of the film in which John is murdered. A small woman in a red coat slashes at John’s throat and as his death throes are intercut with images we have seen throughout the film, as if to remind us what we have seen throughout the film and where we went wrong in coming to the same conclusions as John in the film. We see Laura, Christine, their son Johnny, Heather, images of the water of Venice and the pond in which Laura drowned, the slide with the red hooded figure, glass breaking and rainfall, as well as the film’s previous associations for images of glass reiterated with a graphic match cut from John breaking a pane of glass with his foot to the shot of his son Johnny running over a pane of glass in the garden we saw early in the film. Through the associative editing throughout the film we are misled, just as John was, that the figure in the red coat was Christine and this slide show of images as he dies shows us the associations we had made may not have been as clear or telling as we thought. The choice of shots throughout the film, their placement and length and the juxtaposition created by these choices all contribute to the power of the associations they create in our minds such as in the examples throughout this post, and show Don’t Look Now’s power to be in its editing. It’s a fairly simple story, but told and shown to us in such an incredible way. I struggle to think of a film which has editing quite like Don’t Look Now. If there are any others done quite so well, I’d love to see them.

Note: This post was adapted a bit from an essay I wrote about this film for class, so I had read some books/articles about the film to prepare for that. These included, but were not limited to, J. Izod (1992), R. Barsam (2013), Reisz et al (2009), J. Gomez (1981), A. Patch (2010), M. Demspey (1974) and M. Hubris-Cherrier (2011).

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: First Blood

First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

(contains spoilers)

I never saw First Blood when I was growing up, my only experience of the Rambo character being First Blood Part II where he singlehandedly frees a bunch of POWs in a Vietnamese camp killing scores of enemy soldiers in the process (I looked it up, it seems the body count was 75…). So, when I sat down to watch First Blood for the first time a few years ago I expected something similar: Sylvester Stallone violently murdering hordes of his enemies in the name of war and glory. Instead, what I saw was a damaged and fragile Vietnam veteran being driven to desperation by an abusive and short-sighted small-town police force. First Blood was a much more solemn and substantial story than I was expecting, with a good deal of emotional weight. The biggest surprise of all was that only one person died in the whole film, and it was entirely accidental…

Synopsis

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is travelling on foot in the Pacific Northwest with plans to meet up with an old army buddy who he served with in Vietnam. When he arrives at the address he was given he asks where his friend is and a family member informs him that he died the previous summer, of cancer he had contracted after the war due to exposure to the chemical weapons used there. John leaves and continues his walk, coming upon a small town in Washington named Hope. The local Sheriff John Teasle (Brian Dennehy) notices John and his army attire and takes him for a drifter, picks him up and leaves him at the other end of town and sends him on his way, telling him that the town of Hope doesn’t want his kind, even if the visit is just for the time it takes to have a meal. After being dropped off, John turns right back around and begins walking back into Hope.

Teasle notices John re-entering town, turns around and arrests him. He confiscates John’s knife and brings him into the station to be processed.  A particularly nasty officer at the station named Galt is extremely rough with John, who is silent and unwilling to follow commands. Galt at one point even uses his baton on John and beats him. When the officers hold John to be shaved he has flashbacks to his time in a PoW camp in Vietnam and struggles loose, eventually fighting his way free of the station, injuring some officers in the process. He steals a motorbike once outside and rides off into the hills, followed by Teasle, who orders backup to apprehend John including a helicopter and dogs. The police discover that John Rambo is a decorated Vietnam war hero and Green Beret but nevertheless a chase ensues which culminates in Galt going against orders and trying to shoot and kill John from the helicopter rather than just apprehending him, which causes John to throw a rock at the helicopter in desperation, cracking the windscreen and making the pilot lose control, causing Galt to lose balance and fall from the helicopter to his death on the rocks below.

Galt takes shots at Rambo from a helicopter as Rambo tries to flee the police

John tries to give himself up peacefully, stating that it was all accidental but the remaining police fire on him and he flees further into the hills. The police continue their pursuit and John incapacitates them all one by one (causing injury, but no death), using his guerrilla warfare training to set traps and hide in his environment. The final man he incapacitates is Teasle, and holding a knife to his throat he tells him that he could have killed them all, and that if they continue to pursue him he will give them a war they “wouldn’t believe”.

John pounces on Teasle in the hills, delivering his warning

The state police and local National Guard are called in, as well as John’s former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). Col. Trautman advises Teasle to call off the search and allow John to escape so he can be recovered with less hostility at a future time. Undeterred however, Teasle continues to push for the capture of John Rambo. Eventually the National Guard blows up a mine John is hiding in and, believing him to be dead, the search dissipates. John, of course, survives the blast and finds an alternative exit through the mine, and upon his exit he hijacks an army truck, drives it to town and blows it up along with a gas station. He creates a further diversion by shooting out power lines and destroying a gun shop, before heading to the police station at the other end of town. While there he shoots and wounds Teasle, and is stopped before delivering a killing blow by Col. Trautman, who intervenes and warns John against it, stating it’s a sure way to end up killed by the waiting police outside. John breaks down crying, reflecting on the horrors he has had to endure in Vietnam and the miserable and aimless existence he found waiting for him back home. Col. Trautman consoles him, and he is led out of the building peacefully to be arrested as the film credits roll.

Trautman consoles John after breaking down

While there is some great action in First Blood, the films power and impact is down to something entirely different than just John Rambo being a badass super solider. There is a distinct emotional core to the film, and the violence and mayhem is treated in a sombre way rather than glorified and ostentatious. For example, in Rambo’s dispatching of his pursuers, we see exactly how terrified and out of their depth they are in the situation, and while we are firmly not on their side thanks to their prior treatment of Rambo at the station, we don’t revel in their subsequent injuries at his hands. In fact, it is distinctly unpleasant, with the injuries all appearing to be extremely painful (especially the officer who steps into a booby trap made of multiple sharp, pointed pieces of wood which deeply embed themselves into his legs) and careful attention given to their cries of agony and shouts for help. Juxtapose this with the previous sequence where Rambo is chased further into the woods by the officers and the dogs, it seems more exciting, with the audience wondering how Rambo might escape and the officers perhaps not treating the whole affair as seriously as they should, almost like it’s a hunt or wargame. Both the audience and officers are not yet aware of exactly what Rambo is capable of, but soon find out, to their horror.

The officers and dog handler continue their pursuit of Rambo

The death of Galt is an exception to this. It’s extremely quick, and we are only shown Galt’s fall from the helicopter and not the undoubtedly gruesome landing. We see his bloody corpse lying on the rocks in the aftermath, but are spared the more unpleasant details of the impact. The quick and largely unseen nature of the death, coupled with the audience perception of Galt as a loathsome bully, accidental nature of his death and the fact that Rambo was acting only in self defence contribute to a perception of blamelessness for Rambo, and further fuels our feelings that the continued aggression against him from the police officers is entirely unwarranted.

The police force itself is not portrayed as entirely barbaric however, while they are shown to treat Rambo poorly to some extent at the station, it is only Galt who can be said to be especially nasty and taking pleasure in his actions, with the others ranging from indifferent to reticent, although all are complicit in the abuse, and none do anything to stop it. The closest thing to help Rambo receives at the station is an officer who tells Rambo that going along and doing as he is told will be the best option for him. While sympathetic to his plight, this officer offers Rambo no real help. The audience might feel conflicted. Rambo should never have been arrested, has been treated extremely poorly at the station itself setting off episodes of PTSD, and only wishes to be left alone, but he has also been extremely uncooperative, injured and attacked some officers in his escaping the station and played a part in the death of another officer (however much the audience may feel it was deserved or an appropriate action), so we can understand why the police would continue to pursue him after he escapes. Even so, it is still clear who is in the wrong (the small-minded police force) and right (Rambo, who just wanted to pass through in peace), but the fact that the police force’s motivation to chase Rambo can be easily understood by the audience (even if they don’t agree with it) helps the film become less of a good vs. evil cartoon, and much more fully fleshed.

Rambo reveals his scarred body as the police process his arrest

First Blood does much to make us sympathise with Rambo and shed light on the horrors he and many other young men would have faced in Vietnam. For example, at the beginning of the film when Rambo is trying to track down his old army buddy, he shows a photo to a woman and explains that the man he is looking for is in the back of the photo because he was so large that he would’ve have taken up the full frame otherwise, and the woman explains that this same man is now dead, having withered away so badly thanks to cancer he brought back from Vietnam that he was so frail and small that even she could lift him easily by the end of his life. The short flashback sequences back to Rambo’s time in a POW camp also emphasise what a horrible time he has had, and that he is unable to escape it even back in his home country. Rambo may not have taken home a physical illness, but he is constantly mentally tormented by his experiences in Vietnam.

I can’t really imagine anyone other than Sylvester Stallone in this role, and he wonderfully portrays a tortured and mentally anguished man who has been backed into a corner by an aggressive and antagonistic small-town police force. I always find his eyes and face to have a forlorn, sombre quality in this film, and a quiet sadness. He is entirely believable as a super-capable and relentless soldier thanks to his physique and how he moves on screen, but also (and more importantly) he is able to convince us of the emotional and mental damage that has been wrought on this poor ex-soldier.

That we can sympathise with and root for a man who is so adept in violence, and who demonstrates that violent capability against the police is testament to the performance of Stallone and how the story unfolds. While it sometimes may seem a little far-fetched, such as with Galt bordering on cartoonishly evil, or how frighteningly well-prepared Rambo is in every physical situation that presents itself, the overall feeling I get from the film is one of realism and grit, especially in an emotional sense.  If you have only seen the sequels and found them to be excessively violent, over-the-top wish-fulfilment silliness, I would urge you to watch First Blood and be taken on a sometimes exciting, sometimes emotional and always entertaining journey.

 

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Police Story

Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)

(contains spoilers)

With Eureka Entertainment’s recently released remastered Blu Ray box set of Police Story Police Story 2, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Jackie Chan and Hong Kong action films: Police Story. 

Synopsis

The story starts with a police operation to apprehend a crime boss named Chu Tu and his men, who arrive at a shanty town to complete a drug deal. The police are undercover, monitoring the situation and waiting to strike, among them is Jackie Chan’s police officer character Chan Ka Kui. The police are discovered and a shoot-out ensues with the criminals making their escape. Chan chases down Chu Tu and his men as they drive through the shanty town (literally, in a spectacular set-piece which destroys the town entirely) and hijack a bus. Chan manages to stop the bus and places Chu Tu under arrest, along with some of Chu’s other men and his secretary Selina Fong.  Fong is released shortly after without charges, and Chan is assigned as her bodyguard as the police plan to call her as a witness in Chu’s upcoming trial.

Chu and his men escape through the shanty town

Chan arranges for one of his police friends to stage an assassination attempt on Selina to ensure her cooperation, which is successful, but when Chan has to fight off Chu’s men who are trying to kidnap Selina shortly afterwards, Chan realises things might be a little more serious. Selina soon discovers that the initial attempt on her life was staged, however, and records over a previous confession she made to Chan with what is made to sound like the pair fooling around in Chan’s apartment. Selina disappears and her absence at the trial coupled with the playing of the embarrassing new recording weakens the police’s case against Chu, who is released on bail.

Chu, lusting for revenge, lures Chan to where he is hiding Selina and his men ambush him with the help of Inspector Man, another police officer in Chan’s department who is on Chu’s payroll. Chu’s men shoot and kill Man with Chan’s service revolver, and Chan briefly manages to fight them off and allow Selina to escape. However, Chu’s men eventually subdue and knock Chan out with chloroform, and abandon him outside the city. Chan is the prime suspect for Man’s murder, and must catch and expose Chu in order to clear his name.

Inspector Man turns on Chan, shortly before being double crossed and killed himself

The story climaxes with a fight staged throughout a shopping mall, which Chu and his men have arrived at to catch Selina who has printed a large quantity of incriminating data which would expose Chu Tu as a crime lord. Chan chases them throughout the mall culminating in one of the greatest stunts Jackie Chan has done; leaping from the top floor of the mall and grabbing a pole covered in lights to slide down to the bottom, crashing through a canopy as he does so. The police arrive as Chan delivers a beating to Chu (and his lawyer!), and the film ends.

Chan takes down Chu after plunging multiple stories to capture him

The story itself is fairly simple and unexceptional, but what elevates the film is the masterful stunt-work and choreography of Chan and his stunt-team, and Chan’s comedic performance. The film itself is a series of breathtaking action set-pieces or beautifully choreographed fight scenes broken up by often comedic and often care-free scenes of story progression.  The story itself is not so important, but the more we see Chan Ka Kui interact with other characters the more we like and root for him, even if he is perhaps a little oafish and insensitive at times (particularly towards his long-suffering girlfriend May, played by Maggie Cheung). There’s a fair bit of slapstick humour, with Chan taking a cake to the face on more than one occasion, but it is in-keeping with the light tone of the film. Since Jackie Chan is a master of physical comedy, a modern-day Charlie Chaplin, these slapstick moments work well and never fail to raise at least a smile.

Chan after taking one of many cakes to the face

While Chan is the most entertaining thing on screen during the comedy scenes (as well as the action scenes, of course), the jokes wouldn’t hit the mark quite so well without the help of foils like May, Selina and Inspector Chou (who himself can be a little silly when alongside the staid and strait-laced Superintendent Li). With how good the action scenes are in Police Story, it would be understandable if the audience got restless in the more story-driven scenes, yearning for the next set-piece, but given the comedic tone and playful nature of the majority of these scenes there’s always something to keep us interested, until the latter third of the story which becomes much more serious and focused, by which point we know to anticipate the big action set piece we can feel just around the corner. The story itself is nothing special or fascinating, but how it is presented to us is endlessly entertaining.

Chan stops the bus containing Chu and his men, who fly through the front window in a mix of action and comedy

In any action scene in Police Story, the environment can become part of the action at any time, and this gives it a unique flair compared to Western action films. For example, Chan might use a chair as a weapon, or a mobile clothes rack, or use cars or furniture to jump on to evade or attack his assailants. What is also striking, as in most of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films, is that we see it all. No quick cuts or clever camera work to make us think it’s a fluid, action-packed fight, but rather we watch the stunts and choreography play out before us in all their glory. This is explored much better in Every Frame a Painting’s video essay on Jackie Chan. It’s testament to the hard work Jackie Chan and his stunt team put into the film, as to get the stunts just right takes a tremendous amount of training, talent and effort, as well as the perseverance to try it again and again until it looks as it should, and when we see the results on screen we know that it’s worth it.

Chan sends one of Chu’s men through the air and into a display at the shopping mall

There’s not much in the way of characterisation in terms of the villains, no particularly interesting character traits or magnetic personalities to draw us into the story or create any significant impact. For example, we don’t know much at all about Inspector Man, so when he shows up Chu’s office and agrees to help ambush Chan, and is subsequently killed after completing the task, there’s no shock or emotional impact associated with it, it merely moves the story along. Likewise, Chu and his associates just seem like stock bad-guy criminal characters rather than anything unique. This does not detract from the film’s quality however, as it is on the shoulders of Chan that we place our emotional attachment, and he is ably assisted by a variety of likeable and charming characters like May, Selina and Inspector Chou.

Chan uses the environment to his advantage

For me, Police Story is not just about incredible action or choreography, but also an incredibly likeable main character whose comedic flair brings levity and entertainment to every scene. Without this lightheartedness Police Story would be something I’d maybe be interested in watching clips of the action scenes of and nothing more, but as it is, it’s enjoyable the whole way through. It’s hard to describe or show just how wonderful the choreography and action set pieces are in Police Story just with words and pictures, so if you’re a fan of action, Jackie Chan or both all I can do is urge you to see this film and witness it for yourself.

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

(contains spoilers)

After the violent and grim nature of the past two entries(Unforgiven and Halloween), I felt it was time for something a little more optimistic and heartfelt. For that, I turn to Studio Ghibli, and their 1995 film Whisper of the Heart. When people talk about the best of Studio Ghibli, they’ll usually refer to Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and the likes of Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke, which are all incredible films, but for me Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart stands right up there with them all. Eschewing the fantasy settings and elements of a typical Miyazaki Ghibli film and instead following a teenage girl in contemporary Tokyo, Whisper of the Heart is a film about passion, art, inspiration, creativity and love, and the difficulties that can be faced in following your dreams.

The film follows a 14 year old girl named Shizuku, and begins with a look into her school and homelife. Shizuku seems bookish and creative, checking books out of the library at school and sharing lyrics she has rewritten for the song “Country Roads” with her friend Yuko. We see that her parents are both incredibly busy with work and studies, and Shizuku is largely left to her own devices, spending much of her time reading books in her room. When looking at the checkout cards in the books she has borrowed from the library, she notices the same name appearing on them all: Seiji Amasawa, and wonders what kind of person he might be (I imagine checkout cards don’t exist anymore and they just use computers now, but they used to have a card in each library book  into which they wrote the name of each person who borrowed it, and date). I love this as a narrative device, it’s really simple and lends itself well to romantic daydreaming. If someone is checking out all the same books as you, it’s likely they share your interests and you would imagine you’d get along well with them. Naturally, since Shizuku is a lover of romance and fairy tales, she lets her imagination run free. We also see as Shizuku meets a male fellow student, not knowing his name but finding his demeanour and attitude irritating, after he finds and reads her rewritten lyrics including a joke version “Country Roads” changed to “Concrete Roads”.

Shizuku and a cat on the train

Later, when delivering lunch to her father at the library where he works, Shizuku notices a cat on the train with her. It gets off at the same stop she does, so she decides to follow it, and ends up at an antique shop. She is drawn to a statue of a cat that the owner of the shop, Nishi, tells her is named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The Baron is part of a pair of statues, and Nishi tells Shizuku he has been looking for its partner for many years. He also shows Shizuku an old clock he has just finished repairing and tells her the romantic story behind it. Realising the time and that she’s late delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku runs from the shop to the library and as she nears the entrance she hears someone call her name. It’s the irritating schoolmate from earlier, who has arrived on his bike with the lunch she had left at the antique shop in her rush to the library. It’s establish Nishi is his grandfather, and he insults Shizuku as he gives her the lunchbag, and she notices the cat from before on the back of his bike as he rides away.

The film continues to follow Shizuku’s daily life, mainly at school, where we see her talk with her friend about crushes and the lyrics she is writing, until she again visits the antique shop, finding it closed but with the cat from before sitting outside. Her irritating schoolmate shows up again and lets her into the shop to look at the statue of the Baron, before she goes downstairs to find him working on making a violin. She discovers his ambition to become a violin maker, and his plans to move to a village in Italy where he can be taught the art from the masters. She asks him to play something on the violin for her, and he plays “Country Roads”. Shizuku sings along with her rewritten lyrics and Nishi arrives with his friends to accompany them on their own instruments. After their joyous rendition of the song ends, Shizuku learns that her annoying schoolmate is none other than Seiji Amasawa, the boy who had been borrowing all the same books as her from the library.  She reacts angrily at first, feeling her romantic daydreams about Seiji were completely ruined, but calms down and the two become close as the days pass, spending more time together.

Seiji tells Shizuku about his plans to go to Italy

On the rooftop at school, Seiji tells Shizuku that he will be going to Cremona, Italy for two months to study violin making on a trial basis to see if the masters there think he is capable, and it’s at this point that Shizuku chooses to dedicate herself to following her own dreams, inspired in part by Seiji’s determination to test himself, and resolves to write a story in the two months Seiji is away, to test her own capabilities. She visits Nishi in his shop to ask permission to use the Baron as a character in her story, who agrees on the condition that he is the first to read her finished story.  She expresses doubt about her talent and ability to write a good story, and Nishi laughs, telling her she sounds like any other artist. He gives her a geode, tells her there are emeralds within but they must be looked for, refined and polished, much like it is hard work for creative types to look inward and find the gems within, and polish them to their highest standard.

The geode Nishi gives to Shizuku

Shizuku works hard on her story for the next two months, letting her schoolwork deteriorate in pursuit of her goal. Finally she is finished and rushes to Nishi’s shop to have him read the story. It’s fairly long, so Shizuku waits outside while Nishi reads it, and when he comes to tell her he has finished she breaks down crying, fearing she isn’t good enough and comparing herself unfavourably to Seiji who seems much more advanced in achieving his goals. Nishi tells her that he enjoyed the story, that it’s a little raw and needs polishing, but that it is a good first draft. He invites her inside for noodles, and tells her that Seiji was even more upset than she was when he finished his first violin.  Nishi then tells her the full story behind the statue of the Baron. He was in Germany as a youth, where he found his first love, a woman name Louise. The two frequented a cafe there which had the statue of the Baron, but the owner wouldn’t sell him as he was part of a pair, and its partner was being repaired. Eventually, Nishi managed to buy the Baron with the promise that Louise would buy its partner after it was repaired, and the two would be reunited when Nishi returned to Germany. Unfortunately, shortly after Nishi returned to Japan, World War II began and he could not return until much later. He was unable to find Louise or the Baron’s partner, and though he has been looking ever since, was unable to be reunited with either.  The stories in Whisper of the Heart are generally romantic in nature, like fairy tales, and work well in showing how and where creative people can get some of their inspiration. Nishi’s real life story ties in to Shizuku’s own work, and also marries well with her romantic daydreaming and general love of fairy tales.

Shizuku and Seiji look out over Tokyo

The film finishes with Seiji’s return, where he has decided to first finish high school before pursuing his violin making in Italy.  Shizuku makes a similar decision to focus on her studies in order to learn more about writing, and the two continue their relationship. Seiji professes his love for Shizuku as the film ends, and talks about marriage in the future, to which she happily agrees. The abrupt and somewhat corny ending has its critics, but I feel it fits well with Seiji’s character. As Shizuku says herself in response, he’s “a violin maker, not a writer”. Its simplicity and optimism also works in its depiction of young love, free of complication and cynicism, simply hopeful and pure.

My love for this film comes from its relatable depiction of the creative process. The hard work, the self-doubt, the joy in finally making something even if it still needs refinement. In showing us what inspires and drives its characters, it gives its audience inspiration as well. Young love is ripe and well trodden ground for stories and cinema, but Whisper of the Heart’s love letter to creativity and pure, motivated characters sets it apart. If it’s not my favourite Studio Ghibli film, it’s certainly at least in contention. Tragically, this was Yoshifumi Kondo’s only feature film as director after death by aneurysm at the age of 47. While we can only dream of what might have been, I am eternally thankful for the joy of Whisper of the Heart.

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Halloween

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

(contains spoilers)

I know that this is probably 5 months too early, but it doesn’t have to be Halloween for you to enjoy Halloween… John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic’s incredible box office takings (it made about 200 times its budget) supercharged the popularity and prevalence of the slasher genre in the years to follow, spawning many sequels, rivals (notably the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series) and imitators. There’s some quality, charm and value in what was to follow, but really none of it held a candle to Halloween. What I love most about Halloween, and the main reason I’d place it above its rivals is how effectively it builds tension, using camera, lighting, sound and music cues to create a sense of dread and menace for its silent antagonist Michael Myers. Michael doesn’t have to speak for the audience to realise how dangerous he is, the film is constructed in a way that consistently portrays him as an intimidating figure. The film isn’t particularly excessive or gratuitous in its depiction of violence, really it’s all in the build up.

The film opens in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1963, a point of view shot outside a suburban home, we watch through the eyes of an unknown person as they look through the window of the house at a teenage girl and her boyfriend fooling around on the sofa. We watch as they retire upstairs, and the camera slowly and deliberately moves into the house following this mysterious person’s point of view. We get to the stairs and see the boyfriend exit the house, and the mystery person goes upstairs to the girl’s room, putting on a clown mask he finds on the floor. He enters the room, we see the girl recognises him as “Michael” and then the mystery person stabs her to death. The camera then quickly moves back downstairs and out into the street where a car has pulled up, two adults exiting the car and also recognising this mystery person as “Michael”. They remove the mask and the camera pulls out to reveal whose point of view we have been following: a young boy in a clown costume for Halloween.

We then cut to 15 years later, and are introduced to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), on his way to a maximum security mental hospital with a nurse to pick up a patient to take to a judge. We learn this patient is Michael Myers, and Dr. Loomis feels that he is not even human, more like evil incarnate. It’s a dark and rainy night, and upon arrival at the hospital some of the inmates seem to be loose in the grounds. They stop at the main gate and Loomis exits the car to investigate. An inmate manages to jump onto Loomis’ vehicle and break in, driving away into the night. Loomis knows it’s Michael Myers, who will be on his way back to Haddonfield.

Cutting back to Haddonfield, we are introduced to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a bookish and innocent high school student whose father is a realtor. On her way to school, her father asks her to leave a key at the old Myers house, where the murder took place 15 years ago, which he is trying to sell. When Laurie approaches the house, the camera switches to a view inside the house, looking out onto the porch at Laurie, and we hear heavy breathing. Michael steps slightly in to shot accompanied by an ominous musical sting, his face obscured by the dark, and creates a sense of dread regarding his intentions.

The film continues in this vein for the next 20 minutes or so, following Laurie as she goes about her day at school and walking home with friends, talking about their plans to babysit in the evening. The camera often watches from afar, and sometimes feels as though it’s stalking the other characters. Michael is seen to be following them in his stolen car, and Laurie catches glimpses of him through the day (accompanied by musical stings, and sometimes a portion of Michael’s trademark theme). Laurie will see Michael, look away, then when she looks back to see if anyone is still there sees no one.

Laurie sees Michael as she looks out of her classroom window

Laurie sees Michael peek out from behind a hedge while walking home from school

In these types of shots Michael appears as a small or obscured figure in the frame, primarily identifiable by his mask.  That Michael is often seen from a distance, inactive and unmoving, gives an impression of a menacing figure and creates a sense of tension and foreboding, but the distance makes the danger seem less immediate and instead makes us tense about possible dangers to come. As well as following Laurie’s day and Michael’s stalking, we see Dr. Loomis rushing to Haddonfield where he is certain Michael will return to commit further atrocities, and his attempts to alert local law enforcement to the danger. Loomis helps to add to the sense of danger around Michael, regarding Michael as a remorseless, evil “it” and more devil than human. This build-up by Loomis makes Michael’s stalking seem even more menacing, and helps to ensure the audience does not look for human qualities in Michael to empathise with casting him firmly in the role of the monster.

At dusk we watch as Laurie and her friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) drive together to their babysitting jobs, Laurie looking after a small boy named Tommy, and Annie looking after a girl named Lindsey across the street. On the drive over, it is dusk and we can see Michael following the girls in his stolen car. By the time they arrive at the houses they will be babysitting at it’s completely dark, and the girls haven’t noticed Michael following and watching. A little later, Annie’s boyfriend calls and tells her he is now free for the night, so Annie takes Lindsey over to Tommy’s house to sleepover there and be looked after by Laurie. She gets into her car to go pick up her boyfriend and is murdered by Michael who was hiding in the backseat. Tommy had seen Michael outside of Lindsey’s house and told Laurie the “boogeyman” was outside, but he had disappeared from sight by the time Laurie looked outside and is dismissed as being part of Tommy’s imagination.

Tommy sees the “boogeyman” outside his window

Not long after this has happened, Lynda (P.J. Soles), another friend of Annie and Laurie’s, and her boyfriend arrive at Lindsey’s house. Finding the house dark and empty, and thinking they have the place to themselves, they head upstairs to fool around. Afterwards, Lynda’s boyfriend goes downstairs for some beer and is stabbed and killed by Michael. Michael heads upstairs wearing a sheet and Lynda’s boyfriend’s glasses, standing silently and still in the doorway. Lynda thinks it’s her boyfriend and reacts flirtatiously, but when Michael just continues to stand silently she gets bored and calls Laurie. Laurie answers and hears as Michael is strangling Lynda with the phone cord, but thinks it’s just Lynda playing a prank and hangs up. Having not heard anything from Annie, and after this strange call from Lynda, Laurie is a little suspicious and decides to go over to Lindsey’s house to investigate. There she discovers Annie’s corpse displayed on bed upstairs along with Judith Myers’ headstone, whom Michael had murdered 15 years previously. In the same room she finds the bodies of Lynda and her boyfriend, and screams in terror. Michael emerges from the shadows and slashes at Laurie, but she manages to escape the house and runs back across the street to the children.

Michael emerges silently from the shadows

Michael follows and attempts to kill Laurie again, who struggles with him and manages to stab him with his own knife. But Michael rises and follows again, and once more Laurie gets the best of Michael and manages to stab him in the eye with a wire hanger. Thinking that Michael has been killed, Laurie goes to the children, but Michael rises once more and goes after Laurie. The children flee and look for help, Dr. Loomis sees them run from the house and enters, goes upstairs and shoots Michael six times, knocking him out of a second story window. When Laurie and Loomis look outside, the body has disappeared. The film ends with shots of all the places in Haddonfield Michael has visited in his reign of terror, accompanied with the sound of Michael’s heavy breathing, and ends on a shot of the Myers’ household…

Michael rises again after being stabbed by Laurie

Anyone watching this film for the first time today will probably find it cliched, but many of the horror tropes in Halloween like the promiscuous teens being killed off, the silent masked killer and the Final Girl trope became popular largely due to Halloween’s immense success. Disregarding the tropes, there’s still a lot, even now, that separates Halloween from its imitators and successors. I think there’s a lot of value in thinking about how they portray Michael; where he appears in the frame, how often we see him, how he’s lit and music/sound that accompanies him. All in all, I can’t get tired of watching this film, regardless of how tired some of the tropes it uses has now become. Plus, the theme song is fucking great!

The Best Films I’ve Ever Seen: Unforgiven

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

(Contains spoilers)

I used to say that the hotel chain Best Western should just change their name to Unforgiven, because I like lame jokes, and love this film. While I might reconsider that today, it’s certainly up in the top 3 shooting it out with Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made in 1992, long after the height of the genre’s popularity, Unforgiven is a revisionist Western, abound with moral greys and questioning the ideals of the traditional Western films of the 30s to 60s. It’s something of a bookend, a farewell to the Western in a time of its declining popularity, and so it’s appropriate that it stars and is directed by one of the most famous and popular faces of the genre in Clint Eastwood.

For me, Unforgiven is about stories and bravado, and how these things break down when put to the test in the harsh light of reality. The film opens with a long shot of a man digging a grave in low light, text crawl on screen telling us of a woman “not without prospects” who married a notorious outlaw named William Munny (Clint Eastwood), disappointing her mother, and who later died of smallpox. The film moves to a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, where a prostitute is cut and disfigured by a cowboy for laughing at the size of his manhood, and the sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) orders the cowboy and his friend who accompanied him to pay the brothel’s owner Skinny compensation for the damaged “property” in the form of some horses. This soft punishment angers the prostitutes in the brothel, who put out a $1000 reward for the assassination of tthe two men, setting the events of the film in motion.

When we first see William Munny on screen, he is working on his farm with his two young children, having trouble wrangling pigs. He is approached by  man on horseback, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett).

The Kid approaches William Munny at his farmhouse

The Schofield Kid is full of swagger, and requests that the infamous William Munny accompany him to Big Whiskey to assassinate the cowboys so they can split the reward. At first Munny refuses, but after a few days reflecting on his failing farm and the tough future it would bring for his children, he rides off to catch up with the Kid and recruits an old partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help. When they catch up to the Kid, they are again met with bravado and arrogance.

Munny and Logan approach the Kid

The Kid boasts about men that he has killed, and that killing the two cowboys for the reward money will be no problem for someone like him, but we soon learn that he is extremely short-sighted, and can barely see 50 yards in front of him. The Kid paints himself as a man not to be reckoned with, prideful and quick to anger whenever Ned or Munny may question his supposed abilities, but as the film continues we will see this bravado disintegrate. Before the group gets to Big Whiskey though, there is a subplot involving an infamous gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), who has heard of the reward money and plans to go carry out the assassinations himself. We meet English Bob as he is making his way by train to Big Whiskey, and feel his notoriety through the fearful way other passengers react to the name. We also see his formidable marksmanship in a bird-shooting contest with another passenger. English Bob is accompanied by a biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who hopes to catalogue Bob’s deeds for his next book. Through English Bob, Unforgiven will show us for the first time how stories, bravado and reputation don’t necessarily compare favourably with reality.

When English Bob arrives in Big Whiskey, he brazenly flaunts its no weapons within town limits rule and is soon beaten and arrested by Little Bill. In the jailhouse, Little Bill reads Beauchamp’s book “The Duke of Death” containing a story of English Bob getting the better of and shooting down a notorious gunfighter in a tavern, defending a woman’s honour. Bill tells Beauchamp that he was in the tavern that night, and rather than the glorious, skilful gunfight depicted in his story, the reality was much more messy, cowardly and honourless. English Bob was drunk, and the only woman involved was one who slept with the gunfighter, which made Bob jealous. Bob fired on the gunfighter in a surprise attack, and missed twice. When the gunfighter went to return fire, his pistol exploded in his hand, and as he was lying incapacitated on the floor, Bob approached him and shot him through the liver, killing him. To further demonstrate Bob’s cowardice and the shallowness of his bravado, Bill offers him a pistol in his jail cell, but Bob refuses, preferring not to take any chances in a gunfight with Little Bill. The next morning, Bob is kicked out of town, and Beauchamp decides to stay and write about Little Bill, who seems to be a truly hard man.

English Bob, beaten and driven from Big Whiskey

Soon after, we see Ned, Munny and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey amid heavy rain during the night. They go to the brothel and speak with the prostitutes to learn more about the two men they’ll be killing, and where they will find them. Munny, rain-soaked and feverish, sits downstairs while Ned and the Kid cavort with the prostitutes upstairs taking an “advance” on their reward money. Little Bill arrives and beats Munny for carrying a pistol, throwing him out of the saloon. Ned and the Kid hear this commotion and leave through the upstairs window, meeting with Munny and disappearing into the night to recover outside of town. We have heard that Munny is a man to be feared, but instead all we have seen so far is an old man with a failing farm, too sick to defend himself from Little Bill.  Once Munny has recovered, the three men head off to complete their mission, ambushing and killing one of the two cowboys. Ned and Munny find that they have lost their taste for murder, with Ned unable to take the shot to kill the cowboy in the ambush, instead passing the rifle over to Munny, who reluctantly commits the deed. Ned decides to return home, having had his fill of this unpleasantness, while Munny stays on with the Kid to finish what they started.

Ned, Munny and the Kid reflect on having killed the cowboy

Munny and the Kid head to a cabin in which the final cowboy is hiding out, protected by some of Little Bill’s men. The Kid ambushes the cowboy as he visits the outhouse, shooting and killing him, and the Kid and Munny escape to the outskirts of Big Whiskey where they await one of the prostitutes arriving with their reward money. The Kid is clearly affected by his murder of the cowboy, admitting that his previous boasts were all just stories and he had never killed anyone before, breaking down and swearing off the life of an outlaw for good.

The Kid, troubled after his murder of the cowboy

A prostitute arrives with the men’s money, and informs the two that Ned had been captured by Little Bill, tortured to death while revealing Munny’s identity. Munny reacts to this news by drinking Ned’s bottle of whisky, his first drink since meeting his now-dead wife when he swore off the life of an outlaw. He gives the money to the Kid and sends him back to Kansas to give a share of the money to Ned’s wife, and a share to Munny’s children, then heads into Big Whiskey for revenge, where we see Ned’s body outside of the brothel, as a warning to other would-be “assassins”.

Munny enters the bar, crowded with Little Bill and his associates, with a shotgun and asks who the owner is. He shoots the unarmed owner down in cold blood, explaining he “should have armed himself, if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.” He then moves the gun to Little Bill, with one shot left. Bill tells his men to open fire as soon as Munny shoots him. The shotgun misfires, but Munny is quick in drawing his pistol and manages to shoot Bill along with some of his men and emerges unscathed. Munny tells the remaining men “Anyone don’t wanna get killed, better clear on out the back”, and they oblige him by retreating. Bill, still alive but gravely injured, says he doesn’t deserve to die like this, to which Munny replies that “Deserves got nothing to do with it”. Bill tells Munny he’ll see him in hell, Munny pauses, replies with a simple “Yeah…” and finishes off Bill with a final gunshot. On leaving the bar to escape, Munny shouts into the night that if any man takes a shot at him, he’ll kill him, his friends, and and his family in retribution. We see various men hiding in the shadows outside the bar, all too afraid to take a shot at Munny. William Munny’s reputation, the horrible stories about his past as an outlaw, coupled with the terrifying display the men witnessed themselves in the bar as Munny gunned down five men single handed, allows Munny to escape unscathed even when vastly outnumbered, solely through the power of fear and reputation.

Munny seeks revenge in the bar, preparing to shoot Little Bill

Munny threatens to return for further vengeance if any of the prostitutes are harmed, or if Ned is not buried in a proper manner, then leaves the town of Big Whiskey, riding into another rain-soaked night. The film finishes with a final long shot of the farmhouse in low light, a title crawl explaining that Munny’s wife’s mother visited the farmhouse years later to see her daughter’s grave, with Munny and the children already long gone, rumoured to be in San Francisco where they have “prospered in dry goods”.

Throughout Unforgiven we are forced to think about stories and bravado. The Kid’s stories and boasts about men he killed and his prideful nature, English Bob with his own biographer and hard reputation, and of course William Munny’s storied past as an outlaw and scoundrel. We see it break down in various ways, whether it’s just outright lies as in the case of the Kid, or exaggeration and poetic license with English Bob. We compare Ned and Munny, who ran wild together in their past outlaw days, and how they have differed in old age. With Ned now unable to even take a single shot in anger, and Munny driven back to his old violent ways through tragedy. Munny found salvation, a better life and a way out of his old outlaw lifestyle through his wife, but fell back into violence after she was gone, although still trying to be better than before. We can think of how the title, Unforgiven, applies to him in this way: once absolved and saved by his wife, but later at the mercy of his predilection towards violence.

It’s fair to say this is one of my favourite Westerns, and, for me, probably the best film Clint Eastwood has directed.  Whether or not you enjoy Westerns, I still recommend Unforgiven.