Archive for category historical epic

Hughes Brothers #4 – From Hell

The Story

It’s 1888 and someone is murdering prostitutes in the London district of Whitechapel, someone whose prolific and gratuitous knifework earns him the nickname Jack the Ripper. The eccentric Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp) heads the investigation and slowly uncovers a startling conspiracy that links the murders to shadowy Masonic rituals, cultic sacrifice, and the fate of the English crown. Meanwhile, Abberline befriends one of the Ripper’s intended victims (Heather Graham), but as the case drags on, comes to realize that it may take more than solving the case to save her life.

The Production

There are so many Jack the Ripper stories out there, you guys. Like that one video game where he fights Sherlock Holmes? Or that time he turns up in Babylon 5 as an alien space inquisitor? He gets around! But few attempts at the story have been quite as audacious and far-reaching as Alan Moore’s From Hell, an exhaustive 600-page monolith of a graphic novel that uses a widely-discredited conspiracy theory as a diving board into a pool of heady ideas on spirituality and culture, among many, many other things. Basically, From Hell is about everything there is in the world.

“I, uh… I flipped through it.”

This obviously presented a challenge for producer Don Murphy (Apt Pupil) who optioned the novel alongside fellow future squandered-opportunity League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Seeking to trim the narrative down to something movie-sized, Murphy found willing partners in Albert & Allen Hughes, whose own interest in the Ripper legends began as children watching a scary documentary on TV. With the Hughes Brothers came Johnny Depp, then still a few years from his international superstardom. Depp, thanks to his longtime collaboration with Tim Burton, seemed a natural fit for such a dark, gothic story, and the actor expressed interest in the project directly to the Brothers while meeting about another. It was a slam dunk to cast him as Abberline.

Less of a slam dunk was budget-friendly Prague where the production had committed to shoot. Unable to find locations that matched the Whitechapel district, the production had to build several complete city blocks on a soundstage, but while that construction wore on, the script was in a state of demolition. Two writers—Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless)—each took a pass at paring Moore’s novel down, carving away with their pens and plucking out various unsavory tidbits like so many misplaced kidneys, entrails, and other Ripper metaphors, eventually draining Moore’s ocean of ideas down to a straightforward murder mystery (a major change, since the identity of the killer is known very early in the novel, and much of the story is told from his perspective.)

Alongside these cuts were two big additions. The first was Abberline’s psychic abilities—added, the Hughes Brothers claimed, to help make Abberline a more interesting lead. The second was a happy ending that leaves one of the Ripper’s real-life victims alive and well at the end of the story.

Absinthe: The fresher, cleaner, hallucinogenic way to wash up after a murder.

Released just a month after 9/11, From Hell failed domestically, not quite recouping its $35 million budget, likely due to a combination of a national distaste for violence in the wake of that tragedy and rumors that the film narrowly avoided a rare NC-17 for gore. The film fared better overseas and, now distanced from that unfortunate release date, found a healthy life on home video.

What Works Like Crazy

I’ll say this, the Hughes Brothers were certainly an inspired choice to get From Hell up on the screen. “The Menace II Society guys are doing a British true-crime horror story?” you might ask as so many did, but From Hell fit quite comfortably into the Hughes’s early target zone. Like Menace and Dead Presidents, From Hell is a story about class and violence in an oppressive urban environment. London in 1888 wasn’t South Central Los Angeles but it was deeply divided, hacked in two and shared by the wealthy upper class and a poor workforce simply fighting to exist. Forget paying bills; many Whitechapel residents wondered whether they could find a scrap to eat or a place to sleep not infested with crap, a reality largely created, encouraged, and maintained by the ruling class. That one of the wealthy elite might have descended into Whitechapel to literally hunt and carve up its residents for sport caught the public’s imagination partly because it appeared to be a cruel, even inevitable, result of that system. Life is cheap, but how cheap, exactly?

Recognizing the territory, the Hughes Brothers got the details right. The film is thick with moments and scenes that give Whitechapel—although clearly a soundstage—a real sense of living and breathing and struggling. Murder scenes are recreated exactly as they were found during the Ripper case and the shots are littered with little observations that speak to the difficulty of life in the Victorian era.

Freed from location shooting and the need for realism found in their earlier projects, the Brothers splattered the production with the kind of dreamy, gothic touches that had threatened to burst through in their earlier films. From Hell is all stark angles and filthy cobblestones and explosions of bright red color across gray-black stone. The style creates a nightmare London two stops over from Tim Burton’s Gotham City.

What Disappoints

Unfortunately for Johnny Depp, this ain’t a Tim Burton film. Depp’s collaborations with Burton usually sprang from very smart, serviceable scripts, but From Hell leaves Depp to fend for himself in the face of some really baffling choices.

The Hughes Brothers were staring down the barrel of a massive source novel, and they responded by gutting it. Look, I get that. I support radical adaptations—I have to if I want to enjoy, say, Jaws—but the changes in From Hell altered the material dramatically, and created a slew of new problems that were then immediately mishandled.

See, in this scenario, the girl is the novel.

To change the story from a sprawling exploration of the case to a whodunit procedural, the brothers had to shove the novel’s most interesting character—the killer—behind the curtain. OK, fair enough, but unfortunately that leaves the less-interesting Abberline to hog the stage, and instead of layering him with the complexity or detail he deserves as an actual living person who witnessed these events, they changed him into an opium-smoking psychic. They actually grafted superpowers onto a historical person. This is the cinema equivalent of taping Skeletor’s sword to your GI Joe—it’s all surface and it doesn’t fit anyway. (And incidentally, Cobra will just escalate and recruit Battle Cat.)

That surface approach to storytelling reappears throughout the movie. Abberline’s Scotland Yard sidekick Godley (Robbie Coltrane) quotes Shakespeare as his clumsy, artificial “quirk.” The would-be victims are basically one-word adjectives; there’s the grouchy one, the saintly one, the lesbian, and so on. If the movie can’t give the story the depth it deserves, then by God, nobody gets any!

“I read the ending. Peace.”

All of this would be forgiven if the procedural paid off, but it totally doesn’t. In reality, the Ripper case was a fascinating study of the crossroads where modern forensic techniques clashed with archaic human prejudice, but that isn’t present in the film. Depp’s Detective Abberline more or less abandons real forensics and goes with his instincts. He could be the star of a show called Victorian Dream Cop. Abberline follows his gut and his visions to reveal the killer whose identity the audience guessed an hour earlier simply by playing “spot the movie star.” Spoiler Alert: If a major name is playing a bit part, there’s probably a payoff in the third act.


I disliked From Hell the first time I saw it, and the intervening years haven’t change my mind. When people use the old insult “all style, no substance,” this is the kind of film they’re talking about. The natural intrigue and real-life drama that accompanied the Ripper investigation is dumped out the back window to cram in more style and gore and mood. What’s worse, the film is riddled with bits borrowed from the novel or left over from previous script drafts that make no sense on their own. (Example: when the killer is revealed near the end, his eyes turn solid black, like a shark’s. A nod to the supernatural stuff jettisoned in the adaptation process? Who knows!)

The screenwriter’s toolbox.

Still, From Hell represents a remarkable step forward in the Hughes Brothers transformation from indie auteurs to genre stylists. It’s a very attractive film, if you find eviscerations and buckets of gore to be your kind of thing. The Whitechapel sets created for the film are moody and grim and make up for some of the story’s shortcomings. Some.

With From Hell, the Hughes Brothers altered their style of filmmaking, but it felt more like a natural evolution than an abrupt change–a step forward rather than a step sideways. Johnny Depp was reportedly impressed enough with the brothers that he offered them two of his most recent mega-budget projects, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and The Lone Ranger, although they were forced to decline. Even to this day, and even in spite of the film’s box office and critical disappointment, From Hell remains a calling card for the Hughes Brothers, but for me the film amounts to little more than a stab and a scream in the dark.

The Hughes Brothers Project

3. ???

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents



Penn #2 – Little Big Man (1970)

“One hundred and eleven years ago, when I was ten…”

The Story:

121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, in sweet age makeup) tells a reporter how he became the only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand by recounting the murder of his parents by Pawnee, his life with the Cheyenne “human beings,” and his adventures as a gunfighter, a husband, a snake oil salesman, a scout, and a kept boy for a lusty preacher’s wife (Faye Dunaway). Critically, Crabb reveals Custer’s brutal genocide of the Cheyenne, and how Crabb eventually led the General to his death.

The Production:

Arthur Penn had long been interested in the true story of how the west was won, and in fact had been working on a script of his own when he came across Thomas Berger’s picaresque 1964 novel, Little Big Man. Penn dropped his project to pursue the film rights but, since there’s an immutable law in the universe that nothing ever goes smoothly for Arthur Penn, a rights war with MGM stalled the project for six years. Penn moved on to a string of film classics, including Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, before finally returning to Little Big Man in 1970.

To play the part, method-actor Hoffman aged 95 years over a summer break.

Had he known what he was in for, he might have thought twice. Little Big Man was a painful production, what Penn referred to a “killer” job. The Alberta set was enormous—up to a thousand people could show up for lunch—and besieged by frigid Canadian winds. Penn’s loose style and the story’s sprawling nature led to months of shooting and miles of footage, which Penn and his longtime editor Dede Allen finally condensed to two and a half hours of film.

Little Big Man opened over the 1970 Christmas season and found modest success, coasting hard on Hoffman’s performance and the film’s slyly accessible tone. Still, as per usual, the movie only found true success abroad—Penn said the film was a hit in every market except the US.

It’s like we’re not the good guys, or something.

The Issue:

With all the Indians and cavalry and cowboys, it should be pretty obvious by now: Vietnam. OK, the film is definitely about sanctioned genocide and the folly of Manifest Destiny, but Penn had an eye on the broader themes of conquest and the conquered. Penn believed all civilized cultures commit atrocities when annexing the so-called uncivilized, and he drew a clear parallel between the murder of Cheyenne women and children and alleged similar incidents in the Vietnam War.

The Scene:

Little Big Man is proudly episodic, a series of loosely-connected scenes, told like a homespun story on a lazy summer porch. Since this is Jack Crabb’s highlight reel, it’s filled with great scenes, from Crabb’s days as the Soda Pop Kid to his near-murder of a naked Custer (which predicts Brando’s bathtub scene in The Missouri Breaks). My favorite, however, comes late in the film, in a droll scene that secretly carries the film’s entire idea in just a few moments. Old Lodge Skins (the fantastic and Oscar-nominated Chief Dan George), Crabb’s surrogate father, has decided that it’s his time to die and asks Crabb to aid him.

This scene is Penn’s symbol for the fate of the Indians. Old Lodge Skins senses that his people’s time has passed and he asks to join them on the other side. When he lives, we laugh his nonchalant acceptance or, if we’re feeling mean-spirited, his “silly” beliefs. But to Penn, this is the core tragedy. The native people are condemned to die, yes, and to be wiped from their land, but they’re also condemned to live, sitting on their reservations fully aware of the past glory that’s been robbed of them, watching as history passes them by.


Little Big Man is technically one of the best westerns of all time, and if I sound like I’m hesitating, it’s because the only thing Little Big Man has in common with a traditional western is the side of the country it’s in (hint: not east). The differences go beyond the film’s strictly-revisionist content and into its heart. Westerns typically look you in the eye and speak plainly—this is the genre of white and black hats—but Little Big Man says everything at a slant, shielding its meaning behind satire. It starts as a crowd pleaser and then goes for the throat.

For every laugh, a hundred people die.

We can forgive Penn’s aggression because, at the time, Indian mistreatment was hardly confined to history. Penn’s film is as much about the atrocities as it is the depiction of those atrocities that still lingered in pop media. If history is written by the winners, then we wrote the story as an action movie, with white survival threatened by unfeeling savages drunk on murder, and while in today’s post-Costner world condemning those lies feels like preaching to the choir, in 1970 it was hard to even find the church. This was the dawn of the American Indian Movement and Red Power, and only a few short years ahead of the Wounded Knee siege and Sacheen Littlefeather. Little Big Man premiered to a country that still desperately needed to hear what it had to say.

The movie uses comedy as a lure. The aged Jack Crabb is a cranky old coot weaving tall tales. He spends less time discussing his parents’ murder than he does his sister’s indignation when the Cheyenne refuse to rape her. When Crabb defects back to white society rather than die in battle, we’re treated to overwrought farce as he’s “civilized” by a devout couple, including Faye Dunaway as a lady who seems to have interest in arousing more than Crabb’s faith. Dunaway’s character, among others, fills the movie with a sense of fluffy brightness, which makes the coming genocide all the more shocking.

Crabb is at the center of two real-life massacres—Sand Creek and Washita River—and Penn largely stages these scenes as defenseless villagers annihilated by bloodthirsty cavalry. What’s interesting is that Penn’s portrayal is not entirely accurate either, sliding right past revision and into an agenda-driven rewrite, a technique he applies liberally throughout the film. The white people in Little Big Man are almost universally corrupt. Custer (the brilliant Richard Mulligan) is pure detachment and megalomania. The Christians are hypocrites. Men like Wild Bill Hickok kill and are killed for no reason. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne treat each other with respect, and attack only in self-defense or to avenge loved ones. They’re shown as kind, funny, and tolerant; one Cheyenne youth is openly feminine and reads as homosexual to white eyes, yet he’s fully embraced into Cheyenne society, putting them at least a century or two ahead us in that department.

Penn’s version of events has been accused of reverse racism, of painting whites as the devils some Indians claimed they were, but it’s hard to sustain that argument because Crabb never loses his fundamental whiteness. If the main character of the film had been a native-born warrior—Old Lodge Skins, or perhaps Crabb’s enemy, the angry Little Bear—Little Big Man would be no more than a beautiful, well-shot, but shrill bit of provocation, a propaganda piece. As it is, Crabb never fully embraces either side of his heritage. He moves back and forth between the whites and the human beings (the Cheyenne name for themselves), and while the greed and hubris of the whites infuriates him, he seems to recognize that the problem lies with particular whites, not the race as a whole.

This begs the question: Why use Crabb at all? Why tell the story as an ancient man’s flashback and not simply tell the story straight through? The answer is there in Old Lodge Skins’ “death” scene. Jack Crabb is neither Cheyenne, nor white. He’s both, tied together forever by a common history, and in that way, Jack Crabb represents America itself. Like Crabb, the country has seen its share of joys and tragedies, has embraced many cultures and allowed them to prosper, has stood witness to the loss of its own identity and the rise of a new one. And, like Crabb, America is still here, built on memories of murder that fade, but are never gone. We who live here can’t help how our country was born or how the west was won. We can only remember and, like Old Lodge Skins and older Jack Crabb, we can live with that memory. And live, and live, and live.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)

9. Inside (1996)

8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

7. The Chase (1966)

6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)

5. Night Moves (1975)

4. Mickey One (1965)

3. The Miracle Worker (1962)

2. Little Big Man (1970)

1. ??? (although, really, it should be obvious by now)

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Kubrick #8 – Spartacus

For Memorial Day, a movie about war and freedom. And maybe a bit more than bargained for.

Er… Spartacus!  Sorry, there’s not really a title screen for this one.

The Film: Based loosely on the historical event, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave turned gladiator who uses his training and natural leadership skills to organize a revolt against the Roman Republic in the name of freedom and for the woman he loves (Jean Simmons). Spartacus rallies and trains an army powerful enough to threaten Rome, but political maneuvering by the ambitious Crassus (Laurence Olivier), dooms the slave army to defeat and collapses the Republic into a dictatorship. The rebellion ends tragically, but Spartacus and the former slaves die as free men.

The Production: Spartacus is one of the great happy accidents in movie history; it’s a film that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. The idea came from a Kirk Douglas tantrum over losing Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston, the script was penned by a writer from the gloomy Hollywood blacklist, and the film lost director Anthony Mann just days into shooting when he crossed Douglas. (Douglas, for his part, accused Mann of being unsuited for the sheer scale of the picture, although Mann later directed Martin Scorsese’s favorite epic El Cid starring, of course, Charlton Heston. The title translates loosely into English as Fuck Off, Kirk.)


Enter Stanley Kubrick, who had just directed Douglas in the excellent Paths of Glory. Douglas claimed that he knew a star director was on the rise, but it’s just as likely that he thought Kubrick could be controlled. Kubrick, having other ideas, immediately muscled out the cinematographer so that he could do the job himself (ultimately earning an Oscar for the guy), but he was still bound by the casting and the production design work that had been completed before he took the job. The result is a strange blend of studio sensibilities and Kubrick’s subversive thoughts on the sword and sandals genre. The combination proved surprisingly potent, becoming a runaway hit at the box office and instantly transforming Kubrick’s career. He became such a hot commodity that he actually convinced a studio to fund a production of Vladimir Nabokov’s untouchable novel, Lolita.

Best Moment: The “I’m Spartacus” scene that appears near the end of the film is so pervasive in popular culture that it’s become a cliche, rendering it nearly meaningless to new viewers of the film when they finally get to it. Monty Python spoofed it over 30 years ago, for crying out loud. It was even the basis for a pretty good Pepsi commercial.

That scene is still the most famous, but I’m more interested in a scene that wasn’t even in the original theatrical release, and one that’s helped to give the film a certain amount of cultural infamy. I’m referring to the “snails and oysters” scene. During a bath, Crassus seemingly attempts to seduce his slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), by musing on the difference between eating oysters and eating snails, and how preferring one over the other is a matter of taste and not of morals. Incidentally, Crassus enjoys both snails and oysters. He questions Antoninus on his own preferences, but finds that the slave has escaped while his back was turned.

I love this scene, and not just for its sly attempt to slip a discussion of homosexuality past the studio and the reeling Hayes Code (they weren’t fooled and the scene was cut.) I love the scene because it’s the most Kubrick of any in the film. Most of Spartacus is straight out of the studio epic playbook, from the look and feel, to the story structure, even the movie’s optimistic tone. Kubrick simply didn’t have the power over this production that he would later command.

This kind of power.

But the snails and oysters scene is Kubrick at his finest. Kubrick shoots the scene from an extreme wide angle, a crucial distancing technique that leaves the audience a little lost and uncomfortable, wondering where to look and who to sympathize with. The dialogue piles on the pressure. Antoninus is a slave and has very little choice in what his master does with him. Even if he objects, and it appears clear that he does, he must stay silent. That leaves a calm and creepy call/response where Crassus walks Antoninus through a calculated seduction, and Antoninus is helpless to escape. His only response is to flee, because the next move from Crassus must surely be force.

This scene fits in perfectly with the Kubrick’s blurred line between sex and warfare, which manifests this time as the power of one man over another. The scene is also a glaring reminder that Kubrick sees this seemingly straightforward epic with a cynic’s eye. The movie just isn’t the same without it.

Lasting Impact: Moderate-to-high. Spartacus was a major financial success, made Stanley Kubrick’s career, and canonized Kirk Douglas as a movie star. The movie routinely appears on lists of great epics, and in 2007, the American Film Institute named Spartacus the 81st best American movie ever made. On the downside, the film hasn’t aged well (although a bit better than Ben-Hur, to Douglas’s credit) and I feel like its influence on modern pop culture is pretty much done. My evidence? The cable channel Starz recently decided that the film was creaky enough to deserve a loud, godawful reboot in the style of Zach Snyder’s 300.

Pictured: Historical Accuracy

Overall: Need more evidence that Spartacus is an accidental classic? The film enjoys massive success as a war epic despite its complete lack of a war. Only one major battle scene takes place in front of the camera, with the rest of the running time devoted to romances, bromances, and political shenanigans. Spartacus isn’t a war movie. It’s a movie about what happens to four or five people while a big, ugly war tramples around off screen. And mostly it’s about sex.

Kubrick spent the rest of his career revisiting themes he established here in Spartacus, namely the underlying sexual tensions baked into all the violence. It begins early, with a scene where Spartacus the slave is handed a sword and prodded to fight. He refuses and dangles the sword limply by his side. He’s pushed harder by his owner, slapped. As the aggression level rises, so does the sword. Spartacus never moves his arm, but the sword rises slowly to attention, obviously phallic. It’s a throwaway bit, maybe, but Kubrick designed that shot and knew what he was doing. He also designed Antoninus’s death scene where he declares his feelings for Spartacus, the pair of them framed like lovers even as they refer to each other as father and son. These aren’t accidents, nor is it an accident that the film enjoys popularity in the gay community for daring to let the subtext free.

This has to be Kubrick’s influence, because I’m not sure screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would have approved. Trumbo, writer of Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, and ohholycraphewasjustawesome, was the most famous name on the Hollywood blacklist and might have been feeling just catty enough to puncture some studio stuffed shirts with a oversexed satire, but I don’t buy it. Trumbo’s work just doesn’t have the same bent toward cynicism that Kubrick’s always did. I believe that, much the same as his infamous reading of Red Alert, Kubrick simply saw the story in a different way than it was written and decided to shoot the film as it made sense to him. And who can argue with him, faced with a story in which the fate of Rome and thousands of free men is decided in a war largely about whether it’s Crassus or Spartacus that gets to bed Virinia.

So Spartacus is a weird movie, pulled in two directions by the artist and the suits, somehow held together by a world-class script and great performances (I haven’t even gotten into Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning performance as a cowardly slaver or Charles Laughton’s brilliant turn as a shrewd senator), and then elevated by Kubrick’s eye for human triumph and weakness. It shouldn’t hold together, but it does. An accidental classic, but then again, aren’t they all?

The Stanley Kubrick Project

7. ???

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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