Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Television in its early days was essentially a live medium. Almost everything was broadcast immediately, in the same moment it was created, and that was just as true for drama series as for news or comedy shows, for example. This had several practical implications. Techniques had to be invented for changing scenes quickly and effectively, especially if the characters had to change clothes or environment. It also meant that everything had to be extremely well rehearsed, in a sense much more closely related to the theatre than to film.

Some of the best television in the 1950s was produced in Britain by the BBC. Among other things, they broadcast a number of very good science fiction series with the somewhat unique hero Professor Quatermass.

Quatermass and the Pit (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) was the third and final Quatermass series, and arguably the best (the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), is only partially preserved today). It had a higher budget than the previous two series, which can be clearly seen in the scenography, and it used pre-filmed material interspersed with the live action.

André Morell in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

In Quatermass and the Pit, construction workers discover the remains of prehistoric humans in London. Later at the same site, they also find what at first is assumed to be an undetonated World War II bomb, but it appears to be made of a substance that is harder and more durable than anything previously known. Professor Q. advances the hypothesis that perhaps the artefact is not of earthly origin, but some refuse to believe that this is possible.

Quatermass and the Pit was made at a time when science fiction could not rely on cool special effects, especially not in a live TV series. Instead, it had to use aspects such as interesting characters, good dialogue and an intelligent story, things seen far too rarely in modern sci-fi. The series also delivers some interesting commentary on its contemporary society, some of which is still very relevant, for instance the gap between politics and science, and the tension between racial groups.

Professor Q. is a nicely developed character, and a type rarely seen on film. He is a scientist who, unlike Indiana Jones, relies on his brain rather than his muscles. In some moments, he reminds a bit about Sherlock Holmes, but where Holmes tends to use spectacular chains of reasoning, Quatermass relies more upon observable evidence and scientific method. Today’s popular media could use more heroes like that.

For many, Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps best known as the 1967 remake by Hammer Films, but that film has totally different qualities. The budget for special effects was higher, of course, and the whole story was condensed to about half the length, driving up the tempo and cutting out many subplots entirely. Both are good, but the original would be my first choice.

This film is best enjoyed if you want some quality science fiction with a good story and good actors.

Christine Finn and Cec Linder in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Quatermass and the Pit
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1958
Running time: 2 h 58 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: André Morell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

Black Fist (1975)

Exactly 40 years ago last Saturday, Bruce Lee passed away. In retrospect, Lee’s sudden and dramatic death (he died unexpectedly just after the completion of his first Hollywood production, Enter the Dragon) immediately gave him a “legend” status. No-one can tell, but perhaps Lee would not have achieved the huge fame that he did had he lived on. Such is the irony of stardom.

Bruce Lee’s death opened the doors for a flood of imitators. Many were Chinese, picked because they looked vaguely like Lee and could imitate some of his body language. Their acting was almost as mediocre as their kung fu, and most were quickly forgotten. For some embarrassing examples, take a look at the so-called “documentary” The Real Bruce Lee (1979). Just don’t come and say I did not warn you.

Bruce Lee’s rising popularity in the early 1970s coincided with the emergence of the blaxploitation movement: movies which were made to appeal to a black audience. The heroes and most of the cast were coloured, and many whites in supporting roles were either crooked or incompetent. (The money made from these films went directly into the pockets of the white financers, of course.)

Richard Lawson in Black Fist (1975)

It was not a far leap for these two genres on the rise to merge, and a number of blaxplo martial arts films were made as a result. One good example is Black Fist. The story is about the young streetfighter Leroy, who starts to participate in illegal fights for money. The fights allow him and his girfriend a life in luxury, but he soon finds that the crime boss and the cops will not let him have his success without paying the price.

This movie is not worth watching because of the martial arts (the fight coreography is almost laughable in some moments, brutally unsophisticated in others), but because it delivers everything you would expect from a good blaxploitation: close-ups of the shady aspects of society, dirty 70s street slang, funky music, and a total lack of sentimentality that almost hurts.

The best thing about Black Fist is that, even though it is a child of the Bruce Lee boom, it does not try to copy the master. Therefore, it is a much better film than many of the Hong Kong “bruceploitation” movies.

This film is best enjoyed on your mobile phone or iPad, since the resolution of the best copy on the Internet Archive is inadequate for viewing on a large screen.

Carolyn Calcote and Philip Michael Thomas in Black Fist (1975)

Black Fist
Download link
Year: 1975
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Timothy Galfas, Richard Kaye
Stars: Richard Lawson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (416×320)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (699 M)

Victory through Air Power (1943)

Disney’s animated features in the 1940s was a bumpy ride, to say the least. It started with classics-to-be such as Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942), while the rest of the decade saw a range of films sewn together from shorter animations without any real connection, for example Melody Time (1948). These latter are rarely released on video, but at least tend to be seen in lists of all Disney animated features. But there is one animated Disney feature which is normally left out of such lists, and which will never be included in the Walt Disney Diamonds line.

Victory through Air Power, released exactly 70 years ago the day after tomorrow, is forgotten today not because it is a bad movie. It is not. But its message is not exactly relevant to today’s fans.

Nazi forces attack in Victory through Air Power (1943)

This was a time when a good deal of the Disney production was war-time propaganda and information. Walt Disney had read a book by Russian-born Alexander de Seversky, where the author argues for the use of powerful strategic bombers as the most important strategy for winning the war. Disney was so impressed that he decided to make a film on the subject, and film critic Leonard Maltin has been quoted to the effect that the film made such an impact on Franklin D. Roosevelt that it changed the strategies used by the United States in the war (source: Wikipedia).

The film begins with a 20-minute history of aviation. This part stands well on its own, and is light enough in content that it could well be watched by kids. Even though this part is very different in style from the rest of the movie, the transition works well through a presentation of the career of Alexander de Seversky, who appears in live sequences throughout the rest of the film, arguing for the military strategical developments that were Disney’s rationale for making the film.

By Disney standards, the animation is a bit simplistic at times, but it is nevertheless very well done, and in its best moments extremely beautiful. The animators took every opportunity to appeal to the audience’s emotions, and the result is a film full of powerful imagery. Even though the final two thirds of the film basically consist of arguments and propaganda, the animations make it worth watching even for those who may not be very interested in the film’s historical implications.

There are two versions of this film at the Internet Archive. The “secondary” version, intended for internal use in the US Air Force, is slightly longer but all in black and white. They may have reasoned that a colour version did not appear serious enough, or it may have been a matter of cost reduction. I have not checked to see what the exact differences are, but probably only minor details; perhaps just title cards in between reels. If you are interested, here is a link to the black and white version.

This film is best enjoyed after having seen all the other Disney animated features (so that you can proudly say “Check!” when done), or if you are interested in military history. Every Disney fan should see it, though.

Allied strategic bombers strike back in Victory through Air Power (1943)

Victory through Air Power
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Directors: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, H.C. Potter
Stars: Alexander de Seversky
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

Sometimes you wonder just why you do a certain thing. As I write this, for example, I have just spent most of last week in a make-shift dojo, training ju-jutsu at the annual Swedish summer camp. I was very much out of practice before the week started, and come Friday I felt like I was going to die, or at least fall apart.

Ju-jutsu (which can also be spelled “jujitsu,” “jiu jitsu”, or a great many other variants; but never “jujutsi” or “jui-jitsu”) is a martial art that had its peak way before the martial arts became popular on film in the 1970s. Consequently, there are only a handful of movies where ju-jutsu is an important element. Mostly it is only mentioned in passing in dialogue.

Such mentionings can be very interesting, however. They tell us something about how ju-jutsu is and has been perceived in popular media. It turns out that the most common movie usage of the word “ju-jutsu” (regardless of spelling) is to explain someone’s expert fighting skills, but it is almost as common that another martial art is mistakenly identified as ju-jutsu (implicitly suggesting the other art’s superiority). The oldest example I have found of this latter use is in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in this piece of dialogue after having rescued a man from being beaten up:

“I’m deeply grateful. It was wonderful!”
“Being very simple. Judo, often miscalled by foreigners ‘jiujitsu’.”

Peter Lorre and Robert Coote in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto was originally a character in a series of novels. In the 1930s, the character became a series of films, although quite different from the books. Peter Lorre, an excellent actor who was often given roles much below his ability, here plays a Japanese agent of the International Police – an early James Bond of sorts. Caucasians who play Asians are very rarely convincing, but Lorre does a good act.

The film begins as Mr. Moto arrives at Port Said, Egypt. He soon becomes involved in trying to reveal a plot to start a world war between England and France(!). The story is full of logical holes (in particular in the light of later historical events), but thanks to good dialogue, some charming supporting characters and Lorre’s splendid acting it nevertheless turns into a pleasant little mystery, well worth watching if you enjoy 30s mystery films. (But of course you do!)

The martial arts in the Mr. Moto series should not be compared with those seen in the later martial arts boom, or in more recent high-budget ventures such as The Matrix (1999). It consists chiefly of spectacular but poorly executed judo throws such as seoi nage, tomoe nage, or the odd kata guruma (see the image below).

So what about other uses of the word “ju-jutsu” in films? Turns out there are very few. I have seen a couple of cases where it is used to emptily boast that someone is a good fighter, and once as a deliberately bad pun (Not Another Teen Movie (2001)). On film, ju-jutsu is essentially only available to the good guys. The only exception to that rule that I am aware of is in the strange and unique propaganda movie Stage Door Canteen (1943), wherein we find the following wonderful line:

“They can talk all they want about the Jap jujitsu, but a marine will tell you it doesn’t work against a roundhouse right to the jaw.”

Concerning Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, this film is best enjoyed if you have an hour and a quarter to kill and need some light entertainment.

Peter Lorre's stunt double executes a kata guruma in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Norman Foster
Stars: Peter Lorre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (505 M)

The General (1926)

On this day in history, 150 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg began. Whether it was a heroic fight for a noble cause, or a terrible slaughter (about 50,000 dead; almost ten times the population of the town where I live), there can be no doubt that it was an event that shaped the history of the world, in such a way that the consequences can still be felt.

There are surprisingly few interesting movies about the American Civil War on the Internet Archive. One of those few happen to be Buster Keaton’s The General.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General is based on the true story of a band of of Union spies who stole a train and drove it through Confederate territory, causing as much damage as possible. They were followed by the train’s conductor with two other men, and this is where Keaton takes off with his story. Keaton takes the role of the train engineer Johnnie, who desperately wants back his train, and also his girlfriend who happened to be on board when the hijacking was made. He has to go through fire and water (literally) to do so. Keaton adapted most of the story to fit the needs of a comedy, but otherwise he went to great lengths to make the details (such as the locomotives) historically accurate. Interestingly, the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is based on the same events, but tells the story from the Union perspective.

Perhaps the most memorable parts of The General are the many amazing stunts and effects, not least the scene where a steam locomotive crashes into a ravine when a bridge falls apart. This was apparently the most expensive single scene to be filmed during the entire silent era, and the locomotive is actually real. It remained there on the bottom of the ravine for decades.

It is very difficult to imagine The General without the stunts. The success of this film builds very much upon the body language and amazing timing of one of the all-time greatest of film comedians. If you have never seen Buster Keaton before, then this is a very good place to start. In my opinion, Keaton has made even better films, but even so it is one of the greatest comedies of the silent era.

When you have finished watching this film, you should take a look at the fantastic blog Silent Locations, which has a post about the film. Make sure to follow the link to the complete presentation about the film. Amazing stuff!

This film is best enjoyed after having been to a good railway museum (such as the one in Kennesaw, Georgia, where the real The General still stands).

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The General
Download link
Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)