The Klansman (1974)

“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, […] little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King, nearly exactly fifty years ago.

King’s words were prompted by his own activities previously in 1963, fighting for civil rights in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was very strong, and often had support from local police and mayor. Eleven years later, those “vicious racists” and the violence they instigated inspired the film The Klansman.

The film depicts a small Alabama town where a white woman is raped, and Klan members (led by the local mayor) target a black man as guilty, trying to have him lynched. The local sheriff, torn between conflicting emotions and loyalties, try to maintain order, but violence escalates and threaten to go out of hand as a black vigilante starts to kill Klan members.

Lee Marvin, Richard Burton and a bottle of whiskey in The Klansman (1974)

The version available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, is not the original. It is a version for TV distribution, cut down both in terms of aspect ratio and playing time. I suspect that much of the eleven missing minutes consist of explicit sex and violence, although a fair portion of graphic violence remains.

Some say this is a bad movie (see for instance the excellent blog Cheap as they Come for some thoughtful opinions). Me, I do not think it is bad, but it certainly is uneven. The dialogue is sometimes captivating, sometimes corny. Some actors – Lee Marvin in particular – are very good, others are outright bad. The plot is tight and interesting in some spots, hard to take seriously in others.

Judging by accounts at IMDb and Wikipedia, the production seems to have been cursed with trouble. Intended director and writer Samuel Fuller left the project in protest after financers had rejected his daring and controversial treatment of the racial issues. Stars Richard Burton and Lee Marvin were both drinking heavily during shooting of the film, the former to the extent that he had to be institutionalized after shooting was completed.

It is interesting to ponder what this movie could have been if it had been made according to the original visions, and with a cast that cared enough to stay sober. Even as it stands, it is a powerful drama, heavy with tension and aggression. Had things been different, it could have been a great classic, a forerunner to Mississippi Burning (1988). As it is, it is just another typical 70s drama, interesting to watch because it depicts a shameful part of United States history.

So, what have we learned from that history, real and fictional? Well, some things have undoubtedly improved over the last forty or fifty years. The Klan is no longer a major threat. But in many places, both in and out of the United States, racism still exists. Focus have shifted from coloured people to muslims, and racist actions are often more covert and less spectacular (thereby less interesting to make films about and generally more difficult to target). In Europe there are strong right-wing parties in almost all countries with aggressive anti-immigration agendas. So while not everything in The Klansman is relevant today, and even though its message may be a bit muddled by changed scripts and cuts, I still think it holds a lesson and a message that deserves to be considered. We must not let King’s dream die just yet.

This film is best enjoyed if your expectations of actor performances are not set too high.

Lee Marvin faces the Ku Klux Klan with a burning cross in The Klansman (1974)

The Klansman
Download link
Year: 1974
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Directors: Terence Young
Stars: Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, O.J. Simpson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

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The Mystery Squadron (1933)

Today, the concept of movie serials is completely dead, but back in the beginnings of cinema storytelling, it was one of many formats which the pioneers experimented with. Even though some of the all-time greatest were made as early as the 1910s, this story-telling format lasted into the 1950s.

With the coming of sound, the serials had to be made cheaper, which in turn resulted in faster production, less original scripts, and more reliance on stereotyped characters and situations. Ironically, this may have resulted in a far more profound impact on modern-day popular culture, because those stereotypes were repeatedly projected onto the viewer’s conscience, and came to directly influence many of today’s iconic media phenomena, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.

The “Golden Age” of serials is generally considered to have started in 1936 with, among others, Ace Drummond. That serial is not one of my favourites, but it was probably inspired by one which came three years earlier, and which resembles it in many ways, The Mystery Squadron.

Bob Steele, Lucile Browne and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron, like most sound serials, has a simple plot. The building of a dam is harassed by a squadron of fliers headed by The Black Ace (we would call them terrorists today). The pilots Fred and “Jellybean” are hired to put an end to the trouble. But who is The Black Ace?

Even though it is just as cheap and stereotyped as any 1930s serial, The Mystery Squadron has many fine characteristics to its credit. It still has some of the freshness and playfulness of the silent serials; it is fun, and no-one, including the actors, seems to take it seriously. The mystery of who hides behind the mask of The Black Ace is also uncommonly well made (for a serial) and adds to the excitement. To top it off, the serial has one of those rare female supporting characters who is headstrong and resourceful, and herself a good pilot. On several occasions, she is the one who saves the day. Strong female characters like this were much more common in the silent days.

It certainly has its share of faults, too. The actors are rotten (even by serial standards), there are some very cheesy special effects to compensate for expensive live flying sequences, and many cliffhanger resolutions (another serial hallmark) are very corny. Also, image and sound quality of the Internet Archive copy are not very good. Fortunately, any deficiences are easily compensated by the fact that you can play The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game.

The game is simple. Just look at all the twelve episodes in sequence. Drink whenever one of the following things occur:

  • Someone uses a secret passage at the tavern.
  • You hear the radio call “The Black Ace calling station A/B.”
  • Someone is accused of being the Black Ace.
  • A model plane (supposed to show a real plane) lands or takes off.
  • Someone fires a flash grenade to blind the heroes (drink double).

Note! I have not tried The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game myself, and I take no responsibility for any adverse effects, either to your health or your bar cabinet.

This film is best enjoyed if you are well stocked with alcohol.

Bob Steele and Edward Hearn in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1933
Running time: 3 h 50 min
Directors: Colbert Clark, David Howard
Stars: Bob Steele, Guinn Williams
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4

One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

The Internet Archive offers a tremendous scope of films. But of course there is more of some things, less of others. Many of my favourite film makers, such as Bergman and Kurosawa, are not represented at all. Others, like Keaton and Hitchcock, have many titles to their credit in the Archive.

Then there are some favourites that are only represented by a single film, or just a couple. Among these are the British producers, writers and directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of their few joint productions in the Archive is One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, a film about a downed bomber crew during World War II and their attempts to make it back home.

Crashing model of Vickers Wellington bomber in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)

Powell and Pressburger were together responsible for creating some of the all-time classics in the history of cinema, such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

They worked together mainly through the 1940s and 1950s, and formed a joint production company called The Archers. Each had his own strengths; Pressburger did most of the writing while Powell did most of the directing, yet they were jointly responsible for the entire creative effort throughout each production. These kinds of cooperative efforts are rare in movie making.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing was one of their earliest joint productions. It is a propaganda film commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, but unlike many other propaganda films, this one is actually good. The script is not as tight as in some of the duo’s later productions, and Powell had not yet perfected the visual language which was to become his watermark. Yet it is a powerful movie with strong and effective characterisations.

The propaganda is easy to overlook, or to become fascinated by. On the surface, it mostly consists of a couple of patriotic speaches, though there is plenty going on more subtly, if you care to look for it.

This film is best enjoyed with the awareness that you will be spoon-fed with the naturally heroic characteristics of the British and the Dutch.

Hugh Burden, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles, Godfrey Tearle, Pamela Brown in One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing
Download link
Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Hugh Burden, Eric Portman, Pamela Brown
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

As I started preparing this week’s post, I noticed that I was not the only one who made the connection between Edward Snowden and Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. News editorials and political blogs are filled with Orwellian metaphors, and Amazon sales of the book apparently rose several thousand per cent in a single day after Snowden’s revelations were made public.

One of the very best filmed versions of the book was made thirty years before the year in the title. Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Quatermass and the Pit (which I wrote about last week), is a live science fiction drama produced by the BBC. The two productions even had the same writer and director, and some actors also appear in both.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Winston Smith is played by none other than Peter Cushing. A brilliant Cushing, at that. And if possible, Donald Pleasence as his “friend” Syme is even better. In fact, the whole production is brilliant. A few slip-ups (such as the shadow of an overhead microphone visible on screen) must be accepted in a live production such as this. The dictatorial government’s total control and repression reaches for you through the screen, and you can feel the anguish, then a vague hope, and then … But I should stop here, in case you are not previously familiar with the story.

One year earlier, American CBS had made another live TV production of the same story. I have not seen that version, but it too is said to be very good, although shorter. Orwell fans may want to check it out.

We have to acknowledge that the US is not Oceania, Edward Snowden is not Winston Smith, and Barack Obama is certainly not Big Brother. But that was never the point. The point, I think, is that the book and the film Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to offer. Real-world events can only serve to reinforce what was already there.

This film is best enjoyed as an allegory and a warning that is just as relevant today, almost sixty years after the film, sixty-four years after the book.

'Big Brother is watching YOU!' Peter Cushing in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four
Download link
Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 47 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×544)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)