Freedom River (1971)

This Short Film Month of October continues with a more recent film than previous entries. This time we turn our focus onto a very short and at first sight insignificant little animation that turns out to have layers of depth and meaning in it. The film in question is Freedom River.

Boats and "Immigration" sign from Freedom River (1971)

Made in 1971, Freedom River has to be seen against the historical background of the Vietnam war, and all of the political awakenings and awareness associated with that time. Freedom River is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film. It is critical to many aspects of American society at the time, and that is probably the reason why it has remained fresh for four and a half decades. Many of the political issues raised in the film are just as relevant today as they were then, and since the film stays with generalisations, without going in-depth on any one subject, it feels almost timeless.

Surprisingly little information is available on the Internet about this little gem of a film. Orson Welles narrated the only voice heard in the film, and you would think that his name alone would generate enough interest for this film to achieve a classic status, but apparently not. One surprising and interesting comment, however, can be found in the film’s user reviews section at the IMDb. Joseph Cavella, the film’s writer, has this to say about the production of Freedom River:

“For several years, Bosustow Productions, a small studio for which I wrote several films, had asked Orson Welles, then living in Paris, to narrate one of their films. He never responded. When I finished the Freedom River script, we sent it to him together with a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a sizable check and crossed our fingers. He was either desperate for money or (I would rather believe) something in it touched him because two weeks later we got the reel back with the narration word for word and we were on our way.”

The film is not without its faults. The animation is very effective, but perhaps overly simplistic at times. Also, there is an undercurrent of patriotism that seems to suggest that freedom and prosperity are inherent in the very land of America (although the actual place is not named). The film would, I think, have been even more powerful if it had acknowledged that humans alone can create a good society, and it could also have mentioned the problems brought upon the Native Americans by the white immigrants. But these are minor quibbles.

This film is best enjoyed as a political allegory for any time. Until we have truly achieved Utopia, this sort of commentary will always remain a reminder of what is important in life.

Beach and houses from Freedom River (1971)

Freedom River
Download link
Year: 1971
Running time: 7 min
Director: Sam Weiss
Stars: Orson Welles (voice)
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (242 M)

Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Normally, I do not do short film on this blog, but because of the rich treasure of classic short films available at the Internet Archive, I have decided that October is Short Film Month. First out is the classic cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo, Benito Mussolini on bass drum, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Joseph Goebbels on trombone and Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

The beginning of the film cannot really be described any better than Wikipedia does it: “A German oom-pah band—composed of Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels on trombone, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo and Benito Mussolini on bass drum—marches noisily at four o’clock in the morning through a small German town where everything, even the clouds and trees, are shaped as swastikas, singing the virtues of the Nazi doctrine.” There, the tone is set, and the rest of the film continues in the same crazy, satiric and nationalistic spirit.

Due to its propagandistic content, the film has not been released on DVD and Bluray as many times as most other Donald Duck films from the 30s and 40s, especially not in Europe. Still, some say it is one of the best. At any rate, there are many brilliant gags, and it is a film well worth watching.

The film has many neat little details. For example, in the image below, note how even the telephone poles (barely visible) are shaped like swastikas. Another detail, for anyone interested in how Disney cut corners in the war year animations, is when the band marches back across the screen just after the titles. The swastikas on the uniforms are mirrored, because the entire section is just mirrored from the first time they marched past.

Der Fuehrer’s Face received an Academy Award for best animated short. At least two other nominees from the same year can be found at the Internet Archive: the Tex Avery cartoon Blitz Wolf and George Pal’s Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the Disney shorts from the classic period. This is one you may have missed if you relied on the official collections from Disney.

A factory with swastikas in the Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Der Fuehrer’s Face
Download link
Year: 1942
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Jack Kinney
Stars: Clarence Nash (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (76 M)

Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

My five-year-old daughter enjoys watching the 2015 TV series Thunderbirds Are Go. Little does she know, or care, that the original Thunderbirds series, and also a movie with the exact title Thunderbirds Are Go, are older even than her old dad.

Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

The plot of the movie is about a spaceship that is sabotaged shortly after liftoff for the first planned mission to Mars. The spaceship crashes before reaching space, but the crew is rescued and a few years later a second attempt is made. This time, the rescue team Thunderbirds are called in to make sure that the crew is safe. They also employ the agent Penelope to ascertain that there is no sabotage this time.

Thunderbirds Are Go ia an animated film, mostly made with puppets and scale models. The scale models, in particular, are extremely detailed and imaginative! Spaceships, houses, cars, not to mention the base where the spaceship takes off for Mars. Those things are still impressive and well made when compared to what a similar production would look like today. At times, I feel myself completely blown away by the imagination and the attention to detail that lie behind this production.

The animation was made with a puppetry technique called supermarionation, which was used in all the 1960s Thunderbirds films and TV series, as well as in several other series made by the same production team. There is no facial movement, except for lip synch, and even though that synch is good, it can be a bit unnerving to watch those completely blank faces trying to express some kind of emotion. In fact, most puppet movements are a bit stiff at times, and unfortunately that is also true of the dialogue, and indeed of the entire plot.

Fans of Cliff Richard and The Shadows will not want to miss this one, since Cliff and the band appear as puppets, performing the song “Shooting Star” during an otherwise too long and somewhat absurd dream sequence.

The aspect ratio of this movie is a bit off, but if you have a good player, you can easily adjust that.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent scale models of buildings and vehicles, and for the music by Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Quite frankly, there is little else to enjoy about it, but those things go a long way.

Thunderbirds Are Go
Download link
Year: 1966
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: David Lane
Stars: Cliff Richard (singing)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (620 M)

The Mind’s Eye (1990)

I have previously written about all the other instalments in the classic four-part series about computer animation from the 1990s, The Mind’s Eye. The time has now come to the first part, the one which gave the series its name, The Mind’s Eye.

CGI computer animation from the segment Mobay Chemical in The Mind's Eye (1990)

Much happened in the world of computer animation during the seven or eight years during which the Mind’s Eye series was designed and directed, Thus, The Mind’s Eye often seems pretty primitive, even when compared with the later films in the series. For that reason, I would not recommend beginning with the first film if you are looking for an introduction to the series. Perhaps the most artisitically interesting instalment is the second, Beyond the Mind’s Eye (1992), though the following parts The Gate to the Mind’s Eye (1994) and Odyssey into the Mind’s Eye (1996) are also interesting, each in its own way.

The series was intended to continue after the fourth part, but no further films surfaced under that banner. There were, however, a number of spin-offs. At least one, Virtual Nature (1993), is available for download.

Like Virtual Nature, the version of The Mind’s Eye available at the Internet Archive is unfortunately a VHS rip. Thus, neither image nor sound are as good as they could have been, although still good enough to be enjoyable.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. While the weakest part in the series in terms of editing and animation (also to some extent with regard to soundtrack), it gives a tremendous insight into just how much CGI animation developed during just a few short years. It is also worth remembering, that just a few years previous, it would have been impossible to make a film like this at all. (If you are interested in even older animation, a State of the Art of Computer Animation from 1988 can be downloaded.) Put into perspective, The Mind’s Eye is still an impressive piece of artistic and technological achievement.

CGI computer animation from the segment Prime Corporate Video in The Mind's Eye (1990)

Beyond the Mind’s Eye
Download link
Year: 1990
Running time: 38 min
Director: Jack Nickman
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×468)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (456 M)

Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

The Internet Archive may be an absolutely fantastic site. Scope and depth are both tremendous, but they come at a price. The problem is finding what you are looking for. Or, sometimes, trying to determine which one of several available versions is the best. With the popular films, it is not unusual to find anywhere between five and ten different uploads. There is next to no information about source or resolution, and unfortunately the quality claims made by the uploaders do not always hold up to scrutiny.

Gulliver’s Travels is a good case in point. This is a classic animated adaptation created by Dave Fleischer, who had previously done Betty Boop and Popeye, and who was to participate in the creation of the Superman animated series. Gulliver’s Travels was one of only two feature films he made.

Gulliver (Sam Parker rotoscoped) in Lilliput from Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Jonathan Swift’s original Gulliver’s Travels contained four parts, but this film only covers the first part, about the adventures among the Lilliputians. To some extent it follows the original plot, in that Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island Lilliput. The inhabitants are first suspicious and try to tie him down, but when he intervenes on their behalf in a war, they treat him with friendliness. There are some changes in the overall plot, but the main difference is an added plotline about a romance between a princess of Lilliput and a prince of the rival Blefuscu kingdom.

Obvious influences in the production are not only Fleischer’s previous short films, but also Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many of the ordinary townspeople look more than a little like one of the dwarfs, and the Lilliput princess is more akin to Snow White than to Betty Boop.

Nine uploaded versions are known to me, not counting the original theatrical trailier. More may exist, as I have not searched all possible misspellings.

The trick is finding the best version. One thing you may want to compare between versions is length. In the case of Gulliver’s Travels, two variants of different lengths exist. One is about 72 minutes and one about 76. Assuming that we want only the more complete version, we can immediately dismiss three versions (1, 2, 3).

File size is another indication, but also tricky. Internet Archive’s classic interface (still available at the time of writing) had immediately available facts about this, but the new interface requires that you click “Show All” in order to get this important piece of information. File size depends on a number of factors and large size is no guarantee for a good copy. However, as a rule of thumb, a good copy of a feature-length film will not fit into less than, say, 500 MB, and even then it may be fairly heavily compressed, which may cause all sorts of weird artifacts in the images. Another two versions (1, 2) fall slightly below this limit, and are indeed of such low resolution that pixels are clearly visible when watching.

Next, it is a good thing to look at the comments for the remaining versions. Here we can find information that two more versions (1, 2) are “digitally restored,” but in a way that creates a fake widescreen (the original was in 4:3 ratio) by cropping and stretching the image. Also, the images have been blurred, so that many details are smeared. I nevertheless did download these versions to look for myself, and though the information is correct, the colours and sound of these versions are far superior to any other I have seen. So you may opt for one of these, if you do not care that you will miss some details from the original version.

Two versions remain, and now we are down to downloading and looking at them in order to judge which is best. They are about equal size, but it turns out that one has lower resolution. Thus, my own choice is definitely the final one. This one is not perfect. It has visible scan lines, sound could be better and it is pretty dark. So someone else may have another favourite.

While on the subject of Gulliver adaptations, there is another one at the Internet Archive that I also want to mention. Georges Méliès was a pioneer of cinematic special effects. Many of his films are available for download (I counted 88 at one point), but many are also of very low quality. One that is fairly good, however, is his version of the Gulliver tale, Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902). Beautifully hand colorated, this one is not to be missed if you have an interest in early literary adaptations or in early special effects.

The 1939 film is best enjoyed as close to the original as possible. Finding the best possible version at the Internet Archive can be hard work. Or you can just go to this blog. I always try my best to do the job for you and link to the most watchable version.

Gulliver's (Sam Parker) hand with  Princess Glory of Lilliput and Prince David of Blefuscu in Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Gulliver’s Travels
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Dave Fleischer
Stars: Sam Parker, Pinto Colvig, Jessica Dragonette
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (734 M)

Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

The Gate to the Mind’s Eye (1994)

I have previously written about two of the films in The Mind’s Eye series of CGI animation episode films, namely Beyond the Mind’s Eye (1992) and Odyssey into the Mind’s Eye (1996). Now the time has come for the film that was chronologically released between those two, namely The Gate to the Mind’s Eye. If you know nothing about this series, it may be better to follow the link to one of the other films before diving into this one.

The Great Wall of China from The Gate to the Mind's Eye (1994)

Music is always central in any Mind’s Eye film, and this one is no exception. The music was produced and performed by Thomas Dolby, and features a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks. I like it a lot, but I prefer the instrumental tracks, since I find that the vocals detract some of my attention from the images.

As with all the other films in the series, this one has good parts and rather less good parts. The sci-fi animations in the first half for the most part lack originality, even though they look nice at times, but several animations in the middle part, such as “Legacy” and “El idioma español”, are both beautiful and fascinating. Towards the end, we even see some pretty nifty social commentary in sections such as “Zapping”.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of the series, or if you like Thomas Dolby. If you have not seen anything from The Mind’s Eye before, I would suggest that you start with Beyond the Mind’s Eye.

The Gate to the Mind's Eye (1994)

The Gate to the Mind’s Eye
Download link
Year: 1994
Running time: 55 min
Director: Michael Boydstun
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: CD/DVD image (2.3 G) or h.264 (330 M)