I have officially watched and reviewed every movie on the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies List (2007 Edition)! Here are the movies with my links to the reviews.
Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans. He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.
I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that. But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence. This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.
There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film. Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish. Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer. This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen. It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses. All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
From 4th to 6th grades, I attended a Catholic elementary school where the teachers liked to show us Biblical Epic Movies in class. We watched today’s film, Ben-Hur, as well as Barabbas, The Robe, and Masada (which the teachers apparently didn’t realize has a scene with a topless woman until it was too late). Oddly enough, all of these movies are tangential to the Bible, and we somehow never watched any of the movies actually based on Biblical stories like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Anyhow, lest you think we were religious nuts, this same school was the first place I saw The Karate Kid, A Christmas Story, and The Ice Pirates!
I really enjoyed Ben-Hur when I saw it as a kid, but in the intervening 35+ I’ve come to assume that it was cheezy Hollywood. Rewatching it now, I found a lot to like about it: stirring action scenes, a compelling story of revenge and redemption, and a story that really sells its tangential relation the life of Christ. It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), the scion of the most prosperous Jewish family in Jerusalem. His childhood friend, a Roman named Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Judea to command the garrison. Their reunion becomes an unhappy one when Judah refuses to provide names of fellow Jews who oppose the Roman occupation. Judah, as well as his mother Miriam ( Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell).
The bulk of the movie is Judah’s journey to return home and find his family. This includes two of the most memorable set pieces in Hollywood history. Who can forget the naval battle in which Judah and other enslaved people must row the ship to ramming speed? After saving the life of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah returns to Jerusalem to face down Messala in a chariot race depicted in an intense action sequence with some remarkable stunts.
Judah’s path crosses with Jesus a few times in the movie, but it’s not until the final act where he and his family stumble upon Christ’s procession with the cross and crucifixion. Ben-Hur may have the most artistic and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ in history of film. And because it’s told through the reactions of the characters, I think it is more effective than a more straightforward story from Jesus’ perspective. Ben-Hur is long and a bit old-fashioned but I think it holds up better than some of its contemporary epics.
Release Date: October 6, 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
I first saw Spartacus in 1991 when it was restored and re-released in theaters with previously censored scenes spliced back in. Most notable is the scene where Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with an extended metaphor about oysters and snails to imply he is bisexual. This scene was too racy for the production code in 1960 although it would have probably been unnecessarily subtle in Ancient Rome. The other part of the movie I remember well is the gladiatorial training scenes where instructor Marcellus (Charles McGraw) has a comically gravelly voice that appears to dubbed over the film. For months after seeing this movie, my sister and I would imitate that voice saying “Kill, me Spartacus! Come on, kill me!”
I was surprised that most of what I remember of the film happens pretty early on (except, of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene near the end). Kirk Douglas stars as Spartacus, an enslaved man from Thrace who is brought to a gladiatorial training school in Capua and rebels after a series of indignities. This prompts a broader revolt of which Spartacus is chosen as leader and many successful battles against the Roman military as the freed people attempt to leave the Italian peninsula. Spartacus also forms a romance with a former enslaved woman Varinia (Jean Simmons), although I find their scenes together to not be very convincing.
It comes as no surprise that director Stanley Kubrick was more interested in focusing on the Romans as it is in their scenes that the film is strongest. The story of the corrupt Roman aristocracy plays as a sharp satire much as I read Gone With the Wind as a satire of the slavocracy of the Old South, or to be more relevant to Kubrick, a progenitor of Dr. Strangelove. Crassus is the aristocrat who outwardly stands for the greater esteem of Roman identity while privately plotting to take dictatorial power. Against him stands Gracchus (Charles Laughton), the populist who stirs up “the rabble” to his own ends. The movie even suggest the rise to power of Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is brought about by the events of this film, although Caesar himself plays only a small part in the story. Stealing scenes from everyone is Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the unctuous slave trader and owner of the gladiatorial school.
The production of this film was a legendary mess with a cadre of strong-willed men of assholic temperament at loggerheads with each other. Nevertheless, it turns out as a very good if not great film despite the fact that it’s too long and uneven due to Kubrick’s disinterest in actually telling the story of Spartacus. It was fun to revisit Spartacus, and while it won’t end up on my list of greatest films ever, it has earned a memorable spot in Hollywood history.
Title: The Wild Bunch
Release Date: June 18, 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Production Company: Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
The Wild Bunch tells one of the most familiar stories in film history. A group of aging outlaws lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his sidekick Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) try for one last score with a heist of silver from the railroad. The heist is a bust and soon the surviving members of the Wild Bunch find themselves on the run over the border into Mexico pursued by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of the gang now deputized by the railroad company as a bounty hunter.
The big difference between The Wild Bunch and earlier Westerns is that in 1969 the production code is no more. Expletives are shouted, womens’ breasts are bared, and every bullet shot hits its target with an explosion of flesh and blood. (Previously all I knew about Sam Peckinpaugh was from a Monty Python sketch which I thought was exaggerating the blood and gore, but now I know better). A bigger change from earlier Hollywood is that all moral certitude is gone as the gang of anti-heroes does what they need to do to survive.
The Wild Bunch is essentially the template followed by action-adventure films for the ensuing 50 years. It feels like an oddball among the other movies on the AFI 100 list but I can see it deserving a shot for being an influence. And while this isn’t a movie I particularly enjoyed, it was worth watching it once.
Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Miloš Forman
Production Company: Fantasy Films
In my teen years, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book by Tom Wolfe about author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey. This prompted me to immediately read Kesey’s most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At some point later in life, I watched the movie, but I only vaguely remember not really liking it. Well, I’m glad that I was prompted to rewatch the movie, because it turns out to be a compelling drama.
Jack Nicholson stars as Randle McMurphy, a convict who fakes insanity in order to avoid hard labor at a prison work farm. His free spirit and combative attitude begin to stir things up among the men in his ward at the mental hospital. What makes this movie for me is the excellent ensemble cast who portray the other patients. This includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd (before they would work together again on Taxi), Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit, Sydney Lassick as the anxious Charlie Cheswick, and William Redfield as Dale Harding, who is kind of McMurphy’s biggest rival among the patients. Another key character is “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), an apparently deaf and mute Native American. Chief is the narrator of the book, but his significance in the movie is not as apparent until the final act. Nicholson’s future co-star of The Shining, Scatman Crothers, also has a key role as a night orderly.
Much of the drama in the film comes from the battle of the wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who leads the therapy sessions for the men in the ward. I find it interesting that Nurse Ratched is commonly understood as a villain and wonder if patriarchal fears of men under the control of a woman play a part in that assessment. In the film, Ratched is clearly an antagonist to McMurphy, but she is calm and I don’t believe she is malicious, at least not until the film’s denouement.
I read that Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy in a stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted to star in the movie. It occurs to me that McMurphy is very similar in temperament to Douglas’ character in Ace in the Hole. They both believe that they can take control of a chaotic situation to serve their own ends. And their hubris leads to a tragic ending.
Title: All the President’s Men
Release Date: April 4, 1976
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: Wildwood Enterprises
Summary/Review: This docudrama dramatizes the investigative journalism of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) at The Washington Post to connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at Watergate to President Richard Nixon. It’s kind of fascinating to think of audiences watching this movie at the time of release when the events depicted had just happened but are already being shown with the sheen of historicity.
The acting is top notch with Redford and Hoffman joined by Jason Robards as the Post‘s editor Ben Bradlee and Hal Holbrook as “Deep Throat” among others. The movie does a great job of creating tension out of rather mundane tasks like making phone calls and taking notes so that it is very compelling to watch. The movie also incorporates actual tv and radio news footage from the time period which I think was something new for narrative films, although it would become more common. On the downside, there isn’t much characterization for the leads beyond that Bernstein is apparently the better writer and Woodward is more fastidious about getting the facts right. I don’t feel that we get any sense of who Woodward and Bernstein were as people apart from being idealistic journalists.
While I won’t deny that this is an excellent film, it is a curious choice for the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Films list. I expect it is recognized for the film’s influence in dramatize recent political events as well as inspiring generations of idealistic journalists. I also suspect it is considered an important film because it relates to an important event in American history. More cynically, it could be that it’s about a significant event in the life of the Baby Boomer generation and thus deemed important because Baby Boomers remain the tastemakers of American culture. All that aside, it’s an excellent film worth watching.
Title: Gone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
I’m not really sure what I can say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t been said before. For good or for ill, this film is steeped in our culture. When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, the annual broadcast of Gone With the Wind was a major event spread over multiple nights like a big new miniseries (and delightfully parodied on The Carol Burnett Show). My mom and sister loved watching the movie, but I avoided it until I was a teenager and found that it was actually better than I imagined.
Still, even if my great-grandfather hadn’t served in the Civil War defending his home state of Pennsylvania, I would find it hard to love a movie whose opening text declares the slaveholder aristocracy to be a great, lost civilization and their insurrection to be a noble cause. I decided that this movie really actually works as a satire of the South, since all the characters are universally awful in their narcissism, pettiness, duplicity, and greed. Well, except Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) who seems to have found a happy place divorced from reality.
I can’t deny that this is a technically brilliant and beautifully shot film that was innovative for its time and still holds up (although it says something about our nation that so many of the American film industry’s milestone films – from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to Song of the South – are deeply racist). I also can’t deny that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are terrific in their roles. I quibble with the idea that the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler really deserved the epic treatment and nearly four hours of run time, but it did hold my attention.
I guess I did have a few things to say about Gone With the Wind. I don’t think it really deserves the revered position it holds, but it is worth giving it a watch if you haven’t seen it yourself. I don’t think I’ll watch it again.
Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version. The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes. Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable. In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.
I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students. I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since. The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war. Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration. Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.
In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts). The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.
Except that there are no heroes in this movie. The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches. Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel. But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.
My effort to watch and review every movie ranked on three lists of greatest films of all time from the American Film Institute, Sight & Sound, and Cahiers du Cinéma offers many challenges. The biggest one is “Do I really want to watch this movie?” After all there is no requirement for me to do so beyond my own stubborn pride. This is the challenge I face with watching Annie Hall (#35 on the AFI list) and Manhattan (#93 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list).
When I was young and my family first got cable tv in 1984, I became a fan of the Woody Allen films played on tv like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and my favorite Love and Death. Later in my college years I became borderline obsessed with watching every Woody Allen movie ever made. According to my Letterboxd stats, he is my second-most watched director of all time after Alfred Hitchcock. Through the 90s I watched new Woody Allen films as they were released. But it’s been two decades since I last watched a Woody Allen movie and I never will watch one again. Because watching a Woody Allen movie means watching the man who sexually assaulted Dylan Farrow.
There is an ongoing argument in our culture about whether or not one can separate the art from the artist. For me, I have to take several factors into consideration, such as:
- the severity of the artist’s offense
- what, if any, efforts has the artist made at accepting consequence and reconciliation
- if the artist is still alive, will supporting their art provide them with material benefits and social account that would allow them to defend against consequences for their offense, or worse, carry out additional offenses
- in a collaborative work of art, such as a film, can we recognize the contributions of other artists without elevating the offender
Woody’s Allen’s crime was most grievous and he’s made no effort at redemption. Supporting his art gives him money and fame that allows him to evade legal consequences and possibly assault other women and girls. And while many other artists made valuable contributions to Woody Allen films, he is the writer, director, and star of most of them, playing a version of himself. I’ve tried to watch or rewatch every movie before writing a review for my Classic Movie Project but I can’t in good conscience rewatch these movies, so I will review them based on memories from decades ago. I will also forgo giving these two moves a star rating.
Title: Annie Hall
Release Date: March 27, 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Production
Summary/Review: Annie Hall was once among my favorite movies. It is a clever romantic comedy which involves unusual for the time aspects such as breaking the fourth wall, a classic gag involving Marshall McLuhan and even an animated segment. And Diane Keaton as the title character is the rare woman in a Woody Allen film who gets to be funnier and more likable than Woody’s character. As a film, it hits the sweet spot of Allen gaining technical competence as a director but before he became to self-indulgent.
Release Date: April 18, 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review: Unlike Annie Hall, which I watched several times, I only watched Manhattan once. I was in college in the early 1990s and learning about filmmaking techniques so it was one of the first movies where I could appreciate the black & white cinematography, montage, and the use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to score the film. Since New York City had essentially hit rock bottom in the 1970s, it was nice to have a film tribute to Manhattan at the time, although the world of Isaac Davis (Allen) was entirely upper middle class white people.
Apart from the artistic touches, I didn’t like Manhattan all the much. Mainly because the plot involves the 42-year-old Davis dating the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Even if you know nothing about Allen’s real life crimes, this is creepy. It was creepy in the 1990s and it was creepy in 1979. Apart from that plot point, the humor in this film lacks the nebbish and self-deprecating qualities of Annie Hall, and Davis’ character seems to be more of someone who insists that you should be on his side without giving a good reason to do so.