Monday, 27 February 2017

Epic in Essex… Robin Hood (1922), Saffron Hall, BBC Symphony Orchestra

"Robin Hood should be made lavishly or not at all…” Douglas Fairbanks

Robin is in the heart of Prince John’s castle, he’s up against dozens of soldiers in a huge fortress with impenetrable walls, chased up stairways and surrounded on all sides by the solid steel: the cold-stone certainty of death. The situation looks hopeless and yet he’s laughing, bouncing towards danger and improvising joyful escape… this, I should imagine, is pretty much how Neil Brand felt when composing his new score.

You are almost floating on a cloud of sound in the intense confines of Saffron Hall, as purpose-built acoustics allow the full-force of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to blast forth. I’ve seen many loud rock gigs but this is the most elegant noise: precision volume… you are aware of all the players with Timothy Brock pulling forth the different sections like Thor controlling the weather. Blasts from the brass and agitation from the strings, lightened by the woodwind and relieved by percussion. Waves of sonic satisfaction with music that fills the huge spaces of Fairbanks and Allan Dwan’s film whilst moving in perfect sympathy with Robin and Marion’s romance, Prince John’s evil schemes, King Richard’s noble course, the merry men… and, don’t worry Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Mr Brand has your back…

Douglas Fairbanks or is it Neil Brand?
Robin Hood is a mighty film, from the unsurpassed dynamism of its producer, writer and lead to sets designed to induce shock and awe. Mr Brand’s lionhearted score matches the action and emotion step for pirouetting step. It is a powerful work and full of joy – a celebration, not just of this film but of the art of scoring itself; a sequel of sorts to Neil’s series on the subject.

I’d previously seen Robin Hood at London’s Cadogan Hall with John Scott conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing his own score. That was a special evening but I have to say that the epic played better in Essex, lifting the spirits with all the agility of Fairbanks himself.

Big cast and even bigger set
It’s hard to believe that Dwan had to work hard on his star to make the film; he just didn’t see Robin as cinematic enough but, after interesting Doug in archery, the idea of incorporating Richard’s crusades hooked him in. “The robust, heroic figure of Richard… stirred me at once. The period contained every dramatic element: a strong religious impulse, a kingdom undermined by treachery… fair maidens won by valour… all the colour of the adventurous Middle Ages…” purred Fairbanks (according to Robert E. Sherwood in The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23). It’s not my period, but this is, of course, the Twelfth Century as viewed through Hollywood’s rose-tinted time-telescope.

The film’s centrepiece was Richard’s massive castle, the largest physical set of the silent era even bigger than Intolerance’s Babylon. Fairbank’s biographer Tracey Goessel reports that one million feet of lumber were used along with thirty tons of nails and twenty thousand yards of “heavy velvets”.

Our baddies: Guy and John
The story goes, as told by Dwan to Brownlow in The Parade…, that Fairbanks, doubting even he could fill these gigantic spaces, considered cancelling the project upon seeing the almost completed set. This seems unlikely given Fairbanks’ intentions for the film and his reported reaction to first the set from French director Robert Florey: Doug had already worked out the new stunts he was going to perform against this backdrop he knew it would make his movement all the more dramatic.

As The Film Daily critic wrote, “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood out-spectacles all that we have seen before on the screen...” and it is precisely his juxtaposition of relentless kinetics against overwhelming scale that makes this proto-blockbuster complete. Well, that and the thousands of extras – in knitted hemp “chainmail” – on horseback or in Lincoln Green.

And the part of Wallace Beery is played by Richard I...
There is also the monumental presence of Wallace Beery as King Richard who plays a far greater part in this tale than later versions. Beery’s energy magnifies Fairbank’s own and the two dominate from the opening pageantry onwards.

The film features a good hour of set-up before the first arrow is set loose from Robin’s bow. At this point, the future outlaw is the noble Earl of Huntingdon, right-hand man to the King and therefore the man in the way for the wicked King John (Sam De Grasse on top form, with evil beard and unforgiving fringe) and his henchman Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey).

Robin and Marian
Huntington’s a fighter not a lover but soon changes his mind when he encounters Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett) who is also attracting the attention of the dark Prince and his loathsome pal, Guy. It feels like the film is deliberately marking time before the fireworks start but the score brings out the most form this sequence with some splendid romantic lines as Robin and Marian fall in love.

Richard and Huntington head off for the Holy Land leaving a Squire (Alan Hale) to look after Marian but the country at large is completely at the mercy of Prince John and the bodies are soon hanging from the battlements, maidens are being whipped and peasants tortured as The High Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery) enforces his master’s presidential orders…

It’s only a matter of time before Robin makes his return and the real story can begin but first he must overcome the connivances of Gisbourne…

The Merry Men
A year passes and the fun begins with Friar Tuck (Willard Louis), Will Scarlet (Bud Geary), Alan-a-Dale (Lloyd Talman) and Little John (Mr Hale) all in place: the men make merry and conduct a resistance in King Richard’s name, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor…

In many ways, Robin Hood is a superhero film; an individual changing the course of events through physical prowess and mental strength. Its appeal is universal and enduring not because of historical truth but because we all need to believe that good will eventually triumph in the end.

Tonight its glorious monochrome was amplified by a super-powered score to renew our faith in heroes once again.

Robin Hood is available on DVD from Kino but this score deserves a release on its own. Here’s hoping…

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Oh, brother where goest thou...? Quo Vadis? (1924)

“It fell to Emil Jannings… to depict Nero as a flabby, fatuous, fawning, driveling coward, eager to burst into song and gullible enough to drink in the lying praise of some of the sycophants that gazed into his fishy eyes and noted his loose mouth, his swollen nether lip and his heavy features.”
Mordaunt Hall, New York Times 16th February 1925

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 novel, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, contributed to his award of the Nobel Prize for literature and fired the imagination of early film makers with its potent mix of epic cruelty, romantic and religious redemption. The author sold the film rights to Enrico Guazzoni in 1912 and the resultant film was one of the proto-epics to beat nearly all others, massive in scale and emotional sweep.

Over a decade later, this Italian German co-production followed on with a cast of thousands, gigantic sets (real and constructed) and the combined star power of Lillian Hall-Davis’ emotional micro-management and Emil Jannings’ protean excess. Larger than life and twice as tiring, his Nero offers Lillian’s frail Licia the world and we cower behind her in the darkness as her faith rises up as the only defence against the monstrous ego of the man who is Empire.

Lillian Hall-Davis
It is a story older than the seven hills and one that operates on levels which resonate today and almost certainly tomorrow… Mad authority blaming ideological insurgents for domestic ills and demonising the non-conformant element as a way of shoring up their own position. 

Tacitus, a secondary source in this instance, is the only one who links the persecution of the Christians directly to the Great Fire of 64AD whilst most implicate the Emperor in the fire although this is also open to debate. As for Nero playing the lyre along to the conflagration, well, it seems fanciful to say the least… infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it in for him. Nero is a mad man for all seasons, a strong leader weakened by vanity who treats life like cheap wine, never crying over spilt blood as he tosses his people casually into the treacherous waters of his seemingly tranquil royal gardens. Eels consume the unfortunates and the fattened fish are his favourite food at banquets, as he grows fat on the product of his cruelty.

You can see the appeal for pre-Great War audiences and no less for those in the early twenties when Germany was still treating potential tyrants as amusing upstarts even after Il Duce had already been established as Italian Prime Minister. No one ever thinks it can happen again do they?

But, whatever happens in affairs of state, love conquers all and this story is about resistance of the heart as well as the soul… Thus Vittelius (Alfons Fryland) learns to both respect and love Licia after having her shipped from her adoptive parents to Nero’s court and then attempting to go straight past “Go” at Nero’s bacchanal only to be re-buffed. Christianity is a civilising force as well as an empowering one.

The1912 film may be more static – tableau style – but it has more urgency and this one feels very much held back by over cautious direction from Gabriellino D'Annunzio (who never directed another film) and his German “minder” Georg Jacoby (who did). Together they produced a film that features many fine moments that are somewhat diluted by the drawn-out narrative in between.

Emil Jannings
From the get-go Quo Vadis? is a contrast in styles between Emil and Lillian – not to mention the rest of the cast. More than the 1912 version and subsequent adaptations – not to mention the similar-in-storyline Sign of the Cross - this is very much Nero’s story and Jannings is the man for the job, setting a grotesquely high bar for Charles Laughton and all of the Nero’s to follow. It’s a fascinating study in unpleasantness and threatens to overpower all around him.

Lillian is steadfast in her blonde wig and whilst not quite looking First Century does carry the compassion and care that her emperor lacks even though Mordaunt the Picker thought her sometimes “methodical in her portrayal”. Gino Viotti makes for a venal Chilone Chilonides, betraying all sides until he finally betrays himself whilst Raimondo Van Riel is a noble Tigellinus, Nero’s general who deserves better.

The statue snogger
Elsewhere familiar characters don’t always stick in the mind as much as their forebears: Rina De Liguoro excels as the statute-snogging Eunice who falls for her master, Nero’s Mandelsonian advisor Petronius (Andrea Habay) who finally reciprocates after having her flogged… not sure what the message is there?

Elena Sangro’s Poppea is regally disappointed in her Nero who only has eyes for almost everyone else, especially Licia, after she encounters their son in the garden. But once the boy has succumbed to illness he blames Licia and all those Christians who protect her.

Nero is losing his tenuous grip on the body politic and dreams of a fire-side poetry performance – which he duly arranges through Tigellinus. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Rome are up in arms and following the suggestion of the treacherous Chilone Chilonides, the Christians have to carry the can and a special entertainment is laid on at the Coliseum.

Elga Brink and uncredited actor - anyone know his name?
Surely all are doomed… but don’t bet against Domitilla (Elga Brink) in the chariot race nor the mighty Ursus (Bruto Castellani, reprising his 1913 role) in a battle to stop a bull to which the frail heroine is precariously tied…

Some of the set pieces look stunning – the chariot race for a start, along with the mass revels and the burning of Rome. I liked the juxtaposition of the Christians praying with St Peter - “There is but one God above all of the others!” - alongside the virtual orgy in the palace - “Glory to Venus! Glory to Bacchus!” - and the tension is well built towards the climax. There are so many characters, a high level of skill is required to cover the ground smoothly and our directors fall just short even if their actors don’t.

It would, of course, help to have had a clearer view – I watched the a video of a screening on Arcoiris TV – the free Italian channel – which appears to have had access only to a so-so copy – good in some parts and terrible in others. Still, at least it does exist in good quality and, if it pleases Jupiter, will be screened properly at some point.

Bruto Castellani
Raimondo Van Riel
Alfons Fryland
Elena Sangro
Andrea Habay and Emil Jannings
Gino Viotti