Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Tell not show… Red Desert (1964), BFI with introduction from Enrica Antonioni

"...the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere... 

Antonioni was inspired to make this film by seeing a row of trees outside his hometown of Ferrara dying as a result of pollution from new factories. He had a scene in which he painted hundreds of trees white to show the impact but it rained and he had to abandon the shot… but he had other shots up his sleeve and, most importantly, he had Monica Vitti.

Introducing this film was Enrica Antonioni, the director’s partner for 36 years and who also worked as producer and actor in his films from The Passenger onwards. Here she described herself as not so much an expert of cinema but of the man and of the artist, who she remains passionately committed to, spearheading the ongoing screening of his work and the maintenance of his position amongst the finest filmmakers. She explained the title of this film which Michelangelo was originally going to call Blue and Green, as being about the desert man is making; a virile, blood-drenched wasteland in which one must find new ways to survive. As a seeker, the director felt at home in as, after the success of Blow Up he headed for the barren landscapes of Zabriskie Point before getting Jack Nicholson lost in the Sahara for The Passenger.

In his first colour film, red predominates making this one of the greats of scarlet cinema up there with say, Red Shoes, Taxi Driver and Deep End. It’s a state of mind as well as the most primeval warning of nature, fight or flight also hell and despair. If this is Antonioni’s ecological film it is also his most specific film about neurosis with Monica Vitti playing Giuliana, a woman driven to psychiatric trauma by an inability, as Enrica pointed out, to assimilate with her surroundings and the New Environment of post-war industrialisation.

She quoted her husband in saying that acceptance and adaptation went hand in hand, and that our survival depends on this. Like a Bedouin he was willing to see the best in the environments that are always important in his films – concrete alienation would be replaced by geographic only after this trip to the increasingly polluted desolation of northern Italy – he was born in Ferrara, a land of mists, which fired his imagination and which features in this film as the characters head off to a shack on the coast for a bawdy weekend and are shocked to see a huge container ship emerge outside their window, the fog obscuring its approach.

The film opens with eerie, fractured electronic music from Vittorio Gelmetti, as Giuliana and her child, Valerio, take a seemingly innocent walk along the road outside her husband’s factory where a strike is taking place. It’s another of his extended set-pieces and when suddenly a member of the union hails a lone strike-breaker, we see the individual under pressure from collective forces beyond his control. Monica approaches a striker and buys a half-eaten roll from him; this is not what we were expecting from this smart glamorous woman and, as she hides behind a hedge and eats the food, she was perhaps too frightened to take elsewhere.

This was Vitti’s fourth film with her then partner, and it is perhaps her most vulnerable and telling performance and we really have to study her hard to follow a nuanced and complex – frustrating and rewarding – emotional journey that could, perhaps only be delivered by such a close, cinematic couple. Not unusually for Michelangelo’s films, a woman in search of a deep connection, is ultimately miss-read even by, in this case even a sensitive and emotionally intelligent man and we can only guess at the inspiration.

Richard Harris (you know, Jared’s Dad!) plays successful entrepreneur Corrado Zeller – a friend of Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) – a man who is always on the move and never settled whether it’s in his home town of Turin or the city he grew up in, Bologna… Clearly, he still hasn’t found whatever it is, Bono, that he’s looking for and, as he plans a business in South America, he very much decides he’d like to take a trip to Giuliana.

Carlo Chionetti and Richard Harris
Antonioni sets up this vague love triangle almost in passing as the concern of Ugo is his wife’s mental health; she is in recovery and treated with child-like care by his business-like, brain; there’s money to be made and factories to build. Even their apartment is cold and angular with the only warmth being provided by a Romanesque stool, stuck out, unnaturally on a landing, providing no comfort.

The full background to Giulana’s breakdown is only gradually revealed and the couple plus Corrado and three pals head off for a wild weekend in the cramped quarters of that small “love shack” on the coast where much drink is consumed and boundaries are nearly broken… Then the ship arrives and it appears to be quarantined meaning that the couples run off before, Giulana in a panic almost drives her car over the end of the quay…

Gradually Giulana reveals more to Corrado, especially when Ugo goes off on business and we think we know where it’s heading when she tells him if only her husband would ask the same questions about her health. She crashed a car and, it transpires tried to take her own life and Corrado takes this all in his stride, saying all the right things, which I’m sure he believes. It is only when, after her son tricks her into thinking he has polio, that, in desperate relief after he reveals his deception, she runs to find Corrado at his hotel…

The romantic union the film had been hinting it doesn’t quite transpire and in one of the director’s more powerful scenes of heterosexual confusion, the man fails to give the woman what she really needs. As ever, these moments feel autobiographical and, indeed, Enrica says that this film was his last “purely autobiographical…” as he wanted to move far beyond his bourgeoise upbringing. I do wonder if she and Monica sometimes watch these films together and laugh in recognition, smiling over their Campari as another classic Michelangelo-moment is revealed.

There’s, of course, far more to the film than this but redered with Carlo Di Palma's incredible cinematography, this believable story of mental illness at a time of change and danger, it is hard to better. I’ve said it before but watching Antonioni is like watching a silent film, the dialogue is sparse and the expressiveness of the leads always at such a high level, especially Monica, Jean, Marcello, David, Vanessa, Sarah and Jack… you spend two hours reading their facial “intertitles” always engaged and never quite sure.

He always leaves a little meaning left undiscovered… it took him a long time to put these films together and, for these persistent mysteries, you can see it was worth it: “I look and tell what I see, I do not show…”

In her conclusion, Enrica Antonioni quoted her partner:

 “…much of humanity has not yet adapted to the new times, it has not filled the gap between moral antiquity and (today)… neurosis reveals the concerns… the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere, it’s not me, it’s our stories that venture into psychopathology and if we were all aware that we live in a state of neurosis, society would find a solution. Otherwise men in crisis will inevitably bring the World to ruin.”

And this, as she said, was fifty years ago.

The BFI Antonioni has been a joy and each screening has revealed so much more about the work especially with tonight’s introduction: this is a director who’s work still inspires and still carries so much meaning. Next up I have Zabriskie Point so we’re ending with a bang.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Silent Seoul… Crossroads of Youth (1934), BFI Early Korean Cinema launch with director Kim Tae Yong

This was the opening of a BFI season subtitled “Lost films of the Japanese colonial period” and none was more nearly lost than Crossroads of Youth the only silent film remaining from this period, one that was badly damaged and not even a finished edit when it was rediscovered in 2007.

I talked to restoration director Kim Tae Yong (director of Memento Mori, Family Ties and Late Autumn) before the screening and he explained how he’d been invited onto the restoration project to re-edit as well as complete the edit on a film that didn’t quite make sense on first viewing. There are no inter-titles and he ended up watching it over a hundred times in order to establish plot and character. With one clear male hero and two female leads, it was only through lip-reading one of the characters calling lead actor Lee Won-yong her “brother” that he realised the relationship between the two. There a narrative looseness which is only fully appreciated when you see the film screened live when the importance of his editing and scripting is also clear.

Sin Il-seon
This was a silent film screening unlike any other I’ve ever witnessed, in addition to a Korean Byeonsa – a more active version of a Japanese Benshi – performed with gleeful energy by Cho Hee Bong, we had two actors, Hwang Minsu and Park Hee-von (who began with K-Pop combo M.I.L.K.) who sang parts echoing the central love story with West-end panache. Accompaniment was provided by composer Lee Jinwook on keyboards, Shin Jia on accordion, Oh Seung Hee on double-bass and Sim Jeongeun on violin an ear-popping combination of styles that seamlessly supported the narrative on and off screen.

The film has been screened several times and Tae Yong confirms that the overlaid narrative continues to evolve with a constant stream of commentary from Cho Hee Bong, all in Korean and veering from the daft to laugh-out loud hilarious. This is not silent film by “the rules”; the Byeonsa narration is invasive, commenting on our hero’s eye make-up, lascivious shots of the women and generally adding a third-party perspective dressed in a pith helmet with a pot of hot tea at his side. But this is not a Western silent film and for this last survivor this is an absolutely-joyful celebration of Korean culture and it’s as close as you can get to Silent Seoul as is possible without an eleven-hour plane flight (and a Tardis).

Lee Won-yong, Sin Il-seon and Kim Yeong-sil
This unique mix suited their silent style and Tae Yong says Byeonsa were more popular than actors with the audience wanting to see them as much if not more than the film for the added value they added to intensely emotive cinema, “...a narrator is the best way to tell a very sentimental story they can show their emotions they can deliver…”.

Tonight our Byeonsa was on flamboyant form as he introduced a tale “from the old days” as a train works its way along the tracks to Gyeongseong Station – now Seoul – symbolising the arrival of “youth” to the capital in search of opportunity and perhaps love… we see Yeong-bok (Lee Won-yong) a young “handsome fellow” among the crowd, a railway porter. He helps a young woman and her mother off the train even though he knows they can’t tip him…

Yeong-bok stares into the middle distance, the screen goes out of focus and we have the oldest surviving flashback in Korean cinema as the camera re-focuses on some lovely shots of the Korean countryside from cinematographer Lee Myeong-woo, including a tracking shot of our hero entering the village. Many filmmakers had been trained in Japan and had seen a broader range of western cinema too and the shots are well made if a little raw.

Depth of field: Yeong-ok is out of focus and unsure but bad-guy Gae Cheol knows what he wants
Yeong-bok is promised to Bong Seon and has been earning her hand in marriage living with her family for seven years, but things will not work out and the Byeonsa fills us in on the details from the lost footage – a rich man came in with a better offer whisking Bong Seon away. Yeong-bok headed for the city leaving his mother and sister Yeong-ok (Sin Il-seon) behind.

Back in the present, a “modern man” and a loan shark Gae Cheol greets Ju Myeong Gu who, surprise, is the very same rich man from the country who whisked Bong Seon away from Yeong-bok. Now he has come to the city for some “action” in the company of his dodgy mate. The two head to a bar/brothel where the madame introduces them to a young woman sitting at the bar, mourning her recently-passed mother, it is, of course, Yeong-ok who has come in search of her brother…

Kim Yeong-sil
Talking of which, we meet Yeong-bok’s new girl, Gye Soon (Kim Yeong-sil) a petrol station “gas girl”, who puts up with his drunken disinterest as he wastes away his days with his two pals. Sweet Gye Soon looks after her sister and ailing father who has fallen deeply in debt to the loan sharks and, unless she can find a better paid job, will be forced to marry her off. Heartbroken, she writes to Yeong-bok and the two have a poignant discussion at a well where they wonder if life is worth living and whether they should try to escape… serious stuff this melodrama, as the Byeonsa might say.

The baddies take Yeong-ok and the club madame to the golf club for a weekend of fore-play. Gae Cheol is pursuing and will not take no for an answer… the morning after, the focus literally moves out from Yeong-ok, devastated after having given in, then back in on Gye Soon who is thinking of Yeong-bok. Ahn Jong-Hwa's direction has many delicate touches.

Gye Soon bumps into Madame and is properly introduced to Yeong-ok – unbeknownst to her, her lover’s brother now attached to another… they take her for a meal and soon she become drawn into their world. The commentary has this as her first ever trip in a lift, there’s a theme of modernity as well as western ways changing society… the contrast between the rural idyll and the impact of money on happiness… and with money comes beer and other western temptations. The baddies get wasted in smart suits and prey on the women in ways both clear and startling, Hays would have had kittens.

It’s a worthy of a Victorian novel but a classic set up and even though you know where all of this will probably lead the narrative is well controlled. Once all the pieces of the tragedy are in place and the three heroes could hardly sink any lower there is an absolute stormer of a finish that is dynamic and very satisfying: you can’t fail to be carried away and this is irresistible, communal, cinema.

“He is no longer the tamed ox, he marches like a tiger!”
The acting is impressive across the board with Lee Won-yong an exceptional leading man – handsome and deftly expressive. Sin Il-seon is equally impressive as his forlorn sister and Jong-Hwa is especially fond of close-ups showing her emotional transitions as he is of Kim Yeong-sil, so capable also of sophisticated expression. It is a shame there is not more available to see these professionals further work but that makes this film even more precious.

I couldn’t sort out who plays what (there’s no cast list identification apart from the above) from the following performers Park Yeon, Moon Kyeong-sim, Park Je-haeng and Choy Myeong Hwa but who ever played Gae Cheol deserves special mention; a truly memorable baddie with a most excellent moustache!

Lee Won-yong
Returning to my discussion with director Kim Tae Yong, he feels that the narrator is the best way of expressing the emotions of what is a very complicated story. He compares the film to a soap opera in its complexity and, after the film was discovered in 2007, he watched it hundreds of times to work out the story, characters and their relationships. Certainly, the film is different to contemporary Japanese silents and Tae Yong identifies a need to smuggle in Korean sensibilities under the watchful gaze of the occupying Japanese. This would explain the sense of humour so powerfully in evidence; a coded comedy of emotional solidarity.

The film was last screened in London at the Barbican in 2012 and. Whilst the source material is unchanged, the narrative and performance has evolved with Tae Yong seeing new meanings as he tries to connect with the original intensions of Ahn Jong-Hwa stressing that “…this is not my film I need to find his way”.

The big finale
As the Japanese occupation drew on there were more restrictions on film makers, the first Korean film was made in 1919 in relative freedom although the director of film the Sin Il-seon made in 1926 was arrested. She married and left the business until her return for this film under the direction of Jong-Hwa, who was not a “politically dangerous” film-maker and more focused on action movies. The Thirties were a period of relative stability in Korea but as the decade progressed the pressure to make more propagandist films increased as the BFI series will show.

After liberation and the Korean war, Tae Yong says that the film makers from this era found their way more in television than films with the output of the fifties and sixties and beyond founded in the same style of sentimental melodrama. Which makes this amazing mixture of his direction, live performance and silent film even more poignant: after so much disruption, national creative character proves indomitable.

Details of the season are on the BFI site as well as the Korean Culture Centre’s – screenings being split across the two.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

An interview with KCC UK’s Hyun Jin Cho - Early Korean Cinema, BFI & KCCUK season 7th-28th February

Hyun Jin Cho is the film curator of the Korean Cultural Centre and she has played a major role in the programming of the BFI’s new season of rare Korean films, cinema few will have been familiar with but which opens the windows on a period of unexpectedly rich cultural output. I met with her at the Korean Cultural Centre in London to discuss the series.

The Japanese took charge of Korea in 1910 and it was only in 1945 after Second World War that they left; a period in which it’s hard not to look for parallels with say the British and India. The films in this series cover the period from 1934, Korea’s oldest surviving film Crossroads of Youth (1934) to the liberation with Hurrah! For Freedom (1946), the first film after independence, and Korea (1946) which details the fight against the occupiers. That film’s director, Choi In-gyu, had previously worked on propaganda films for the Japanese, and there are some of those included in the season too; as with film from other cultures under military and totalitarian rule, creativity inevitably wins through and what remains is a powerful testimony to the independent spirit of Korea during this time

Mun Ye-bong in Sweet Dream
Initially the idea was proposed by Kate Taylor-Jones of the University of Sheffield who has written extensively on colonial East Asian colonial cinema and, whose book, DivineWork, Japanese Colonial Cinema and its Legacy, has just been published. She worked with Jin and the KCC to programme the series which is an unprecedented compilation of recoved films from a dark time in the country's history.

The Korean Film Archive were involved in not only restoring the films but also finding them and the series includes everything that is available that has been archived… just eleven films out of the 157 made between 1910 and 1945. But there is still time to discover more and as Tuition was only discovered as recently as 2014, there is hope.

That said, in addition to the usual perilous state of film, pretty much the whole country was destroyed  in the Korean War years and preserving film was obviously not a priority at a time when nitrate prints were cut up to make hats. Now people’s perception of archiving has changed… as it has all round the World and we are very lucky to be able to view this diverse and fascinating glimpse into life between 1934 and liberation.

Having seen Crossroads of Youth (1934), the earliest of these films, I was impressed by the technique and the direction; it’s a lovely film with naturalistic acting and confident camerawork. Like others, the director Ahn Jong-hwa was exposed to the Japanese cinema technique and technology, as well as the influence from early Hollywood. Some of the film crew were either Japanese or Japanese trained; as with Britain and its empire the mother country wanted to expand to cultural dominance as well.

Japan wanted Korea to effectively be as part of the country, and a number of films of these films reflect this and not just obvious propaganda films like Military Train (1938) and Volunteer (1941) but even in seemingly innocent films like Tuition (1940).

Tuition (1940) 

Based on a story written by an eleven-year old boy, who submitted it to a competition aimed at celebrating the Japanese occupation, Tuition shows a boy’s efforts to overcome poverty in order to educate himself. It’s another charming film and with strong, naturalistic performances. Originally scripted in Japanese, the “official” language of occupied Korea, the film used Korean for the domestic settings, a reflection of reality, and Japanese in the more formal environs of school, just about as far as you could go and, as Hyun Jin Cho notes “…some kind of small resistance.”

 Given the circumstances protests such as this were subtle and, not dissimilar to the smuggled subtexts of soviet cinema but this series is more about the chance to see the skills of the film-makers as well as the social context they provide on a little-seen cinematic culture.

They want you as a new recruit...
Not that people weren’t keeping score… Choi In-gyu, who co-directed Tuition co-operated with the Japanese – a lot of people did, of course - but even directing Korea (1946) after liberation, he was not forgiven; as Jin says “people didn’t buy into it … and he didn’t work very much in Korea after this.” He ended up moving to another country.

I ask the obvious question about which films are Jin’s favourites but she stresses the need to see the whole series. Many seasons focus on a Director or a genre but this one is all about a time and a place and across the eleven titles it is hoped that it will give the viewer an idea of what Korean society was like and how they lived: “…because it’s a sequence of history, the whole thing tells a bit of the story you have to piece together.”

In this way Angels on the Street (1914) – one of the first realistic films and showing at the KCCUK on 12th February (link here) – is as telling as Japanese propaganda films are in terms of revealing the bigger picture or the more melodramatic Sweet Dream (1936) which follows a bored housewife as she abandons her family to search for love and excitement in Seoul. There’s a similar story for Fisherman’s Fire in which a young woman is seduced away from her poor fishing village only to become a bar girl (gisaeng) in the city.

Spring on the Korean Peninsula (1941)
Then there is Spring on the Korean Peninsula (1941) which offers a fascinating insight into the Korean film industry of the period. The film saw a young filmmaker and his crew struggle to bring the famous Korean story of Chunghyang (the most famous Korean pansori, a traditional narrative song) to the big screen. There are also short films with a more purely propagandist aim such as Patriots Day in Joseon and Japanese Chronicles.

Taken together they create a powerful sense of place and time and you’ll just have to see as many screenings as possible to get the picture. It’s going to be a special series of films and one to treasure.

It all begins with the sold-out spectacular of Crossroads of Youth (1934) the only silent film and one which is presented with Benshi-style narrators along with Korean musicians. It reflects a performance tradition not dissimilar to Japans and Chinas and also the beginnings of all cinema where films were always mixed-media entertainments in theatres, circus and fairs… People were less literate than in the West and so perhaps more explanation was required; it is one of the highlights of the series and it’s a shame they couldn’t run it again. The narrator is a very well-known actor in Korea and they were also lucky to be able to bring the original group of musicians too.

Crossroads of Youth (1934)
“It’s a going to be very big production!” Jin smiles, aware of how surprised and delighted London is about to be by this aspect of her country’s newly-recovered cultural past.

Full details of the season are on the BFI and KCCUK websites.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Last clown, laugh… He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Barbican with Taz Modi and Fraser Bowles

To see this film projected from a 35mm print is a special treat and all praise to the Barbican team for sourcing this copy from a private collection in France. He Who Gets Slapped has not been digitally restored, which is a crime given its qualities, and probably has not been screened like this for many a year in the UK.

The event was sold out and I was second in the queue behind a woman who wondered why they were screening it without the "original score"… I put her right on the whole silent film thing but also on the importance of live music to the experience (she was no doubt pleased we didn’t end up sat together). Today we had a mesmeric and wistful score from Taz Modi who plays a kind of hybrid-jazz, accompanied by expressive cello from Fraser Bowles. Taz’s piano figures are influenced by electronica and in the manner of Nils Frahm, Hauschka and even Dawn of Midi, he weaves patterns over the narrative rather than matching specific events; a tonal rather than a harmonised duet and which, in the context of such a powerfully visual and humane film, worked very well.

I’d previously seen Taz accompanying the Polish silent The Call of the Sea (1927) at the same venue and his style is naturally cinematic and very supportive, with humble lines sublimated to the source material. Bowles’ cello contributed to what emotional specificity there was and the two produced a pleasingly-organic sound that contributed enormously to the connections being made between the audience and emotion on screen.

It’s hard to think of a Hollywood silent film as hard-hitting as He Who Gets Slapped nor a performance as raw and convincing as that of Lon Chaney. Based on a Russian play and directed by Swedish silent master Victor Sjöström, it is a tale of unflinching honesty which doesn’t shy away from the need to show full consequence. Chaney’s range of facial expression is, as I’ve previously noted, “supernatural” and the various extremes of clown make-up enable him to reach new heights of happiness and deeper troughs of despair.

But, it’s the Chaney face without makeup that is the most impactful as dedicated scientist Paul Beaumont is doubly betrayed by his benefactor Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) and his wife, Maria (Ruth King). Just as his research into the origins of man bear fruit the Baron takes all the credit at the science Academy, before his wife reveals she is leaving him for the “better” man… it’s an agonising moment and one that Chaney handles with measured alacrity: he could so easily go over the top but he nails the moment so convincingly, his mind snapping as laughter becomes the only response to unbearable humiliation.

After every “act”, Sjöström inserts the image of a clown laughing hysterically at a spinning world. At the start the clown morphs into Paul spinning the globe in his office and after his bitter failure, the spinning globe is joined by clowns who sit around its circumference and watch as it turns into a circus ring. So many images in the film are used to match with others and move the focused visual narrative along in a very economical way.

Lifes a walking shadow, nah-nah-na-na-nah
The action shifts to Paris six years later where Paul, now a sensational clown called HE – who gets slapped, has taken the city by storm. In a World in which nothing is funnier than a man getting hit in the face, repeatedly HE’s act is elaborate, featuring massed ranks of clowns of all sizes, ushered into the arena by an enthusiastic orchestra, syncopating wildly. HE is at the back of the parade on stilts alongside the senior clown Tricaud played by Mack Sennett veteran Ford Sterling who is very effective here acting and not fooling.

HE enters to grand applause and a wave of hilarity and proceeds with a painful pantomime based entirely on the humiliation of his previous existence, the clowns carry large books in mockery of the years he spent in fruitless study and as Paul/HE looks to the audience he sees the faces of the Academy’s mocking scientists laughing down at him.

In mockery of his failed scientific career he is slapped for every statement and the entire troop takes turns in beating him to the ground. Eventually he is beaten down to the ground and his heart, held against his chest by a cloth pocket, is ripped out by Tricaud, and he is trampled into the sand…

Silent Shearer and pre-Greta Gilbert chain daisies
Elsewhere in the circus is the handsome horse-rider Bezano (John Gilbert wearing fairly indecent tights…) who notices the arrival of a pretty girl, Consuelo, (shiny new, silent Norma Shearer so different from her sophisticated pre-code persona) who is to join his act. Consuelo’s career is being masterminded by her father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall, having a ball…) a hard-up nobleman who aims to use her exposure to marry her off to the highest bidder.

The two young equestrians bond immediately whilst HE is also smitten with the young woman; a reminder of the love he has lost. Inevitably, all balance is soon lost as the Baron comes to watch the show. He doesn’t recognise the man whose life he stole but Paul certainly spots him just as the old cheat eye up Conseula. Sjöström cleverly mingles scenes of Conseula and Bezano falling in love on a bucolic picnic with the negotiations between the Count and the Baron... clearly the World is troubled and love, faith, honesty and greed all must be reconciled.

This is Chaney’s greatest clown, one who mixes extreme pathos with a laugh that is so engulfing you truly believe the switch from bliss to bedlam that has brought it forth. HE is contorted by the misfortunes of existence into someone who can only take solace in further violence from an unfair world but, in the end, he has to find a way to rise above treachery and defeat... this is no easy melodrama; we're all getting slapped, every day.

The globes spin, the crowds laugh and the clowns all fall down in the end, cast off into eternity…

Lon, Norma, Victor and John Gilbert's tights...

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Stan and Ollie abroad… Atoll K (1951), BFI Blu-ray/DVD set

I did have mixed feelings about this one, its reputation has never been great and it was filmed as Stan Laurel was visibly very unwell… but, you know what, he’s still our wonderful man and, turns out, the film has been somewhat under-rated. Yes, it’s not the greatest film, it’s no masterpiece, but it has charm, a small army of able assistants and for goodness sakes, it has two of the greatest comedians ever recorded on film.

The BFI have done a splendid job of reconstructing the longest-possible version of a film that has been butchered over the years and this edition restores much narrative sense for a film distributed in a cut-down 82-minute version as Utopia in the US and Robinson Crusoeland in the UK. This version is 98 minutes and is based on a high-quality English language 35mm master along with French and Italian footage – it was a Franco-Italian co-production.

Atoll K was “a courageous attempt to do something different” in the words of William K Everson whether it was through force of circumstance or just the European sensibilities of a storyline that embraces broader concerns than the Boys most famous domestic comedies. Directed by Léo Joannon the accompanying extras explain the problems of production – not least the language barrier(s) and the disruptions caused by health issues… all in all is surprisingly coherent in the end.

The film starts with Stan and Ollie at the lawyers where the former is informed of a substantial inheritance that is quickly reduced in front of his eyes as various legal fees and taxes take their toll… still, they may be down on the cash but Mr Hardy does still have a whole island in the bag. The two set off to Marseille to take possession of a yacht to take them there.

At the port the Boys end up with a cook who is a “stateless refugee” Antoine (Max Elloy) – a very “now” reference but also, of course post-War, they also gain a stowaway in Italian bricklayer Giovanni Copini (Adriano Rimoldi). This Franco-Italian second stringers reflect the film’s co-production as well as the need to pick up some of the physical comedy workload for the boys.

Max Elloy, Stan, Ollie and Adriano Rimoldi - The Allies of Comedy
Various disasters ensue and they find themselves shipwrecked on an un-mapped island after a storm. But, whilst they christen the island Crusoeland they are not alone and are joined by Chérie Lamour, a nightclub singer (Suzy Delair – a French starlet who does well in the circumstances) busy fleeing her jealous fiancé, Jack Frazer, a naval lieutenant (Luigi Tosi).

The motley crew establish their island as a new republic with Ollie as president and Stan as The People – “the will of the people” bringing bitter, Brexit smiles to this living room… it’s going to be a Utopia with no taxes and free movement guaranteed.

But this arrangement cuts both ways – blimey this is a Brexit film! – as the island is soon flooded with Chérie’s fiancé and others looking to exploit the rich uranium reserves. The Rule of No Laws is soon overthrown by the Right of Might and the Boys are threatened with execution: it’s Passport to Pimlico meets The Road to Utopia

Suzy sings and soon begins The Uranium Rush
The story runs well and whilst Stan and Ollie are slightly diluted by the efforts of those around them it’s still a delight to see them so clearly in a fifties film. This was, ultimately not the end of the road but part of a decade of warm farewells which the current biopic with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly.

Glenn Mitchell, who provides an excellent commentary along with essay notes, reminds us that Laurel’s health improved and the duo went on to make two more successful European visits where, in the end, the love the took was equal to the love they made.

But, if the main feature itself isn’t enough to make to open your wallet then the massed extras will be: there’s a video essay from Chris Seguin, archive footage of the lads on tour in the UK and a fascinating interview Stan gave in 1957 just a week after Ollie died.

Another mess. Fine!
There are also five rare solo silent comedies including the magnificent Should Men Walk Home? (1927), half an hour of pure comedic bliss starring the genius Mabel Normand who, suffering from her own health issues even aged just 35 (she had tuberculosis), is not quite so bonny as in her hay day but still in possession of the wicked looks and perfect timing. It’s a precious piece of her legacy and for me worth the price of admission alone especially with an ace score from the Meg Morley trio.

Creighton Hale and Mabel in Should Men Walk Home? (1927)
I always felt that Stan may have lifted his mournful look to the audience from Mabel, who started out before them all in 1910, here you can see for yourself. Overall it's a great set and a must for all fans of Stan, Ollie, Mabs and silent comedy in general.

Oliver Hardy tries to catch a break/drink in in Should Men Walk Home? (1927)
Something in Her Eye (1915)
Do You Love Your Wife (1919)
Somewhere in Wrong (1925)
Mother's Baby Boy (1914)