Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XII

I should delve into the latest stuff happening this year like the fourth Thor, the third season of The Boys, maybe even some games I’ve come around to completing. Part of me even wants to talk about the astonishingly great reimagining of all things, She-Ra. A show that manages to be appealing to a straight white dude while also nailing the pursuit of “girl power” without becoming heavy-handed. Again, I’m referring to She-Ra. It also just happens to have one of the most emotionally satisfying endings I’ve experienced in a long time, while somehow leaving itself open-ended.

It’s also quite a treasure trove of joy for those who can appreciate LGBT storytelling and relationships like I do. It might be a bit harder to enjoy it as an American, knowing that LGBT rights may well be on the way out in a depressingly regressive political period through an authoritarian, anti-majority opinion Supreme Court. With that in mind, I will continue to likely torture myself, cursed with that knowledge, as I started watching another acclaimed cartoon show right after with a gay love story included, The Owl House, courtesy of Disney. As far as I know, the one place where on gay representation, the House of Mouse walks the walk and talks the talk.

So, after (maybe) depressing you with all that, let’s talk about four more films from a time where if nothing else, we had a lot more time apart from the present day hellscape of the 2020s’, even if a lot of the setup for said hellscape was being established at the time. Let’s get another Bollywood classic out of the way, 1985’s Babu.

Babu (1985, India) (Featuring a ramble about international media’s handling of progressive or not so progressive subject matter)

Image from cinemaazi (Have a poster, in lieu of a screenshot not available on Google Images.)

Films of other nations have been called or are indeed morality plays. America has made some, certainly. Nigeria from what I know is all about their motion pictures explicitly being tales with a moral learned at the end. India’s Bollywood industry, hardly the only major film industry for the nation, with entirely different languages boasting their own, such as the Tamil and Telugu tongues, just can’t seem to get enough of them, at least as far as the 80s’s period would inform me.

In spite of poverty or the lack of many first world utilities that are essentially a given in most parts of the States, India especially in presentation has always struck a balance between appearing behind the times and yet also of the times. I get that I’m watching Indian cinema that is around 40 years old give or take and plenty has happened since but I make the point that Bollywood takes India’s fears and insecurities and finds a way to address them, often with several dance numbers.

While involving stories about morality that may or may not be connected with Hindu beliefs and teachings, these 80s’ Bollywood flicks address then and maybe even contemporary societal and political ills. While I couldn’t call the political/cultural prescriptions of these movies on quite the same level as American progress, they do seem more progressive and even outright challenging of societal assumptions everyone has to some degree about India.

It appears to me that often the media of a country can be more progressive or more willing to challenge the status quo than not. Japan is a fantastic example. While there is plenty in Japanese popular culture that serves to remind one of not just cultural difference but a distinct “not quite based enough” attitude compared to something in America or Europe, there are just as many examples of their popular culture flying in the face to varying degrees to Japan being a “socially conservative” nation.

A lot of Japanese media features material that I would not call socially conservative. Female characters in positions of power, outright criticism of Japan’s modern political situation among other things. The layout however is complicated, as issues of female representation continue to be a thorny aspect of Japan’s cultural expression and in some ways they’re still catching up. Depictions of gay or trans people in Japanese media I’ve consumed can leave much to be desired. Transphobia is a particularly frustrating strain I’ve witnessed.

On that note, India is a country which has it’s continuous hang-ups, often religiously inspired, when it comes to its treatment of gay or trans people. Whole-ass pieces of media, like games featuring gay characters, are banned over there. And yet, as Babu here proves, Indian entertainment has a long-standing tradition of challenging tradition. Take for instance, the caste system.

While not explicitly mentioned, the titular character is part of a lower class in the caste system. I do not know or remember the levels of the caste system or what power or lack thereof one has over the other but it is made clear that the rickshaw driver that is our hero is not on the same level as other characters. I could be entirely missing the point over what Babu is saying but if nothing else the applicability resonates.

In what I imagine is Mumbai, Babu pulls people along the many crowded streets with a rickshaw cart. I was surprised at rickshaws being something in India as I assumed they were a uniquely Chinese form of transportation. Then again, this is just a grown man pulling someone in a cart, not very complicated. The story occurs over several decades as we see the once young Babu grow into an old man, with terminal sickness following suit. A little girl and her family also change with the times.

At first, Babu simply helps the rich family with their commute but after the patriarch of the family dies, it leaves the little girl and her mother poor and forced to live in a run-down home. This alone acts, I almost guarantee it, as critique of how for many Indian citizens the financial security of a whole family is dependent on just the man and if the man goes….

Out of the Samaritan kindness of his heart, Babu starts supporting the wife and her daughter, as she grows into a teenager and then a young woman. The girl is called “Pinky”. No, really. Eventually, as Pinky grows into maturity, the matter of her education and eventually marrying a guy takes precedent.

Babu essentially works himself to death over the course of the movie. Any of the money he earns through his hard work to help support himself or maybe ascend the ladder of Indian life he puts towards Pinky and her mother. In spite of having no blood relation to Pinky or her family, he basically becomes a new surrogate father for the girl.

This apparently acts as commentary on the nature of surrogate parenthood in India. Family, on a biological level, is a deeply important aspect of Indian life and this film is nowhere near the only to showcase that, as if there was any doubt. Based on the implication of this movie, surrogate parenthood appears to be if not taboo close enough to it. I don’t know why that has to be the case over in India. Whether the Caste system is tied into what is and is not appropriate to be a parent, I don’t know, but Babu’s blunt expression of somber regret over India’s position on the issue seems to suggest it is a tradition in some way.

Eventually, as age causes Babu’s beard to turn white, his illness grows worse. He soon becomes incapable of being the rickshaw driver he once was. He could get treatment for it but again Pinky comes first. Always.

In his last days, near the end of the surprisingly short (for Bollywood) run of the movie, Babu starts wearing a robe all black with a red stripe white on both ends. I could not help but think of the color layout for Mass Effect’s main character, Commander Shepard, whose outfit consists of blackish grey with a red and white sigil that runs down his/her armor’s left arm, representing them being part of N7, which is humanity’s space military’s version basically of the Navy Seals.

I would end my observation on how these two completely unrelated pieces of media have an arbitrary connection my autistic ass noticed, but I thought about how, by Mass Effect 3, the end of Shepard’s story in the Mass Effect series, in most cases, the story ends with their heroic sacrifice. They must make a decision that in 3 of 4 base scenarios, will involve them not reuniting with their friends and potential love interest. Whether they did it for their own ego or because it was just what they had to do, tailored of course in how you build Shepard to reflect what you want them to be, most players will have Shepard make the mortal choice at the end out of love for those that followed him/her through thick and thin.

Like Shepard for the most part, Babu does what he does entirely for the benefit of someone else. His last moments are at Pinky’s wedding, for which due to not being blood related to her, he was not allowed to attend. He comes anyway and the whole wedding crowd regrets that he was not officially invited, as he had done more than most to earn the right. Make no mistake, the whole thing is very melodramatic almost to a comical level with Babu’s near endless incurable cough of impending death.

Maybe that’s a consequence of my considerable exposure to many dramas or the conventions therein. Or maybe for the Indian audiences of the 1980s, what for me is somewhat overblown melodrama is just drama. I mean, again, Babu passes away at the wedding, all dramatically like, but still the point, let alone the political point is made. Of course, I played the music on my iPhone that occurs during Shepard’s almost certainly fatal, final action from Mass Effect 3. About half of it really lines up well with the emotions of Babu’s ending, even with no sitar involved. Here it is for context to listen to, if you want to.

Again, I wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t for the serendipitous choice of Babu’s robes to wear in his climatic final moments.

So, yeah, would I recommend Babu? I haven’t not recommended any of the Bollywood films so far but it might have been the melodrama but I was the least enthusiastic for this film compared to the earlier ones I’ve brought up in the retrospective series. It’s shorter length for the time-conscious readers is a bonus so keep that in mind. If you have any Indian friends, be sure to let them know about these particular entries I bring up and see how closely it reflects their own stories involving India and Indian life.

Ragtime (1981)

Image from MUBI (James “Jimmy” Cagney’s final role as turn of the century New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.)

Shortly after I was convinced to watch by my family 70s’ classic The Sting, the Robert Redford/Paul Newman blockbuster that acted as nostalgic throwback to the 1930s (Plenty of fond memories indeed from the Great Depression), I decided to put on my 80s watchlist a film I had initially turned my nose up at: Milos Forman’s Ragtime. What compelled me was the Sting’s use of two “ragtime” classics by Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer” and “Solace”. It threw me for a loop due to me being quite familiar with that music.

“The Entertainer” is often played in today’s internet meme culture as music that stands in for something really old, often with a silent film aesthetic. “Solace” however was more surprising due to it being the loading screen music for Bioshock Infinite, a game set in the ragtime period of both the public domain music it uses and Ragtime the movie itself.

Have a listen.

In case you didn’t know, Scott Joplin was an African-American composer who managed to create this widely used, widely loved music during what is called in no uncertain terms “The Nadir of American race-relations.” Wanna know what’s worse, I assumed that Joplin was a white guy who wrote all of this. I had no way to know unless I did a google search, but the reason I was surprised was that I thought it wasn’t until the 1920s’ when African-American musical voices recieved recognition, from the likes of Duke Ellington and of course Louis Armstrong. Before those two Jazz legends came to attention, Scott Joplin made enduring musical history when society supposedly would’ve shut the whole venture down back then.

Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, features a prominent character called Coalhouse Walker Jr, who basically in some respects is not unlike Scott Joplin. Coalhouse is played by Howard Rollins, who died at only 46 from lymphoma. Coalhouse starts off as a piano player using music similar to Joplin though those works of Joplin I mentioned do not feature here, perhaps due to association with The Sting. Funnily enough, it would more appropriate here than in The Sting, due to ragtime not having been in vogue in the 30s’.

Like Rollins, Joplin died early at 48. I can imagine that simply being a black man in that time and place made it not an easy life. I don’t know how closely Coalhouse Walker Jr. is meant to reflect Joplin as a very different fate awaits him, one even more tragic if sadly not surprising.

Ragtime, the book and movie, is historical fiction. In that, actual historical events are intermeshed with entirely fictional ones. The most important real life event is one I had no idea actually happened until I was told it had, a moment which made me scream “HOLY SHIT” when it happened early in the film. For one, Ragtime is a “PG” film before the PG-13 rating was created. A lot of PG films I’ve watched recently for this retrospective contain material that would either warrant PG-13 or an R.

The real life incident that Ragtime features is the murder of the architect Stanford White, best known for creating the Arch at NYC’s Washington Square, by the Millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw. This was a big deal at the time and I believe was the first murder trial to be called the “Trial of the Century”. Heh, just you wait, 20th Century….

The killing as depicted in the movie is graphic, something that would warrant an R today. The wife of Thaw, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), soon becomes a scandalous figure over her behavior following her husband’s actions, making publicity out of the trial and helping pump herself up. Gotta say, this seems eerily prescient to nowadays if the portrayal of Nesbit here is remotely accurate.

A fictional, upper class white family from New Rochelle, New York soon becomes the maypole of sorts for the events that occur going forward in Ragtime. The family never gets first or last names and are called by the familial titles: father, mother, older brother, younger brother, etc. Older brother is the stand out member played by the unmistakable Brad Dourif in not only an early role but a non-villainous role if that can be fathomed.

He becomes involved first in Evelyn Nesbit’s life due to an infatuation he has with her, which almost leads to sex but does lead to PG-approved full-frontal female nudity. It was a simpler time. Eventually, the selfish, dare I say it sociopathic behavior of Evelyn pushes Older Brother away and he then becomes focused on an issue concerning the whole family.

A black baby is found in the family’s garden and soon after the mother is brought to the home. One of the police men who brings the mother to the family is played by Andreas Katsulas, the Hungarian-American actor who will one day portray G’Kar, one of the best characters on Babylon 5. The mother and child are Coalhouse Walker Jr’s girlfriend and daughter, who he is then given an emotional reunion with.

The problem with describing Ragtime is that these interconnected characters are all part of a story that spans a good amount of time. I must mention a major development involving racist behavior directed at Coalhouse that begins tying most of the cast together including Dourif’s Older Brother. He volunteers to help Coalhouse and his black acquaintances in an all-but-suicidal attack on the system, which gets James Cagney’s Commissioner Waldo involved in an anarchist bomb attempt of a historic Manhattan library. One of Coalhouse’s militant friends features an early and I do mean early appearence by Samuel L. motherf***ing Jackson.

Mother and Father, played by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen, attempt a go at a peaceful resolution that gets Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) involved. While the plot seems to coalesce around the library situation, side events involving Mandy Patinkin as an early filmmaker and Nesbit as film actress among others seems to be sideshows that don’t necessarily appear to matter.

Much like the novel, it appears to be a book chronicling through both fiction and non-fiction, a time and place. The film begins with actual silent news reels of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini interspersed with fictionalized moments. Having Coalhouse’s vendetta following tragedy borne out of racism become a focal point was I suppose a way to make a point about early 20th century America clear. Say what you will about all the cool stuff, all the things the gilded age/ ragtime period of the United States you might find appealing and worth remembering for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

This 1981 movie was about reminding us of how distinctly bleak a period it could be for many of its players. About how complicated it is to be both nostalgic and yet honest towards a bygone era. To maybe learn from the past so we improve the future. About how the events of the early 20th century bore out the world that existed in 1981 and today even. Or maybe Doctorow and by extension Forman just wanted to make/ adapt a story about an era that intrigued them and in turn hopes to intrigue you.

There are so many other faces that Ragtime gives us a grand preview of on top of the ones already mentioned: Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips, Jeffrey DeMunn and Fran Drescher. There’s already by then familiar faces like Kenneth McMillan (The first guy to play Baron Harkonnen for Dune), Pat O’Brien, Norman Mailer, Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon), Michael Jeter and Jack Nicholson in a cameo role I wholesale missed.

Give it a watch and I wonder if your takeaway will be anything close to mine. Speaking of Jack Nicholson….

Reds (1981)

Image from IMDB (Making their “Marx” on the world.)

Here’s a fun fact to set the mood: Warren Beatty and Ronald Reagan were friends, due to them both being Hollywood guys and in spite of what I can gather is quite a gulf of political opinion. Reagan might be the President best known for being anti-communist and yet, within his first year in office, Beatty convinced him to watch a three hour movie all about American communists/ communist sympathizers where the sympathies of the movie are unambiguously on those Yankee Reds. They may be flawed, but it is never a question of conviction on their parts.

Not only did Reagan sit through a movie I imagine he was politically revulsed by, it was even a movie, PG or otherwise, which depicts sex in a manner he would straight up call “pornographic” if my perusal of “The Reagan Diaries” is any indication. If I could, I would perform black magic to go back in time, transmogrify into a fly and be on a wall in the White House so I could hear Ronnie Reagan’s thoughts on the movie to director/star Warren Beatty. Oh man.

My pro-Reagan parents have also seen the movie. In fact, it was the movie they first saw on their Honeymoon. In a time when America voted in Reagan, Reds actually did pretty well at the box office, earning $40 million in 1981 money and receiving mass acclaim which made it nominated heavily at the Oscars, albeit losing to Chariots of Fire, another early 20th century historical drama, best known for the oft repeated Vangelis slow-motion-running-on-the-beach music. In terms of sheer engagement, Reds is better than Chariots of Fire. I was honestly bored through most of it with the latter.

So, what made many proud American patriots, including my just married conservative parents spend three hours with Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, those godless commies? Could it be the somber manner in which it ends, not with communism triumphant but instead with communism perverted, twisted into the authoritarian fashion that became sadly fashionable to countries that proclaimed themselves communist? Neither Reed nor Bryant end the movie feeling as if their ideology has won out.

As for my own political identity, that is something I haven’t quite pinned down though part of me thinks it’s a waste of time to try to identify as a certain single thing when some other parts of my political beliefs wouldn’t gel with that “thing” in question. Am I leftist or left-leaning? Yes. Socialist or at least favorable to many socialist ideas or prescriptions? Yes. Anarchist, at least when it comes to governmental hierarchy? Dunno, but I wouldn’t necessarilly say “nay” if it was enacted and/or attempted. Communist? Well, maybe I would be OK with actual communism happening and working if it ever did so.

Since it hasn’t, I would take the alternatives or something like the alternatives over it. Beatty’s Reed makes a point towards a Soviet official late in the movie that what the new Soviet Union is doing or becoming is not communism or what communism should be. That same official would later be purged when our boy Stalin came into power.

It might’ve been an extended cut I was watching but intercut with the movie are these talking head interviews with elderly witnesses who were around in Reed and Bryant’s time. They give their Rashomon-like perspective and memory on who the two of them were like and the time and place it was to be a left-leaning person a century from today. I almost wondered if those interviews weren’t done in the early 80s as it looked a bit more modern, almost like it was done more recently like the early 2000s’.

Jack Reed is the man who wrote the controversial Ten Days that shook the World, his novel that acted as his perspective on the October Revolution as it happened. An American bearing witness to the death of the Tsar system and the birth of the Soviet Union. Warren Beatty, who honestly looks like Pierce Brosnan here due to his giant cheekbones, does a great job encompassing a man who if nothing else is passionate, endlessly passionate.

He dreams that a post-capitalist world is not only close but possible in the United States. Of course, the foregone conclusion that he is quite wrong from the audience’s perspective is played to maximum effect. Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant acts as the comparatively less zealous but no less committed Feminist author who believes that Marxist thinking goes hand in hand with increasing women independence. Keep in mind that this film is set in the decade that would actually give women the right to vote and by extension is a time where such strides were successfully occurring for Bryant’s cause.

The two meet in Portland and it should be remembered that Oregon’s largest city was not considered a left-leaning hub in America whatsoever back then. Jack Reed being the kinda guy he was is denoted by him coming from, of all places, Portland. If a guy like Reed came from Portland today, it would be read as “whatever.” While not exactly matching ideologically, the two certainly are close enough and their connection, heartfelt as it is, should make even the not politically sided viewer feel no small part of sympathy.

This is in of itself might be the most controversial aspect of Reds (assuming it was), but the good nature and good intentions of our duo of leads in conjunction with their communist beliefs is the heart of the movie, beating ever so red. The third character, as you can see from the header is Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson.

I’ve come to recognize, having been exposed to much more of Jack, that his style of acting rarely changes, no matter the role. And yet somehow his relative one-notedness has not been a detriment, not really. I saw not too long ago a film that will make it onto this retrospective later, Terms of Endearment. Jack’s almost constant snarky/smarmy voice is ever present, even if the intention behind the performance is different. It does play up the idea that in Burton’s 89′ Batman, we weren’t seeing Nicholson play the Joker, we were seeing Nicholson play Nicholson, just a lot more misanthropic/psychopathic. Almost a spiritual successor to Jack Torrance from The Shining.

I had heard of Eugene O’Neill before Reds. He’s best known for created the plays The Iceman Cometh, Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night. All of those works that defined him were made after the period in which Reds is set and it’s safe to say that O’Neill probably had the least sad outcome to their life of the leading three.

I understand that artists, big thinkers and philosophers hob-knobbed with all sorts of people back in the day and maybe even now, but I had no idea that O’Neill was ever associated with two of the best known American Communists. O’Neill is sympathetic to what Reed and Bryant are fighting for, but befitting his body of work, he’s much more of a realist about the chances of their dream coming to life in the kind of world like the United States.

He certainly wouldn’t mind if their dream came to reality, but he tries his best, especially with Louise Bryant, to rein in their expectations. Something about Eugene works on her, as they have an affair while Reed is out covering Woodrow Wilson’s re-election campaign.

If there is a fourth lead, it would be Maureen Stapleton’s Emma Goldman. She is a fascinating figure to me as she went possibly further than Louise in marrying her feminist ideals with left-leaning belief. She is considered an important anarchist figure and you should probably know that political anarchism doesn’t necessarilly mean “Destroy everything cause freedom”, more an elimination of hierarchal structures in society that perpetuate an unequal and by extension, oppressive society. Considering America’s history alone with slavery, segregation and the place of women or anyone who wasn’t a white male, it’s easy to see where she came from.

I was first made aware of Goldman due to, what else, a Bioshock game, Infinite again in this case. The revolutionary figure of Daisy Fitzroy, who wants to tear down the white supremacist, American exceptionalist beautiful nightmare of the flying city of Columbia, is based off of her, but not entirely. She’s also like Harriet Tubman, if Tubman more distinctively followed Marx and had a hankering to do more than abolish slavery in America.

How many people my age became aware of life and the politics of the early 20th solely from video games like Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption? How many found out from perusing a book or watching a documentary? Possibly fewer than not, but then again, the internet gives anyone easy access to verifiable information.

As the years pass and Reed and Bryant grow closer, eventually resulting in marriage, which comes as a surprise to most, as people thought Louise’s ideology would have her resistant towards the practice, they eventually start hearing about rumblings of revolution over in the Russian Empire. The catalyst that might’ve well led to the Tsar’s collapse? Them getting involved in the First World War. As history tells us, in spite of the considerable numbers of the Russian army (almost always a constant throughout time), the Germans are better equipped and with more state of the art weaponry.

Unlike the notorious Western Front, it was mostly a lopsided affair on the East, ironically enough considering what the Eastern Front would end up being for the sequel. The Russians got curb stomped, again and again and again. The people of Russia, who weren’t in a great place to begin with before the Great War, got in an even worse predicament. Food and water became distinctly scarce, even by the standards of the era. What did Russia have to show for all the effort? Embarrassing defeats writ large.

Under those conditions, it seemed highly unlikely that the Tsar wouldn’t be taken out of power by some force eventually. The country essentially collapsed and Lenin, sent back home by the Germans themselves, took advantage. Reed and Bryant found themselves in the right place and the right time, in St. Petersburg (then the capitol) to witness what they thought was the culmination of their dream. If it was happening in Russia, why not America? The film cuts to intermission right as it seems a happy ending for our couple is at hand.

Then, the other half happens. The West, having seen what happened over in Eastern Europe, starts to crack down on anyone Red or Red-sympathetic. The first Red Scare begins. Reed attempts to organize himself in the American Communist party but infighting, some helped along by government moles on the inside, causes things to fall apart.

Even worse, as Reed heads back to the newly formed Soviet Union, having to wade across the vast Finnish-Russian tundra because normal means of transportation have been blocked, he gradually develops typhus, that will by the end, claim his life. Before you say this is too spoilerific, well this here is a historical fact. You’re just as likely to know Jack Reed’s fate via an internet search or maybe in school.

What perhaps made Reds palatable to the American public of the early 80s’ was that it was about the rise of the authoritarian communist system coming into power, not the communism that Reed, Bryant or Goldman wanted or intended. In one very noteworthy moment, as a weary from typhus Reed is addressing a communist gathering in Baku, he learns afterward on the train back to Russia that the translator for his English was saying something entirely different from what he was speaking. Seeing how the officials of the first “communist” nation betray him so deeply through that act kinda tears into what Beatty has been trying to say himself as the director.

They’re many leftists, communist or not, who view the Soviet Union not only as not communist, but a betrayal of its ideals. The Soviet Union carried with it many of the hierarchical even monarchist foundations that had plagued the Tsarist era. Internal corruption was soon a factor that would one day become terminal in the 1980s’. Chernobyl itself is the defining example of that rot, a rot that Reed saw for himself growing in his final days. In other words, you come up to a leftie, you will likely hear them detesting the Soviet Union and Mao’s China for that matter.

Based on what I know, a Leftist who will uncritically defend nations like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China are called “Tankies”. They will play defense for Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism, the philosophies that doomed those countries to be what they were. Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, based on what Beatty’s Reds says, would not stand for them, and neither would I.

It is rather crazy that a film like Reds was successfully made and even sold to the public to help show two distinctive sides of what a communist is or is not. It would be hard pressed I imagine, to be made and released today. But then again, the opening of this entry might’ve already disproved that. It would certainly be more attacked, fear mongered over today, in the internet age. If nothing else, Reds is all about perspective and what happens when good or useful ideas are twisted and essentially hollowed out by the same people who’re supposed to uphold them.

The question is then this: what hope of a better future do we really have if humanity perpetually undercuts it’s own progress, it’s own attempts at something different, possibly preferable? That’s a disquieting message more in tune to the 2020s than the 1980s.

Eye of the Needle (1981) (UK)

Image from Haphazard Stuff (I might just have to add Donald Sutherland to the handful of mustached men that I, a straight guy, think look attractive, along with Selleck and Reynolds.)

Return of the Jedi is to many the last good Star Wars film, especially if you are of a certain age. To others, it’s the first bad one. To some, one of the few good threequels, to others just another one on the long list. It ended the legendary Star Wars film series for 16 whole years. While George Lucas is notorious for how more involved in the production than he officially was or meant to be, it was yet directed by Richard Marquand, a Welsh director whose life was tragically cut short merely four years after Episode VI’s release.

One thing that Return of the Jedi maintains notoriety for, whether you fall in the camp of loving or hating it, was that it was more intentionally kid-friendly than the first two movies. The dominant reason?

Image from Warped Factor (The Care Bears go to Nam’.)

These guys make many like myself wonder so wistfully about the original idea for ROTJ involving the Wookies taking the place of the indigenous resistance who assist the Rebels against the Empire. Having Chewie’s race take center stage in what could’ve still been the grand finale for Star Wars would’ve been more fitting and epic. It would connect an established character more closely with the narrative and hell, could’ve actually addressed one of Jedi’s biggest criticisms: giving Han Solo more to do or have more stake. Sure, fighting the Empire for his friends on top of his love Leia is something, but it still can’t help but feel like less than he had in the first two episodes.

With the Wookies over the Ewoks, Han would’ve also been fighting on his best friend’s home turf and could’ve given a better lee-way for the original idea to have Solo commit a heroic sacrifice. But instead, wo got this internet meme as compensation. It’s a good one, no lie.

Image from Giphy (Apologies if this doesn’t play, but you’ve seen this film 40 times so you know the moment.)

So the guy who directed the most kid-pandering Star Wars film (before the Prequels) first directed an R-rated WW2 spy thriller. It was Eye of the Needle in fact that convinced Lucas to hire Marquand. Here, there’s murderous violence, a sordid love affair between a lonely married woman and a seemingly quintessential British gentlemen who is in fact a master German spy with an expected ruthless streak. Let’s just say the love scenes between Sutherland’s Henry Faber and Kate Nelligan’s Lucy Rose are not something you would expect from the guy who would direct Ewoks gallivanting in a forest. Well, I guess that means the guy has range? Sort of like how Alfonso Cuaron, the guy behind the sexually explicit Y tu Mama Tambien not only made a Harry Potter movie, but the best one all told.

Farber has been spying for years in Great Britain ever since the Second World War broke out. He is among the best in his class of German field intelligence, essentially a genius in espionage. He learns about a feint the Allies are using for their eventual invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and that Normandy will be the landing zone.

In his attempt to get to a U-boat off the British coast, an incident along the way following escaping British forces on a train has him wash up on the Scottish coast. A radioman lives with his wife and son near the coast and recovers him. Because this is Donald Sutherland we’re talking about, no one remotely expects him to be a Nazi spy, in spite of the state of the world. I would be fooled.

While the guy does have a time table, to get in contact with the U-boat so they can get him out of dodge and inform the Third Reich command of where the Allies will land, he becomes infatuated with Nelligan’s Lucy. Of course, it is quite mutual. What makes her temptation more evident is that her husband David (Christopher Cazenove) was handicapped in a car accident, the very day they were married. The guy’s frustration with being unable to fulfill his duty as a soldier for King and Country has soured the marital relationship.

Along comes a guy with the deepest British eyes fathomable and well, barring that she has a young boy who might learn about the two of them, it comes as no surprise that an affair occurs. Now, of course comes the expected tension of when she learns the terrible truth about Henry and what he is trying to do. It’s predictable but is carried because it is Sutherland’s stone cold portrayal of Faber that makes it so frightening.

There is then the extra drama that comes from whether Faber himself can go as far as he normally goes to keep his cover and complete his mission. There is the telling ambiguity to how much Faber comes to care for Lucy, how much of it is love and how much of it is lustful possessiveness? Considering what he does to the husband, well…

You basically know what you’re getting with Eye of the Needle and here it is more than acceptable, strangely enjoyable in spite of the beats in play. Like with Reds, there is the foregone conclusion that Faber won’t complete his mission. But how will he fail? Will Lucy and her son survive and will they be unscathed in the process? It ends on a note that despite being triumphant in the sense that, surprise, the Nazis lose, it still feels sad due to the circumstances of what Lucy put herself through with an unwitting affair with a Nazi agent. But had she refused Henry’s advances and stayed faithful, would that instead have doomed her to being quietly “taken care of” when no one was looking?

In the spy games, nothing is certain. A video game I’m fond of once asked if “Love can bloom on the battlefield.” Of course, this is not a conventional battlefield, and up until the end, only one player is aware that it is. But, in spite of it all, did love still bloom? I can’t say that it was a love that redeemed.

Originally posted 2022-07-17 22:59:26.

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