Over the past month I have watched two films for the first time since 1959, when I was 14 years old. Neither one of them will make it on the top hundred films of the 20th century, probably not even one I compiled, but both were my introductions to cinema, as well as having a profound impact on my world outlook and psychological development.
The first was “Sailor of the King”, a 1953 British war film about a Canadian sniper concealed in the cliffs of a South Pacific island just west of Chile holding off Nazi sailors trying to repair a battleship. It didn’t make it to the USA until 1959 apparently. For 54 years that film haunted me. I could never remember the title but just by happenstance a search of the NY Times archives using some combination of words like “Nazi”, “rifle”, “island”, “ship” turned up a 1953 review. Not only did I finally know the name of the film, I was able to track down a DVD from Amazon.com. The film was just as thrilling as when I first saw it even if it was “greatest generation” hooey.
The other was “Roots of Heaven”, a 1958 John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.
But before I get into the films, I’d like to tell you about the movie house culture of the period. “Going out” in a small town in the Catskill Mountains back then meant one of two things, going to a restaurant or going to the movies. For those of us living in the village of Woodridge, this meant a 5-mile trip to South Fallsburgh’s Rivoli Theater and almost always on a Friday night.
Tony Balducci ran the theater with an iron fist. If he spotted some kids throwing jujubes at the screen, he’d trod down the aisle to accost the guilty party. You could hear him coming a mile away since he had a wooden leg, the result of a Japanese attack on his ship during WWII. Ka-thump, Ka-thump, Ka-thump. Just like Captain Ahab on the deck of the Pequod.
Here’s a local resident commenting on Tony Balducci at the Cinema Treasures website, where the above photo was found:
I too remember Tony Balducci-ie. Peg Leg. He was the terror of the entire kid population of Fallsburg. For if he ever had to discipline you in the theatre or eject you – there was double trouble ahead. Since he knew every child in town, he would call home and inform your parents of your crime and you caught hell when you got home. Tony had a son and a daughter – once I remember the son opened the forbidden door behind his father’s office desk that led to the vast dark and dank cellar of the theatre. I can still remember the sight and smell of the cellar.
Friday night was “date night”. Other than the yearly junior or senior prom, this was the only place where a young man and woman could “go out”. Generally those on a date sat toward the rear of the theater where they could avoid prying eyes. It was understood that if you were on a date, the boy would be entitled to drape his arm around the girl’s shoulder. Those who were “going steady” would “neck” during the film. Those of us who were a bit younger used to spend as much time looking at them as at the screen because we were curious about the dating game.
When the feature ended (usually something like “The FBI Story” featuring James Stewart”), we’d go outside and get picked up by our parents or hitch a ride home depending on the weather. A big part of the after-movie scene was older guys driving back and forth in front of the theaters in their prize cars, just like in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”. A cool car would typically be something like a Ford convertible with a continental kit, fender skirts, and glasspack mufflers that sounded bad. Something that looked like this:
However, from time to time we went to a weekday feature, almost always when there was no school the next day. I am not exactly sure what went into Tony Balducci’s programming decisions (or perhaps his schedule was dictated by some higher corporate body) but the weekday features tended to be more substantial.
As far as I can remember, “Sailor of the King” was the first “foreign” film I ever saw. Despite being a British film, or perhaps because it was a British film, it was light years away from what I had been accustomed to out of Hollywood. The witch-hunt had robbed the film industry of some of its sharpest writers and directors. Even when they weren’t trying to smuggle in a progressive message (which turned out to be very rarely, even in the 1930s), they were always determined to push the artistic envelope—manifested most often as film noir rather than socialist realism.
C.S. Forester adapted his novel into the screenplay for “Sailor of the King” just as he did for “The African Queen” and “Sink the Bismarck”, two other Union Jack war stories. He is also the author of the Horatio Hornblower series of novels that celebrated British warfare on the open seas in the 18th century. Among the fans were Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.
The film is something of an oddity in that it contains two separate stories with only a tenuous connection. In the first part we meet British naval officer Richard Saville shortly after the end of WWI. He is in the same train compartment as Lucinda Bentley on his way to his first assignment. The two fall madly in love at first sight and go off to a hotel to consummate their passion. It was all done very tastefully but still had enough heat to make a 15-year-old feel realize what he was missing.
Michael Rennie, the actor who played the spacemen in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, plays the officer while Wendy Hiller plays his love. Hiller was arguably the greatest actress of her time, performing Shakespeare on stage and Eliza Doolittle in a 1938 film.
After they part ways, the film skips ahead to WWII where we meet the crew of the cruiser Amesbury, one of three under the command of Richard Saville. They hope to find and sink the Nazi battleship Essen wreaking havoc in the waters off the Chilean coast. The Amesbury manages to hit the Essen with a torpedo but sinks after suffering heavy damage itself, leaving only two survivors in the water taken prisoner by the Essen. One of them is Andrew Brown, the long-lost son of Richard Saville, who is played by Jeffrey Hunter—John Wayne’s sidekick in “The Searchers”.
On board the Essen, Brown discovers that they plan to do repairs on the Essen in the inlet of an island in the South Pacific just out of range of the two remaining British cruisers. If they manage the repairs within twenty-four hours, they will be able to escape the British snare. Brown decides that it is up to him to pin them down until the British catch up and destroys the Essen. This will be done by stealing a rifle from the ship’s armory, sailing to the island in the dead of night, and taking cover in the rocks overlooking the Essen. When they begin doing repairs at the break of dawn, Brown opens fire on them—thus jeopardizing the Essen’s escape.
By 1959 I had probably seen dozens of war movies. After all, WWII and Korea were not that far off and Hollywood had become accustomed to churning out flag-waving spectacles that had the GI heroes killing off hundreds if not thousands of krauts or gooks. “Sailor of the King” is completely different. Although a hero, Brown is doomed to be hunted down by the Nazis who vastly outnumber him. Not to stretch an analogy too far, this war movie has more in common with existential literature of the time than the typical gung-ho John Wayne flick. “Sailor of the King” can be ordered as a DVD from both TCM and Amazon.
My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.
That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.
“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.
The peaceful guerrillas, whose main activity is shooting rifles in the air to disperse a herd just as poachers are arriving, are led by Morel, a former big-game hunter who grew sick of killing animals he admired. Trevor Howard, the actor who played the British officer in “The Third Man” as well as other roles incorporating the national stiff upper lip, plays Morel. Morel’s chief combatant is Forsythe, an alcoholic and disgraced ex-officer played by Errol Flynn, an alcoholic in real life who died less than a year after the filming. Huston wrote:
Errol Flynn was truly ill, but it had nothing to do with Africa. He had a vastly enlarged liver. He continued to drink, however, and he was also on drugs…. I remember seeing Errol sitting alone night after night in the middle of the compound with a book, reading by the light of a Coleman lantern. There was always a bottle of vodka on the camp table beside him. When I went to sleep he was there, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d see him still sitting there—the book open, but Errol not reading any longer, just looking into his future, I think, of which there not much left.
The most interesting casting in the film was Juliette Gréco as Minna, Morel’s love interest. Gréco, still alive at the age of 87, was the quintessential bohemian who was very familiar with the French West Bank scene, hanging out with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Miles Davis (also her lover) at various times in her life—the Metropolitan counterparts of Morel’s band of outsiders.
In addition to her affair with Miles, Gréco was also the lover of Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer. Most of you might reasonably associate Zanuck with Hollywood schlock like the 1938 “Little Miss Broadway”, a Shirley Temple vehicle but also more serious films like “The Grapes of Wrath”.
“The Roots of Heaven” was echt Huston material, even though it never achieved the fame of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “The African Queen”. Perhaps its meager box office figures simply reflected the failure of an audience to connect with realities that would become a lot more immediate in a couple of decades. 1959 was not a year for thinking in apocalyptic terms. That being said, there was a lot of concern about nuclear weapons, something that Qvist alludes to. In another scene, a minor colonial official is reading a book about the coming nuclear Armageddon.
The real inspiration for this film came from Romain Gary, a most compelling figure. Gary was born Romain Kacew, a Lithuanian Jew, in 1914, moving to France with his mother in 1928. After the Nazis occupied France, Gary joined the Gaullist wing of he Resistance and flew 25 missions as a fighter pilot.
Gary was married to Jean Seberg from 1962 to 1970, an American actress best known for her role in “Breathless”. Like Juliette Gréco, Seberg was an outsider—more of a radical than a bohemian. Well known as a sympathizer of the Black Panther Party, she was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (as was I). In 1970, the FBI circulated a tale that she was pregnant with a child fathered by Black Panther member Raymond Hewitt rather than Romain Gary. Gary blamed the FBI for her suicide in 1979, a product of the harassment she had suffered.
Although Gary was very much a man of the left, he never got sucked into the Communist Party, a fact that very likely explains why he was able to fight the good fight for so many years. I got a big chuckle out of what Romain Gary biographer David Bellos said in “Romain Gary: a Tall Story” (according to Bellos, Gary was something of a bullshit artist):
Gary remained as skeptical of the inheritance of revolutionary thinking as he did of its source. Conventional left-wing intellectuals in 1960s and 1970s France continued to distinguish their role from that of the bourgeoisie, even though virtually all such figures were either active or former civil servants (as university or school teachers, like Sartre) or persons of independent means, like Philippe Sollers. So when Gary has his stand-in Bondy ask him in “A Quiet Night”, “What is your position with respect to the bourgeoisie?”, he is asking a highly coded question. No other prominent French writer of the day would have dared answer as Gary does: “Right inside it.”
“The Roots of Heaven” can be seen on Amazon streaming.