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Movie Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.

Movie Analysis: Wings (1927)

The spirit of youth propels Wings (1927), Oscar’s first Best Picture, directed by William Wellman. Youth as idealism permeates the epic silent movie from the start, in eloquently worded titles, a beautiful cast and awe-inspiring action. I finally caught part of Wings several years ago on TCM. I was spellbound by the seriousness, gripping drama and earnest performances. I saw it again last night at a courthouse in Pasadena (see my afternotes). Hearing the audience gasp, sniffle, laugh, weep and go silent drove its impact home. Wings is both box office smash and magnificent motion picture.

The first thing to notice about this 90 year-old film is the leads in fresh and expressive faces that capture the pre-World War 1 state of the nation. It was a man’s world, with women recently made eligible to vote, though their emerging status as liberated equals plays to the picture’s strength. Still, pre-feminist scenes of men are remarkable. Wings is a window to what once was true, in easy glances and sustained, naturally confident enthusiasm for life—as against today’s submission to waiting for permission to pass and impressing or catering to others, especially in deference to women—and for life’s thrills, from fast cars, efficacy and love of country to the prospect of piloting an airplane. These were, in Wings‘ titles and words, “paths of glory”.

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Poetic writing dramatizes two early 20th century American men as they go to war in Europe. They bid goodbye to fathers and mothers and dogs in extended scenes teasing what it means to go to war, a sense we’ve lost as a nation, which may explain why we’ve been engaged in the longest and most unsuccessful war in U.S. history.

Wings shows what’s worth fighting for.

Man is depicted in youth—in three lives, one woman (Clara Bow, Mantrap) and two men (Charles Rogers, Varsity, and Richard Arlen, 1934’s The Virginian)—battle and love. So Wings‘ foremost quality is reverence for the life of a single man. You notice how it was once considered natural, even decent, to admire man.

You also notice that the wealthy are depicted as human, too, which is a rare quality in movies. One of the leading males, Arlen’s character, David, who becomes known to the one who loves him most as Dave, has a chiseled, aristocratic beauty; he sits with an air of benevolent ease when he’s with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), his girlfriend, on a swing. He barely blinks when another man, Jack (Rogers), arrives to steal Sylvia away. David’s wealth lies in his grace and confidence, a refined kind of lust for life that gains higher meaning in his military training as an aviator in war. Director Wellman (A Star is Born, Night Nurse, Beau Geste, The High and the Mighty, The Ox-Bow Incident), an ace pilot during World War 1 himself, lavishes David with unending lightness and nonchalance.

David leaves his worldwise mother, whose face carries a lifetime of knowledge, and wheelchair-bound father, whose eyes foresee what may come, and goes to train for his first flight. As he does, carefree Jack, who is only interested in working on his car, wooing the uptown Sylvia and taking part in the war against the Heines, as the enemy Germans are known, is oblivious to the affections of Mary (Bow) from around the bend. Bow’s characterization of Mary is really exceptional, embodying the best of a newly liberated woman, both undaunted and feminine yet somehow an atypical female. Soon, the soldiers see that Mary measures up in terms of fearlessness.

Jack and David bond amid pilot training, sealing the connection over a short but powerful encounter with a lanky pilot named White (Gary Cooper in his first credited role). They crawl, steer, hop, dodge, fire weapons and endure bad news before facing any Germans, portrayed here as marching with pageantry and flying with superiority. Then comes the first dogfight. The planes go down. Daredevil aerial photography shows the dueling biplanes skirting and chasing like wiggling tadpoles in the sky. When bombs start falling and bullets start piercing, vengeance, heartbreak and, thanks to a Dutchman who’s proud to be American, humor abound. Ribbons of black smoke trail in the air, planes pull suddenly up and up and up. Bubbles rise in a Paris nightclub. Always, action on screen suggests the whir of an airplane as Wings comes to a shocking climax in the skies above a French countryside. In daring camera work, Wellman depicts death as a searing and tender farewell—in unforgettable intimacy—as an intelligent and watchful woman and her child bear witness to the private horror and valor of war.

This leaves undone only the final accounting, etched by the retracing of a shooting star, and the vow to focus on the moment “from now on”. Wings, too long in battle scenes and showing that war makes life harder to cleanse, heal and sort through, depicts the sacred, and residual, oath to retain one’s innocence after almost everything of value has been destroyed.

Wings is not a pacifist movie. There is glory for those who fight to fly and fly to defend. But there is the hollowness that follows, which men now rightly call trauma, having loved and lost while soaring toward the stars. The soulful Wings is moviemaking at its most personal, powerful and best.


At the Pasadena courthouse screening hosted by Judge Alex Kozinski, the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr., Randy Haberkamp, the motion picture academy’s director of preservation, and Andrea Kalas, who is Paramount Pictures’ head of archives, spoke with the audience before and after the movie. One of the reasons I like attending Judge Kozinski’s “favorite flicks” (besides the pizza, prizes and guests) is that he, too, takes movies seriously, thinks for himself and brings people together based on a shared interest in examining film in rational discourse.

Last night’s event was no exception, with a discussion of Wings after the movie—before the Blu-Ray edition’s restoration came on, he spoke with his trademark humor about pre-Hays Code scenes of lesbians, naked breasts and what he referred to as the “man kiss”—about the Paramount movie’s $1.2 million budget, which was a lot of money in 1927. Artillery, tanks, troops, trucks and explosives were brought in from Fort Sam Houston to recreate World War 1. Wellman, whose son said he thinks his father was chiefly moved to make Wings by his wartime experiences as a pilot, specifically the loss of most of his friends and comrades in battle, used real bombs in the pictures of bombs being dropped on the town in France, which was actually a set built in San Antonio, Texas. When asked why his father was shunned in Hollywood, Wellman, Jr. said that he thought his dad was probably “insolent” and added that he was also probably less insolent “if they left him alone.” He pointed out that his father had lived through a real life equivalent like the picture’s Gary Cooper story arc. Wings is tremendously influential, from Star Wars to Top Gun, according to Wellman who said that the 80s’ film’s director, the late Tony Scott, once told Wellman that he’d watched Wings “many times” in preparation for making Top Gun. The silent film’s live accompaniment by musician Michael Mortilla was outstanding.

Wings was originally released with sequences presented in Magnascope, a lens which enlarged the 35mm image to an expanded screen.

Movie Analysis: Oklahoma! (1955)

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” This line begins one of the greatest movies ever made, Oklahoma! (1955). Its original format was an ambitious and bold Broadway musical—itself an adaptation of a play by an Oklahoman playwright named Lynn Riggs—which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted with Viennese-born director Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons), who also directed High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953).

This musical lyric unspools a simple and circular melody rejoicing in the promise of a new day sung by a character who’s an American cowboy. He rides alone on the prairie, so he sings as a hymn to himself. He goes by the name Curly (Gordon MacRae), wears a bright red shirt and rides on top of his horse with ease, rhythm and total control as he sings in a low, booming and soulful affirmation: “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day/I’ve got a beautiful feeling/Ev’rything’s going my way.”

It’s a stunning moment in cinema, letting the audience see man in an undaunted musical expression of supreme self-confidence.

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Curly’s accent is as flat as the Midwest’s, as clipped as the mountain states’ and as relaxed as the South’s with the vocabulary of the West and Oklahoma! is centrally about Curly making life go his way. But Oklahoma! is also about a period of time when it felt like the world could go America’s way; the way of individualism, capitalism and a robust, greedy and selfish pursuit of happiness here on earth.

I’ve previously seen Oklahoma!—which screened before Thanksgiving in 35mm at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum of the American West and introduced by the Autry’s assistant curator of Western history Josh Garrett-Davis—on television, DVD and the silver screen and I always find new aspects in its artistry. This time, I noticed that the film, written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is consciously liberal and decidedly anti-traditionalist. Oklahoma! is liberated about sex and filled with optimism for the future, not nostalgia for the past.

Curly looks eagerly, greedily, toward his future. The handsome cowboy takes no liberties and treats the pretty young lady he desires (Shirley Jones as Laurey in her movie debut) as an equal. Like Gregory Peck in The Big Country, he’s playful with Laurey, not domineering, and he respects her decisions when she makes up her mind, even when he knows she’s wrong. Curly’s accustomed not entitled to attention; when wise and frisky old Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood in an outstanding performance) flirts, he takes it in stride.

But then Curly is an enlightened man. At mid-point in Oklahoma!, Curly notices a picture of a naked woman. He gets closer to inspect it. He gives the picture a good look. He thinks about it, then comments on it. He’s neither put off nor overly interested. He notices but he doesn’t drool or put on airs to impress others and he certainly doesn’t dismiss it. The picture’s another fact to assimilate in modern life and Curly’s curious. He’s neither hyper-masculine nor emasculated. Indeed, Curly doesn’t mind if Laurey sees him express emotion—whether anger or joy—as he knows his own worth.

Knowing himself figures into Curly’s conflict with the story’s villain, Aunt Eller’s hired hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger, Doctor Zhivago), competing for Laurey’s attention. MacRae’s performance is underappreciated, especially in their smokehouse scenes as Curly mocks Jud’s misanthropy, displaying subtle humor, bravery and intelligence as he measures Jud’s character in one of Oklahoma!‘s most disturbing scenes as unwashed Jud, who lives in a moist underbelly of primitivism, essentially chooses to come out for the death premise (this turns out to be a flaw in Curly’s character as he lets Laurey ride with Jud knowing that Jud’s a threat).

Laurey, too, is an enlightened woman. Though the character is incessantly critiqued for being sweet and virginal—and Oklahoma! is undeservedly criticized for being too sentimental (it is serious and dark, not all sugary and light, though it is emphatically romantic)—her solo starts as an ode to the “healthy and strong woman”, in contrast to a shallow, hyper-feminine second-hander. Laurey sings her complicated profession and lament to a gathering of women in whom she finds support and discovers in herself the skill for leadership. It’s a bright, frilly, high-pitched scene and song immersed in femininity and femaleness but it is not frivolous. For example, a short-haired brunette who stands out for being too rambunctious as the ladies dress for the auction is also pointedly the first female to console Laurey when she’s hurt and it’s the brunette that steps up to remind Laurey of her inner strength.

Shared values aside, Laurey is no less liberated when she is alone, bathing naked in the outdoors with neither shame nor exhibitionism.

Even steady, salty old Aunt Eller is a modern, rational woman who both scorns tradition and speaks plainly about men, passion and sexuality. Freethinking in Oklahoma! leads to sensual, romantic love, territorial unity and free trade; a more perfect union. When Laurey and Curly go side by side, their chemistry is electric. A butterfly encircles the couple. Set during the Industrial Revolution, Zinnemann captures Americanism in their fresh faces: the innocence, confidence and intransigence. With birds, horses and cattle in almost every frame, and drifting clouds and rippling waves representing widening effects of what’s yet to come—amidst incisive and exceptional songs—Oklahoma! implies that sex and love are best aligned and in any case are a vital, natural part of forging a dynamic, new land.

MacRae’s strong and solitary Curly, from romancing Laurey on that first beautiful morning to bidding on her picnic basket against Jud Fry, symbolizes the West’s new, freethinking man. Curly is the first one to initiate a handshake after a plea for peace, trade and understanding between cowboys and farmers.

I noticed more realism mixed with romanticism this time, too. Oklahoma! could easily have ended after a happily ever after scene. Zinnemann, aided in tone by an extended foreshadowing dream sequence in a dance choreographed by Agnes De Mille, goes deeper, letting Aunt Eller deliver a stern if tender cautionary warning to Laurey that life means taking the good with the bad, rising above adversity and accentuating the best in life.

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No analysis of Oklahoma! would be whole without addressing its deft and delightful comic relief, Will (the perfectly cast and talented Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, acing the role) who bundle and bind the story’s themes into one immensely rewarding subplot involving Eddie Albert (Roman Holiday) as a foreigner. This pair cashes in on the Rodgers and Hammerstein humor after Will returns to Oklahoma from Kansas City to eventually corral Ado Annie, who keeps melting with men because she “cain’t” say no (except when Will goes to kiss her). Annie, daughter of a strict, dismissive farmer (James Whitmore), protests and explains, especially as her Will discovers pornography, ragtime and the “tellyphone” in a remarkable dance at the depot.

As with corn husker closeups, Zinnemann frames that scene and enhances it, symbolizing the Oklahoma territory’s change from old to new, as Aunt Eller’s horse-drawn carriage pulls up on the right of the screen as the camera pans to the left and a steam engine-powered train pulls into the station with a tail-wagging dog scampering to welcome the pioneer to the industrial revolution. The section finishes as Will casually hops onto his horse from the departing locomotive, retaining the cowboy’s way as the carousel of progress revolves.

This is Oklahoma! which brilliantly and musically, dramatically—with action-packed scenes, fabulous songs and great performances—renders the tale of a heroic individualist and the young, modern woman he loves, their chosen friends and fellow pioneers and the ties that bind in a rousing, and distinctly American, title song which could have gone on and on and on as far as I am concerned.

If you haven’t seen Oklahoma!, or if you haven’t seen it lately, this musical exists not to recall America’s past greatness as much as it does to showcase the boundless optimism that Americans once held as an ideal vision for the new country’s future.

 

Movie Review: Rocky (1976)

Pictures of man in motion, discipline and hero worship lift Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky to fulfillment of its theme. Screened at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater for a 40th anniversary showing featuring an interview with co-star Talia Shire (read my thoughts on the interview after this review) at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 on Hollywood Boulevard, Rocky inspires the audience. The 1976 motion picture is intimate, like 1955’s Marty with Ernest Borgnine, small and naturalistic, not romanticist in the highest sense. Yet Mr. Stallone’s low budget, independent-type United Artists movie, like 1993’s Rudy with Sean Astin, depicts with brains and vigor a mythical figure: the self-made sportsman.

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Having never seen Rocky, or its sequels, I was well aware of its reputation, lines and movie star. TCM’s guide, too, describes it as a boxing movie, which doesn’t capture its essence. “Yo, Adrian” came to be mocked for some reason I never understood. So did Rocky‘s success; the character’s, the movie’s and the film series’. When Sylvester Stallone was talked up for a supporting actor Oscar this year, I correctly guessed that he would not win, though I knew that Rocky is the role for which the movie star staked his career and fortune.

When Rocky appeared on TCM’s schedule, I looked forward to finally seeing this seminal movie 40 years after it was made. Now that I’ve seen it, a lot of the hype and backlash makes sense. Though it’s a sports movie, Rocky’s more like a Western in some ways; the hero is an individualist who takes ownership of his domain. He is solitary. He has no family. Rocky rides alone. In this sense, Rocky is perfect for 1976, when feminism began to erode man-woman relationships, leading to emasculation of the American male. Rocky acts like a cowboy—like an American—like a man. Rocky doesn’t choose someone conventional. He picks his partner based on what he sees in her. He wants her. He courts her, he asks for her and he earns, and takes, her. So I see now that reducing their relationship to “Yo, Adrian” is a smear against man as a heroic being.

I also see now that Rocky, directed by John Avildsen, is a great Philadelphia movie, like 1993’s Philadelphia and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and it’s not just about the scenery and the steps. More on that later.

Philadelphia’s cold, gritty grayness serves as the wet, dark depth from which Rocky Balboa (Mr. Stallone, magnificent in every scene) rises. In the film’s first part, Rocky faces reality. At 30 years old, with bulging muscles from boxing, sad, brown eyes and a habit of alcohol and cigarettes to ease his pain and possibly his guilt from working as a mobster, he’s on his way to becoming a thug and he knows it. Coming home to a poster of his hero, legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, Rocky Balboa looks at an old photo of himself as a boy, gazes into the mirror and ponders whether he is, as sour fans call him after an opening bout, a “bum.”

It’s a legitimate concern. But there’s evidence to the contrary, too. Besides sneaking an occasional smoke, nursing an occasional drink, losing an occasional match, there’s something else about Rocky, who walks the streets at night, knows everybody in the neighborhood, goes easy on his shakedown targets and has a fondness for turtles, goldfish and puppies. He’s a hero worshipper, with Marciano’s chiseled body as the god of Rocky’s home—as against the portrait of Jesus Christ hanging at the gym—he’s kind and intelligent, which everyone around seems to sense, know and like about him, and, deep down, Rocky Balboa takes pride in himself.

It’s in his walk, when he struts around dark corners, greeting neighbors. It’s in his trade, when he enters a pet shop and flirts with the cashier, in whom he sees a quality he values. It’s in his talk, when he singles out a tough girl and delivers a stern lesson in the importance of earning one’s reputation—Rocky‘s first crucial transition to an extraordinary tale of a self-made man. Rocky walks the girl around the ‘hood, taking the wayward youth on a journey back home, where she thanks him, having been unhinged from clannishness and at least for now restored to a natural, decent state of being an individual who’s capable of standing alone.

This is a small scene, seemingly innocuous, but it marks a critical moment of the man’s self-awareness. It’s as if Rocky realizes in giving that speech that he’s infected with the mind-body dichotomy, not practicing in reality what he preaches in theory, living by example to the opposite of what he instructs the street kid. By now, the audience knows that Rocky likes being alive—he teems with life and, even when he’s down, it’s because he’s sad about something unfulfilled, not in pity for himself—and his love for life is ready to be (re)born. The audience—and this is why the movie earned 1976’s top spot and won Best Picture—is in on the heroism; a picture of man, machine and bridge, carrying a train, car and athlete all in forward motion, gets it going. So, too, does Bill Conti’s epic score.

Soon, the inner conflict gets an outer conflict to match, with world heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) looking for a new means to profit from his work. As Rocky is inwardly American, Creed is outwardly American, exploiting the Uncle Sam persona, the nation’s Bicentennial, even General Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, shamelessly engaging in greedy promotionalism and inviting Rocky Balboa to box for the championship title as a uniquely American match. Equally greedy for an opportunity to prove himself in the arena, Rocky accepts.

But, knowing he’s a man not a boy and beginning his realignment, Rocky persuades the pet shop cashier, whose name is Adrian (Talia Shire), to date, yielding another interesting character contrast. As Rocky has grown his body to the exclusion of developing his mind, Adrian has clearly done the opposite. Both are variations on the mind-body dichotomy; each embodies the disowned self—which both through mutual commitment choose to reclaim. He takes her ice skating, where she first sees him fail but not before she sees him try. The later scene in which he reaches up while she visits his home for the first time, taunting and tempting her with his sexuality, seals their gaps. This causes a problem for Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother/paternal figure Paulie (Burt Young), who faces his own transformation, and it’s game on.

Enter the old man, in this case a 76-year-old trainer named Mickey Goldmill played by the late Burgess Meredith, who, in one scene in which he pleads for the job and seeks to redeem himself for an earlier rejection of Rocky, masterfully begins the retraining even as he walks away. This is a beautifully shot scene in which both men accept reality, come to terms and trade. They do so in a handshake—not a fistbump—while the train keeps moving on. Training, too, keeps moving, as Rocky downs raw eggs for protein to promote muscle growth.

As he does, and this is why the remarkable Rocky is not really about boxing, Rocky gets better, Adrian gets better, life improves and the world opens. As Rocky trains, jogs, conditions, sweats and expends effort, the neighborhood literally comes to life, with Conti’s theme piping through as fires burn bright. Whomever wins, it’s dawn in America, at least in America’s first capital, as Rocky prepares to box Apollo. In fact, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it’s wanting to win that matters. In this sense, Rocky—who looks in the mirror and conducts one more essential reality check before the bout, explicitly naming terms to himself—wins by going the distance, letting himself learn by letting go of what he can’t control that remaking his life for his own sake is the highest reward.

By the end, he is bloody but unbowed, as William Ernest Henley wrote, and he is triumphant by thinking and acting on principle—observe his breakdown of the concept southpaw as proof that he grasps that his mind and body are one—and, come what may, there is his woman, wearing red in another key scene and similarly remade and rejuvenated. “Adrian!!” is both his final and first call in triumph.

Rocky goes out on top.


Speaking at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on April 30, 2016 at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016, actress Talia Shire (The Godfather), who played Adrian in director John Avildsen’s Rocky, insistently and rightly gave full credit to Hollywood’s unsung Sylvester Stallone.

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Talia Shire being interviewed at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Shire, whose brother and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola was honored at the festival with a handprint ceremony in the historic theater’s forecourt, repeated the legend of Mr. Stallone’s achievement: that Sylvester Stallone declined offers for his script, did not let his property go, and insisted that producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff cast him in the title role. Rocky‘s location shots were illegally directed without government permission, as is widely known, and the movie went on to win Oscar’s Best Picture and led to six sequels, including last year’s Creed, in which Mr. Stallone reprised his Rocky role.

Talia Shire recalled that Burgess Meredith set a good example for the cast and crew and was “full of creative joy.” Sylvester Stallone was, she said, “larger than life.” She added with reverence that he was “very sensitive” and was single-minded in his conviction that “something extraordinary was being made”.

Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.


The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.


Buy On the Waterfront