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Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Big Trail




 The first ‘talkie’, the Jazz Singer, came out in 1927. Just three years later came The Big Trail’ - a masterpiece and a landmark in film history. It lost money at the time and since then has been largely forgotten. 

The plot is straightforward. A young John Wayne is seeking two murderers, ‘Red Flack’ played by Tyrone Power senior, and his henchman the villainous Lopez. All three become involved with a large California-bound wagon train. There follows murder and romance as the pioneers conquer blistering deserts, fierce snowstorms, rivers, forests and huge cliffs over which wagons, horses and oxen have to be lowered by rope. 

The story then is simple and by our standards predictable; the acting, too, is haphazard. Tyrone Power senior, as the murderous Red Flack, is ham to the bone, bellowing and growling like a wounded bear or Neanderthal. There is a lovely documentary feel to scenes showing the Indian encampment, but then this is spoilt  when the same Indians attack the wagon train The train is drawn in a tight, protective circle and the Indians just ride round and round it shrieking but doing little else until half of them are shot and the rest still shrieking retreat. It’s a visual cliché but perhaps first shown in The Big Trail.

 But there is much more to the film than story or acting. It’s the sheer scale of Raoul Walsh’s ambition that takes the breath away. Each scene was filmed twice first in 35 –millimeter for general release,  and then in 65mm. This was the ‘Fox Grandeur’ wide-screen process that would not be replicated until 1953 with ‘The Robe’. Just to make things that little bit more expensive, each scene was filmed in French and German with totally different casts. It makes Michael Cimino’s flawed masterpiece ‘Heaven’s Gate’ modest in comparison. 

There is also the ‘miracle’ factor that led to its rediscovery. Miracle factor…perhaps not. Ingenuity and human will sums it up better. When, in the 1980’s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York thought of preserving the one remaining 65mm copy they found the negative had shrunk and was too fragile to copy. Film labs told them it was an impossible task. One man, Karl Malkames, thought otherwise, building a specially designed printer that copied it at one frame a second. It took him a year, and it is due to Karl Malkames that the film now exists in CinemaScope.

 
When you consider that ‘talking pictures’ were still in their infancy, and that the film was shot on location along much of the old Oregon Trail, the feat is amazing. And there are so many layers in the film, so many things to admire. Landscape dominates, frame after frame bringing images of the old west into C21st homes. Raoul Walsh also pays meticulous attention to composition, every scene a Breughel with a western twang and swagger.

There are a few saggy moments, frames showing suckling babies, suckling foals, suckling cats, suckling pigs - the fecundity of life despite every hardship kind of thing. And then there are the captions, defining key moments in the film:

Dedicated to the men and women who planted civilization in the wilderness and courage in the blood of their children.


Prairie schooners rolling west, praying for peace - but ready for battle.


The last outpost, the turning back place for the weak; the starting place for the strong.



They have not turned back, those who died; they stay and yet they go forward. Their spirit leads.

And my favourite:
Ten weary miles a day. There is no road, but there is a will, and history cuts the way. 
 
…And history cuts the way? Oh please. Even so they add a certain period charm you might find in any British, Nazi or Soviet propaganda of the time. 

Transcending everything however is the luminous photography, the balance between  composition and apparent randomness that gives the film another layer: the documentary. And this I find most fascinating of all: the overhang of history. Damn it all I’m speaking in captions. 

The film was made in 1930, celebrating the centenary of the opening of the Oregon Trail. But consider the age of many of the actors. William Phillips who played Zeke, a coonskin wearing grizzled old scout was born in 1864. Another actor, Chief John Big Tree, was born in 1877. Tyrone Power Sr. (admittedly English) 1869. Charles Steven who played the villainous Lopez was a spring chicken born 1893, but then again, he was a grandson of Geronimo.

And of course, Raoul Walsh - born 1887 - and who worked for a time as a cowboy. These were filmmakers born as the Old West was coming to an end, but with parents and grandparents who remembered it well. And that is the authenticity you see in the Big Trail; and the image of the Old West Liverpool kids clung on to as we played cowboys and Indians with catapults  and gas-masks salvaged from World War II

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Crying in the Chapel




Margery Kempe (1373 - 1438)  had fourteen children before weeping became her new passion. Until then she had been a buxom and fashionable woman who took immense pride in how she looked. In her own words: “She wore gold pipes on her head and her hoods with the tippets were dagged. Her cloaks were dagged also and laid with divers colors between the dags that it should be more staring to men’s sight and herself be more worshipped.”  

Clearly then, before her new intimacy with God, Margery was a fashionista and knew what it was to be admired.

There was, however, an obstacle to her new career as mystic and weeper: those fourteen children and a husband…who may or may not have wanted more. But as we know, God removes all obstacles. In Margery’s words:

I was praying to God to let me live chastely with my husband's permission, and I heard Christ say to me inwardly, 'On Fridays you must go without both food and drink, and your wish will be granted before Whit Sunday, for I will suddenly strike your husband dead.'

I don’t doubt that Margery fasted every Friday or even that poor John was in complete ignorance of her motives. Fortunately for him, however, he was not struck down. He survived a good few decades more. There was a reason for this, as Margery explained. John agreed to abstain from sex with her and in return she prayed for him to be spared out of Divine mercy.  

From that point on there was no stopping her. Margery went on pilgrimage after pilgrimage, weeping profusely on the way. She also made a point of dressing in virginal white, her fourteen children now living in a parallel dimension. She had become a bride of Christ. The fact that such attire caused controversy and drew men’s attention to her was, no doubt, an unfortunate coincidence. 

On her first pilgrimage, Margery flooded Jerusalem with her tears because of her “great compassion and such great pain at seeing the place of Our Lord’s pain.” From that moment on it crying became habitual. And we’re not talking about the occasional discreet sob. Margery was prone to ‘crying and roaring’ sometimes collapsing on the ground in her grief. No where was safe from this woman’s despair. She did it in churches and cottages, highways and lanes, in woods and in fields – usually I suspect when two or more people were present. 

Margery had some inkling of the effect it had on people. In a rare moment of insight she wrote that she sought to: 

 “Keep it in as much as she could, that people might not hear it to their annoyance, for some said that a wicked spirit vexed her or that she had drunk too much wine. Some banned her; some wished her in the sea in a bottomless boat.”

 It is hard to imagine what Margery was like had she not been trying to keep it in. And it is hard to believe she is telling the truth. Other passages in her autobiography (which she dictated in-between tears) allow us more insight into what might be termed her default position:

“On Sundays I received the sacrament wherever time and place allowed, and I wept and sobbed so violently that many people were struck with amazement that God had given me so much grace.”
Or here:

“I realised the truth of what God had told me before I left England: 'Daughter, I shall make all the world wonder at you.'”

In Assisi a famous scholar was rapturous: “…he had never heard of anyone in the world living as close to God in love and intimate speech as I did.”

Margery was born before her time, a Medieval Diva. She would have been a natural for Reality TV a natural accepting an Oscar or Bafta.  But Margery had an answer for those who accused her of mere attention seeking. The Lord had spoken to her privately:
'Daughter, don't be afraid. I shall free you from vainglory. For those who worship you worship me; and those who despise you despise me, and I shall punish them for it…. those who hear you hear the voice of God.'   

This is what I would term a ‘Special Relationship.’

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Newport Ninja



Newport is the home of the eccentric. Where else would you find the ‘Vigilante Ninja’ or his nemesis the ‘Chavinator’? Where else would you find the ‘Alway Assassin’ or the ‘St. Julians Saboteur’? Where else would you find a policeman, confronted with a twenty one year old ‘ninja’ brandishing a wooden sword call for ‘Back up’ – in this case a police helicopter and dogs?

Twenty one year old Tanis Baker, bullied at school and mugged one night on his way home could have been just another uncomplaining statistic. Instead a blinding light exploded in his mind. Gotham City had its Batman. Newport…? Zero, Zilch. Here was a vacuum to be filled. Thus was born the “Ringland Ninja!”

At night, mild mannered Tanis Baker dressed in designer black and patrolled his neighbourhood, armed with a wooden sword, seven smoke bombs, and a change of clothing. Lacking a Moriarty, a Joker, or Two Face the Ringland Ninja cut his teeth on minor crime – confiscating alcohol from underage drinkers in Beechwood Park, smoking out loitering youths with one of his seven smoke bombs, and escaping in a series of leaps, bounds and roly polys.

When arrested by officers, unaware of his crime-fighting potential, Tanis explained who he was: ‘The eyes and ears of the police on the streets.’ The court was not impressed. Tanis Baker was given a 12 month supervision order and told to carry out 60 hours of unpaid work.

Newport may, however, rest easy and good citizens can walk the streets without fear.  It is rumoured that Tanis Baker had two sidekicks – the Alway Assassin and the St Julians Saboteur. And of course in twelve months time Newport’s own Dark Knight might well return. One thing for sure, Newport needs its Super Heroes.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Mothers lock up your sons




Let us hope that the Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to a boy. We can’t be having all this messing about with our Constitution. The changes to the Act of Succession are being rushed through  and involve modifying a shed-load of  historic legislation: a lawyers Paradise or Hell depending perhaps on the outcome.

We are talking about The Bill of Rights 1689, the Act of Settlement 1701, the Coronation Oath Act 1689, the Act of Union with Scotland 1706, Princess Sophia's Precedence Act 1711, the Royal Marriages Act 1772, the Union with Ireland Act 1800, the Accession Declaration Act 1910 and the Regency Act 1937.

Yes, I appreciate the unfairness of an elder girl being supplanted by a younger brother when it comes to who gets to rule, but do we really want to tinker with all this? And what about a little known law codified in 1351 and written in Norman French?

The Treason Act of 1351 stipulates that causing the death of a ‘son and heir’ to the throne constitutes an act of treason. So too is ‘violating’ the wife of a male heir to the throne.

Our modernisers will no doubt get their way and royal daughters will share equality with their male siblings. The 1351 Treason Act is due to be modified so that causing the death of a first born daughter of the monarch will likewise be considered  a treasonable act. 

Unfortunately that is the only part of it to be modified and our constitutional guardians have missed something of profound importance. As a result the man gets it in the neck - or somewhere else.

Why aren’t the husbands of these empowered elder daughters to be protected from 'violation.' It is not in the proposed legislation. Shouldn’t they also be protected by the amended Treason Act of 1351? If it was treason to ‘violate’ the medieval wife of an heir shouldn’t the same privilege be given now to the husband of a first born daughter? 

Alas, alack no such safeguards are yet on the statute book, nor even proposed. Should the Duchess of Cambridge give birth to a girl her future husband will be exposed to every sexual predator in the kingdom fancying his or her chance. Mothers, lock up your sons.