– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
I always encourage my friends, family and random passersby on the street to watch “the classics.” A horrifying number of people bother to watch only whatever the latest dreck Hollywood is pumping out these days. However, of the number of people who do watch and enjoy these classics, many utterly misunderstand the most important parts.
Casablanca has gone down in history as being one of the greatest of all love stories. As difficult as it may be to believe that an angel such as Ingrid Bergman could ever fall for an ugly mug like Humphrey Bogart, this timeless film makes it believable. Every single inch of its celluloid tells you you’re watching a romance. Everything from the sometimes legendary/sometimes corny dialogue (“Was that bombs or just my heart beating?”) to the chemistry between the two leads … heck, even the poster oozes romance. Is it any surprise that the American Film Institute named Casablanca as the greatest love story ever told?
But Actually …
Casablanca can hardly be called a romance film. Sure, it has a love story in it, but that doesn’t make it a love story. Think of Star Wars. It has numerous love stories throughout the saga (some more convincing than others) but does anyone really call it a romance film? Of course not, it’s a … well, it’s garbage. Full confession, I don’t like it much. Perhaps we should have a Star Wars fan tackle the rest of this analogy. Point is, it isn’t a love story!
But returning to Casablanca. What is it if not romance? Simple. It’s a story of neutrality. When the movie begins, we see Rick Blaine, an American expatriate living in Morocco running a bar. He insists on neutrality. No one is refused service (be they Nazi, Allied soldier, or freedom fighter) on the grounds that they don’t discuss politics or start fights. We even see him refuse to save the life of an acquaintance since that would mean getting involved in the fight. Even when his long lost love finally returns, it isn’t enough to make him take action. Until …
One of the all-time greatest movie scenes in history. Contrary to his wishes, a large Nazi gathering begins singing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” a political anthem used by Germans. As a sign of protest, one of the French resistance fighters tries to get Rick’s house band to play “La Marseillaise” instead. They hesitate, looking over to Rick. He gives the subtlest of all nods, which allows them to begin playing, louder and louder until it drowns out the Nazis. And from this point on, Rick takes sides.
Now that we’ve covered that, consider the climate at the time this movie was made. Most of the world was involved in World War II, but America was remaining neutral, even carrying on business with both sides. Over time, more and more people were pressuring the President to join in and fight against Nazis. Was this film a sly attempt to persuade him? No official records say, but do consider the English translation of the film’s title: “White House.”
- Lawrence of Arabia
A pretty common complaint leveled against David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia is that it perpetuates the so-called White Savior narrative, which seems a pretty legitimate accusation. After all, it tells the story of a white, middle-aged Englishman going into a faraway land he knows nothing about and almost single handedly fixing all their problems for them. Now, if this were historically accurate it would be one thing, but in fact the film is a highly, highly inaccurate retelling of sort-of-kind-of true stories.
For one thing, the film never once claims to be based off a true story. Watch the opening credits, and it tells us the screenplay is based off the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written by one T.E. Lawrence. As in, yes, that Lawrence. The film is based solely off this sort-of-kind-of autobiography and makes no claim to historical accuracy. Additionally, it’s pretty well established that Lawrence’s autobiography is pretty much a crackpot of lies and exaggerations anyway. So what makes the film so good if all it’s doing is enabling this liar and maintaining his made-up reputation?
Simple. It isn’t. The film is not about a “white savior” in any way; rather it’s about insanity. A key piece of dialogue to support this is offered during a conversation held before Lawrence’s first trip into the desert, when he claims “it’s going to be fun.” In reply, another man tells him “Only two people find fun in that desert. The Bedouin and gods. You are neither.” What follows is about an hour of us seeing Lawrence ingratiating himself into the Bedouin lifestyle until he’s finally become accepted by them. Now that’s he’s accomplished becoming the first kind of person that finds fun in the desert, he sets about trying to become the second sort. A god. This is evidenced by numerous scenes and pieces of dialogue (“Do you think I’m just anybody, Ali? Do you? My friends! Who will walk on water with me?”) and keeps building until finally he’s so convinced in his own godhood that he walks into an enemy stronghold, alone and unarmed, convinced nothing bad can happen to him.
So seeing as the central theme of Lawrence of Arabia is essentially this man driven to madness by his own hubris, it wouldn’t really make sense for events to be portrayed from a neutral standpoint, would it? Especially given that his eventual (and inevitable) downfall back to reality is so much more crushing when it’s done this way.
- Strangers on a Train
Alfred Hitchcock. In a perfect world, all I would have to type is those two words and my review would be done. “Oh!” everyone would say “The review says Alfred Hitchcock! This film must be brilliant, boundary pushing, and able to stand the test of time! Let’s quit this humdrum job we hate anyway and instead go home and immediately watch this film!”
But alas, we have not yet as a society reached that point, so let me spend another 500 or so words describing it in greater detail. The film in question is his excellent 1951 classic Strangers on a Train. Odds are, even if you haven’t seen it you know the plot. Two strangers meet on a, um, train. These strangers are Guy Haines (a famous tennis player) and Bruno Anthony (a creep) who learn they each have someone in their life they want gone. Bruno recommends they trade murders, so for example he could murder Guy’s wife while Guy is in public and has an alibi, and Bruno himself would remain safe since he’d have no motive and no known connection to Guy’s wife. Guy is horrified at the suggestion and refuses to agree to the plot, prompting Bruno to commit the murder anyway, then blackmail Guy into finishing his end of the bargain. Simple, classic Hitchcockian plot.
PLEASE NOTE: AS THIS IS A HITCHCOCK FILM, DISCUSSING FURTHER INVOLVES HUGE SPOILERS
Watch the movie again. Now that you know the plot, watch it again. You’ll discover Guy is not a victim in Bruno’s plot at all. In fact, Guy himself is the one responsible for the whole plot, meaning instead of getting dragged into the scenario against his will, he instead got Bruno to commit his murder for him and got him arrested by the police. Guy gets off scot free, with the bonus of being free of his unwanted wife. The one you thought was the hero of the film is in fact a criminal mastermind.
Hitchcock, you clever beast.
- East of Eden
East of Eden has gone down in infamy not necessarily for being a great film, but for being one of the three major films the legendary James Dean completed in his lifetime. While certainly a good film, it absolutely doesn’t live up to its source material, John Steinbeck’s epic novel of the same name, which detailed the lives and interactions of two families over the course of three generations. In fact, the film covers only about the last quarter of the book, and even then leaves out a great many characters. The film primarily focuses on Dean’s character Cal Trask, who had been raised with his twin brother by their father alone. Finally, Cal Trask decides to learn for himself what happened to his mother. A fairly straightforward plot with ample room for James Dean to flex his acting muscles.
You can be forgiven for completely missing the point of the film, since the film itself seems to have missed the point. See, the crux of the story, the original novel and even the title East of Eden are all closely linked to a specific Bible verse, namely Genesis chapter four, verse seven. Early in the novel, two characters are discussing the verse, which is when Cain is growing in jealousy for his brother Abel, and so they read Genesis 4:7 where God speaks to Cain about his growing wrath. However, the two men have different Bible translations (King James and American Standard) which each phrase the verse differently. In the King James, God says to Cain “Sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” This phrasing indicated God is prophesying that Cain will overcome his sinful desire.
But in the American Standard the verse reads “Sin coucheth at the door: and unto thee shall be its desire, but do thou rule over it.” This phrasing instead makes it sound like a command that Cain must overcome his sinful desire. So in the novel, when the two men read this, they question what is the correct reading. Either the King James, where God’s prophecy turns out to be wrong, or the American Standard where God doesn’t let Cain have the freedom of choice in the decision. After some study of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available, they arrive at the conclusion that both are wrong (hey, no one ever accused the King James Bible of being an accurate, unbiased retelling of the original Biblical writings), and the correct rendering would be God telling Cain “thou mayest get the mastery over it,” meaning God is telling Cain he has the freedom and the right, to make his own choices in life, but if he makes bad decisions he will still have to face the consequences he brings on himself.
So what does all this have to do with the movie being misunderstood?
East of Eden takes this idea, that of humans being given the right to make good or bad decisions (free will), and follows those two families for three generations as we see how they’re faced with temptation time and time again, and how their good or bad decisions in the face of such temptation affect not only them, but everyone else in the families. Because what happens with Cain when he gives in to sin? Continuing on from the American Standard “And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” In the film we get none of this rich backstory, and are instead left with a two-hour film that now has a title with no bearing on what we see.
- The Godfather Part II
After the huge success (critically and commercially) of The Godfather, many hoped for essentially more of the same when the sequel rolled out two years later. At first glance, it seems like that’s what it delivered – an eviscerating look at the life and turmoil of a mob.
While it does have much of the same grittiness seen in The Godfather Part I, most of that was studio mandated (they even threatened to send Coppola a “violence coach”) and outlined in the book series. Coppola however was given more freedom this time around, and his greatest stroke of genius was the primarily criticized aspect – the jarring transitions between young Don Vito and middle-aged Michael. But by doing this, he gives us a staggering comparison between the two. Don Vito, upon traveling to America, starts building up his empire, but not for personal gain. Rather, his actions begin as an attempt to protect others who are being brutalized by a mob boss. As his empire grows, he oversees it carefully for one specific purpose. To protect and provide for his family.
But consider the transposition with his son Michael, who inherits the family business. Michael idolizes his father and so tries to follow in his footsteps, trying to become the big powerful man he knew Don Vito to be. But his motive is misguided, and in the process of trying to model himself on his father, he destroys his family.
In case anyone missed that overarching theme, the final shot of the film rams the point home, giving us the single most powerful and emotional climax ever put in a Hollywood film.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.