Tag Archives: Ernest Borgnine

Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The original Flight of the Phoenix is sort of an unsung classic. Sure, people still watch it a half-century later, catch it on TCM, and it was at least popular enough for somebody to remake it in 2004. But take even just a quick look at the incredible  cast and try to tell me Flight of the Phoenix has the popularity it deserves today. Jimmy Stewart! Richard Attenborough! Ernest Borgnine! Peter Finch! George Kennedy! Ian Bannen, for chrissake! It’s the ensemble equivalent of Age of Ultron except all of the actors are good and are playing characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

Here’s the trouble: in terms of plot, the 2004 remake is one of the most faithful remakes ever remade. It’s nearly beat-for-beat as far as the major story points are concerned, and even some of the lines of dialogue propelling those story points are simply lifted from the original and plopped back down here. Sure, new people are saying those lines and being influenced by those story points — but then again it’s just the actors that are new, not the characters. Those, too, are transplanted in near-entirety. One imagines an archeological expedition to the bowels of the 20th Century Fox studio costume shop under a banner that says Let’s See What We Can See emerging victorious with the costumes and props from the 1965 Flight of the Phoenix still covered in authentic desert sand. “Now all we need is new people!”

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The Pawnbroker (1964)

I read The Pawnbroker at the wrong time. Jewish American author Edward Lewis Wallant published the thin novel, his second after The Human Season, a year before his untimely death in 1962. I wouldn’t be hitting the scene for another few decades, and by the time I did The Pawnbroker existed only in relative obscurity. I read it in college, where I sort of zipped through the little volume in between zipping through others.

In doing so, I read Sol Nazerman’s tale largely as a tale of urban woe. Those of suburban woe — by Updike, Cheever, O’Hara, and  even a few guys who weren’t named John — were in great supply back then, from Rabbit, Run to Bullet Park to Appointment in Samarra. These books had protagonists that were either downright miserable or just miserable without knowing it, perhaps indifferent to the constant comings and goings or the constant stillness of life around them, and in that feeble criteria they were all grouped together. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, about a Jewish shopkeeper in postwar New York, seemed a worthy companion to The Pawnbroker  because the protagonists seemed so similar. Assistant‘s Morris worked out of Brooklyn while Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop was in Harlem, but both were simply exhausted by life.

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Convoy (1978)

Sam Peckinpah’s penultimate film is Convoy, a Kris Kristofferson vehicle (sorry) about a bunch of truck drivers and their epic run-in with a corrupt lawman. The characteristics it shares with the other films from the late career of Peckinpah are not, unfortunately, anything other than the over-budget, highly confrontational, highly chaotic occurrences typical of the productions of Cross of Iron and The Killer Elite. The one difference in that regard is that Convoy actually did well at the box office, riding on the popular wave of truckerdom started by Smokey and the Bandit the previous year. But the uniqueness of that success is eyebrow-raising, too, for besides a chaotic production Convoy shares very few traits with any other film from Peckinpah’s career.

Kris Kristofferson is the sinewy truck driver known by the CB handle “Rubber Duck”, and his route across Arizona hooks him up with two of his trucker friends and a femme fatale played by Ali MacGraw. Their conflict with Ernest Borgnine’s crooked cop “Dirty Lyle” provides the main clash of Convoy, and the film’s title refers to the miles-long line of trucks that eventually forms in Duck’s wake as he crosses the Southern U.S. The escalation of the convoy itself isn’t too convoluted, which is to say that the pacing of this first chunk of the film is even and sensible. Preexisting animosity between Duck and Lyle leads to a situation of entrapment and extortion, which leads to the trucker retaliation at a diner, which leads to Lyle involving more and more policemen, which leads to the truckers involving more and more drivers. Ali MacGraw is just along for the ride (sorry).

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The passing of cinema giant Richard Attenborough has prompted a return to some of his greatest and most overlooked films. Be on the lookout for reflections on his acting, his directing, and on the occasional documentary film if and when I confuse him with David Attenborough.

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix remains a masterclass in ensemble filmmaking. The big names — James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, and Attenborough himself, among others — promise more than enough entertainment during the opening credits. It’s the characters, though, that impress past the set-up, and each and every man is drawn to be a unique and interesting person. Consider:

-Jimmy Stewart is Captain Towns, ostensible main character and old-timey pilot who believes his know-how to be worth more than any technical mumbo-jumbo. He’s essentially Waldo Pepper a decade before Redford was Waldo Pepper.

-Attenborough and Kruger arguably share second fiddle. The former is the lovable drunk who could have been a pilot if not for his addiction, and thus has been relegated to the duties of a navigator. Kruger’s Dorfmann is the stubborn and brilliant plane designer, holding a secret that he doesn’t even realize. Both are endlessly watchable.

-Finch, Borgnine, Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow, Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson — usually this tier of an ensemble cast is in there just to fill out the field, to inform the “real” characters in the tiers above. But Borgnine’s oafish Cobb, for example, ends up having a deceptively complex character arc; Finch’s Captain Harris ventures out alone to find help, refusing the assistance of Cobb on the basis of his poor physical condition (and, it’s implied, his pathetic mental capacity). Cobb can’t comprehend this and defiantly charges into the desert after Harris, only to die in the heat. He scrawls one final message in the sand in his final moments: his name, “Cobb”, one of the only things he’s sure of.

-George Kennedy isn’t an Academy Award winner at this point, and he has very few lines throughout the course of Phoenix. But his downtrodden face and his futile punches at his own leg when a fellow passenger succumbs to death early in the film still provide a major insight into his character — and that pain comes full circle when the makeshift aircraft finally roars to life at the climax of the film, Kennedy roaring along with it.

-Even those who die in the initial crash — occurring less than ten minutes into the 2.5 hour film — are memorable and complete, are inhabited much more so than any supporting characters in today’s ensembles. Bill has his ouzo and Tasso has his bouzouki, both shown as men with things that they love. Both are then shown crushed in the wreckage, the dripping ouzo bottle and the demolished instrument inches from their still hands. These aren’t throwaway characters (“we loved you so, so-and-so”); their deaths have an effect on Stewart’s Captain Towns, as he feels responsible, so we feel their deaths are important as well. And in less than ten minutes!

So take Last Vegas and Expendables and other “ensembles” and forget them (oh, you already did?). Consider, too, that this isn’t the kind of ensemble connected by the whole six-degrees thing, wherein films like Crash and Babel and Love, Actually posit that the cast is intertwined by themes and experiences that are common instead of experiences that are actually the same. In the tradition carried on by the likes of Murder on the Orient Express and Traffic years later, The Flight of the Phoenix is an ensemble film in the truest sense of the phrase, and because of that is wildly entertaining.