Tag Archives: The Great Waldo Pepper

The World According to Garp (1982)

The name “George Roy Hill” might not be a household name here in 2016, but if the man himself doesn’t ring a bell you probably still know his films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are his best, riding high on the indomitable pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That pair would be separated for Hill’s ensuing films The Great Waldo Pepper and Slap Shot, both of which are well-crafted if not ultimately as powerful as those other two. The one that might throw you for a loop is The World According to Garp, a film from late in Hill’s career starring Robin Williams in his first dramatic role.

…that phrase doesn’t mean what it did back then, though, because “Williams in a dramatic role” isn’t as much of a novelty nor is it even something that seems worthy of being highlighted today. Dead Poets, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Fisher King let Williams be Williams — not merely Comedic Williams or Dramatic Williams — and despite the films themselves being best suited to the “Drama” category at your local rental store you probably don’t think twice about the star being a guy who most consider to be one of the funniest ever to walk the planet.

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The Electric Horseman (1979)

As the Annals of Film History come to resemble the Annals of Film Remakes more and more every day, one might suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up The Electric Horseman and updates it with a modern twist. If we’re going by plot alone, Horseman has in fact already been remade a thousand times; there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original about the concept, or the characters, or the message, or the way the whole thing comes together. It’s very nearly your everyday run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, sharing a great many characteristics with all of those other romantic comedies, except for the fact that the romance outplays the humor at every turn. Horseman‘s a lot more enjoyable if you can manage to ignore genre classifications, or ignore the fact that you loathe country music. I’m happy to be your guide on both.

Mainly The Electric Horseman has something a lot of romantic comedies don’t: Robert Redford. Over the course of seven collaborations, Redford and Sydney Pollack essentially only made two films that weren’t structured around the romance of Redford’s character with a woman smitten by his jawline and just-visible chest hair. Both Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor overshadow the likes of Horseman, but the other four romantic films — This Property is Condemned, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana — probably do too. That’s without considering the zillion other films that Redford made in the ’70s, the busiest time in his career.

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The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

If Robert Redford is the best model of the American Dream in all its smiling, handsome glory (and I think he is), then he must also be its most effective destroyer. Through characters like the Sundance Kid (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) who turn themselves into legends, and Bob Woodward (All the President’s Men) who turns politicians into criminals, Redford has made his career a mission to demystify the neatly packaged illusion of American exceptionalism. Yet I don’t think either of those crushes The Dream as brutally as The Great Waldo Pepper does, leaving it burning in the wreckage of a monoplane. And that’s saying something for a movie as lighthearted as this one.

It’s 1926 in down-home Nebraska, and all that’s left of World War I are the daredevil pilots who duke it out in barnstorming competitions right over our heads. Simple Midwesterners search the skies at the sound of a biplane engine while J.P. Sousa-style marches signal the arrival of our hero, Waldo Pepper. There’s only one problem–Pepper is a liar and a cheat. He never fought against the notorious Ernst Kessler in the war (he didn’t fight at all on account of his being a flight instructor), but he’ll say he did if it gets him an easy buck (on account of his being poor and desperate). But despite being a great storyteller and showman, Pepper is actually the real deal. He’s “Great,” not because he’s got money like Gatsby, but because his flying skills are (nearly) unmatched (that pesky Kessler is still alive after all). In this day and age, though, where almost every man and his grand-pappy seems to have a plane, Pepper’s gotta find a way to stand out. Continue reading The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

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.