Monday, January 28, 2013

Les Miserables - Still More To Say

It really isn't surprising that with a book the size of Les Miserables, that I would have more to say on it, especially relating to the movie.

After reading an interesting review on the new 2012 film of the musical, my mind latched on to one significant change from the musical to the movie and just why Victor Hugo went into such long detail on seemingly minor plot points. Hugo gives us long pages of detail about both the Bishop of Digne and Waterloo. To a modern audience it can seem as if these are wasted paragraphs. They are anything but.

Think for a moment about who the main character is in Les Miserables. It is Jean Valjean. Yet, without the Bishop of Digne there would be no Jean Valjean. In the musical the lyrics the Bishop sings to Valjean are "I have bought your soul for God." That really gets to the heart of the story. For the first chapters it seems that the Bishop is the main character and then we turn from him to Valjean, but do we really turn? No. The spirit of the Bishop follows Valjean wherever he goes. That lesson taught that sank in shortly after they parted, is what drives the entire story. The Bishop has set everything in motion with his un-characteristic love and kindness. Hugo spends so much time with the Bishop because, more than even Jean Valjean, this is the Bishop's story. We are just seeing one example in how what the Bishop taught by example touched even the most hardened convict.

Those who haven't read the book or seen the longer French films of Les Miserables, may not realize how pivotal Waterloo is. In the musical it is barely mentioned to indicate Thenardier had been there "picking the pockets of the English dead," but there is so much more in the novel. Where the Bishop set in motion all of Jean Valjean's actions, Waterloo sets in motion all the actions of Thenardier and Marius. Hugo spends so much time describing Waterloo, both the events of the battle and emphasizing how much time had passed since then, because it is important to understanding the story. Thenardier wasn't just picking the pockets of the English dead, he was picking the pockets and anything else he could find from all the dead, and there were a lot of dead. This is important because it shows what a miracle it was for Thenardier to find the senior Pontmercy alive among the dead. There were so many dead that it was pure chance that Thenardier found him. This effects Marius later in the story (in scenes that don't appear in the musical). In fact, Marius and Cosette aren't even born when the events with the Bishop and at Waterloo take place.

A modern writer would need to spend considerably less time delving into these two scenes. A little telling would speed up the story immensely, but to craft the same story, both scenes are necessary because they are the backbone upon which all the rest sits. Without the Bishop and Waterloo, there is no Les Miserables.

Which brings me back to the change that prompted this thought. In the musical, in the finale, the ghost of Fantine appears to Valjean, followed by the ghost of Eponine. While Eponine has great significance to the audience, she has no significance to Valjean. In the movie, Eponine is absent and in her place is the Bishop. This is very significant and meaningful for Valjean and can even be inferred form how Hugo wrote the original version of the scene. The Bishop helps close the story he started. Very fitting. Again, an improvement to the musical which only makes me love the movie all that much more. I am so looking forward to the blu-ray/DVD release.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Old Gem - The Conqueror

They have been making movies for a long time. Not all of them have been received well, regardless of the quality of the film. The Conqueror is one such film.

It was produced by Howard Hughes and released in 1956. Probably the two most notable things about it are that it starred John Wayne and that an unusually high percentage of the cast later developed cancerous due to the filming location. One thing the movie does not pretend to be is historical. Great effort was made to make it look right, which probably led to the unusual filming location for the exterior shots, but this is a drama inspired by history and it says so early in the opening credits.

I've read many comments on casting John Wayne to play the medieval Mongol leader and to me, it is a brilliant piece of casting, right in line with so many of Wayne's best roles. This is a grand 1950's historical epic, though it isn't very long as it only covers the opening years of Gengis Khan's career. Gengis Khan, or Temujin, his proper name and what he is called through the film, is a rough Mongol warrior who is so similar to the rough cowboys that Wayne usually plays that it is frightening. Few actors have that rough but lovable quality that Wayne did so well. Some complain about casting someone of European ancestry to play an Asian, but according to our best description and Mongolian genetic analysis, Temujin had red hair and green eyes and carried a patrilineal Y chromosome inherited from  distant European ancestory, as many Mongols matching that description.

So from the start it wars that this is a drama inspired by historical events, and it delivers. I could go into the differences between history and the film, but there is little point. It is an engaging story that gives us the spirit of these people while very inaccurately telling their story. I think the research in set design and costumes was far more accurate. Oh, and a word of note, having watch this right after watching a more historical dramitization of some of the events, it was very obvious that the horses used in this movie were totally wrong. They were probably the stock horses used in the westerns of the day and were way too big to be a proper Mongolian pony.

The one flaw was the attempt on the part of the screenwriter and the director (or maybe Hughes himself) to use stilted dialog. It lent a periodish feel, but felt forced and fake. Fortunately the story was compelling enough that I got used to it except when it was particularly bad.

Due to its age, this film could use a restoration. The transfer I watched (the only one I know of that is available on DVD) was either a technicolor print or a first generation color film copy. It suffers from some color misalignment and has the cigarette burns (the old end of real marks).

If you are a stickler for history and offended at the casting choices, this movie isn't for you. If you enjoy a good historical adventure epic, this is just your thing. The political backstabbing adds a wonderful depth and is something they did get right (in spirit though not for this period in his life)

I'd give it 4 stars out of 5 simply because of the scripted dialog and some technical issues. Otherwise it is a wonderful adventure that I enjoy watching over and over.