Sunday, January 25, 2015

GOLIATH AWAITS (1981)

WITH "GOLIATH AWAITS" AND A SLEW OF TV SERIES AND FILMS, AL MASINI'S "OPERATION PRIME TIME" CHALLENGES THE (THEN) "BIG THREE" NETWORKS 




VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS

WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Every generation proclaims their own as the "Golden Age" of such-and-such; and the science fiction / fantasy genre is no exception. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, audiences fearful of the era's collapsed economy were able to exorcise collective subconscious anxietal demons via a string of dark fantasy films produced by Universal Studios - among them James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN and Todd Browning's DRACULA; while at the height of 1950s Cold War era, the pressure cooker fear of nuclear annihilation found psychological release in a string of "results of contamination" thrillers such as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, THEM, and that still much loved classic featuring everyone's favorite radioactive breath-blowing, tank melting, bad-guy-eventually-turned-good, GODZILLA. 

     The Civil Rights and Ecology movements of the 1960s - 70s brought an impressive line-up (arguably thematically never topped to this day) of "social agenda"-based genre excursions along the lines of PLANET OF THE APES, SILENT RUNNING, LOGAN'S RUN and THE OMEGA MAN. And during the decade of the 1980s, following STAR WARS 1977 debut, a major paradigm shift occurred which sent the TV and film executives of every production company (major and minor) back in time to raid the tombs of classic pulp material (i.e. Robert E. Howard's CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Philip Nowlan's BUCK ROGERS, and Alex Raymond's FLASH GORDON), ... as well as to the bank in order to fund new FX-heavy renditions of old faves for the big and small screens; the most popular of these certainly being George Lucas' and Steven Spielberg's Alan Quatermain (with a dash of Bogie and Bond) - inspired INDIANA JONES series.


 
     Between the (what some still think of as) "more intelligent" sci fi of the 70s, and the (what many consider) less heady "pulp inspired" material of the 80s, there was a nifty "bridge" / "fulcrum shift" / "pivot point" sci fi mystery / adventure which emerged as among the best of both worlds. On the surface a clever modern day twist on the Edgar Rice Burroughs "lost civilization" yarn (a'la THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH'S CORE), below the water line it revealed itself as a just as clever examination of the still contemporary theme of despotism - not unlike that given a thorough going-over in the earlier Orwellian genre classics ANIMAL FARM and 1984; and detailing how such oppressive societal orders can arise imperceptibly as a citizenry places too much responsibility for it's well being into the hands of a "qualified" few. The impressive "fulcrum shift" film was the TV mini-series event GOLIATH AWAITS, which debuted in 1981. Normally a more specific "release" or "premiere" date would follow said film's title, but GOLIATH AWAITS didn't really have a single debut date. Unique in a great many ways, perhaps chief among them was the fact that it was part of a decade long slate of widely syndicated films and television series from the production company "Operation Prime Time", and as such had a number of "debuts" as it was an original film rolled out across a large platform of independent TV stations at various times.


  
     Seeking to break the strangle-hold of the (then) "Big Three" broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS), OPT, with a great deal of creative beligerance and industry savvy, produced over ten years of regular series (remember SOLID GOLD?, that was them) anchored by a buoy line of critically acclaimed tele-movies and mini-series, all sold to local independent stations (who else out there is old enough to remember UHF?), which for the first time gave those independents a choice of original content material, and as a result granted them powerful leverage in bargaining with the "Big Three" to the (unheard of at the time) point of turning down the monopolistic trio's tried-and-true "hand-me-down" rerun packages of series regurgitated from years prior. Amongst the most successful of Operation Prime Time's "anchor" mini-series was GOLIATH AWAITS. And having achieved near cult status around the world over the last 35 years, it's surprising that the film has never seen a full and proper home video release. Many were heartened when, in 1991, a VHS version of the film was marketed. But all were just as disheartened (ehhhh, no; more accurately "furiously pissed"!) upon discovery that the release was a truncated "theatrical version" cutting the film's total running time IN HALF! But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.
 
  
     On September 6th, 1939 - three days after the official Declaration of War between Britain and Germany, the luxury ocean liner RMS Goliath, en route from Southampton to the United States, is (in an incident inspired by the Lusitania tragedy) struck by the torpedo of a German U-boat, and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, presumably taking with her the lives of all 1,860 souls aboard. In 1981, a commercial oceanographic expedition in search of sub sea iron / manganese veins, and lead by former U.S. Navy officer Peter Cabot (ST. ELSEWHERE and NCIS's Mark Harmon), discovers the remains of the legendary vessel, then launches a salvage recon dive. After first hearing what sounds like the Morse code tapping of "S.O.S" emanating from within the rusted hull, followed by what for all the world seems to be big band music, Cabot is thunderstruck upon catching a quick glimpse via a porthole of a young LIVING woman ... who is just as startled to see him!


      While most believe Cabot's story of the music and the woman are the results of Nitrogen narcosis (hallucinations sometimes caused by the mixtures of breathing gases at extreme diving depths), U.S. Naval Admiral Wiley Sloan (ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE LONGEST YARD's Eddie Albert), approves a massive salvage dive to the wreck. His secret reason - aboard the Goliath when she went down was a U.S. Senator carrying a forged letter supposedly from Adolph Hitler, and addressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which, if eventually found and made public, could have shattering political consequences for the U.S. and her present day allies. Wiley confides this information to Commander Jeff Selkirk (the always super cool Robert Forster of JACKIE BROWN and THE BLACK HOLE), whom he places in charge of the Goliath expedition. Cabot, Selkirk and an oceanographic team including Dr. Sam Marlowe (Alex Cord - from the 1966 vers. of STAGECOACH and TV's AIRWOLF), then descend to the rusted ocean liner.

 
 
     In a clever rift on the "lost civilization" saga - (a'la THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and LOST HORIZON) wherein a society from another time in history is found alive in a miraculous geographic "micro pocket", the expedition divers discover not only the living young woman - Lea McKenzie, whom Cabot glimpsed earlier (portrayed by GENERAL HOSPITAL and DYNASTY's Emma Samms), but an entire mini-city society aboard the vessel consisting of over 300 people, they having amazingly survived the initial sinking via a slow descent into the depths (which allowed their bodies to pressure-equalize), and they having continued to grow and even bear children over the last 40 years via the brilliance and scientific acumen of Lea's father, John McKenzie (the legendary Christopher Lee in perhaps his greatest performance), who, at the time of the sinking was a junior officer, and is now the elected Leader of the Goliath survivors.


      Over the days, as enough depressurization tanks are flown in from around the world in order to handle the planned rescue / ascension of over 300+ people, McKenzie reveals to Cabot, Selkirk and their team the technology behind the survival of his people all these many years: from their construction of primative "air scrubbers" which filters oxygen from the sea then expels harmful carbon dioxide back out into it, to their fishing and hydroponics gardens - where food is caught and harvested, to the source of the ship's power - the vessel's resurrected steam turbines, to McKenzie's latest endeavor - attempting to tap into a volcanic hot spring below the Goliath in a bid to obtain an endless supply of sustainable energy. Helping to implement McKenzie's "survival book" over the decades has been his right hand man, the mysterious Dan Wesker (Frank Gorshin - who, forever remembered as the Riddler on TV's BATMAN, also here turns in what is arguably his greatest career portrayal). After an attack by a group of rebels from the other side of the ship (the "Bow People" - many of them deformed), Cabot and the others begin to suspect all is not perfect within this at-first-believed-to-be sub-sea version of Shangri-La.

      They discover that, for the sake of efficiency, citizens are (from birth in some instances) separated into various "working classes"; and that the ability to rise from said life station is dependent upon one's loyalty to sanctioned policies, such as enforced contraception, and upon one's work output. Then as Dr. Marlowe begins working hand in hand with the Goliath's own Dr. Goldman (reknowned writer / actress Jean Marsh of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, FRENZY and WILLOW) to inoculate the ship's population against any possible contagion brought aboard by the expedition members, he discovers a dreaded illness which the ship's citizens call "Palmer's Disease" - a blood poison born of a dangerous form of algae. Interestingly however "Palmer's" seems to limit it's infectious spread to only those who are extremely elderly, too physically unfit to contribute to the society's work quota, ... or who question McKenzie's governing policies.


 

     After being kidnapped by the "Bow People", Cabot learns they are considered terrorists and outcasts because they dared to question McKenzie's autocratic rule. And the reason many of them are deformed is because of "the bends"- the decompression condition which arises when divers ascend too quickly before the body has had a chance to equalize pressure. This happened when many of them fruitlessly attempted to effect their own rescue by swimming to the surface. In possession of this information, Cabot and Selkirk begin to wonder if McKenzie will allow ANYone aboard the ship (themselves included) to ever leave at all. And a showdown brews, both violent and ideological, as each surviving member of the Goliath must decide for themselves whether to continue to live in the comfortable past, or brave a terrifying and uncertain future in a new sunlit world above the waves.


  
     Needless to say, two of GOLIATH AWAITS' greatest attributes are 1) the intelligent execution of it's script - from coming up with plausibly logical (if slightly exaggerated) scientific reasoning to account for the 40 year survival of over 300 people at the bottom of the sea, to the Orwellian subtext of it's setting and narrative. And 2) in the assemblage of it's stellar cast. In addition to the aforementioned "top liners", GOLIATH AWAITS also features supporting performances by the late great John Carradine - as an elderly former swashbuckling movie matinee idol, Western legend John McIntire as Senator Barththolomew (the man entrusted with the supposed "Hitler / Roosevelt" letter); CHEERS "Cliffy" himself, John Ratzenberger - who, years before appearing in the popular sitcom, made a living as an American actor in European-based productions such as A BRIDGE TOO FAR, SUPERMAN II and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. And yes, even adolescent Kirk Cameron (yup, THAT Kirk Cameron!) as a youngster aboard the ship.

      GOLIATH AWAITS was filmed by veteran English director Kevin Connor partially aboard the RMS Queen Mary (berthed in Long Beach, California), where producer Irwin Allen and director Ronald Neame also shot major portions of 1972's THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. A film industry jack-of-all-trades (he alternately worked as a sound man, editor then finally director) the (now) 77 year old Connor, while still an active movie maker (from the mini-series NORTH & SOUTH: BOOK II to recent credits including the Hallmark Channel films A BOYFRIEND FOR CHRISTMAS and BLACKBEARD with Richard Chamberlain), he's perhaps most fondly remembered for a slew of popular genre favorites of the 1970s - among them THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, AT THE EARTH'S CORE and WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS, along with the irrepressible 1980 cult slasher movie satire MOTEL HELL.



Kevin Conner: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (center - 1975) / AT THE EARTH'S CORE (right - 1976)
 
     Keeping production costs to reasonable levels, GOLIATH AWAITS integrates war footage from other seaborne thrillers such as 1957's THE ENEMY BELOW and 1960's THE LAST VOYAGE. And it even snatches a few establishing shots of the liner at sea from Marilyn Monroe's GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES. While in lesser hands these "snatches" could have been obvious and cheesy (we never dug TV's THE INCREDIBLE HULK or THE FALL GUY because their "borrows" were terribly such), in the hands of former editor Connor, they're as seamlessly integrated into the warp and weft of his film as was the historic footage spliced into Robert Wise's THE HINDENBURG, and Philip Kaufman's blending of archival "Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia" material into 1988's THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. Written by veteran scribes Richard Bluel (RAID ON ROMMEL, TV's BARETTA) and Pat Fielder (MCMILLAN & WIFE, QUINCY M.E.), from a story by Bluel, Fielder and producer Hugh Benson (LOGAN'S RUN, CONTRACT ON CHERRY STREET), GOLIATH AWAITS proved one of the most popular entries from producer Al Masini's "Operation Prime Time" production company.


 
     A long time ago, in that galaxy far far away - vis a vis the 1970s television landscape before the advent of multi-channel cable and streaming services, the "Big Three" networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) dominated the industry as large scale content providers while local unaffiliated stations were relegated to providing "second tier" product such as lower budget locally produced news / informational shows, and the airing of syndicated reruns of popular series from the "Big Three"'s (often decades old) catalog - neither of which brought in as much ad revenue as did original prime time programming competitively airing on those larger networks at the same time. After a military stint during the Korean War, New Jersey born Al Masini went to work for the CBS news department, a position which eventually led to TV ad sales then to the eventual founding of his own industry sales firm, TeleRep, which became one of the largest in Hollywood. In 1976 Masini folded TeleRep into his newest endeavor "Operation Prime Time" - established to create high quality / network grade original syndicated programming for unaffiliated stations.

      With shows Masini himself created, including SOLID GOLD, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, STAR SEARCH and LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS, interspersed with critically acclaimed mini-series such as A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA (1982), SADAT (1983), KEN FOLLETT'S "THE KEY TO REBECCA" (1985) and more, from 1976 - 1987, "Operation Prime Time" became the fourth (and first) "alternate network" from which future successful broadcasting endeavors such as Fox, UPN, The CW and more would take their leads. OPT broke the strangle-hold of the "Big Three"'s advertising structure, wherein both advertisers AND local unaffiliated stations "got the screw" (advertising costs and network profits continually escalating while profits to local unaffiliates steadily decreased) by introducing a new ad sales paradigm; one which was met with disfavor by many at the "Big Three".



Ingrid Bergman in OPT's A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA (1982) / Louis Gossett Jr. in SADAT (1983)

      OPT created high quality network-like programming which attracted big budget advertising dollars. But Masini's company would (unheard of at the time) only demand 2 minutes of every 12 slotted for advertising, to run it's own acquired national commercial spots, with the other ten belonging to the local stations to sell at their discretion. This new structure was met with favor by advertisers as they could now run their spots during OPT's shows and films, which were garnering fantastic Neilsen ratings, for 1/3rd the amount the major networks had been charging to do the same. And, while GOLIATH AWAITS was not met with critical accolades from critics such as the New York Times' Janet Maslin (she had problems with the multi-accents of the international cast, and felt the entire endeavor "monotonous" - which is okay; she thought the same of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, ... which we love!), the 1981 film proved such a hit with audiences and advertisers, it was released abroad in various formats - including in the Netherlands as a month long "limited series" of four weekly one hour installments.


 
    GOLIATH AWAITS was also popular enough to encourage Masini and company to broaden their horizons with their next slate of critically acclaimed and award winning syndicated mini-series. Like GOLIATH, they too would use history as a launching point into drama, albeit in a more sober manner. There was 1982's A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA - with Judy Davis, Robert Loggia, Leonard Nimoy, and starring Ingrid Bergman as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; 1983's SADAT - featuring John Ryhs-Davis, Barry Morse, Nehemiah Persoff, and starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after signing a peace treaty with the nation of Israel; and 1983's BLOOD FEUD - detailing the fierce 11 year conflict between Teamster Union president Jimmy Hoffa (portrayed by Robert Blake) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Cotter Smith). 


  
     After waiting a decade for it's arrival on home video, fans of GOLIATH AWAITS were at first thrilled when the Vidmark Entertainment VHS label released the film to an eager market in March of 1991. Those same fans (us included) were however immediately infuriated upon discovering this version was a re-edited "theatrical cut" of the film chopped down from it's original 2 episode combined running time of 200 mins. to 100 mins., giving the multi-layered and multi-charactered story the "herky jerky" feel of an extended theatrical trailer. Perhaps inspired by the international success of the "theatrical cut" of Wolfgang Peterson's 1981 DAS BOOT (edited down by the director himself from a near 5 hr. mini-series to a 2 1/2 hour running time), the 100 min. version of GOLIATH AWAITS didn't go over well with fans of the original mini-series. Many quickly packed off the VHS tape for a well deserved refund. But, long out of print, copies of that truncated cut still sell on various online outlets from $35 to over $200 dollars. This because GOLIATH AWAITS has yet to see an official DVD or streaming release.

 
     Airing in 2005 on Encore's Mystery Channel, as one unedited 200 minute film, long time fans of GOLIATH AWAITS were finally able to capture the complete version of the nifty sci fier via video tape and DVD recorders - numerous dupes of those now turning up on bootleg film websites and a few "private" streaming services. As we've mentioned in previous installments of "Vaulted Treasures", if you're thinking of purchasing one of those copies or streaming from one of those sites, we suggest you exercise caution as such copies aren't always playable on all machines, and many of those "independent" sites are merely "Trojan Horses" set up to implant potentially hazardous software into one's computer. Perhaps it is better to have a trusted friend burn a copy of the film, or to wait for another cable TV airing.

      "337 people ... after forty years? I'll be damned!" - Adm. Wiley Sloan

      We agree with the Admiral's assessment, and as such personally feel that GOLIATH AWAITS, ... is well worth the wait. 




                                                                                                                        CEJ

Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl   

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

MICHAEL MANN'S "THE KEEP" (1983)

DIRECTOR MANN'S PULPISH "WEIRD WAR TALE" MEETS "FRENCH NEW WAVE" GIVES BIRTH TO A NEW BRAND OF 80s ERA FILM MAKING ... AND FILM MAKERS 




VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And many which DID have long since gone out of print and become high priced collectibles. For this reason, in this age of streaming, we not only saved those DVDs, but old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     "MY purpose is madness; (it) is the only way you can tell what happened in a war; by lying you can open the door a little crack on the truth." Those words, spoken by the narrator of William Eastlake's prototypical satirical 1965 anti-war novel, CASTLE KEEP, seem to perfectly sum up Michael Mann's similarly named (and in some respects similarly THEMED) 1983 cinematic horror / fantasy excursion, THE KEEP.

     In CASTLE KEEP, adapted in 1969 into a film directed by Sydney Pollack, and starring Burt Lancaster, Patrick O'Neal, Al Freeman Jr. and Peter Falk, a group of eight American G.I.'s seek a little R&R during WWII's Battle of the Bulge at a castle in the Ardennes Forest, where each in succession slowly begins to descend into an increasingly long personal well of surreal experiences and imagery - some of which film critics and audiences of the day found fascinating, but of which others felt were just plain wacky. And in Mann's THE KEEP (in some respects obviously taking "here and there" inspiration from Pollack's earlier endeavor) a group of WWII Einsatzkommandos take refuge in a fortified ancient Romanian citadel, then, upon releasing a dark force, each is plunged into a well of increasingly surreal experiences and imagery - some of which critics and audiences found fascinating, but the reactions of most being the furrowing of collective eyebrows, scratching of heads, and silent mouthing of the phrase "What the f*** was that?" while exiting theaters.


      Originally dissed and dismissed as one of the great turkeys of 1980s genre cinema (to this day Michael Mann himself seldom speaks of the film), over the years THE KEEP, without the benefit of a wide theatrical release in the first place, and no EVER release on DVD in the second place, has managed, via well worn VHS and Laserdisc copies, late night cable TV airings and revival house screenings, to climb in status from derided (hey, call it what everyone else did at the time) "Filmic piece of s**t!" to genuinely loved and respected piece of genuine cinematic art. But it took a while.

      Upon first seeing THE KEEP theatrically we ourselves despised the film, and used it as the butt of numerous (we, at the time, felt rather clever) jokes for years to come. Any true movie lover however realizes that even the worst of films have SOME artistic merit buried somewhere in their creative DNA. And always admiring THE KEEP's visual style and hypnotic Tangerine Dream score, over those same years in which we ridiculed it, we ironically still continued to watch and rewatch those weird goings on at that ancient castle in the Dinu Pass until, lo and behold, finally realizing that in the process we too had not only become a member of that odd movie's fervent international cult following, but a prophet now ready to "spread the word" of it's there-all-the-time (yes, we'll use that word again) ARTISTIC merit. Stranger things have happened.


      Released in 1981 by William Morrow, THE KEEP was the first published novel by F. Paul Wilson, who (like his contemporary Michael Crichton) moonlighted as a young writer while attending medical school, and used earnings from sales to magazines such as "Analog" to help fund his tuition. A great admirer of legendary pulpsters Robert E. Howard (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, PEOPLE OF THE DARK) and H.P. Lovecraft (creator of the "Cthulu Mythos" in stories such as FROM BEYOND and THE CATS OF ULTHAR), Wilson's THE KEEP plays as an amalgam of both, ... with a nod to the famous 16th century Jewish legend of "The Golem of Prague". In 1941, during "Operation Barbarossa" (Germany's invasion of Russia), one by one the members of a detachment of Nazi soldiers garissoned at an ancient castle in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, are murdered in grisly / macabre fashion. Symbols about the castle (or "Keep"), which have ties to ancient Hebraic pictograms, lead some to conclude that Jewish partisan rebels have infilitrated the local village. In order for the German officers to learn more of the "terrorists" and their language, a Jewish history professor from Bucharaest named Dr. Cuza, along with his daughter, Magda, are coerced into service and brought to the Keep.

Ian McKellen as Dr. Cuza; Alberta Watson as Magda

   The being behind the killings calls itself "Molasar", and during Cuza's investigation it reveals himself to the elderly Professor, then procures his services via false promises. Molasar's real name / identity is "Rasalom" - who originated as a powerful sorcerer from the "First Age" of humans before being transformed into a near immortal being trapped between worlds. That is until German soldiers stationed at the Keep, Rasalom's prison for eons, accidentally set him free. Slowly rebuilding his strength and corporeal form by feeding upon the life essence of those he murders, Rasalom cleverly becomes novelist Wilson's dual homage to both Bram Stoker (in some respects he's the origin of Romania's Dracula and "Dracula's Castle" legends) and Lovecraft (a nifty new version of that writer's inter-dimensional imprisoned-then-accidentally-released "Old Ones").


     Horror / fantasy novelist Clive Barker would spawn a very similar character rift / homage to Lovecraft five years later with the creation of the "Cenobites" in his 1986 novella "The Hellbound Heart" - the foundation for the first HELLRAISER film in 1987. Stephen Sommers' 1999 cinematic reinvention of THE MUMMY would, while on the surface don the tone of an INDIANA JONES adventure, in it's written narrative actually be based upon the tried-and-true formula of Lovecraft / Wilson's "ancient Old One" - accidentally released from an inter-world prison, regaining it's strength and bodily form via feeding upon victims, then seeking to unleash itself upon the modern world. And the demonically resurrected "Rasputin" from graphic novelist Mike Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro's 2004 film HELLBOY (both writer and director life long Lovecraft aficionados) would follow the exact same "rebirth, feed, conquer" character paradigm.

     Knowing Molasar seeks to expand it's destructive reign beyond the walls of the Keep and into the realm of the human world, a mysterious warrior named "Glaeken" arrives at the pass. A member of the "Forces of Light", and armed with a sword imbued with supernatural properties (the story's Robert E. Howard influence kicking in here), Glaeken and Molasar are enemies across time. And finally once again face to face, the two ancient adversaries engage in a fierce battle which will determine not only the outcome of WWII, but the fate of the entire world. All in all a highly (shall we say) "stylized" story which would seem more at home in an old well-loved / dog-eared copy of WEIRD WAR TALES magazine than on the big screen. Enter Michael Mann.

Michael Mann today

      Born in 1943 into a working class Chicago family, young Michael Kenneth Mann sought to combine his "street bred" blue collar roots with an artist's sensibilities by obtaining a graduate degree at the London Film School, then during the 1960s becoming a commercial director side by side other similarly budding visual stylist cohorts as Ridley Scott (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER), Tony Scott (THE HUNGER, TRUE ROMANCE), Adrian Lyne (9 /12 WEEKS, JACOB'S LADDER) and Alan Parker (PINK FLOYD - THE WALL, ANGEL HEART). Returning to the U.S. to alternately write and direct hard-edged but stylish episodes of STARSKY & HUTCH, VEGA$, and POLICE STORY, Mann made his feature debut with the multi-award winning 1979 ABC TV movie THE JERICHO MILE, which starred Peter Strauss as a Folsom Prison inmate and track runner with a shot at becoming a part of the U.S. Olympic team. Then in 1999 the up-and-coming director would burn up the big screen for the first time with the trend-setting crime thriller / character piece, THIEF, starring James Caan.

     In conjunction with cinematographer Donald Thorin (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, PURPLE RAIN) and frequent collaborator from then on - film editor Dov Hoening (MANHUNTER, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT), with THIEF, Mann (arguably for the first time in mainstream American cinema) brought traditionally considered "background" elements such as cinematography, music, editing, sound design, and even the selection of alternating film stocks, to the forefront - hypnotically merging them WITH, and in so doing elevating them TO, a level of importance every bit as essential in the telling of a filmic story as the script and the actor's performance. For the first time since Disney's FANTASIA (and surely a first for an extended narrative piece) a cinematic story would become the new tech version of the silent movie's "Pure Cinema", in which the emotional content (and film's subsequent audience involvement / immersement) would be earned via the combined effect of image and music "speaking of and to" a character's psychological state, and doing so without words.

Mann's neo-noir crime milieu (clockwise): THIEF ('81), HEAT ('95), MIAMI VICE ('06), COLLATERAL ('04)


     Shortly after THIEF established the "legitimacy" (and commercial viability) of this taboo-breaking stylistic paradigm, legendary pulp director Walter Hill (THE LONG RIDERS, 48HRS) would create his own similar rift on the newly realized "cinematic vocabulary" with 1984's STREETS OF FIRE. Then a rapidly emerging generation of future feature directors (among them David Fincher, Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua) would follow in their footsteps with a succession of critically acclaimed music videos raising that then-nascent "P.R. offshoot of a music album release, but nothing more" to the level of a respected new film genre in and of itself. But it all began with THIEF.

     As Michael Mann had been so closely associated with TVs MIAMI VICE (1984 - 1989), many over the years erroneously surmised he was the show's creator. The actuality however is that, while Mann's aforementioned stylistic imprint was evident in almost every frame of the iconic series, which went on to influence the fashion sense of an entire generation, he was it's executive producer / showrunner. He'd eventually write and direct the 2006 MIAMI VICE theatrical remake starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Ferrell. But during the time of VICE's TV pre-production and original run, Mann was primarily immersed in the writing and filming of the back to back theatrical features THE KEEP (released in 1983) and MANHUNTER (1986) - adapted from Thomas Harris' novel RED DRAGON, and which first introduced the world to genius serial killer Hannibal Lector, later made famous by Sir Anthony Hopkins, but in MANHUNTER portrayed by veteran Scottish character actor Brian Cox (X2, RUSHMORE, TROY, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES).


      Produced by Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch (the team behind GORKY PARK and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE), THE KEEP's stunningly macabre production design was by the legendary John Box (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, 1974's THE GREAT GATSBY, 1975's ROLLERBALL). Box created the film's main castle set (as one of the film's characters says) "Inside out, as if constructed to keep something IN rather than AT BAY" at London's Shepperton Studios, though some of the castle's intricate internal stonework was actually shot on location at the Llechweed Slate Quarry, an historic deep railway accessed mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales. The Romanian village at the base of the Keep was built at the abandoned Glyn Rhonwy quarry - a gray and black (almost otherworldly) sunblasted landscape near Landberis, North Wales; the site which, just last year in fact, became home to a $155 million environmentally conducive hydro-electric power generating station.

     Admittedly, upon one's initial viewing of THE KEEP (and we first caught it in '83, as the second half of a grindhouse theater double-bill, paired with David Cronenberg's THE DEAD ZONE), it's tone and narrative evolves (some at the time said "devolved") into such surreal-ness that it can become indecipherable to the point of maddening. And we considered walking out. Compelled however by it's visuals and tone, we found ourselves strangely unable to budge from our seat - knowing that there HAD to be SOMETHING going on here which (like some jokes in the old daily comic strip "The Far Side") we just weren't getting at time, but which might "kick in" and make sense later.


      As in some intimate relationships, it can be disconcerting when a film becomes both off-putting and fascinating at the same time. And we knew THE KEEP was such even while sitting there pissed off (yet transfixed) at it's apparent lunacy. After repeated viewings on VHS at home over the years, and as our education in cinema history increased, we came to realize that Mann's THE KEEP wasn't (borrowing a phrase from The Three Stooges) "a beautiful mess-terpiece", but in actuality was his rather shrewd, if obscure, attempt at creating the genre version of a European "New Wave" film of the 1960s / 70s.

     Tonally, thematically, ... and certainly visually, THE KEEP is cinematic kin to other such "indecipherable" trips as Jean Luc Goddard's ALPHAVILLE ('65), Bernardo Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST ('70), Tarkovsky's SOLARIS ('72), Wertmüller's SWEPT AWAY ('74), and especially Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) - which would go on to influence Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION (2010), and that same director's 80s era return to "New Wave" thematics and execution, LA VIE EST UN ROMAN ("LIFE IS A BED OF ROSES") - it's influenced felt in the Wachowski's and Tom Tykwer's recent CLOUD ATLAS (2012).


     Released in 1983, a few months prior to THE KEEP, LA VIE UN ROMAN was structured as three stories featuring three different sets of characters, with each of those stories taking place during three distinct periods in history (the Medieval era, WWI, and the 1980s), and all at the same locale - a castle in the Ardennes. Further stylistically blood-linking THE KEEP and Resnais, both the French director and Mann brought onto their productions as a designer the noted French artist / comic book illustrator Enki Bilal - best known in the U.S. at the time for his work in HEAVY METAL magazine on stories as "Exterminator 17" and "The City That Didn't Exist". For THE KEEP Enki conceptualized the superhumanly "ripped" yet otherworldy physique of the demonic Molasar.

Director Mann on set with McKellen

     The European cinematic aesthetic continued to influence Mann in his choice of THE KEEP's cast, most at the time largely unknown in America, but respected award winning performers of stage and screen at home. THE KEEP featured the American feature film debuts of England's Ian McKellen (best known today as Gandalf in the LORD OF THE RINGS series, and as Magneto in the X-MEN franchise) as the elderly Dr. Cuza, and Germany's Jürgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT, DUNE, AIR FORCE ONE) as Vermacht Captain Klaus Woermann. Dublin born actor Gabriel Byrne (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, MILLER'S CROSSING, HBO's IN TREATMENT) would become sadistic SD Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer - who butts heads (and ideologies) with the more even-tempered Woermann. And from the American continent, Canada's Alberta Watson (SPANKING THE MONKEY, THE SWEET HEREAFTER) essayed the role Dr. Cuza's daughter, Magda. And from the U.S., Mann's THIEF alum, Robert Prosky, would portray village priest, Father Fonescu. And the young and strapping Scott Glenn (at the time enjoying critical acclaim for his breakout performance as astronaut Alan Shepard in THE RIGHT STUFF just two months prior) would star as the mysterious warrior Glaeken Trismegestus.


     While Mann's most recurring cinematographer relationship over the years has been with Dante Spinotti (on MANHUNTER, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT and THE INSIDER), THE KEEP's stunningly surreal (even theatrical) filmic color design was in conjunction with lauded British Director of Photography Alex Thomson. The cinematographic master behind those painterly images captured for John Boorman's EXCALIBER, Ridley Scott's LEGEND, and Nicholas Roeg's EUREKA and TRACK 29, with THE KEEP Thomson helped create what for years would come to be known as the "Michael Mann look" - a cold and aloof, almost exclusively primary color palate principally featuring a stark / high-keyed blue. This "industrial" look, in tandem with scores by alternative recording artists such as Michael Rubini on MANHUNTER, and iconic German electronic band Tangerine Dream on THIEF and THE KEEP, would invade the fabric of both MIAMI VICE and early MTV in the mid 1980s, and help create and establish the modern day concept of what is now known as the "music video".


     Opening on December 16, 1983, THE KEEP's debut weekend was stellar, ... at least financially. With a production budget of $6 million, and playing on a mere 500+ screens, it's three day opening U.S. box office take was a respectable $1.03 million. Critically however THE KEEP immediately became the year's 3-legged dog ripe for a'kicking by nearly every major reviewer in the country. As did the audience (including us initially) they left the theater scratching their heads, mourning and mouthing "WTF!", then sat down to rake Mann's "weird war tale" over the hot coals as yeah, stylish but ultimately "incomprehensible", "silly", "devoid of logic and reason" and more. Leonard Maltin (in one of the more kind written assessments) called it "... outlandish and mostly awful", but gave it a merciful 1 1/2 stars on a scale of 0 - 4, realizing there was something about it which might "interest fans of strange cinema".

     In the days before the word "viral" became part of entertainment industry lexicon, negative word quickly spread on THE KEEP. The next weekend, audience attendance dropped considerably, and the film closed it's U.S. theatrical run within a month with a paltry $3.7 million in ticket sales. Overseas it was released under various titles: in Brazil as "A Fortaleza Infernal" (Infernal Stronghold), in Sweden and Denmark as (seriously, we're not kidding) "Satan's Borg", in Finland as "Paholaisen Pesä" (The Devil's Nest), Portugal as "O Guardador do Mal" (The Keeper of Evil), and in Russia as "Крепость" (Fortress). Taking in approx. another $7 million in foreign receipts in those and other territories helped THE KEEP to (barely) finish in the ledgers as a non-loss. But the film quickly vanished from cinematic memory after home video release on the now defunct VHS, Betamax and LaserDisc formats. Well, ... OFFICIALLY disappeared, until, as with Molasar himself, curious interlopers into THE KEEP resurrected the film over the years.


      As a new generation of cinema buffs and students became fans of his films (the aforementioned THIEF, MANHUNTER, LAST OF THE MOCHICANS, HEAT and THE INSIDER, along with later hits such as ALI, COLLATERAL, MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES) Michael Mann became one of the most respected of contemporary American filmmakers, he also producing such titles as THE KINGDOM, HANCOCK (in which he has an amusing filmed cameo), and Martin Scorcese's THE AVIATOR. Listed as one of Total Film's "100 Greatest Directors Ever", Entertainment Weekly's "25 Greatest Active Film Directors", and one of Sight And Sound's "10 Best Directors Of The Last 25 Years", upon learning that their poster child for "High Tech New Aged Cinema" had directed a horror / fantasy film, said generation of young cinematic Turks began jonesing to experience this film to which they hitherto had no knowlege.


      Few things (in the arts or retail) make something more desirable to the masses than a lack of access to it. And as such those VHS and LaserDisc copies of THE KEEP became much sought after collectibles to those who still had access to equipment which could play them. And DVD copies (burned from unedited / commercial free late night airings on Showtime, HBO, Encore and The Movie Channel) began turning up via online outlets as for-sale bootlegs.

     After the success of the LP (then later CD) release of Tangerine Dream's score to THIEF, hopes ran high for an official release of THE KEEP's much desired hypnotically, otherworldly music. But the ever ubiquitous mine field of "licensing issues" between studio (Paramount Pictures) and artists precluded such, with the exception of a limited run of 150 units sold by the Dream themselves at a U.K. concert in 1997. Bootleg CD copies of this would also begin turning up online and at conventions for upwards to $200 per disc. In spite of it's critical drubbing, a distancing from it by it's own director, and harsh words about the film from original author F. Paul Wilson, around the world THE KEEP had become a full fledged / much loved member of the "Vaulted Treasure" club.

Tangerine Dream (circa 1986)

     While we don't necessarily enjoy Mann's reticence to reflect on his, to date, only cinematic excursion into genre territory, we kind of / sort of understand it. His second feature film, THE KEEP was a daringly bold attempt to step outside what many (himself included) considered to be his thematic "safe zone" of gritty crime thrillers, the umbrella under which all of his prior work - including STARSKY & HUTCH, VEGA$, POLICE STORY, THE JERICHO MILE and THIEF comfortably fell. THE KEEP not only failed to meet his own expectations (his original cut coming in at an epic 3 hrs., then trimmed down to 96 mins), but was met with vehement disdain by a public which at the time didn't understand his intentions. We admit once again that we were a part of that virulent public which at first stoned THE KEEP then later became one of it's most devoted followers. We don't however agree with the opinion of THE KEEP novelist F. Paul Wilson.

     There's a defacto belief that a book is ALWAYS far and away better than it's filmic adaptation can ever be. Part of this stems from the fact that when read, books are projected onto the greatest IMAX 3D / Holographic / Sennsurround / Dolby Atmos theater ever conceived and created - the mind of the reader, which will subconciously see and adjust the novel's intensities (toning down what said reader's psyche deems too severe), and "covering up", "filling in the gaps" and "bringing up to a level of acceptability" the novel's shortcomings, such as thin characterizations or a reliance on unbelievable coincidence in the extrication of a protagonist from a back-against-the-wall situation or scenario. When transferred to the VERY subjective medium of film, what the director's mind sees may be at odds with that "film" seen in the mind of the other reader.


      And in the case of Mann's THE KEEP being hammered to this day as surreal to the point of "cinematic lunacy" by fans of the book (as well as those who never read it), well, ... come on (and we're sorry about this one you die hard Wilson fans!), but, while the 1981 book is a clever and enjoyable pulpy WEIRD TALES-like homage to Lovecraft and Stoker, we feel it runs off the rails narratively into it's own brand of "surreal lunacy" when Glaeken arrives with the mystical sword, connects it to the talisman, then he and Molsar engage in a telekinetic battle which feels like the climax of SUPERMAN II or a KULL THE CONQUEROR-like clash, but set during WWII. In our eyes Wilson took a brilliant concept, made it plausible in AND TO the real and tragic world of 1941's Operation Barbarossa (even managing to create a symbolic mirror equivalent to the Nazis evil in Molasar, which is now revisited upon them), ... then chucks it all out the plausibility window by turning things into (and this is a subjective opinion, remember) a mystical gee-whiz, Saturday morning blade-wielding HE-MAN cartoon.

     While we're certain many fans of Wilson's novel won't care for that assessment (as said, the reader's mind makes adjustments to make a book's shortcomings palatable, ... but in this case our narrative mind refuses to do so), we feel Mann's only "sensible" option in adapting the novel was to not start in the realm of the real, then in the third act leap into surreal fantasy, but rather to, from the very beginning, stylistically (with opening credits, music and that extended / hypnotic "troop caravan arrives at the Dinu Pass" opening sequence) set a degree of surreal-ness from the outset, then slowly increase the "surreal gauge" during the course of the entire film. Kind of like the analogy of cooking a live frog: toss a frog into a pot of hot water, and it'll immediately jump out. Set a frog in pot of room temperature water, ... then slowly increase the temperature, and it will not even realize it's being cooked until it's over. Perhaps a sordid analogy, but one get's the tonal idea.


     And granted, THE KEEP is far from a perfect film. As one of Mann's earlier endeavors, at times the "increasing of the surreal gauge" is a tad heavy handed, overwrought and cinematically perhaps immature. Not unlike a neophyte chef adding too much spice here and there during one of his earliest catering gigs (yeah, he's gonna catch some flak for that), THE KEEP, as a Michael Mann film, would certainly have a different and more coherent and smooth (if still surreal) tone if he made it today. But a film is what it is, at least such was the case in the THE KEEP's days before the advent and popularity of "Extended", "Expanded" and other types of augmented and re-edited and partially re-shot films. We've never been too keen on those kinds of things. And, warts and all, THE KEEP is a fascinating work which grows on you. In one of the very rare occasions in which he DID reflect upon the film, Mann opined ...

     "There is a moment in time when the unconscious is externalized. In the case of the 20th Century, this time was the Fall of 1941. What Hitler promised in the beer gardens had actually come true. The greater German Reich was at its apogee; it controlled all Europe. And the dark psychotic appeal underlying the slogans and rationalizations was making itself manifest". Mann would also state that his intention in using a genre delivery system to make comment on society en masse caught up in this dark aspect of the human psyche, was to create, "A fairy story for grownups. Fairy tales have the power of dreams - from the outside. I decided to stylize the art direction and photography extensively but use realistic characterization and dialogue". And as such Mann's THE KEEP is a stunning bookend companion piece to 1965's CASTLE KEEP, perfectly summing up that novel's narrator's assessment that his purpose was "Madness, (because it) is the only way you can tell what happened in a war; (and how) by lying you can open the door a little crack on the truth".


     In retrospect, viewed as an 80s era "New Wave film of the 1960s", Mann's THE KEEP is a fine artistic madness indeed! Spawning a legion of like-minded admirers, they were all thrilled upon learning in late 2014 that an independent British film production company was in the process of filming a documentary entitled A WORLD WAR II FAIRYTALE: THE MAKING OF MICHAEL MANN'S "THE KEEP". Still shooting (and while still in the process of raising production capital; ... and boy, do we know about that!) the film makers have established an official website to keep interested parties abreast of the latest developments.

     Check it out @ http://thekeepdocumentary.com/about/ .

     Until then, for those with DVD recorders, be aware that THE KEEP still regularly airs on various cable movie channels. And, for those without such equipment, know that Mann's WWII excursion into darkness was also recently made available to Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant Video. As such streamers however sporadically drop numerous titles from their lineups without much notice, we suggest you catch director Mann's nifty take on the old school WEIRD WARS TALES milieu sooner than later. For we think you'll agree it's a definite KEEPer.


                                                                                                                          CEJ

Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl 

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved. 

RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" (1994)

CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED, BUT INITIALLY A BOX OFFICE FAILURE, "THE JUNGLE BOOK" BECOMES A HOME VIDEO HIT BIG ENOUGH TO ALTER THE INDUSTRY 



VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And many which DID have long since gone out of print and become high priced collectibles. For this reason, in this age of streaming, we not only saved those DVDs, but old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Hard to believe it's been 20 years since RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" - the Disney released pulp adventure-style, live action revisionist take on author Rudyard Kipling's beloved "Mowgli" stories. Also hard to believe the film's 2002 DVD release was it's only ever DVD issue, and that it's been out of print since, making it a "hard to obtain" title now fetching prices upwards to $200 on Amazon.com and other seller outlets.

      Debuting Christmas day 1994, RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" was a rip roaring old school INDIANA JONES-like "boy's own" adventure which wowed critics (it still holds an impressive aggregate 92% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but was initially considered a box-office disappointment for the studio at the time riding high on the success of it's released-earlier-in-the-year super smash THE LION KING. At a time however when home video, in the form of "sell through" titles, and when the ubiquitous VHS rental parlor on every other street corner was becoming THE primary filmic delivery choice for many families, THE JUNGLE BOOK would eventually become a hit and, perhaps most importantly (at least as far as Hollywood bookkeeping is concerned) one of the first features to cause a film finance paradigm shift wherein a movie's later home video release would no longer be considered "ancillary" revenue, but a major part of it's overall worldwide box office take, and thus would, beforehand, be factored into it's initial budgeting structure.

     And, oh yes, THE JUNGLE BOOK would also make an "A" list star out of a young up-and-coming director named Stephen Sommers, who'd forever become known (some say "for the better"; others say "for worse") as the king of the revisionist / "rebooted" classic yarn.


     Born in Bombay, India, Nobel Prize winning author, Rudyard Kipling, spent the first six years of his life there, then later as a young adult returned to work in the beloved nation as assistant editor of the newspaper "The Civil & Military Gazette". The author of numerous high adventure stories and poems (among them THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and GUNGA DIN), THE JUNGLE BOOK would emerge as his most popular work. Published as a collection in 1894, it was written (most don't realize) not in India, but whilst Kipling resided in Vermont, U.S.A., and written as a gift for his daughter Josephine, who'd pass away at the age of six a few short years later.

     Consisting of seven stories - each followed by a clever poem thematically linked to that story, three of the tales concerned the feral child Mowgli: raised by wolves, brother to all jungle animals (including the sloth bear "Baloo" and panther "Bagheera"); primary prey of the fearsome tiger "Shere Khan"; and who was first introduced one year prior in Kipling's stand-alone short story "In The Rukh" - wherein as an adult Mowgli is asked by a British forestry Ranger to join him because of his near superhuman ability to hunt and track, and the Ranger later discovers Mowgli's talents are born of the fact that as a lost child he was raised in the jungle by a wolfpack. Kipling published another collection of stories in 1895 under the title THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK - this time with eight stories (and attendant poems); and five of which featured Mowgli as the central protagonist.  Oh, and take note English Lit fans - Edgar Rice Burroughs would borrow Kipling's "raised by animals" narrative hook in the creation of his own soon-to-be classic "feral child" story, TARZAN OF THE APES in 1912.

Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)

     The first filmic adaptation of THE JUNGLE BOOK was 1942's Technicolor adventure courtesy of the Korda Brothers, Zoltan & Alexander (THE FOUR FEATHERS, SAHARA). Featuring a performance by beloved India born actor Sabu (THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, ARABIAN NIGHTS) as Mowgli, it received four Academy Award nominations, including one for it's energetic and colorful musical score by the legendary Miklos Rozsa (BEN-HUR, THIEF OF BAGDAD). Other versions of Kipling's JUNGLE BOOK stories would appear over the next 50-odd years, with the best of the lot arguably being Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny / HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS)'s 1975 animated TV special RIKKI-TIKKI-TAVI, which featured the voices of Orson Welles and June Foray. The most popularly remembered however is surely Walt Disney's swinging (pun entirely intended) 1967 animated adventure / musical directed by Wolfgang Reitherman (Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY, 101 DALMATIONS, THE ARISTOCATS, THE RESCUERS), and featuring a "murderer's row" cast of vocal talents including the lovable Phil Harris as "Baloo", Jazz singer Louis Prima as monkey leader - the orangutan "King Louie", Sabastian Cabot as "Bagheera", and the suave and debonair George Saunders (REBECCA, ALL ABOUT EVE, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) as the villainous "Shere Khan".


     In the late 1980s, inspired by a National Geographic nature special, independent producer Raju Patel (BACHELOR PARTY), who was born in Kenya but forever in love with the nation of his family's ancestry - India, commissioned a new script adaptation of Mowgli's adventures (the rights to which many years prior had passed into the public domain) by Ronald Yanover & Mark Geldman - the writing duo best known to genre fans for the cult favorite CYBORG 2. Yes, THAT one, with young Angelina Jolie as a sexy robot programmed by an industrialist to seduce her way into a rival corporation's business headquarters, then to self-destruct - thus wiping out the competition!!!

     With finished script (clocking in at a mammoth 175 pages, but nicely stringing together elements of Kipling's episodic tales into a smooth, linear, and single "through line" / INDIANA JONES-style adventure - romance), Patel and producing partner Mark Damon (DAS BOOT, THE NEVERENDING STORY, THE LOST BOYS) brought it to then Disney studio head Michael Eisner (who'd just had a hit with the studio's redo of THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY) in the hope that the studio, which had given the world the classic animated JUNGLE BOOK, would wish to "coat tail" the new rendition on both that earlier film's "brand name recognition" as well as on the fact that the 100th Anniversary, celebrating the publication of Kipling's original classic, was fast approaching. Eisner agreed, set a film a budget of $30 million, then brought in veteran producer Edward S. Feldman (SAVE THE TIGER, WITNESS, GREEN CARD) to spearhead the project.


      With a limited budget, Disney stuck to it's then philosophy of attaching up-and-coming talent to it's projects over high priced (so-called) "A"-lister personnel. And impressed with his student film PERFECT ALIBI, his $800,000 independent teen racer thriller, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and recent revisionist (but still faithful to Mark Twain's original) direction of Disney's own THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN, Eisner and Feldman brought aboard the just-turned-30-years-old Stephen Sommers to helm THE JUNGLE BOOK. An accomplished screenwriter (he'd just finished a witty and energetic thriller script at Touchstone called TENTACLE, which years later he'd direct as the action / horror / comedy DEEP RISING), Sommers proceeded to trim down then augment Yanover and Geldman's 175 page draft. And his new draft proved impressive enough to attract the attention and ultimate involvement of actors Jason Scott Lee (of DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY) as Mowgli, JURASSIC PARK's Sam Neill as Col. Brydon; Lena Heady (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, 300, GAME OF THRONES) as his daughter (and Mowgli's love interest) Katherine "Kitty" Brydon; THE PRINCESS BRIDE's Cary Elwes as the villainous Capt. Boone; and (in a role written specifically for him by Sommers) John Cleese as Dr. Julius Plumford.


     WIZARD OF OZ-like (where the Oz characters have real world Kansas counterparts), Sommers' new script would also make many of THE JUNGLE BOOK's supporting-role human characters the personality equivalents of Mowgli's animal associates in Kipling's original tales. As such Dr. Plumford becomes a thinly veiled human version of "Baloo", Capt. Boone the equivalent of the sly and sneaky serpent "Kaa", Col. Brydon the human rendition of "order and law" proponent - the troop leader elephant "Col. Hahti"; and even Mowgli himself the "coin flip side" equal to "Shere Khan".

     Principle photography on THE JUNGLE BOOK took place between March - June, 1994 on locations as varied as Mehboob Studios in Bombay, India (where, because of a lack of air conditioning, temperatures at times rose to 137 degrees), to the jungles of Jodhpur. Seeking a dreamlike lush green "jungle of one's childhood fantasies", Sommers and his production team augmented the Jodhpur footage (where, because of the dry time of year, much of the vegetation was turning brown) with extra footage shoots back in the U.S. in the forests and swamps of both Tennessee and South Carolina. Utilizing the largest live action "cast of animals" (actual tigers, bears, primates, panthers and more) since 20th Century Fox's DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1967), for safety's sake, when filming the animals (under their trainer's supervision), all non-essential cast and crew were banned from the U.S. studios and locations until the animals were once again safely and securely removed. As Sommers later commented, "Most people think 'trained animal' means that they'll do everything you instruct them too; when it actually only means they MAYBE won't attack you".


     Under it's various studio banners at the time (incl. Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures) Disney released a staggering total of 29 films in 1994. And the fact that they not only gave RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" (the author's name since added to the title so audiences wouldn't think this simply a remake of the 1967 animated classic) a massive advertising push, but chose to award it the coveted Christmas Day release slot, evidenced a great deal of faith by the company in the film's box office potential. That faith was (at least partially) justified. With a rousing and romantic score by the late great Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, LONESOME DOVE, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER), stunning cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia (AT CLOSE RANGE, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, A FAR OFF PLACE), and gorgeously detailed Oscar worthy costumes by John Mollo (ALIEN, GANDHI, GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN), RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" had it's premiere in New York City on December 23rd, then opened two days later to near unanimous critical accolades - even from purists like Roger Ebert who took issue with the film's at times narrative departure from Kipling's original characters and plots.

     Ebert gave the film three out four stars, citing that, while it was "... an action thriller / INDIANA JONES clone that Kipling would have viewed with astonishment" he felt it was well made and enjoyable, ... though he also believed some of it's scenes were unsuitable for smaller children. Variety called it "An encyclopedia of wonders", and The Washington Post hailed it as "... A bully (in the most positive-declarative Teddy Roosevelt sense) family picture".


      Nevertheless surrounded by my more adult-oriented December 1994 releases such as DISCLOSURE, DROP ZONE, NELL and LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE JUNGLE BOOK failed to catch with family audiences. This was particularly puzzling as the only other real theatrical demographic competition at the time came from Columbia's remake of LITTLE WOMEN (it geared primarily towards early teenaged female audiences) and the not-so-well regarded RICHIE RICH - both films opening two days before THE JUNGLE BOOK. As stated earlier, THE JUNGLE BOOK later proved a hit when simultaneously released in 1995 as a full screen pan-and-scan VHS (remember those huge plastic "clam shell" cases?) and as a widescreen laserdisc. It's success as a home video VHS title (this in the days before 1996's TWISTER became the first major studio DVD release) would help cause studios, talent agents and more, to from henceforth factor potential home viewership revenue (which at the time also included cable TV airings) into a film's financial plan overview.

     Which is to say, they'd now begin considering BEFOREHAND the projected profits from said upcoming home video sales / rentals, et al; and figure those estimates into the planning, budgeting (and salary bargaining) of a film and price required to secure that film's talent in front of and behind the lens. In other words, as THE JUNGLE BOOK's home video success was now proving that the final pie size of a film's profits was increasing, all of said film's participants now wanted a larger slice of that pie BEFORE signing on the dotted line as a "pie ingredient".

Director Stephen Sommers

     The ultimate success of RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" as a film would also allow Stephen Sommers to realize his long desired revisionist INDIANA JONES / JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS-like spin on one of his favorite childhood films - THE MUMMY. After Universal Studios' desired reboot shifted hands from such acclaimed writer / film makers as Clive Barker to George Romero to Joe Dante, on the basis of THE JUNGLE BOOK, Sommers was able to submit his detailed 18 page treatment for his take on THE MUMMY to the Universal brass. And it was met with such a positive response, the studio not only greenlighted his vision, but upped the film's original $18 million budget to $80 million. Re-imagined from a low budget thriller to potential tentpole franchise, THE MUMMY - opening on May 7th, 1999, and starring Brendan Fraser, grossed over $400 million, becoming one of the year's biggest hits. Sommers would solidify this newfound industry position / reputation as "king of the classic reboot properties" with the follow up successes (financial if not critical) of THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001), VAN HELSING (2004) and G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (2009).


     The eventual success of Sommers' original 1994 THE JUNGLE BOOK would also inspire that film's original producers, Raju Patel and Mark Damon, to film 1997's non-Disney-released THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI AND BALOO. And it would also encourage Disney to produce it's own 1998 direct-to-video live action THE JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI'S STORY. Finally bowing to the wishes of those who first saw and fell in love with the 1994 film as children (and who now chomped at the bit to share it with THEIR children), Disney very recently released RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK" for digital streaming rental and purchase download, though the streaming version contains none of the DVD's bonus extras such as film maker audio commentary, the behind the scenes documentary, and other features.


     The enduring popularity and charm of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli adventures recently ignited a major studio competition between two currently-in-the-works combo live action / CGI big screen epics. On the one side is Disney's newest take on THE JUNGLE BOOK - directed by IRON MAN's Jon Favreau; and featuring the voice talents of Bill Murray as "Baloo", Idris Elba as "Shere Khan", Ben Kingsley as "Bagheera", Christopher Walken as "King Louie", and Scarlett Johansson as "Kaa". And on the other is Warner Bros.'s big budget live action redo - formerly under the helm of Ron Howard and now directed by KING KONG / LORD OF THE RING's actor / 2nd Unit director Andy Serkis. This version to star the voices of SHERLOCK's Benedict Cumberbatch as "Shere Khan", THE DARK KNIGHT's Christian Bale as "Bagheera", Cate Blanchett as "Kaa", and SKYFALL's Naomi Harris as "Raksha".

     With Marvel and D.C. comic renditions of the author's beloved Mowgli stories, a Russian animated version, video games, two upcoming big budget re-dos and more, one wonders if the late Roger Ebert could have ever imagined the prophetic nature of his words when he referred to Disney and Stephen Sommers' 1994 "vaulted gem", RUDYARD KIPLING'S "THE JUNGLE BOOK", as something "... Kipling would have viewed with astonishment". We think not.

Though we DO think he would have viewed them with a great deal of pride and pleasure.





"This is the hour of pride and power, 
 Talon and tush and claw.
 Oh, hear the call!--Good hunting all,

 (to them) that keep the Jungle Law!"


                                                      CEJ



Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl 




 
Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.
 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE (2000)

TRIBUTE TO THE FATHER OF STEAM PUNK, ... BEFORE THERE WAS SUCH A THING



VAULTED TREASURES:
HARD TO FIND FILMS
WORTH SEEKING OUT

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Usually by the time a movement (literary, artistic, political, what have you) has been christened with an official title, that movement has already run it's course, and all you get from that point on are pale and stale impersonator / wannabees "cashing in" on the hard-fought-for innovations of said movement's originators. Some might say it was such for "Steampunk", that "mash up" (long before THAT phrase was coined) literary / filmic / offshoot of William Gibson-esque "Cyberpunk" - wherein high technology (flying machines and weaponry, submersibles, super computers, etc.) are used in an alternate reality timescape (say circa the 1880s American West, Victorian England or post apocalyptic future), but powered by said era's romantically archaic means, ... e.g., steam, coal, compressed air pressure, whatever.

     And while the works of Philip Pullman (NORTHERN LIGHTS - aka "THE GOLDEN COMPASS") and Stephen Hunt (referred to as "Charles Dickens meets BLADE RUNNER") still make bestseller lists, ... and even corporations such as Prada, Versace, and Dior have dabbled in "Steampunk"-ish fashionista lines on occasion, the 1990s is largely considered by many to have been the movement's "Golden Era". That is unless your name is Jules Verne.

     Cited with H.G. Welles and Hugo Gernsback (after whom literature's "Hugo Awards" are named) as one of the three founding "Fathers Of Science Fiction", Jules Verne (1828 - 1905) arguably stands alone as the creator of the "Steampunk" genre, ... once again long before it occurred to anyone to call it such. Still lauded as one of literature's most scientifically "prophetic" authors (his pen would foresee the airship, submarine, space travel and more long before their real world realizations) he was also given to political commentary in the midst of such whallopingly hair raising classic adventures as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, TWELVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, MASTER OF THE WORLD and many more.


     That Verne "triple threat" of sci fi, adventure and politics would briefly coaleasce into one of the most intriguing (and intriguingly realized) television series at the beginning of the (then new) 21st century - the very short lived THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE. The brainchild of writer Gavin Scott (THE MIST OF AVALON, SMALL SOLDIERS), it's first (and as it turned out ONLY) season of 22 episodes was cleverly pre-sold for syndicated airing in primarily Canada and the U.S. But as it was a truly independently financed venture, it would never recoup it's hefty production costs to the point of allowing the filming of another season let alone any kind of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming or other home video release - for which many fans are still, FIREFLY-like, clamoring and chomping at the bit.

     Assuming he'd enter the successful law profession of his father, the family of young Jules Gabriel Verne was shocked when, after his first years of study in Paris, he detoured into the artistic world of the "literary salons", where he'd became good friends (and a writing collaborator) with Alexander Dumas fils, the son of THE THREE MUSKETEERS / THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK author Alexandre Dumas. Together they'd debut a play at Paris' Opéra-National Théâtre Historique, and this would be Verne's entre into a full time writing career; the bulk of his most popular works then falling under the thematically encompassing umbrella of the "VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES" (the "Extraordinary Voyages") - a sequence of fifty-four novels published between 1863 and 1905.


      A life long research, science and technology (hey, proudly call Verne what he was) Victorian era "geek" (long before THAT phrase was coined) the dual intent of the VOYAGES was (in the words of Verne's editor / publisher) "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format, the history of the universe." This Verne would do with some of the most famous, as well as (mentioned earlier) "prophetic" and popular stories in the history of published literature - he today holding the title of the "2nd Most Translated Author Of All Time", sandwiched between #1 William Shakespeare and #3 Agatha Christie - two more of our personal GullCottage faves by the way.


     Interestingly, with the possible exception of 20th Century Fox's 1959 big screen rendition of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, while making the transition to film - in classics such as Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), Ray Harryhausen's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), American International's MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961), and even to a degree, in the 1956 David Niven adventure / comedy AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, Verne's political subtext - very often anti-war / anti-aristocracy, would remain intact. It was this "political element" which gave SECRET ADVENTURES series creator Gavin Scott his first spark of inspiration. In the series' eventual promotional packet he'd recount:

     “I first came up with the idea of putting Jules Verne at the center of his own adventures when I discovered that he had originally written 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA because he was furious at the Russian invasion of Poland. Suddenly it came to me… what if there had been more reality behind the Jules Verne fantasies than we even knew? And what if I wrote a series of stories which revealed the true adventures behind 20,000 LEAGUES, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, then added to these stories some of Verne’s actual contemporaries – noted figures as diverse as Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Frank and Jesse James!

Showdown with the robotic gunslinger "Steely Joe"

     Scott would elaborate on that initial thematic inspirational tidbit by recollecting how in real life Verne's publisher convinced the author as to the need to "cloak" the real-world personalities of his stories behind the mask of a fictitious character so as to a) not risk foreign sales, and b) avoid international incidents between nations by making certain personages either villainous or heroic. In other words, Verne would "change the names to protect the innocent, ... and the not-so-innocent". Using this as a launch pad, there would be, in Scott's fertile imagination, the fictitious "sanitized" version of a story - which Verne would give to the world, and the secret X-FILES version of "what really happened"; this only now coming before the public in the form of the prospective new series. As every writer / artist knows however, it's far easier to imagine a clever product / series / film than it is to execute one.

     In Scott's "secret files" version of Verne's adventures, the titular author (in the series portrayed by DREAM ON's Chris Demetral) would remain a young up-and-coming writer in Paris. But here he would be plucked from a pre-fame nothing existence, and taken under the tutelage / protection of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS' globe-trotting Phileas Fogg (DYNASTY and ROBIN OF SHERWOOD's Michael Praed), here gone from clubland's adventurer to a "flawed James Bond"-like former British Intel operative. Reimagined by Scott, Fogg's valet / manservant Passepartout (Canadian mime / comedian Michel Courtemanche) would become a "Q"-like gadget master / inventor; our team's base-of-operations dirigible the "Aurora" being his greatest accomplishment. And the adventurers would be accompanied by the ever resourceful Rebecca Fogg, Phileas adopted cousin, and the first female agent of England's Secret Service (played by actor, dancer, swimmer and fencing master Francesca Hunt).

"Steely Joe"'s papa: Illustrator / Concept Designer Meinert Hansen

     A LITERAL, as well as literary, "visionary", in the series young Verne is unaware that he is in possession of a mental gift which allows him to psychologically cross time and actually see into the future; hence the numerous prophetic technological renderings in his stories. Wanting to possess Verne and his gift, which can bestow upon them an arsenal of future tech / world-conquering weaponry, is the League Of Darkness, lead by Count Gregory (WILLOW's Rick Overton), an international organization of terroristic aristocrats who believe the way to keep the "common masses" in check is to insure volatile world conditions (civil war, revolution, etc.) wherein said masses will beg for the care and leadership of the privileged elite.

     Scott's concept having much interest, the gathering of actual funds to realize the series was considerably more difficult to achieve. After spending years independantly obtaining backers in the U.S., England, Germany and Canada - where tax incentive credits would lead the production team to convert a defunct rail station into a period-dressed 100,000 square ft. soundstage, production began on the 22 episode first season of THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE ... before the series even had a broadcast deal / schedule in place!


     The first one hour series to be filmed entirely using the (then) new HDTV recording system, SECRET ADVENTURES suffered visually in that, eventually picked up by CBC / Space in Canada, and the SciFi Channel (later SyFy) in the U.S., at the time neither network was broadcasting in HDTV. Therefore the episodes were downconverted onto film, and as such much of the detail of it's exquisitely realized costumes, production design and visual FX, took on a distractingly dark and "muddled" quality when first aired on standard television.

     This didn't deter a wave of fans (us included) who immediately latched onto the series' considerable wit, style and visual and intellectual creativity. With impressive guest stars such as SHOGUN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS' John Rhys Davies as Alexandre Dumas, SUPERMAN's Margot Kidder, DALLAS and THE MAN FROM ATLANTIS' Patrick Duffy, along with Michael Moriarity, Mako, David Warner and more, THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE hopped the globe from Victorian era European adventures ("Queen Victoria And The Giant Mole", "The Cardinal's Design" - featuring a pre DA VINCI CODE-like mystery, "Rockets Of The Dead" - with Carpathian arms dealer Count Rimini actually a vampire seeking to equip his blood sucking army with jet packs for world conquest) to a MYSTERIOUS ISLAND / ROBUR THE CONQUEROR-inspired multi-episode arc set in the midst of the American Civil War - the standout installment here being "The Ballad Of Steely Joe" wherein our heroes meet Frank & Jesse James, Samuel Clemens - aka "Mark Twain", and a robotic quick draw gunslinging town "Sheriff").


     At $2 million per episode (approx. $40 million for the first season), THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE had too many creditors of a multi-national composition, and not enough broadcast outlets at the time (in addition to CDC / Space Canada and SciFi, it was carried by a few other syndicated outlets worldwide) to recoup it's substantial investment. As any future distributor wishing to revive or release the series on DVD, Blu-ray or other platform (streaming, etc.) would first be required to take on then pay off any contractual and other obligations, the show today is in legal limbo, and exists only in homemade VHS copies recorded by fans during the series' initial TV run.


     This is how we've been enjoying THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE for the last near 15 years, although the common sense need for preservation has since lead us to transfer all 22 episodes to DVD-R and digital realms. Others have also done so; and some of those efforts can today be viewed via condensed versions of selected episodes on YouTube, and even via a bootleg European import DVD of the complete First Season, ... although, as with other "independent" DVD releases we've discussed in Vaulted Treasures, we can neither vouch for said discs' quality or ability to play uniformly on all machines.

     Until a magical (or high tech) key unlocks the financial destiny of THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE, the series' promotional byline "Inventing the future; Battling to save it", has in recent years become much more than a cleverly realized tag. It, like the works of Verne himself, has become ... there's that word again, "prophetic".

  
                                                                                                                             CEJ

Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-GullCottageSandlot/129683480458380?ref=hl   

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.