Sometimes I am asked to recommend films suitable for the whole family. Four of my favorites, each guaranteed to brighten the holiday, are "Scaramouche" (1952), "The Yearling" (1946), "El Cid" (1961) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). Each is in gorgeous Technicolor and should be available in a good video store. Every one of them, in their ordered exposition, sophisticated visual design, high professionalism of execution, and wholesome, moral themes, represents a cultural age that was a much better time for children than today.
When the great swashbucklers are discussed, this one is not often included, but it should be. The film is based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, both also turned into great movies). Its picaresque hero is a lusty comedia del'arte actor in pre-Revolution France, Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger), who determines to avenge the death of his friend Philippe at the hands of the wicked Marquis de Mayne (Mel Ferrer).
In its deftly balanced blend of light-hearted adventure, romance and humor, this film has real style and brio--from the opening title, which tells us our hero "was born with a sense of humor and a belief the world was mad," to the beginning chase of galloping horses, and not least in the witty romantic repartee of Andre with his on-again, off-again lover in the acting troupe, the beautiful, voluptuous Lenore (Eleanor Parker).
Alas for Lenore, Andre falls in love with the Marquis's ward, Aline de Gavrillac (the recently departed Janet Leigh). This creates obvious complications, as the handsome, elegant villain has his own plans for the fair maiden. He also has other plans for Andre, against whom his hussars are in hot pursuit. Andre must give up his pleasures and devote all his energies to becoming an accomplished fencer, as the Marquis he is bent on killing is the most skilled swordsman in France. Andre also finds himself, against his wishes, gaining the attention of the underground anti-monarchical forces, who see in Andre their future champion.
"Scaramouche's" climactic duel over the seats and across the boxes of the grand opera house is the most spectacular fencing sequence ever put on screen. The entire film's dramatic use of rich color reaches its glittering peak in this sequence. Films today just don't offer such an eyeful to the viewer. Nor do they offer deeply affecting romantic melodies like the two composed here by Victor Young--one, for Lenore, sultry and as if spiced with brandy; the other, for Aline, pure and lofty, as if flavored with fine wine. And, at the end--reflecting dramatic practices that would have been recognized by Aristotle--the hero comes to the recognition that the deed he has been striving for is not worth the doing. He has instead achieved greater moral understanding. Incidentally, in the final scene, Lenore walks off arm-in-arm with her latest suitor, a certain rather short, stocky but powerful-looking soldier who is soon to make a name for himself. In 1952, it was assumed the audience would know who this fellow was. Would the audience of today?
"The Yearling" (1946)
This beloved film is a memorable story about childhood. The protagonist is Jody, a poor Florida boy in the 1870's, living with his father and mother on their homestead. His Pa, Penny Baxter (Gregory Peck), encourages the boy (Claude Jarman, Jr.) to dream and take wonder in nature. But his Ma (Jane Wyman, at the time a.k.a Mrs. Ronald Reagan) is a naysayer. Having lost all her other children at birth, she is hard-bitten, unable to rise beyond the grim reality of their daily life in the wilderness.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, "The Yearling" is dedicated to the pioneers whose hard lives taming the wilderness built the foundation for our modern comforts. This of course is contrary to some of the contemporary teaching children are given, which treats our forebears as plunderers and killers. It helps for children to see the hardships that most rural Americans once endured.
But Jody grows up with fond memories; for example, he accompanies his Pa on their hunt for the marauding bear, old Slewfoot. And he is allowed, against the protests of Ma, to adopt a fawn, whom he names Flag. Flag's mother had had to be shot so the blood from her heart could help save Pa when he was bitten by a rattlesnake.
Growing fawns, however, create quite a problem on a farm; Jody has to work very hard building a high fence around the crop, but eventually a crisis ensues. The film climaxes with a violent, heartbreaking scene, which director Clarence Brown treats with masterly indirection. Jody has been forced to learn a hard truth about life and Pa proudly says to Ma, "He's taken to punishment. He ain't a yearlin' no more."
Like many good films of its time, "The Yearling" draws the viewer into its world, rather than beating him over the head. And Brown, one of the top directors of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, brings to the film his customary understated visual eloquence. and a refinement and delicacy of feeling that is most effective in a story about childhood. Although he was a major star director, his best films are his more modest ones about rural or small town life, and about children.
"El Cid" (1961)
I hesitate to include this film because its visual magnificence demands a big screen in a big theater (i.e. not the standard multiplex). I consider this Charlton Heston's best performance and, along with "The Ten Commandments" (1956), his greatest film.
"El Cid" is one of the leading historical spectaculars produced in the later 1950's and early 1960's. Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, "El Cid" (The Man) is as noble and selfless a hero as has ever graced a movie. At every turn he places his immense courage and prowess in battle at the service of his God, his people, his King (even when treated unjustly), his family, and everyone he encounters. His chivalry rests on his humility.
Thus, we are introduced to Rodrigo (Heston) defending the Cross against a band of Moors in eleventh century Spain. He then spares their lives upon their pledge never again to attack, for which he earns their admiration and respect--as well as the enmity of his King's court, for he has violated the royal command that such Moorish prisoners be hanged. But such are his gifts in battle and his inspirational leadership that the King must acquiesce in his role as defender of Spain against the Moorish invaders from North Africa.
This tale of a warrior who is gentle and forgiving to all around him, who loves and is loved by all, and who ultimately sacrifices everything he has for them, is told on a massive canvas of spectacle by director Anthony Mann. Best known for many of the best Westerns of the 1950's, Mann was one manly, muscular director. Seeing his typically stunning, taut compositions, his always spectacular use of landscape, and his rugged but subtle handling of violence applied to this epic subject on a huge screen, I now consider Mann not just a very good, but a great director.
Mann brings a true magnificence to this film from the first scene: the "bin Laden" character, Ben Yussuff (Herbert Lom), blood virtually filling his eyes, standing against a hellish black sunset vowing holy war against the infidel Spanish Christians. Mann's outstanding, subtle treatment of violence is demonstrated in the jousting scene, when El Cid has to fight to the death against the most accomplished jouster in the land in order to restore his standing in court and win the city of Calahorra for his sovereign. This scene of two men in combat rivals the famous chariot race in "Ben-Hur" (1959)--both were supervised by the great action specialist and stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Mann's touch is evident in the use of sound (the clash of armor and swords, the thunder of the horses's hooves) and in the climax of the sequence: El Cid plunges his sword into the defeated opponent (with the camera on El Cid only), then raises it in triumph before his King (close-up of the blood on the sword), to the cheers of the throng. In all the superbly staged mayhem of his earlier films, as here, Mann creates grim, but still suggestive, images of bloodshed--only in pursuit of a higher dramatic purpose.
The two most spectacular shots in this epic frame the climactic siege of Valencia. First, the long line of Ben Yussuff's horde galloping along the beach toward the fortress, their torches aflame against the black night. And second, the end of the critically wounded El Cid, tied to his white steed so that he can inspire his forces to victory, then cantering along the beach into legend. And the King, who once had selfishly banished him, lying on his knees in humble repentance and thanks. Alas, this kind of grand filmmaking is no more.
The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)
This is a truly perfect movie, one of the greatest, in my opinion. Its bravura direction, by the great Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca"), its heroic romanticism, its stunning visual beauty in gorgeous early Technicolor, and the rich musical tapestry furnished by the operatic musical score of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, embody the spirit and faith of Golden Age movies at their best.
We first encounter our hero's Robin (the great Errol Flynn, born for this role) galloping his horse across a meadow and jumping over a log into Sherwood Forest, whereupon the camera cuts to a dramatic close-up of his confident, smiling face. This Sherwood is idyllic, its verdant greens and shimmering light evoking Arcadia. Among the many, many wonderful scenes:
• Robin's band descends upon Sir Guy of Gisborne's (Basil Rathbone) detachment accompanying Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) through Sherwood; they drop upon the astonished villains from the trees like a swarming horde of bees, to the swinging rhythm of Korngold's score.
• The archery tournament, staged as a ruse by Prince John (Claude Rains) to lure Robin into the open, featuring some of the most stirring, powerful music ever heard in any film.
• The dramatic return in secret of King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) from the Crusade. Standing in disguise before Robin's men, from whom he learns the truth about the villainy of his brother Prince John, he throws off his abbott's cloak and--his feet spread wide, hands resting proudly on hips--his gleaming crimson suit proclaims his royal person. His subjects bow reverently ("Sire") and Korngold sings out with a regal theme. (Could such a scene be done "straight" nowadays?)
• And the finale: the thrilling duel between Robin and Sir Guy, part of it shot in silhouette off monumental castle walls. Finally run through, Sir Guy's body plunges down below, as Robin leaps down a stairway to the dungeon, into the loving arms of the imprisoned Maid Marian. The film then cuts to a close-up of the shields and swords of the defeated now piling up as the Normans surrender, and Korngold's triumphant fanfares declare victory. This is as close as a movie will ever get to opera.
The contrast of this film with 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is most revealing. The 1991 film, starring Kevin Costner, is self-consciously grim, visually ugly, and harshly realistic (and, typically, is marred by gratuitous, gross vulgarity, both sexual and violent). It clearly is embarrassed by the heroism and beauty that gives such inspiration to its predecessor, which, let us remember, was made during the grimmest period of the twentieth century. It is a film by and for people who have no faith, and was made by people with little talent. It embodies the nihilism that is such a conspicuous feature of much of contemporary American culture.
Spencer Warren is a film critic in Washington D.C. He selected and co-hosted a month-long series of conservative movies on Turner Classic Movies in October 2000. He is writing a book on movies and culture. Readers might also appreciate his article, "Good Westerns and Where to Find Them" posted on the Claremont.org Website at http://www.claremont.org/writings/warren030822.html.