Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.

And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”

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On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.

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The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.

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I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.

However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.

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Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.

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The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.

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Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.

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Figure A: Bette Davis

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With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.

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So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Journey’s End: Remembering Colin Clive on His Birthday

Journey's End“I’m no Clark Gable in the matter of looks; I require a good dramatic play before my fatal charm is discernible.” —Colin Clive

Fatal, indeed.

On this date in 1900, Clive Clive came into the world. In 1937, he died alone and unhappy in an oxygen tent, succumbing to alcohol-exacerbated tuberculosis. He didn’t stay here for long, but in some ways he never left.

He lives in a thousand imitations of his broken-reed voice, in horror movies that he hated making, in the dormant celluloid of films not available for distribution, and in my cinephiliac obsession. He always seemed to be a bundle of nerves—even beyond the diegetic gallery of tightly-wrapped characters he played, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope to the blasphemous Dr. Frankenstein to the traumatized Stephen Orlac.

The twitchy, overblown energy of Clive’s performances, his harnessed panic, makes you somehow more aware of what the film critic Laura Mulvey has called death at 24 frames per second, the poignant passage of time as captured by the camera.

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There are many things that I would like to say to Clive, but someone else pretty much wrote it all down and actually sent it to him when he was still around to read it:

I want to thank you for the little bit of rare beauty you have given me, a real spark of something which does not exist in the world today. I am not speaking of your great acting nor the great part you brought to life so expertly. Others have done great acting before, and there have been many great parts written. I am speaking of something which, probably, was very far from the mind of the author when he wrote Journey’s End, and from your own when you acted it. Perhaps that which I saw in you exists only in my own mind and no one else would see it, or care to see. I am speaking of your achievement in bringing to life a completely heroic human being.”

This is an excerpt from a beautifully written fan letter by no less than Ayn Rand (!) who saw Clive perform in a stage revival of Journey’s End in 1934. She was herself a successful playwright at the time. Clive replied that her praise meant a lot to him. I hope that he internalized some of it. Whatever anyone may think or feel about Ayn Rand, I must admit that she seized on a key aspect of Colin Clive.

Journey's EndIt’s ironic that Rand, who championed iron wills and inner strength, should have so admired a man whose weaknesses and insecurities destroyed him. And yet, Clive was not just a downward spiral, but an aspiration towards something higher.

All of his performances have a grace and beauty to them, as if even the most loathsome characters could have been better people—should have been, but were cut off by some cruel twist of fate.

When Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein delivers his speech about clouds and stars and eternity, he becomes my personal definition of the heroic in mankind. In this case, I know exactly what Rand was on about.

Some actors have fans, and that’s just fine. Colin Clive has a cult. I wonder what he would have thought of us, the endless Googlers of his image, holding vigil over his memory. I’m not entirely sure that he would have been pleased. He may well have been a trifle freaked out.

But I would like to remember him on his 113th birthday with a few words about his first film, in which he recreated his signature stage role: Captain Stanhope, a part he seemed born to play.

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The cast of Journey’s End and James Whale listen to the radio on the set.

Directed by James Whale, Journey’s End reminds me a lot of Das Boot: quite long, claustrophobic, and character-driven. After two hours, confined almost entirely to the trench set, we feel as though we’re really in there with these damned, laughing fellows. We come recognize and cherish their foibles and mannerisms through the intimacy of the camera.

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I must confess, though, the first time I saw this, I found myself disappointed by how terribly uncinematic it seems. Then again, overwhelmingly stationary shots are par for the course in an early talkie.

Whale matter-of-factly plunks us down in the trench and lets most of the action unfold in medium long shots, with the occasional significant close-up—a yucky blancmange, a box of candles, hands opening a letter. Apart from the striking chiaroscuros of a few bombardment scenes and some muddy tracking shots, we get little sense of the innovating flair James Whale clearly had for making horror jump off the screen.

However, trench warfare isn’t cinematic, is it? It’s not a sweeping crane shot. It’s not lyrical in the least. It’s creaky, stale, and soggy. Journey’s End manages to convey these qualities aptly, while still mobilizing the force of our bond with the characters to hold our attention. By about ten minutes in, we like these unfortunate chaps. We wonder which ones of them are going to die. We hope that the causalities will be minimal.

The cast works remarkably well together. David Manners, in particular, will surprise you if you’ve only seen him play juvenile romantic leads. As Raleigh, he transforms from the fresh-cheeked schoolboy soldier into a mortified, disillusioned young man. Returning from a raid in which most of the men died, Raleigh collapses onto a bed; Whale gives us a close-up of Manners who really did pull out all the stops. He looks shattered, hollow-eyed, sweaty, and broken—a far cry from his wooden pretty boy reputation.

Journey's EndWhale does occasionally oblige us with moments of conspicuous filmic brilliance. For instance, at the very end, when the cowardly Hibbert hesitates to join the front line, we get a shot of the doorway to the top of the trench, where a body is being carried past on a stretcher in silhouette. It borders on allegory: the doorway to death. The image shifts towards abstraction, like the famous reaper shots in Dreyer’s Vampyr. A WWI veteran himself, Whale knew how to reduce trench warfare to a bare, razor-sharp grisaille. This touch foreshadows the morbid, metaphysical resonance of Frankenstein.

Just as Frankenstein begins before it starts with the sounds of weeping that precede the opening images of the funeral, the deep, booming bass of exploding shells begins over the credits of Journey’s End—and keeps banging away through the film until the audience’s nerves have gone to pieces, too. Pretty astute use of sound for 1930.

Journey's EndReturning to our leading man, Clive became Stanhope. Or perhaps Stanhope became Clive. One can understand why Whale insisted that Clive be imported from England immediately, as no other actor would do.

This was rather unusual, that a stage actor unseasoned by cinema experience be brought thousands of miles for a single part only. Well, from the moment Clive enters the dugout set—his face half-hidden from the camera by his metal helmet, brushing briskly by, trying to drop his knapsack on his bunk, then pulling the strap off where he caught it on his shoulder with a weary tug—his every movement rings utterly true. We never feel that he’s playing for the camera, which I consider a small miracle, since he had never acted for one before.

Drunk parts are notoriously hard and perhaps Clive wasn’t faking drunk. Whatever Clive’s consumption of whisky was during production, though, Stanhope’s state of inebriation varies through so many shadings of prickly, dreamy, and cheerily garrulous that we’re watching a person shot through a prism—all the emotions that usually coexist in diluted form come through in vivid contrast. He portrays a man fractured and fragmented into pieces, pieces that some central, guiding insight is trying like mad to hold together.

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The thing that nurtures Stanhope, his perspicacity, his ability to understand the point of staying strong in the midst of pointlessness, is also the thing that makes him need to numb himself out with alcohol. Like a plant which, when its growth upwards is blocked off, twists around but keeps on growing, Stanhope’s passion for life has been stunted by war into the desire to die like a man—the only option left. Part child and part old soul, Clive’s Stanhope shines with the feverish glow of the actor’s own incandescent torment.

I consider Stanhope the flip side of Clive’s Frankenstein. Both are individuals attuned to some higher significance. Stanhope delivers a marvelous speech about giddy stars and mortality that almost certainly inspired the famous monologue from Frankenstein (which was not in the shooting script, incidentally). We recognize in Stanhope, as in Frankenstein, a brutal hubris that holds everyone to a high standard—but himself to an almost impossible standard.

Journey's EndPerhaps most importantly, Whale shows both men (Stanhope and Frankenstein) to be rather childlike. Remember how Frankenstein, seeing Elizabeth, takes a few steps and collapses in his laboratory when his father comes for him? That moment echoes a scene in Journey’s End when, consumed by worries and heavily inebriated, Stanhope falls into his bunk and partially out of frame. His head and shoulders are off-screen as the fatherly Sergeant Osborne puts a blanket on him. It’s as if he disappeared for a moment, regressed into a place where he’s no longer trapped in the trenches, but he then calls pathetically, “Tuck me up!” In both films, Whale and Clive deliver moving depictions of men returning to helpless boyhood on the brink of exhaustion.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Osborne reads a letter from Raleigh, who happens to be the brother of Stanhope’s fiancée. Stanhope fears that Raleigh will unmask him as a drunkard and ruin his reputation with the girl he loves, but instead, as Osborne reads the letter, Stanhope hears nothing but kind words for his spirit and leadership. The play of emotions on Clive’s face is, as usual, extraordinary. We spot relief, yes, but also anguish, sadness, an attempt to gather his courage, as though he were facing down German machine guns. I have to commend Clive on this unique interpretation, but a very genuine one, as I believe that praise is the most humbling thing in this world. Praise frightens Stanhope more than criticism, because being a fine fellow is an ideal he has to live up to. Heroism is his curse.

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Clive exuded a borderline ludicrous modesty in his interviews, claiming that anyone could have done his parts well, that it was the writing or the directing that did most of the work. This quote, from a 1932 issue of Picture Show magazine, characterizes his attitude towards fame and his obvious talent:

“It took me ten years to learn my job on the provincial stage—of course, I’m still learning now; but I’m afraid it will take me a lot longer to learn anything really worthwhile about films. The technical side is so interesting, and if ever I do master this part of making pictures I would like to produce pictures and give up acting altogether. 

“You see, I’m little more than a puppet really as far as film work is concerned. The director does all the brain work. He is the man who makes the picture.”  

I think that praise frightened this self-deprecating man as much as it scared Stanhope. Well, that’s too bad. I want to praise how he ruffles a dying friend’s hair, while looking away from the body in horror. I want to praise how disobligingly nasty and snappish he acts at times in the film, yet still makes us care for him. I want to praise him for “the little bit of beauty” he bequeathed to us with his performance.

Watch Journey’s End and I think you will too.

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(Note: I refuse to post screenshots of this film because the print on YouTube, as well as the one on my DVD, look like they’ve been dropped in the mud at the Battle of Ypres. You can watch the full movie by clicking here, although it’s a crime against humanity that someone has not restored this magnificent film about the tragedy of war. Since no one has, I’ve decided to include a lot of publicity stills and materials in this post which I gleaned from the fantastic Tumblrs of missanthropicprinciple, sullivanstrvls, and, of course, colincliveforever. Do give them a look. They post terrific movie-related images and reflections and they have my gratitude.)