In chronological order of when they were released.
The Scarlet Empress
Josef von Sternberg directs Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, and yet none of that is the thing you’ll remember about this movie! Dietrich spends most of the film as a cartoonishly wide-eyed ingenue trapped in a castle with stunning, ridiculous, purgatorial production design. Doors so big it takes an army of court ladies to open them! Candelabra in the shape of full-sized tortured human figures! The banisters are held up by monstrous people, the chair backs are monstrous people, the throne is a double-headed eagle with both necks twisting and predatory… it looks amazing, it is probably blasphemous, it’s in keeping with the movie’s overall fantasy of Savage Russia. Alice in Wondergrad, where every grandfather clock is a gory St. Sebastian.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV
Roberto Rossellini in what struck me, a blunt instrument, as an unnecessarily restrained mood. The short lil king creates a hyper-luxurious court at Versailles, as a strategy to force the nobles to spend all their time with him, spending all their tax money on like neckerchiefs instead of rival armies and whatnot. No idea if that’s historically accurate; it’s funny in a low-key way, and the scene with all the nobles watching the king eat or reject foods is memorable, but in the end I don’t know that I needed to see this.
Assault on Precinct 13
John Carpenter (this post seems very auteur theory… why start each time with the director’s name? anyway this totally is a John Carpenter film though) turns what sounds like an ultra-1970s story into something much gentler than the times demanded. A multiracial gang (lol) plan a revenge raid on what they don’t realize is a shuttered, barely-staffed police station, but their plans are disrupted when a prison bus has to make an emergency stop so one of its transportees can get medical care. The action is fine–Carpenter’s good at this, it’s all brisk, just enough characterization to make these feel like people who cast real shadows but no more than that. Carpenter did the music as well, and it’s fantastic. 1970s films of this kind always hate people in general and criminals in particular, and Precinct 13 could have easily gone in this Dirty Harry direction. Instead, Carpenter heads full-throttle for vigilante mercy.
1987 time-warping biopic of William Walker, the American soldier of fortune who briefly took over Nicaragua. Made by Alex Cox to protest US backing of the Contras, this film is a mixed bag but enough of it is terrific that I’d definitely recommend it. Ed Harris as William Walker is an absolute blond death principle, strolling through slaughter with his blue eyes blazing, like Lawrence of Arabia but butch and evil. Early scenes with his doomed, deaf fiancee Ellen (Marlee Matlin) hint at Walker’s depths–he’s the kind of man who chooses an outspoken woman–and foreshadow his ultimate indifference to democracy.
The film has a punk energy of collage and mismatch, angry and enjoying its anger: Walker on the cover of Newsweek, Scottish pirates (?), music by Joe Strummer of the Clash. Of course the speech about how America will never abandon Nicaragua to its own devices hits hard.
My main criticism is that the film doesn’t quite decide what’s going on inside Walker. He starts off in full nation-building mode, we will force you to be free, democracy flows from the barrel of a gun. And he seems like a true believer–he seems, in fact, like a true-believer type, the exact scary type of guy who will hold a gun to your head and tell you he’s from the United States and he’s here to help. His ideology gets stripped away, and what’s underneath is somewhere between the violence of disappointed idealism (the hell with them if they don’t even know what’s good for them) and pure libido dominandi, desire for personal power. I guess I felt like those were two fairly different things. Is he trying to dissolve the people and elect a new one? Is he just trying to be king? Does he feel that he’s failed on some level, so he’s blaming the Nicaraguans for his failure, or did he never much care how he ended up in the presidential mansion? This seems like an important question because Walker is a synecdoche for American imperialism more generally. You can say, But imperialism always has both kinds of impulse driving it! Or you could say, although I think this is less true, that nobody’s really a true believer, every American abroad is prepared in advance to flip into cynical fury as soon as the locals go off-script. Or you can also just say that everybody’s idealism gets used by United Fruit, the Dutch East India Company etc etc; Walker explicitly raises this possibility by bringing in Cornelius Vanderbilt and his quest for overland shipping between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but Walker emerges as more of an obstacle or antagonist to Vanderbilt than his catspaw. So I think the movie doesn’t quite know what it wants to say about the idealism driving American military action. Unsurprisingly, it also has absolutely nothing to say about internal Nicaraguan politics, whether in Walker’s day or Reagan’s; the Nicaraguans exist solely as a stage for the display of American pathologies. I make this point partly for the obnoxious irony of it and partly because it’s a pattern.
The Royal Crown of the Kingdom of Italy photographed by Metterns, via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.