Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dir. by Stuart Walker

The WWI flying ace genre has recently returned to the big screen with Flyboys, a special effects blockbuster that did not bust any blocks. It’s worth dipping into the era of the classics to see what made young men in their flying machines into Hollywood icons.

Exhibit number one is The Eagle and the Hawk. It was directed by Stuart Walker and based on a story by John Monk Saunders, the eminence grise of biplane flicks. Saunders either scripted or wrote stories that were the basis for Wings (the first ever winner of the Oscar for Best Picture), Dawn Patrol, Ace of Aces, and Legion of the Condemned. He was also married to Fay Wray, who with the help of a 40-foot ape named Kong, gave biplane pilots something worth doing on screen.

Eagle and the Hawk is the grimmest of the flying ace films. Wings was about daring Yanks giving the Kaiser a sock on the beezer and Dawn Patrol made jaunty fatalism a badge of honor. Eagle and the Hawk is neither, it shatters the conventions of the genre in just about every way conceivable.

Frederic March plays Jerry Young, a pilot in a two-seater scout. These were not nimble dog-fighters, but slow-and-steady reconnaissance planes used to track enemy movements. But they bristled with guns and could throw sheets of lead. Younghas a problem, he is a talented pilot who blasts any German that crosses his sights, but at a terrible cost. His observers keep getting killed. As Young’s chest fills up with medals, his soul begins to crack under the bloody strain of losing comrades. Finally he gets a new partner, Crocker (Cary Grant), who despises Young for having given a negative report that washed him out of pilot school.

The enemy barely registers, death is mostly from anonymous bombs and bullets. The most harrowing thing is to actually see an enemy in death. In spots The Eagle and the Hawk approaches film noir in its use of symbolism and light to show the deterioration of Young. Not until The Blue Max, would any WWI ace film come close to the darkness of Eagle and the Hawk.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today. The climax is one of Cary Grant’s finest parts in its stark simplicity and wrenching imagery. Modern movie-makers would benefit from the less-is-more lesson of the 1930s.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, October 18, 2007

By C.L. Moore

Northwest Smith is Jirel of Joiry’s outer-space companion. Both were created by C.L. Moore in the ‘30s and made regularly appeared in Weird Tales alongside Conan the Cimmerian, Cthulhu, and many other notable creations of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Moore definitely should be mentioned in that context because here work explores similar ground as the three greats, but with some rather different results.

Northwest Smith is a regulation space-opera hero, a smuggler and outlaw who shuttles from the lawless drylands of Mars to the reeking jungles of Venus. His best friend is Yarol, a handsome and deadly Venusian adventurer. In his spaceman’s leathers and with the fastest ray-gun this side of the asteroid belt, Smith might seem to be a precursor of Han Solo or Mal Reynolds. Smith doesn’t really encounter the same kind of situations they do though. Moore turned the space-opera adventure formula on its head even before it had really begun to harden into cliché.

One can reduce Moore’s formula to a simply equation: an action hero is transplanted into a horror story. That is not to say the stories are simplistic. Moore eschewed the straight-ahead violence and fast paced action of REH or Doc Smith. She gave her hero a hard-edged attitude and a man-of-action simplicity that contrasts with the often passive qualities of horror-story protagonists.

What Smith encounters are dreamworlds of great beauty and even greater terror. In “Shambleau” an act of selflessness on Smith’s part plunges him into a nightmare embrace that threatens to destroy his soul. Vampirism, whether for blood, or the soul, or beauty, or the spirit is a recurring motif in Moore’s stories. Everything that lives does so by taking, irrevocably, from the essence of others. “Shambleau”, “Black Thirst”, “The Tree of Life”, “Scarlet Dream”, and “Julhi”.

Moore’s other great motif is that of gods that have been forgotten or lost. “Dust of Gods” and “The Cold Gray God” both feature deities who have been forgotten by man but may forcefully return to this universe. “Lost Paradise” and “Yvala” put Smith and Yarol into head on confrontation with mythic powers.

While Moore’s plots may be simple, her imagery is vivid and filled with moments of great beauty and a rich language of symbolism that would keep a more psychoanalytically minded critic scribbling for months. Suffice to say that Moore’s unique blend of space-opera and horror will be of interest to fans of both genres.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

By Frank Bonham

This nifty little anthology (edited by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini, who edit anthologies on an industrial scale) brings together some of the best Westerns of Frank Bonham. The stories mostly date to the late ‘40s and appeared in such magazines as Dime Western, Argosy, Blue Book, and Liberty.

All too often the Western suffered from a lack of place and time. That may sound odd, after all don’t we know when Westerns take place and where? They happen in the old days, in the West. I can’t begin to say how many of those stories I’ve read that take place somewhere between the Mississippi and the Pacific and sometime after Colt developed the revolver. Instead of delving into the rich, varied, and lively worlds (emphasis on the plural) that the hugely divergent settlers encountered on the ever-changing American frontier, too many writers served up routine never-never lands stocked with cookie-cutter characters.

Not this collection. While Bonham sometimes shirks his duty on setting a specific place, his characterization is lively. Bonham brings to life some interesting customs and social conflicts that take these stories out of the routine. Some aren’t even exactly Westerns: “River Magic” and “Plague Boat” take place on the Mississippi and involve clashes between the riverboat men and the little-known subculture of the shanty-boat folk (they’re real, I looked ‘em up). “Trouble at Temescal” takes on the clash between Anglo squatters and the wealthy, but beleaguered Californio land-owners in the aftermath of the Mexican War. “Dusty Wheels-Bloody Trail” recounts the tribulations of a wagon train going from El Paso to Mexico City at a time when both the United States and Mexico were torn by civil war. Though burdened by some overly complex plot business, it’s still an effective tale.

There are tales that don’t rely on shooting, “Chivaree” looks at old time customs and how a man was expected to prove himself before he could be fully accepted. “One Ride to Many” is about modern day rodeo competitions and “I’ll Take the High Road” tells of the clash of cultures encountered by a young couple setting up in the dude-ranch business. There’s also a reminiscence by Bonham about his early apprenticeship to a rather shady pulp-fiction mentor.

If you like old-time pulp Westerns, but prefer to read something that’s a bit more than routine horse opera, One Ride too Many is recommended.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, October 04, 2007


The lovely and talented Mrs. Dave has begun a new blog: Joy Girl Commando, a compendium of politics, economics, personal enlightenment, and kultur. It’s the sort of place where Murray Rothbard can hang out with Norman Saunders. The all-TRUE details of hitherto secret libertarian missions behind statist lines will be revealed (Hamsters Ripped My Flesh! Soft Flesh for the DMV’s House of Agony! Pagan Cult Worships my Impounded 1978 El Camino! Sin-Crazed Coeds are Ruining the Adirondacks!).

Feel free to wander on by and drop a comment or two. The boys over at Total Information Awareness want to know how you’re feeling today. They’d love to have you in for a chat, but all the water-boarding stations are booked through next Thursday. Joy Girl Commandos do advocate the use of torture, but only for recreational purposes (the safe word is “Quraysh”, Mr. al-Hajj). Meanwhile peruse the magazines in the lobby (Soldier of Fortune, Woman’s World, Pravda, Highlights), the Joy Girl will be with you shortly.

Vote early and often kiddies!
Dir. by Kaizo Hayashi

The Most Terrible Time in my Life is an offbeat homage to film noir, half send-up, half love letter. The protagonist is Maiku Hama (Masatoshi Nagase), and yup, he’s a PI. He drives a vintage two-tone convertible and has a dreary office with a bottle of whiskey in the desk. Sure the convertible has a bad habit of over-heating and the office is over a movie theater that charges his clients admission before they can see him.

Mike, er Maiku, helps out a Taiwanese waiter in a confrontation with some hoods. The waiter, Yang in turn asks Maiku to find his brother. Despite advice from Lt. Nakayama, his kid sister, and Jo Shishida (A well-known Japanese tough-guy actor from such films as Branded to Kill &c., played by himself in a gloriously over the top performance), Hama forges ahead. Fingers get severed and beezers are slugged, and Hama nearly ends up sleeping with the sushi.

The humorous tone evaporates in the increasingly violent second half of the film, this is not entirely a light-hearted romp. Shot in black and white, Most Terrible Time goes for a look that echoes classic noir. Just as boundaries are increasingly blurred in modern Asia, Hayashi brings a Japanese sensibility to this eccentric and entertaining mix of French noir and American hard-boiled.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dir. by Seijun Suzuki

According to the DVD cover, Seijun Suzuki took a routine yakuza eiga script and made Branded to Kill from it. Nikkatsu studios took one look at the product and fired him. Well, I can see that. But don’t think that means Branded to Kill isn’t good! It’s just… different. And here at Fire & Sword we’re about support and love for those who are different. We’re also about really high body counts!

Branded to Kill follows the fortunes of Hanaba (Joe Shishido), the No. 3 killer in Japan. He is an ice-cold killer and a tactical genius, his one weakness is the smell of steamed rice. He and the missus (Mariko Ogawa) live a life of domestic bliss. He is hired to carry out an assassination, but fails. The price of failure is death. Meanwhile, Hanaba has fallen for Mariko (Annu Mari), a gang-girl with a flat affect and a fetish for dead birds. Then things get really bizarre.

The film borders on the surreal. When not is combat (or sniffing rice) Hanaba is often on the verge of delirium, as if he’d just received all the saps to the head and drugged drinks that afflicted Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer combined. Suzuki doesn’t shy away from the odd bit of visual effects to suggest Hanaba’s trip through nutso-Nippon. Hanaba veers from self-destruction to a ferocious will to conquer with lunatic intensity (reminiscent of Beat Takeshi’s suicidal yakuza in Sonatine)

Suzuki’s vision is stylized beyond all connection to reality. Killers have official rankings (based on numbers or style, one wonders). Messages are delivered via 16mm film reels. Suzuki crafts a stand-off scene that would make John Woo’s head spin. And Hanaba has an awesomely cool broom-handle Mauser with a shoulder stock and automatic fire.

While Branded to Kill is probably too long (a little bit of Suzuki’s madness goes a long way), it is a film of distinctive qualities. Suzuki made forty-two films for Nikkatsu, perhaps it was the sheer volume that drove him to the extravagance of Branded to Kill. It is truly a unique film, funny, deranged, and memorable.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dir. by Akiro Kurasawa

Perhaps more than any other Kurosawa film, it is Rashomon that is considered his masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Yojimbo and Sanjuro, but this is a film even for people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a samurai film.

It’s a beguilingly simple idea (I first saw it on All in the Family), various people tell a story, and each is compared. It begins when a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) finds a dead man near a forest road. The dead man is a samurai (Masahiko Mori), travelling with his wife (Machiko Kyo). The notorious bandit Tajumaru (a very young Toshiro Mifune) had attacked them, raping the woman. He proudly confesses to killing the man. Or did he? Tajumaru proudly tells of how the woman could not resist his virility and brought about a bloody duel between the samurai and the outlaw. But the woman tells a different story, it just isn’t the one you expect. A spirit medium channels the dead husband and he tells yet a third version. Each one blackens someone’s character, while sparing another’s. Which one is true? Is it possible to find truth at all? How do we find redemption is a world of self-serving lies?

Though certainly not a tough-guy action film in the conventional sense (though there is a surprising amount of swordplay), this is a historical drama of top quality. It is also the sort of film that denies us easy answers while establishing the questions we need to ask.

-Dave Hardy