History For Rent

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About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column lamenting the very small number of video cassettes available to those of us who like historical documentaries. That situation hasn’t improved much since, but 1 have found some consolation in the fact that video stores do carry a good many fiction films with historical settings, many of which never got the theatrical attention they deserved. Here are several rentable, small-scale films you may have missed and which especially interested me because of the way they portrayed the past:

Dreamchild (1985)

This lovely, little-noted British film manages to evoke equally convincingly not one but two historical periods. It concerns an eighty-year-old Englishwoman of considerable hauteur, Mrs. Alice Hargreaves, who is the little Alice all grown up to whom Lewis Carroll told his stories. In 1932 she comes to America for the first time to accept an honorary degree from Columbia University on the occasion of Carroll’s centenary. The scene shifts effortlessly back and forth between her pretty, pastoral Victorian childhood and the gritty bustle of Depression-era New York, and in and out as well of Mrs. Hargreaves’s troubled dreams. She has never fully understood the nature of her long-ago relationship with Carroll—a.k.a. the Reverend Charles Dodgson, played here with eerie power by the veteran character actor Ian Holm—and has done her best to shut it from her mind, believing, because her mother had burned all her letters from Dodgson, that there must somehow have been something furtive and wicked in it. Events conspire to make her finally see what happened whole, and to make her peace with the past. Potentially distasteful subjects are dealt with here in perfect taste—the heedless cruelty of children, the lonely, stuttering clergyman’s own misunderstood feelings toward his young charges—and, as Mrs. Hargreaves, the Australian actress Coral Browne is brilliant. In this beautifully wrought film even a cast of immense and singularly disturbing puppets that portray characters from the Alice books as they might appear in your worst nightmare—built by Jim Henson, the Muppet man—somehow seem to fit right in.

 

Quest for Fire (1981)

For obvious reasons Hollywood has always liked movies about cavemen: nobody wears many clothes, thus permitting reasonably full display of stars as various as Darryl Hannah and Victor Mature, and nobody has to worry much about dialogue. Like the future worlds conjured up by the makers of science fiction films, the look and feel of the prehistoric past is pretty much anybody’s guess, and this French-Canadian production, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, seemed to me to go astray now and again—a pair of very patient lions with spray-painted stripes and glued-in fangs make unpersuasive saber-toothed tigers, and elephants in woolly suits do not a herd of mammoths make. But its portrayal of our bug-eating, bone-sucking ancestors seemed plausible enough. Desmond Morris coached the actors on how to caper like the Neanderthal’s close relatives, the great apes; Anthony Burgess provided them with the rudiments of language; and the sight of their lonely little band wandering across the empty Kenyan vastness in search of a fire with which to keep their clan alive during the coming winter is genuinely moving. Most memorable, though, is Rae Dawn Chong as the lithe, progressive Cro-Magnon who brings to the slow but grateful Neanderthal the twin blessings of laughter and the missionary position.

Harry Tracy, Desperado (1982)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spawned a good many films about the decline and fall of Western outlaws, most of them second-rate. This one is better than most, thanks largely to a shrewd performance by Bruce Dern, whose aging bandit—the last survivor of Cassidy’s Wild Bunch—finds the prospect of a future without bank jobs and train holdups downright un-American. Despite a stunningly inane title song, written and sung by Gordon Lightfoot, I felt genuine regret when the old outlaw met his defiant, inevitable end.

The Grey Fox (1983)

Built around the same theme, but a good deal more grown-up, is this gentle, underplayed portrait of Bill Miner, a courtly stagecoach robber—known as the Gentleman Bandit in his brief heyday —released in 1901 after thirty-three years in San Quentin. He makes a game try at civilian life but finds oyster digging and working in a sawmill intolerable and finally turns to robbing trains along what is left of the frontier in British Columbia, with distinctly mixed results. Directed by Phillip Borsos, this film seemed pretty nearly flawless to me. The performers are superb: Miner is played by Richard Farnsworth, a veteran stunt man who became a bankable star with this single, graceful performance; his redhaired fiancée, a strong-minded photographer named Kate Flynn, is played by Jackie Burroughs, and she is just as good. So are the images: the boyish excitement on the old man’s face as he watches his first movie— The Great Train Robbery —in a nickelodeon; steam trains slamming through the Canadian Rockies beneath endless pennants of smoke; the sad discovery of the frozen body of a Chinese settler driven to despair and rage by the cold and loneliness of the Canadian winter, who has killed himself after murdering his family.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982)

On June 12, 1901, a Mexican farmer named Gregorio Cortez shot and killed the sheriff of Karnes County, Texas, who was trying to arrest his brother for stealing a horse. Cortez then managed in just ten days to make it across some 520 miles of arid country before the Texas Rangers ran him to ground and he was brought to trial. His defiance of the Anglos made him a mythical hero to Mexican-Americans and the subject of a ballad still sung along the border. This excellent film by Robert M. Young, based on the book With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero , by Americo Paredes, sorts through the myth and tells both what really happened and why. The cause of the initial tragedy—and by implication a good deal of what has happened in the Southwest since—was the inability of one Texan culture to understand the language of the other. It is a sad tale—virtue does not triumph—and the chase itself goes on at least ten minutes too long, but in the convincing, clumsy speech of its characters, its bumbling lawmen and relentlessly grubby settings, its noisy, inconclusive gun battles, and its refusal either to sanctify the pursued or to caricature his pursuers, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez creates a remarkably believable Old West whose troubled inhabitants turn out to have been neither more nor less wise or humane or farsighted than are we.

1918 (1985)

The movies of Horton Foote are deservedly successful these days. Tender Mercies and the extraordinary The Trip to Bountiful are not, strictly speaking, historical films, though each draws much of its strength from Foote’s intimate knowledge of the American landscape and our own ineradicable fascination with it. But this lesser-known film, clearly made on a shoestring, and with a cast of precisely thirty-six—extras and passersby included—manages wonderfully to evoke middle-class life in a small eastTexas town in the final weeks of World War I. The subject of the film is timeless —the strains placed upon a small family by tragedies, close-in, faraway, and in the distant past—but the historical backdrop against which the drama is played out is flawlessly rendered: the sweet formality of Southern speech; the especially indignant patriotism of men, young and old, who haven’t quite managed to sign up themselves; the palpable terror spread by the influenza epidemic that tears capriciously through the townspeople (and which killed twentyone thousand Americans of every age during a single week that fall); glimpses of a young mother mourning her dead baby in the tattered town cemetery and of a squad of seven new recruits, bayonets at the ready, panting their way round and round the big pink-and-gray county courthouse in preparation for the German invasion that never came.

Video stores carry a good many films with historical settings, which never got the attention they deserved.

Secret Honor (1984)

It’s hard to know what to say about this very strange film, directed by Robert Altman and billed as a “fictional mediation concerning the character and events in the history of Richard M. Nixon.” Hal Holbrook’s loving portrait of Mark Twain set the normally genial tone for most one-man shows; those performers who have followed Holbrook’s lead, impersonating onstage everyone from Albert Einstein to Theodore Roosevelt, have usually been careful to accentuate the positive in order to keep the audience on their hero’s side throughout what might otherwise be a very long evening. There is precious little that is genial or positive in this portrayal of the troubled ex-President, alone at night in a paneled office filled with mementos of his White House years, shouting into a tape recorder his version of the events that drove him from office. This Nixon is clearly mad—brandishing a pistol, gulping brandy, reenacting scenes from his arid boyhood, talking to the ghost of his mother and to the portraits of other Presidents that hang on his walls. But I kept watching, fascinated, as hints of shadowy plots within plots emerged slowly from his long, agitated monologue. This is not the real Richard Nixon; nor is its weird conclusion remotely persuasive—that Nixon was himself a victim, the creature of a mysterious “Committee of One Hundred” who met in California’s Bohemian Grove to map American foreign policy and whose decrees he finally could no longer bring himself to obey and so engineered his own exit from the Presidency. (It may not even be meant to persuade, of course; Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, the authors of the play of which this is the filmed version, may have intended for it to be merely the most inflated product of the paranoia that clearly grips their character’s mind. It’s hard to tell.) But the performance of the actor Philip Baker Hall, who has to carry the entire film, is astonishing: in his turbulent company I was, by turns, appalled and admiring, sympathetic and repelled, and never for a moment bored.