February 6, 2012

Son of the Red Corsair (1959 film)

Directed by Primo Zeglio. Written by Fede Arnaud, Alberto Liberati, and Primo Zeglio. Based on the novel by Emilio Salgari

Related reviews:
Here I was all set to open this review by talking about how great of a lead Lex Barker is. As Count Enrico di Ventimiglia, son of the long dead Red Pirate, he cuts a tall, dashing figure with a sharp gaze and a charming grin. Famous for playing Tarzan, he has a solid physicality that drives the action forward when he's flashing a blade or swinging on a rope, but he also has a touch of class that wears the frills and buckles of 17th century aristocracy quite well. This is a man of lineage, but who devotes himself to going to sea with the men under his rule and fighting alongside them. When he needs to be prim and proper, he is, and when he needs to get down and dirty, watch out. Barker is a great adventure leading man, a chiseled charmer who gets the girl, foils his foes, and wins vengeance for his betrayed father. I'd recommend the film for his performance alone... but now I read this was shortly after he allegedly spent three years raping the young daughter of his then wife, Lana Turner. It doesn't undo the great work he does on screen, but it sure dampens my enjoyment of the sight of him quite a bit.

So why don't we instead talk about the leading lady, Sylvia Lopez as Carmen di Montelimar. The sister-in-law of the local Marquis (Fanfulla), she finds herself in the midst of not one, but two family dramas. First, there's the mysterious man, Count Ventimiglia, who showed her and her shipmates kindness and respect after sacking her vessel to catch a single traitorous man. He's intriguing, he charms her time and again, yet realistic doubts arise as evidence is planted that makes him seem to be the culprit behind crimes committed against her. To her credit, she doesn't give into her passions and trust him with a swoon - she stands up to him and even turns on him at a major point, following the evidence until its validity can be disproved. Secondly, she's dealing with her brother, Miguel (Luciano Marin), a captain of the guard whose smitten with and wants to marry her handmaiden, Neala (Vira Silenti), who is then kidnapped by the Marquis who wants to marry the girl himself because she's secretly the heir to the throne and treasures of one of the native kingdoms. Oh, and she's the long-lost half-sister of Count Ventimiglia, which brings all the pieces together. There a lot of plot here, but Carmen takes it all in a firm stride, trusting her own intelligence and instinct, and never giving in to the cheap plotting of easy emotions. She meets the love of her life, but heaven help him when he looks guilty of kidnapping her friend. She's captured and tortured by the Marquis, but she never gives into his flogging and fights back until the very end. Sylvia Lopez is wonderful, and even if Rex Smith makes your stomach turn, it's worth watching for the charm of her... oh, Sylvia Lopez had leukemia at the time this was shot and died less than half a year later? Geez, this film can't catch a break. You know what, though? It's still worth it as a legacy role for Lopez as she really does do a fine job. Even though I now wish she'd bit Lex Barker's tongue off every time he slipped it in her mouth.

So. We've got two leads who anchor a wonderful film, but each brings with them the baggage of hindsight: one for what he did leading up to this, the other for her fate soon after. How does the rest of the film hold up? Surprisingly well. To start with the weaknesses, this film is very blandly and cheaply shot. The costumes and sets are nice and lush - likely stock pieces already lying around the Cinecitta lot from more elaborate productions - but no matter now lovely the scenery on display, it's shot at very stiff, basic angles that flatten it out and fail to capture much of the energy we're getting from the script, the actors, the music... pretty much every other aspect of the film. Especially the music. Oh, the music. Rollicking and exciting and melodic. Great adventure stuff. But I digress. One of the problems with evaluating the cinematography is it was shot in 2.35, but the only copy available - a very basic and grainy DV-R from Something Weird * - is a 4:3 pan & scan transfer, with several shots where a visible scan shows the original full width of the frame. That said, I stand by my criticism that it feels very cheap, with each of the main sword fights being little more than a single shot with maybe a few feet of tracking, which takes all the half decent choreography and doesn't do anything to accentuate it. And in the opening pirate ship battle, all we see are the decks of the two ships, never at the same time (likely the same set dressed twice) and a mere two brief stock shots of boats on the water to try to give us scale. It doesn't work. It's not cinematic, instead feeling little more than a televised stage play. There's a couple moments where we're out on real mountain roads with galloping horses or a nice moment where we push into a ballroom filled with puffy gowns and powdered wigs, and it must be pointed out that all of the scenes are very well staged, but the way things are filmed is painfully basic and mediocre.

[* This isn't a knock against Something Weird as it's likely the best version that's available out there for them to use, and their print-on-demand release is fitting, appreciated, and recommended.]

The other major problem is that this is a really damn convoluted story. Ventimiglia needs to find the Marquis' henchman so he can find the Marquis so he can find his sister. The sister is in love with her mistress' brother, but is kidnapped by her mistress' brother-in-law, who killed the hero's father and who's sister-in-law - we're back to the mistress - is now the love interest of Ventimiglia. There's so many twists and turns and false identities and manipulations and betrayals and bonds and rescues and kidnappings... oh, and there's that looming group of native delegates who want to make the sister their queen even though she doesn't know her mother was herself a queen, who married a pirate, who was killed by the mistress' brother-in-law.

See what I mean?

And then we get to the supporting roles. In my review of the book, you'll see I mentioned that most of the story was stolen by Count Ventimiglia's right-hand-man Mendoza and a castle guard named Don Barrejo who later joins their ranks. The third member of their bunch, Don Hercules, has been dropped from this adaptation, but Mendoza and Barrejo are present and accounted for, and Saro Urzi and Roberto Paoletti do equally admirable jobs bringing their roles to life. This Mendoza is a little too plump to convince in the middle of a sword fight, but he's got a strong pair of hitting hands, a dependable gleam in his eyes, and a great delivery that always sells his one-liners. There's even a fantastic scene where he and the Count corner an evil aristocrat and, while the Count goes into interrogation mode, Mendoza knocks off the man's wig, then pulls out a knife, casually cutting off one lock of the man's real hair after another, until he finally grabs the man's ear and readies it for the next slice. Paoletti's Barrejo, as in the book, is an unassuming walk-on role at first, but then we see his boisterous energy and skill with a blade, best demonstrated when he charms his dance hall lover while cleaning her establishment of drunken snobs, one blade whack or comical spill at a time. The chemistry between these two is wonderful, and while I'm a little bummed their screen time is limited, I'm not complaining because they're now servicing the plot of Ventimiglia instead of shoving it in the shadows while they steal the spotlight for a routine.

Comparing the film even more to the book, it's quite fascinating how faithful of an adaptation this is at times, how loose at others. The climax is mostly original, with other parts from the book picked out and rearranged to the point where the centerpiece of the novel is now the film's opening and the novel's opening is now the film's centerpiece. As convoluted as I mentioned the plot to be, it's actually far more involving than the book, keeping the focus on the Count instead of his men, and while the book was plotted with broad incidental strokes, this is more of an intricate web. Things feel far richer in this take, far more captivating and interesting. There's deeper connections to these people which give their choices and the consequences far more weight than the fun but ultimately light swashbuckling of the novel. Also, much of the book's troubling ethical grey zone is no longer present. The people the Count is fighting against truly are despicable, traitorous foes who betrayed his father instead of merely condemning him for legitimate crimes. The reality of piracy is shown as mercenaries the Count is forced to hire attempt to rape and pillage against his orders, with the Count holding himself and his crew to a higher, more noble standard, and stepping between the traditional pirates and their would be victims. This is a man who isn't wicked or destructive. He's taking risks and breaking the law, but never to a point of going against his conscience. And other than the assault on the ship in the opening, he doesn't sack entire populations to get his way. His gang is much smaller than in the book, operating more through tricks, stealth, and assumed identities than sheer overwhelming force. The only other place they attack as a group is the Marquis' evil fortress of insidious doom and torture implements for the big finale, and it's hard to feel bad about any losses that came as a result there.

I went into this film not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a lost classic, but it is a clever, intelligent, exciting film that, despite some weak photography and moments of confusion, is filled with energy, colorful characters, and a complex web of relationships. It's funny, it's dramatic, it's romantic, it's sweeping. It takes a flawed but rousing book and turns it into an equally rousing and a bit less flawed movie, and I really recommend tracking it down, especially for old swashbuckler fans. And don't let the English dub of the only available version hold you back, because all of the uncredited voice actors gave it their all with personality and distinction, and the adapted dialogue, credited to a Polly Stevens, is sharp, witty, and absolutely nails the energy of the rest of the film.

Now if only I weren't still lingering on the alleged off screen acts of Lex Barker who, if truly guilty, should have had his genitals chewed off and flung back at him by Tarzan's friendly little helper, Cheetah.

February 4, 2012

Star Trek: Galilea #2 "Ship Shape"

Star Trek: Galilea was a fan audio drama series I took part in. I was a member of the writing staff throughout the series, and played Commander Valkon.

Check it out here.

[Note - 3/12/2014] This is the first of two episodes I wrote. Below is my original first draft. It went through a rewrite before Kevin gave it a final polish. I decided to include this one here, despite it being a bit rough, because it has a couple significant differences from the final show. First, Dr. Kraczinski was originally written as a male. Second, there's the setup for a subplot involving the engineering crew working with holo copies of themselves which we decided to strip out until we could focus on it in season two, which was going to be more episodic in structure. The three-part episode was going to be called "Three-By-Three Way". I worked out most of the story beats and may go ahead and write it one day.

February 3, 2012

The Son of the Red Corsair (1908 novel)

Written by Emilio Salgari.

Related reviews:
This is a story about the pirates of the Caribbean. Seriously, anyone familiar with the ride or the Disney films will recognize elements at play as pirates wander the Central American seas, looting towns and fight the constant battle for absolute freedom against ruling parties controled by a European wealthy elite. It's got sword fights and broadside cannon battles and much drinking of wine and even the pirate ruled island of Tortuga. It also brings with it a complicated ethical grey zone as the people we're rooting for are absolute scoundrels who will sack and pillage an entire town just to get their hands on a single person, leaving who knows how many innocent soldiers and citizens dead in their wake, blaming and punishing anyone who has the gall to fight to protect their homes and their families.

The hero of the tale is Count Enrico di Ventimiglia, a dashing young man dressed all in red in honor of his father, the Red Corsair, who, along with his brothers the Black Corsair and the Green Corsair, was sent to the gallows after a past revenge quest that led them to piracy. Enrico is considered far too classy to seek vengeance on his own, and is instead trying to hunt down the whereabouts his half-sister, the product of his father's second marriage to a native woman, who was taken in by the Marquis of Montelimar following her father's hanging. So Enrico wants to find his sister, but first he'll have to find the Marquis, who he can only find through the Marquis' secretary, who's location needs to be found from the Marquis' sister-in-law, the Marquise (note the added "e") of Montelimar. In order to get through most of these stages of his mission, the Count has to assemble a large force of pirates and rip through perfectly innocent people just so he can ask a question and move on to the next step. They tear apart a navy vessel, killing half the men on board. They invade and conquer not one, but two towns. They blow the shit out of an inland fortress. It's all exciting and dashing, but it's a little hard to root for the hero, the man who claims his noble name was tarnished when his gentleman father was branded a simple outlaw, when he's using nothing but brutal tactics to achieve his goal. The book makes an effort to say his men didn't loot and plunder and that he made it up to them through paid salaries, but he has no issue standing by while other pirates he allies himself with slaughter and plunder their way through towns. Most disgusting is a section where a group of women are taken hostage, but they don't mind because they get to be loose and have fun with the pirates. I guess this is an alternate reality where rape doesn't exist.

The Count himself is a rather bland figure. He's quite dashing in the early parts of the novel, skipping about, posing, and assaulting his foes with witty exclamation marks, but as the story moves along, he loses his lightness and humor and mostly falls into the background. There's an entire stretch of the book where he simply doesn't appear, only resurfacing again for the final epic showdown against the Marquis. Instead the novel is sidetracked by a funny bunch of supporting characters, which isn't a complaint, as the three old school "Arrr!" pirates we follow around are really quite entertaining and are definitely the heart of the novel. We start with Mendoza, The Count's gristled old slab of a right hand man who loves to lay back and drink when he isn't busting heads. In the early sections, they take in Don Barrejo, a castle guard so charmed by the pirates when they kidnap him and steal his armor that he insists on tagging along. Barrejo pretty much steals the show for most of the novel, going into a game of constant one-up-manship with Mendoza as his wily imagination and constant boasting is often inexplicably backed up but his boldness and genuine skill with a blade. It's he that often saves the day or comes up with the winning plan or holds the most liquor, leaving the Count drifting into the shadows once Barrejo leaps into the spotlight. About halfway through the book, Mendoza and Barrejo get into a bar fight with a giant Flemmish man who's name we never know, yet he ends up also being charmed by their adventurous pursuits and taking up their cause under the nickname Don Hercules. This book isn't really about the Count or the missing sister or revenge against the aristocracy of Central America. No, it's about these three dudebros seeing who can drink the most wine, who can slay the most foes, and who can win the greatest glory.

The book has a colorful flow to it, drifting from moment to moment, quest to comedy to battle, with a steady pace, and does a wonderful job of painting this society of barons and buccaneers. Everyone one we meet has some color or quirk to them that makes them memorable, and while ethnicities are pointed out, there's never the unfortunate stereotyping one expects from such an old book. Though his part is small, there's a great character in the form of Martin, a member of the Count's crew and Mendoza's foil before Barrejo joins up. Martin is a black man, but he's educated, principled, and respected, and its his knowledge and steady poise that's played as a contrast to the brutish Mendoza as opposed to the color of his skin.

But returning to my earlier point, this book turns a very blind eye to the reality of piracy and the absolutely horror of someone having their entire town invaded and looted. We hear about losses and fires, but we never see the cold blooded murder that we know is actually occurring, and are never shown the taking of everything a person owns as anything more than the necessary resupplying of the force. There's even a moment where, lovable thought he may be, Barrejo encounters a lighthouse keeper and says the man will be payed and praised if he cooperates, thrown off the roof of his tower if he doesn't. These aren't good people.

And the book takes a further surprising turn by not severely vilifying the aristocracy as a justification. No, these rules aren't treated as bloated, wasteful bureaucrats who ignore their subject. They care. They maintain order. They keep everything smooth and all their people happy and fed. Even the Marquis shows a sincere fondness for the woman he took in as his own child, with the old Red Corsair's exploits being fully justifiable for a hanging. Hell, the Corsair's son is guilty of far worse by the time the book ends, so I don't see why it's even in question. No, these are decent people, but the book never seems to recognize their constant victimization at the hands of the "heroes", leaving it feeling weird and a little uncomfortable, as many of the sequences are legitimately absorbing and entertaining, until you stop to think about the consequences of what just happened.

So I'm left in the end with an uneven book. If you want a fun, thrilling swashbuckler full of colorful characters, wild escapades, secret passageway, duels complete with secret master techniques ("The One-Hundred Pistol Thrust!"), and lots of explosions and drinking, then you're in the right place as it certainly is an entertaining page turner. But if you want something a little deeper, then you might be troubled by some of the angles the book approaches things from. It's not so much what it shows that bothers me, but what it overlooks, what it decides to pretend would never happen because, yeesh, that would sure kill the mood if such consequences were actually seen.