There’s a good chance that a rebellious loner gave you your first taste of cinematic adrenalin, because above all, we’re looking for someone to root for. Someone who, whether real or fictional, seems larger than life.
There’s troubled teenybopper idols Brando, Dean and Clift, Jimmy Cagney shooting his way to the top of the world, Chaplin escaping the studio system to become more than a little tramp, even Willem Dafoe as the original Lone Rebel (with a Cause), forsaking a future as family man to die for our sins in The Last Temptation of Christ.
There’s one woman who stands tall amongst these men, mostly men; austere, terrifying and ultimately unfathomable. To do her justice, nothing less than acting cannons like Dame Judy Dench, Bette Davis or Cate Blanchett will do.
Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1989)
Filmmakers have often spun overblown and caricatured visions of Good Queen Bess – from Bette Davis’s busybody biddy to Quentin Crisp’s weary old queen. Nobody quite knows what to make of a woman who defied convention, resisting both the courtly wolves who snapped at her heels, and the foreign rulers who desired her hand and empire.
Shekar Kapur offers a more intimate portrayal of Elizabeth as a woman first, and a queen second. The strangeness of the era that bears her name is emphasized by elaborate costumes, courtly intrigue and stilted dances, but the film constantly reminds us of the timeless human need for love at the centre of it all.
As princess and pretender to the throne, Elizabeth frolics with Sir Robert Dudley, pledges loyalty to the half-sister her supporters will soon depose, and denies an allegation of treason with apparent sincerity. As played by Cate Blanchett, her presence is fragile, her beauty Botticelli-like, and her face, even when smiling, always seems as though it might dissolve into tears.
It’s genuinely touching, but all this vulnerability undermines the young queen’s authority. Intentionally or otherwise, the film suggests that her rule is masterminded by Walsingham, and though Blanchett holds her ground admirably she is propped up by such talents as John Gielgud, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough.
And yet, the film projects a woman fulfilling our wildest fantasies of power as Elizabeth increases in stature. ‘This country shall have no master, and but one mistress,’ she thunders at the end of the film, as she places herself outside and above the European monarchs that woo her. When she steps up to the plate, her femininity suffers though; the previously tremble-lipped girl has grasped that if she is to rule, she has to do it as an icon, not a woman. She projects herself as a living goddess, though her Virgin Queen is less the Virgin Mary than it is a woman armoured in marble and blood.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Though often the central figure, and by far the most interesting, the lone rebel does not always wear the white hat. Who but Lucifer is the best-known of the archangels? Who doesn’t sympathise with the ultimate fate of this creature, who dared to rival his creator, but was brought low for that ambition? There is tragedy in the loss of such a vast potential for good. And they don’t come more tragic and misunderstood than Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).
Lucifer’s name means ‘the Morning Star’, and the film associates its own Lucifer with light, from the superficial (Batty’s peroxide hair, that can only draw attention to a fugitive) to the profound: “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly, ” Batty is told by the industrialist Tyrell. Tyrell is proud of what his creation has accomplished, but unwilling to reward him more than the proverbial gold star.
Without Batty there wouldn’t be a film. In fact, aside from many other cuts (original, director’s, overseas and final) there’s another cut possible, in which Roy Batty is the hero: a humanoid slave who, not content to be ‘retired’ after spending his allotted four-year life span toiling in the outer colonies, leads a group of fugitives Moses-like back to Earth. They confront their maker and seek the right to live, only to be hunted down one by one by a soulless bounty hunter.
Indeed, blade runner Deckard is a company number, and we hardly care whether he rides off in the sunset with The Girl at the end of the movie or not (in cuts he does, in others he doesn’t). The less we see of him, the better. At the end of the film, Roy Batty has assumed a Messianic aura. It is he who illuminates to his block-headed pursuer the joy, pain and preciousness of life itself. Finally at peace, he then dies a hero’s death, his hard-earned soul flying up to the skies.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
A similar confusion about who the audience is actually to root for exists in The Wicker Man. It’s not Lord Summerisle; he’s played by ‘Dracula’ Christopher Lee, for heaven’s sake! Under his guidance the villagers of the remote Scottish island kill for what is, by his own account, a religion that has been invented to control their ancestors.
The signs are all there, but it takes us time before we realise that Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward), who comes to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, is the hero. The Wicker Man offers a cornucopia of folklore to an audience of hippies and pagan cultural revivalists. The film-makers don’t imagine that Howie’s crusade against Summerisle’s pagantry and godlessness should get the viewers, who are quickly won over by the quaint local customs, on his side.
To help portray Howie’s stiffness, Woodward chose a uniform jacket two sizes too small, and it’s easy to believe that Howie himself, with his morbid fear of leisure and sensuality, would choose a garment that would keep him physically and morally upright; a modern-day hair shirt. Howie – all cold and priggish, will not act as the viewer’s proxy by bedding the siren Britt Ekland.
And yet, Sgt. Howie gets the last laugh because, as he warns Lord Summerisle, the islanders’ rituals cannot change their fortunes: and when the crops fail again, nothing less than sacrificing Lord Summerisle himself will suffice for the villagers. And so we leave Sgt. Neil Howie, a martyr for his beliefs – praying, singing hymns and screaming the name of Jesus ’till the sun sets on Summerisle.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
King Kong brings more ritualistic island goings-on, gigantic objects of worship and kidnapped girls. It’s characters are quickly and accurately sketched, with its blue collar heroes Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll allowing contemporary audiences an escape from the realities of the Depression, into a fast-paced pulp adventure.
Before he is seen, Kong is described as “Neither beast nor man… Something monstrous, all powerful,” implying Kong’s undefined nature, in a time when it was still debated where exactly blacks sat on the evolutionary tree. After we first glimpse him crashing through the trees as a terrifying force of nature, he is a demi-human when he curiously pokes at the captive Ann.
He even becomes the hero when she is threatened by a dinosaur, his upright stance and fighting style those of a man. However, constantly rebelling against our expectations, he then is all beast again, beating his chest and roaring, when audience’s allegiance must shift to Jack Driscoll. Deprived once again of his new-found companion, Kong assumes the role of vengeful God, smiting villagers, before being brought down by the movie people.
A God to the people on Skull Island, the hapless Kong is brought to Broadway and billed as King Kong. But hobbled and humiliated like so many exotics (beast and human) before him, Kong’s size doesn’t scare or impress. Cooper and Schoedsack wink at the camera when they reveal that the disappointed audience had hoped for a movie. Perversely, the directors cast themselves as the flying aces who finally shoot Kong off the top of the world.
“T’was Beauty killed the Beast,” showman Denham declaims, trying to evoke those God’s son-slayers Delilah and Salome, while in fact it was him and the demands of a bloodthirsty audience that had brought Kong to New York and his doom. A bitter ending for one that was the last of his kind who, torn from his native comforts, briefly held his own against a hostile world to regain the object of his desire.
We have a strange bond with our stars, a double tie. We want our stars to embody what we can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be. We cheer them on when they succeed; when they fail we mourn them, laugh at them or turn our heads, because we harbour a secret desire to tear our gods of the silver screen down to our own level. We just can’t help pulling aside the red velvet curtain, to find out that our gods and monsters are just like us.
Angeline B. Adams & Remco van Straten