Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Many film critics, directors, and actors have been asked in interviews to discuss their “guilty pleasures” meaning movies they liked but “really shouldn’t have” because they didn’t raise deep existential questions, explore morally elevated themes, or break new technical or artistic ground. Pretentious codswallop, that. No one should feel guilty about having a good time watching a movie whose sole purpose is to make two hours of life more pleasant. In that spirit, I once recommended the giant spider sci-fi flick Tarantula and will now endorse another think-free Saturday afternoon matinee: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Little-known producer Sy Weintraub had a penchant for breathing new life into classic adventure series. In the 1980s, he made worthy television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories starring the magnificent Ian Richardson (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). Prior to that, he made a sustained, largely successful effort to class up the hoary Tarzan movie franchise with bigger budgets, better scripts, first-rank actors, and on location filming. This included letting Tarzan do something he did in the books but not in films of the 1930s and 1940s: speak in complete sentences! Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, made in 1959, was the first of Wentraub’s tarted up Tarzan films and is arguably the best.

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

The very simple plot: Kenyan villages are being terrorized by a ruthless gang of British and German diamond seekers led by a tough career criminal named Slade (Anthony Quayle). After a violent raid during which Slade’s men steal gelignite, Tarzan (Gordon Scott) bravely sets out alone to bring them to justice. Under pressure from The Ape Man as well as their own greed and envy, the gang tries to stop feuding with each other long enough to defeat our hero. A chase up a mighty river, well-staged action sequences, and intrigue ensue.

Realism is obviously not at a premium here. Diamond mines are strangely well-lighted, the stock footage of African animals will not fool anyone, and everyone’s hair stylist is apparently just off-camera. But you came for thrills, not cinéma vérité, and director/co-writer John Guillermin’s movie consistently delivers on that score. The sequences where Tarzan traps the villains’ boat with falling trees as well as the climactic battle between him and Slade are particularly well constructed and executed. And devotees of the series get their full quota of Tarzania, e.g., vine swinging, crocodile wrestling, and jungle tracking. It’s also welcome that the bad guys are white Europeans out to rape the continent of its resources instead of being backward, violent, African stereotypes as in some of the earlier movies.


Weintraub’s investment in name actors paid off particularly well in the case of Quayle, who is physically imposing enough to be a believable combatant for Tarzan while also being intelligent enough to create a rounded character. Slade is domineering in some respects, but overly lenient in others, and the revelation of his complex motives helps keep the viewer engaged. As an ex-Nazi, Niall MacGinnis gives a strong supporting performance (as usual, see my recommendations 49th Parallel and Curse of the Demon) as he artfully stirs up conflict among the gang for his own purposes.

The film also benefits from embracing the erotic vibe of the series, which has been present from its pre-Hays Code commencement. Boys in the 1930s fantasized about being Tarzan, but their sisters and mothers were thinking their own thoughts about sweating, loin cloth wearing beefcakes like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, while, according to Michael Caine’s autobiography, Maureen O’Sullivan cast her own lust-inducing spell on the audience. Without ever lapsing into tastelessness, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure follows in that tradition, with the physical powerhouse Gordon Scott as Tarzan, a young Sean Connery as the villainous O’Bannion, the exotic Scilla Gabel as Slade’s lover, and the elegant Sara Shane as Angie Loring, a spunky aviatrix who wants to monkey around.

So throw away your thinking cap, relax in your easy chair, and enjoy this exciting, entertaining film, which could leave you yelling “Aahuaaa uaaa uaaaaaaaa!”

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure | Trailers From Hell

Action/Adventure Romance

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Turner Classic Movies

There’s an old jibe that “They don’t make movies in Hollywood, they remake them”. But sometimes they remake them so bloody well that audiences can’t help but stand up and cheer (see for example my recommendation of the Casablanca recycle job To Have and Have Not). A pluperfect example is the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk.

Let me clarify what was really being remade. Rafael Sabatini’s novel had been filmed before under the same name in 1924. That silent classic featured purpose built, full size replicas of battling sailing ships that were so realistic that they were spliced into many subsequent movies, including this one. But the origin of the 1940 adaptation of The Sea Hawk lies with a 1935 adaptation of a different Sabatini book, Captain Blood (my recommendation here). That film made Errol Flynn a superstar and Warner Brothers a mint, so they immediately planned to rework roughly the same story elements into a new pirate movie again starring Flynn, co-starring Basil Rathbone (though he declined the role), and directed by Michael Curtiz. The studio had a script draft as early as 1936, but Flynn was committed to a long line of films at that point, a number of them directed by Curtiz (including my recommendation The Adventures of Robin Hood). It was thus several years before Flynn and Curtiz could make The Sea Hawk, but it was well worth the wait.

The Sea Hawk streaming: where to watch movie online?

The plot: Unlike Captain Blood, in which Flynn starts out as a slave, becomes a notorious pirate, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies, in this film he starts out as a notorious pirate, becomes a slave, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies. Also unlike Captain Blood, in which he had an achingly unconsummated extended flirtation with a beautiful, high-born, English woman, in this film the woman is only half-English. You get the idea.

More seriously, there is one big difference between the two films, which resulted from the start of World War II. In the Sea Hawk, Hitler is thinly veiled as the King of Spain, a ruthless seeker of global domination. And in the movie’s best performance, Dame Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth gives a rousing speech about defending freedom that could have come out of Churchill’s mouth.

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Brenda Marshall plays the love interest this time around, but the film didn’t launch her to stardom as did Olivia De Havilland’s pairings with Flynn (Though one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, William Holden, clearly took notice: they married the following year). Marshall isn’t given a lot to do beyond looking lovely. If you want to see a movie where she gets a chance to show off her acting ability, check out my recommendation Strange Impersonation.

Claude Rains and Henry Daniell fare better as a couple of rotters, each played in their signature style, more charming for the former and more menacing for the latter. In the part that Rathbone declined, Daniell is just as good except that he couldn’t fence at all (Rathbone was a master swordsman). A double was smoothly spliced in for his extended duel with Flynn and it works just fine.

As for Flynn, he’s okay here but seems a tad less energetic than he was only a few years before; perhaps his health, never as good as the publicity machine made Americans believe, was starting to fade. But he certainly has enough gusto to keep the audience engaged, and he gets expert supporting help from many solid character actors, including Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and Gilbert Roland.

Of course a swashbuckler lives and dies by its action scenes, and The Sea Hawk’s are epic in scope and brilliantly executed. The big budget shows as does the ability of the autocratic Curtiz to get armies (er, navies) of actors to do his bidding. Cannons boom, swords flash, buccaneers swarm, and ships cavort on the high seas. The Sea Hawk is a ripsnorting adventure, the fact that it was another trip to the same well notwithstanding.

p.s. My recommendation is based on the 127 minute version. Shorter versions sometimes appear on television.

p.p.s. In case you are tempted to adjust your screen settings, the sepia tint in the scenes in Panama was in the original film.

Action/Adventure British Drama

49th Parallel

Calling a movie “propaganda” is usually an insult. But making quality propaganda is a skill, and one well worth deploying when you are fighting the Nazis. In 1941, the British War Ministry approached Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for support of the then-failing war effort. Wanting to tempt the neutral U.S. into the fight, the emerging superstar duo of British cinema set the story of a deadly team of Nazi invaders in Canada (The film’s US title was “Invasion”). As it happened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor before the film opened in The States, so whether it would have helped tipped the balance will never be known. But there’s no doubt that 49th Parallel is a brilliant illustration of how wartime films can persuade even as they entertain.

Plot: After sinking defenseless cargo ships, a German U-Boat tries to hide in Hudson Bay. But the Canadian military closes in, forcing its resourceful, ruthless, true-believing Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman, convincing as usual) to lead his crew in a desperate dash across Canada. Thrills and human drama ensue, as does effective illustration of what precisely Nazism entailed and why all free peoples had to resist it.

Review: 49th Parallel - Slant Magazine

Pressburger’s story is reminiscent of the legendary western Winchester ’73 with the overarching narrative arc being a cross-country chase involving core characters, but the underlying structure being episodic. In each episode, new characters and settings provide an opportunity for the audience to see some of their favorite stars (e.g., Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey) and to comprehend a different aspect of Nazism, be it racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, contempt for the vulnerable, and even hatred of “decadent” art. It could easily have been heavy-handed but with this filmmaking team and cast, it’s supremely credible and stirring.

My favorite episode is the Nazis hiding out with a German Hutterite community. Its very much to the filmmakers’ credit that in 1941, when German immigrants were objects of suspicion and hostility in North America, the Hutterites are portrayed entirely positively. The scene where Lt. Hirth attempts to rally them to the cause of the Fatherland and the Hutterites reject him is particularly powerful. Subplots about a German crew member (Niall MacGinnis) who is taken by the Hutterite way of life and is punished for it by Hirth, and a Hutterite youth (Glynis Johns) whose faith is tested to the breaking point, are also powerful. The episode involving Howard as (what else?) an eccentric English scholar is nearly as fine. Kudos are also in order for multiple episodes showing First Nations people in a more positive light than was the norm in this era.

I’m not sure any country has had as much cinematic talent as densely packed as did Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. So much so that even after all this writing, I am just now getting around to mentioning how beautifully shot and perfectly edited the movie is, courtesy of Freddie Young and David Lean respectively. Five well-earned lifetime Academy Awards between those chaps; you can see why again here.

All in all, 49th Parallel is both crackerjack entertainment, affecting drama, and a compelling reason to stand up and sing O Canada!

p.s. Leslie Howard, whom the Nazis would murder in 1943, also did excellent work in my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, as did Niall MacGinnis in another of my recommended movies, Curse of the Demon.

Action/Adventure Science Fiction / Fantasy


Matthew Broderick in WarGames (1983)

In 1983, tensions between the US and The Soviet Union were high, and fear of nuclear war was in the air. Meanwhile, American life was being changed by the rise of the personal computer, with nerds of all ages in the vanguard. Director John Badham weaves these two strands together with excellent results in WarGames.

Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ clever script centers on teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). David is an archetype: Someone who underachieves in all areas except that for which he has a genius, namely computers, video games, and electronics. Out of nerdly mischief and a desire to impress a girl from school (Ally Sheedy), David hacks into a computer system that he thinks is run by a software company, and starts playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”. But unbeknownst to David, he’s actually penetrated a computer system built by a different order of geek within the U.S. military (Dabney Coleman and John Wood) which has the autonomy to launch nuclear weapons. Adventure, suspense, and a useful lesson in game theory ensue.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This film is as 1980s as it gets. 80s hair, 80s computers, 80s video games, 80s nuclear fears, and Ally Sheedy too. Although “powerful” computers with modems into which you plug your rotary telephone handset may provoke some chuckles today, the story is as relevant as ever and maybe, with the rise of artificial intelligence, even moreso. And if you lived through this time, 1980s-ness of everything in WarGames may be an appealing exercise in nostalgia for the era.

The key to this film’s success is Matthew Broderick, in a performance that showcased why he would soon become a star. Despite the extraordinary proceedings around him, Broderick consistently makes David into an utterly believable teenager, with the jumble of ideas, emotions, and capacities that are common at that age. He has particularly good byplay with Shakespearean actor John Wood, who plays a computer scientist who has lost his son and his hope for humanity, and achieves a measure of restoration on both fronts from David.

The plot developments could have been credibility-straining, but the script is smart enough and Badham is skilled enough to sell everything to the audience. The film is particularly good at giving the audience just enough of a technical explanation to make plot points credible without ever turning into impenetrable nerdspeak. Some of the adult authority figure characters are a bit cartoonish, reflecting I assume the studio aiming for a teenaged audience. That said, I enjoyed re-watching WarGames in mid-life as much as I did when I was an adolescent. This film is superb entertainment, including its nail-biting and satisfying conclusion.

p.s. Look fast for Maury Chaykin as one of Broderick’s circle of turbonerds.

Action/Adventure Musical Mystery/Noir

Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn Theme by Ray Anthony | Daily Doo Wop

I haven’t owned a television for a quarter century, and almost never recommend television shows because I don’t know enough to judge them. But I am happy to make an exception for a trendsetting, utterly fresh, and cool as all get out TV series that ran from 1958-1961: Peter Gunn.

Blake Edwards, prior to his fame for making the Pink Panther movies, 10, Victor Victoria, and other big screen fare, invented Peter Gunn whole cloth. Never before had a detective character been expressly invented for television versus adapted from books, pulp magazines, or radio. And unlike the hard bitten, rumpled PIs of yore, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) was stylish, smooth, and also a romantic, particularly in his flirtatious banter with chanteuse Edie Hart (Lola Albright), his gorgeous girlfriend. Edwards also broke new ground by infusing his love of jazz in every aspect of the show. Gunn works out of a jazz bar, and jazz musicians figure prominently in some of the scripts. It also serves as the default instrumental music, giving the whole series of a midnight to dawn vibe. This is all a credit to Henry Mancini, whose dynamic theme song became one of the most covered in television history.

As Gunn’s police detective friend, Herschel Bernardi gives the best performance of the series, in a part that adds some grit and gravity to what otherwise might have been overly light storytelling. Other recurring actors score with colorful parts reminiscent of Pick Up on South Street, including Billy Barty as a pool shark who knows the word on the street. The film noir look and camerawork of the series — more like what one would see in a movie that a 1950s television show — further accentuates the smoky allure of the proceedings. Also fun: An army of future stars have guest turns on the series, allowing the viewer to play “Hey, isn’t that….?”.

Peter Gunn | Linnet Moss

Yet what impresses me the most about this show is the economy of the scripts. In about 25 minutes, a new mystery is introduced, investigated, and resolved, despite the fact that almost every episode has stand alone jazz numbers or comic/romantic scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Villains on this show don’t have lengthy trials, they either confess or shoot it out in the final minute, wrapping up each episode as a standalone adventure. On a few occasions, the storytelling is too telegraphic and thereby causes some confusion, but generally it works exceedingly well. I would recommend this show to anyone who aspires to be an screenwriter or editor because it shows how fat-free storytelling can be elevated to an art form with no loss of characterization or entertainment value.

Even though Peter Gunn has been off the air for decades, it’s fairly easy to find in DVD collections, streaming on various channels (e.g., Amazon Prime), or on YouTube. Rather than close this recommendation with a trailer, I instead embed the immortal music of a groundbreaking show. Fun trivia: The piano part on the album was played by “Little Johnny Love Williams” who went on to mega-fame as the composer of the scores of mega-hit movies.

Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Cotton Comes to Harlem (novel & film) –

When you steal from white people, that’s your business. But when you steal from Black people, that’s my business!

So growls badass but ethical Police Detective Ed Coffin (Raymond St. Jacques), who along with his more laid back but equally badass partner Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) protects the Black community in the most successful effort to bring the work of legendary novelist Chester Himes to the big screen: Cotton Comes to Harlem.

The plot: A charismatic, slick, con artist/preacher (Calvin Lockhart) is bilking the good people of Harlem with a phony Back to Africa scheme when gun toting bandits steal the contents of the hefty collection plate. But the hiding place for the missing $87,000 remains unknown, requiring Coffin and Jones to track down the loot while battling with mobsters, Black nationalists, and a femme fatale for the ages (Judy Pace).

Though best known as an actor (see, e.g., my recommendation of The Hill) and civil rights advocate, Ossie Davis occasionally ventured into directing. This 1970 movie was his first effort (he also co-wrote the script with Arnold Perl) and it’s a worthy effort indeed. Davis does a fine job both as a storyteller and an extractor of good performances from the actors. What comes through most of all is his feeling for Himes’ work and even moreso for the raffish, complex, dynamic, down but never out place that is Harlem. Watching this movie feels like walking through a neighborhood that is alive, and that’s a credit to Davis.

Vudu - Cotton Comes to Harlem Ossie Davis, Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St  Jacques, Judy Pace, Watch Movies & TV Online

Himes, like Elmore Leonard, was a master of tough, thrilling, action scenes, and Davis nails that aspect of the books as well. Exciting car crashes, gun battles, and fist fights abound as Himes’ plot unfolds. Laurels also to costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone for the colorful, stylish, outfits, which jazz up the movie visually and also do right by Himes, who loved to describe in detail how his characters were decked out.

This film is sometimes categorized as a comedy as well as an action film. Himes’ books definitely have funny moments, but I think Ossie Davis’ only mistake was overdoing that aspect of the story. Some of the attempts at provoking mirth are so broad/slapsticky that they undermine the tone set by the hard-edged action scenes. Other comic elements work better: The scenes where the black characters outsmart white characters in symbolic triumphs over oppression, the protest at the police station which satirizes 1970s politics as well as Python did with the People’s Front of Judea, and, of course, every scene with Redd Foxx because he’s constitutionally incapable of being less than funny, even when he’s not speaking.

But mainly, I would classify this as an excellent action-filled crime melodrama. Hollywood has lately been virtue-signalling about wanting to film more stories about and starring Blacks. I wish they’d put their money where their mouth is and make movies or a prestige television series about Chester Himes’ immortal recurring characters, Harlem detectives Ed Coffin and Gravedigger Jones.

p.s. Hollywood’s only other effort to adapt Himes’ work, A Rage in Harlem, is an above-average film you might like, but I’d rate it a notch below this one.

Action/Adventure Romance

Captain Blood

Swashbuckler: Lessons in Morality From Peter Blood, the Pirate

An intelligent, dashing, apolitical doctor tends to a wounded rebel during the English Civil War and finds himself branded a criminal and sold into slavery. But his courage, leadership ability, and swordsmanship enable him to reverse his fortunes by becoming the greatest outlaw pirate of the high seas!: Captain Blood. This 1935 movie was a mega-hit adaptation of a mega-hit novel by Rafael Sabatini. Many a wildly popular film has had minimal artistic merit, but in this case craft and entertainment value go hand in hand.

Warner Brothers gambled big financially on Captain Blood but even moreso by resting the movie on the shoulders of two little-known actors, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. Thus was born a screen pairing of which audiences could not get enough, leading to seven more films together that were rich in adventure, romance, and some comedy too. As the heroic Peter Blood, Flynn is passionate and athletic but also thoughtful and at times — particularly in his scenes with de Haviland — even vulnerable. This being the 1930s, de Haviland was given less to do, but she makes the most of it with charm, teasing humor, and a remarkable ability to non-verbally convey disabling sexual desire.

The film also benefits enormously from the literate dialogue in the adapted screenplay of Casey Robinson, and, the presence of a first rank director, Michael Curtiz, in the first of the 11 films he made starring Flynn. Curtiz handles so much so well in this movie, ranging from intimate romantic moments to epic battles with complex sets and hundreds of actors, that Captain Blood should be more often mentioned alongside Casablanca among his most significant achievements.

And though his character comes and goes a bit too quickly, Basil Rathbone delivers the goods as Blood’s frenemy, pirate captain Levasseur. He overacts zee Franch rrrrogue stuff a bit, but all sins are forgiven when he picks up a sword. Rathbone was a champion fencer in real life, and to the extent Flynn is credible as a duelist here, the credit goes to his coaching. Kudos to the rest of the supporting players as well, who are all credible in parts large and small.

Movies! TV Network | The Making of a Swashbuckler: Captain Blood

The action scenes, especially the closing sea battle in Jamaica, are completely credible and thrilling (props to George Amy for outstanding editing). Even though special effects have come a long way since 1935 (e.g., in the magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) the cannon shots, swordplay, wooden ships, and iron men in Captain Blood are as vivid and vital as any Hollywood has ever portrayed.

Captain Blood would rank on any list of Hollywood’s greatest swashbuckling pirate movies, and has connections to another Sabatini novel whose adaptations would appear the same roll of honor twice: The Sea Hawk. The 1924 silent version included battle scenes filmed with massive sea-going models that were so astonishing that footage from them was recycled (with added sound of course) in subsequent films, including Captain Blood. The other connection is more obvious, namely that without Captain Blood making Flynn world-famous in 1935, there would never have been the equally good 1940 Flynn version of The Sea Hawk.

p.s. If you like this movie, you will almost certainly enjoy two other movies I recommend: The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

p.p.s. Dame Olivia de Haviland, incredibly, was with us until July of 2020. Late in her long life, she said that she and Flynn were in love but never consummated their relationship. It’s easy to imagine that the genuine, aching desire they experienced in real life was part of what made them such an irresistible pairing on screen.

Action/Adventure Science Fiction / Fantasy

War of the Worlds **Double “Feature”**

Did the 1938 Radio Broadcast of 'War of the Worlds' Cause a Nationwide  Panic?

I often recommend multiple movie adaptations of the same story (e.g., The Lodger, Dracula, The Hands of Orlac) for the enjoyment and education that comes from comparing how the same material has been filmed by different artists in different eras. H.G. Well’s classic novel War of the Worlds presents an opportunity to make a different type of comparison, namely between strong adaptations in two different media: radio and film.

I’ll begin by recommending the 1938 radio adaptation (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

Too Much Johnson Is Never Enough Orson: The 'Lost Film' of Orson Welles |  lokke heiss

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman. Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips the audience by the lapels immediately, giving a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to accentuate the power of sound — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all masterful at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

Orson Welles - War Of The Worlds (1969, Gatefold, Vinyl) | Discogs

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image here is of the record album of it my parents owned) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. The radio adaptation of War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime.

The most widely known cinematic version of the same story is probably the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise mega-buck 2005 adaptation. But the sci-fi magic that duo summoned in the superb Minority Report was nowhere in evidence in their dreary, weirdly lifeless, take on H.G. Wells. You’d be far better off revisiting the work of another talented pair of frequent collaborators, producer George Pal and Director Byron Haskin, who made a groundbreaking version of War of the Worlds in 1953.

Tuesday Movie: The War of the Worlds (1953) - DeKalb County Convention and  Visitors Bureau

Barré Lyndon, like Orson Welles, took creative license with the original material to create a story telling style that worked well in a new medium. The film opens with two set up narrations, the longer of which, by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, is coupled with an imaginative tour of the planets in our solar system (at least as understood long ago). We then get straight into the action, with the crash landing of a mysterious meteor near an all-American small town (this time, in California). The townspeople are curious, the aliens are aggressive, the military is helpless, but luckily a sturdy Gene Barry as the heroic scientist and a believable Ann Robinson as his love interest and fellow crusader against Martians, are on the job. The quick-moving plot has many parallels with the original work, with the addition of some religious themes that likely played well in the 1950s America.

In addition to the exciting story, what wowed audiences about this movie were the trend-setting, Oscar-winning, special effects. Force fields, laser guns, exploding landmarks, devastated cities, and creepy Martians are among the sights on which to feast your eyes and ears. Of course modern computer-created effects are slicker, but for 1953, this was gobsmacking stuff that showed what movie magic could add to a Victorian English novel.

Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Three Adaptations of I Am Legend

One of the best books I read in 2018 was the sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote it in 1954, years before he became famous as one of the creative forces behind The Twilight Zone. It’s a grim, powerful, novel about isolation and trauma, centering on Robert Neville, the last surviving human being. A global pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures who persecute Neville by night whereas he slaughters them by day. As the years go by, Neville is increasingly consumed by loneliness, sexual frustration, grief at the loss of his family, suicidal urges, and an ongoing angry dialogue in his own head, which he tries to extinguish with a river of alcohol. The book concludes with a psychically weighty twist worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes.

Many of Matheson’s works were successfully adapted for the big and small screen. I have recommended a number of the excellent results, including Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Dracula, and the Amelia segment from Trilogy of Terror. Given that track record, it’s not surprising that movie makers thought that I am Legend could be spun into cinematic gold. This week I examine three of these adaptations.

Producer Robert Lippert was the first to have a go at Matheson’s novel and managed to land the man himself to work on the screenplay. Initial plans were for Hammer Studios to make the film under the title The Last Man on Earth, with the legendary Fritz Lang being mentioned as a possible director. Unfortunately, financial problems and British censors got in the way, turning it into a low budget 1964 Italian production directed by Stanley Salkow. For Matheson and for many viewers as well, the resulting cheap production values and bad dubbing of Italian actors were enough to sink it, but I feel more kindly toward the film than that.

Vincent Price got to me as a glum Robert Neville, proceeding through a regime of staking vampires and burning bodies by day, and getting drunk and moody at night. Price often hammed it up on screen, but to the extent he does that here it fits with how Neville is portrayed in the novel. The vampires in the film (who are more reminiscent of the zombies that George Romero later made famous after being inspired by this movie) are simply not scary enough to make the suspenseful part of Neville’s dilemma sufficiently frightening, but the alienating and agonizing parts come through very well. Also, The Last Man on Earth deserves praise for being the only adaptation to keep the morally complex twist ending of the novel. Warts and all, I give thumb’s up to this version of Matheson’s book even though it’s certainly not at a level to make one stand up and cheer.

Seven years later, the book was re-adapted with a more respectable budget for Charlton Heston, who had a following among science fiction fans based on Planet of the Apes. In this version, titled The Omega Man and directed by Boris Sagal, the vampires have been replaced by an albino mutant cult who hate modern technology as personified by Army scientist Neville. Unlike in the novel, the film is packed from the first with comic book action scenes laced with explosions, stunts, and machine gun fire. Also unlike the novel, the character nuance and twist ending were removed, leaving a crusading hero versus bad guys storyline. That said, the few scenes showing Heston alone in his fortress apartment, trying to hold his sanity together as the mutants torment him each night, are really well done.

No one could mistake this for anything other than a 1970s movie, from the Manson Family-esque mutants to the painfully stereotypical African-American characters, who feel like they wandered off the set of a blaxploitation flick shooting on the next lot. Indeed, the whole thing could have lapsed into camp if not for Heston’s credible, strong-jawed performance (which at times recalls not only his role in Planet of the Apes but some of his religious movie roles as well), matched nicely by Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutants. It sticks less closely to the novel than does Last Man on Earth, but it’s more exciting to watch without being dumbed down.

The third adaptation of I am Legend kept the same title. This 2007 film is a mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith. The film dispenses with the emotional core of the novel from the very first scene, giving Robert Neville a dog companion to give him comfort and to whom he can talk. The dog in the book shows up only halfway through and dies soon thereafter, painfully raising and then dashing Neville’s hopes of an end to his isolation. The canine companion here is used well to motivate some suspenseful encounters and also to give us one scene with real emotional power (kudos to Smith there), but its presence insulates the audience from experiencing the sense of isolation that made the book so haunting. The vampires here are bad CGI creations who act like the super zombies in World War Z, so filmgoers are protected from experiencing any complexities there as well. The filmmakers shot an ending that introduced a slight note of ambiguity about the vampires in the final scene, but when it didn’t “test well” with audiences (apparently someone reported experiencing an independent thought) the producers replaced it with an uncomplicated heroic end for Neville and a happy clappy conclusion for the audience. Naturally, this slick cop out of a movie made a mint at the box office.

So there you have it: Three films which were just not as great as the book on which they were based. Some novels are very hard to bring effectively to the big screen. Much of the power of Matheson’s book comes from Neville’s internal fulminations and struggles, and if you turned all that into first-person narration it would be an incredibly clunky film script. Because Neville is alone almost all of the novel, a screenwriter is also deprived of the usual opportunities for dramatic tension and dialogue between characters. It’s also a downbeat novel with psychic nuance, and that’s unlikely to please millions of film goers who come to the theater expecting simple up-with-people stories that they can stare at while stuffing their face with popcorn. It’s not an accident that as the adaptations got further and further away from Matheson’s book, they made more and more money at the box office.

So my strongest recommendation this week is not a film but a book: The only way to appreciate Matheson’s excellent novel is to actually read it. If I had to watch one of the three adaptations again, I would choose The Omega Man on balance. Yet I remain part of the cult following who sees significant strengths in The Last Man on Earth (which is in the public domain you can watch it here).

Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir


Immediately after reading Raymond Chandler’s splendid The Little Sister, I decided to revisit a 1969 adaptation of the book I remembered liking many years ago. I am happy to report that having read the source material made me appreciate the movie version even more than I did the first time through. Therefore I give you this film recommendation: Marlowe.

The plot: Orfamay Quest, a woman from the sticks who is less innocent and prudish than she at first seems (Sharon Farrell, very good here) comes to Los Angeles and hires private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) to find her brother Orrin. Meanwhile, in an ostensibly distinct plot thread which you know will get woven in because it’s Raymond Chandler, someone has taken some compromising photos of a vicious gangster (H.M. Wyant) with an alluring starlet (Gayle Hunnicutt, who as ever is nothing if not alluring). Meanwhile, the starlet’s fellow actress and friend Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno) tries to help Marlowe while also liking the look of him. The famous PI is soon enmeshed in a net of murder and intrigue.

The prolific and talented Stirling Siliphant had the most important job in this film, namely converting Chandler’s long, complicated, novel into an hour and a half of cinema. Siliphant did many things right by the famous author. He ditched all the opening exposition involved with Marlowe and Orfamay meeting (I am a big fan of this in movies) and started the movie with the first of the many murders, gripping the audience right off the bat. He also preserved much of Chandler’s terrific dialogue and simplified the plot without making the story less compelling.

Siliphant also added two elements of his own, one of which works and one of which doesn’t. What works is introducing American audiences to his friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee. When Lee unleashes his Jeet Kune Do in Marlowe’s office the results are both amazing, and, with a droll assist from Garner, very funny. What doesn’t work is giving Marlowe a stable, bland, girlfriend. This fish-with-a-bicycle move eliminates the sexual tensions and possibilities that are central to Marlowe’s character and the novel.

James Garner is well-cast as Marlowe, which no Rockford Files fan will be surprised to hear. Indeed, as Garner blearily answers a knock at his front door while dressed in his bathrobe, that trailer on the beach will come to your mind’s eye. Matching his on screen presence, charm, and sex appeal is Rita Moreno, who gets to show off both her acting and dancing chops.

Chandler’s work really belongs in the 1940s, so I tend to like period adaptations such as Farewell My Lovely a bit more than films like Marlowe that move him out of his natural era. But I greatly enjoyed Marlowe because it’s well acted and exciting, and has a plot structure that is agreeably easier to grasp than that of novel.

p.s. Two trivia notes on the incomparable Rita Moreno. She is among very few performers in the EGOT club (Won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). She was close friends with Garner, and appeared in three episodes of The Rockford Files.

p.p.s. Director Paul Bogart and James Garner would work together again two years later on another film I commend to you: Skin Game.