Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Necessity Of A Few Good Deeds

Richard Fleischer’s CROSSED SWORDS, a filming of the Mark Twain classic “The Prince and the Pauper”, is totally forgotten by the world. I’m not sure if it was ever really remembered, let alone known at the time it was released—beats me why I have any recollection of its existence at all. It seems that the only notable thing about it—if this point even counts as notable—is that it seems to have been the last non-event first run film to play at Radio City Music Hall, back at the end of the days when the grand palace still ran movies on a regular basis. Looking it up, this places the film’s run there during March 1978 (nine months after it opened in the UK where it was more predictably titled, what do you know, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER), just a few months after I actually would have seen PETE’S DRAGON in the place. I freely admit that I’ve never actually read it, but I have seen the episode of THE BRADY BUNCH where Peter runs into his exact double in the school hallway so it’s safe to say that I’m up to speed.

Produced by the legendary Salkinds—well, Alexander & Ilya Salkind along with Pierre Spengler— the team who were about to hit the world jackpot with SUPERMAN, the basic approach of the film almost gives the impression that the project could have begun as another sequel to their successful THE THREE/FOUR MUSKETEERS, but when that idea fell through they came up with a new plan. At the least, it certainly seems like an attempt to recapture that dual glory. But this time, instead of bringing on someone like director Richard Lester they hired the more workmanlike (well, at least at that point in time) Richard Fleischer, whose recent films had included SOYLENT GREEN and MR. MAJESTYK as well as the infamous MANDINGO. Scattered through the story are actors returning from the two MUSKETEERS films along with several who had also worked with Fleischer before (and, in some cases, both). It looks like the film was a commercial dud on both sides of the Atlantic and I can kind of see why. It’s tough to understand which age group it’s supposed to appeal to and its old-fashioned nature probably totally out of step with the times when it was made. Not to mention that it feels like creatively it just misses the mark, at least partly due to the ineffectual nature of the lead playing the two main roles. That said, watching it in the holiday mood, I didn’t really mind CROSSED SWORDS much at all. Coming in at just over two hours, it’s slightly overlong and a little too stodgy but its old-fashioned nature, like a 50s film that didn’t correctly update its sensibilities combined with the work of a number of artisans involved, make it kind of refreshing in this hyped up day and age. Maybe I’m just getting older and more appreciative of this sort of thing.

It's such a familiar story by now that you know the plot even if you don’t know it. Tom Canty (Mark Lester) is living a begger’s life in 15th century London with an abusive father (Ernest Borgnine who just screams “England” of course) making his life hell when one day he accidentally stumbles into the palace of King Henry VIII (Charlton Heston) where he meets the Prince of Wales (also Lester, of course) who turns out to be his exact double. Intrigued, the prince suggests they change clothes but the result of this has the actual prince thrown out into the street while Tom, unsuccessful in convincing anyone of the truth, remains in the castle. Soon the Prince meets up with Miles Hendon (Oliver Reed), a soldier-of-fortune who takes an interest in this boy’s lunatic ravings and decides to help him out. But soon fate steps in and Tom is about to be crowned the King of England with the only one who knows the truth unable to get anywhere near him.

There must be people in this world who would want to see any film in which Oliver Reed gets involved in swordfights and they will definitely want to take a look at CROSSING SWORDS, which offers plenty of looks at how the actor could truly hurl himself into those kinds of scenes. The downside of the film is that it lacks the enjoyable irreverence that marked Lester’s two MUSKETEERS films (hits in their day, now totally forgotten by the general public). Under Fleischer’s direction, CROSSED SWORDS feels a little too stodgy in comparison, less inspired. Tonally, it’s a little too unsure of itself and as far as something presumably aimed at a family audience the result winds up in the no-mans land between Disney and an old-style MGM-type approach (odd screenplay credits too—of course, Twain is mentioned, then we get “original screenplay by Berta Dominguez D. and Pierre Spengler, final screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser”). With the UK opening coming right around the time STAR WARS premiered, not to mention the eventual arrival of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK a few years later, this type of entertainment would be totally transformed away from this sort of thing. In comparison, CROSSED SWORDS really does feel like it’s from a different age, without a lot of flip anachronisms getting in the way. It isn’t able to excitement going at every moment but there is a desire to entertain and at points where the energy lags it knows enough to bring in another name actor for a guest appearance—when George C. Scott comes in for a few minutes it’s like the energy shoots up ten-fold. And there’s the amazing Oliver Reed truly giving this role his all and his increased prominence in the story as it goes on also seems to parallel how the film itself improves as it goes along. With his lovable rogue/Han Solo/Captain Jack character gaining in depth as we discover the gravity of his own personal narrative, there really is something to lock into and get involved with. The film gains a surprising amount of focus and depth late in the game, really the final quarter of the film and may be a large reason of why I feel so favorable towards it. Bringing in a few of the name stars like Raquel Welch as late as the film does, instead of cheating us by their delayed arrival, gives the feel of new elements continually being added to the story as it propels to its conclusion.

And in addition to the stars, there’s the immense amount of British talent behind the camera—it feels like a well-crafted film in the best ways of the phrase—with lots of familiar crew names from British films of this period in the credits (and Olivier Assayas is listed as one of the 3rd Assistant Directors!). The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff in particular makes it all much more visually distinguished than the somewhat flatter visuals in Lester’s films, with Scope compositions that continually made me want to pause the DVD to admire things and shots that almost resemble paintings at times—Maltin’s book even states “Jack Cardiff’s photography will suffer on TV” and having watched the DVD which correctly shows things in the 2:35:1 ratio I can believe it. There are a few effects shots here and there which were probably a big deal to accomplish in those days as well. Sometimes there’s the slight feeling of a tight budget being clamped down on by the Salkinds, at other points the film is as sumptuous as we would want it to be and that’s what comes out ahead. Maurice Jarre’s score is as majestic as you would expect as well.

Mark Lester, famous from OLIVER! which had come out a decade earlier seems rather ill-at-ease in his dual role (much younger in the book and it does feel awkward how that is presented here) and even though it does feel like he’s genuinely trying it still comes off as something that would have been more at home in a more simple, Disney-type version of the story. It probably says something that Lester switched careers after this film—he’s recently reappeared in the public eye somehow connected with Michael Jackson but I really don’t want to look up the details on any of that. Michael York would have obviously been a better choice but by this point that actor was definitely too old for it. Surrounding Lester are a variety of actors who make up for this discrepancy particularly Reed, a powerhouse in a production that is almost too genteel to hold him. He never seems to play anything for laughs and we really feel his hurt when someone has betrayed him, yet he is hugely enjoyable to watch in his numerous fight scenes throughout—when he realizes the jig is up at one point he doesn’t hesitate for a second to throw a punch and it seems like just how Reed himself would have behaved in such a situation. Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison approach their supporting roles with all the gravity and relish you would expect from them, George C. Scott chews up all the scenery in sight in his ten-minute cameo and is hugely enjoyable and Raquel Welch is well-used, looking game and not given too much dialogue to get in the way. Besides, it’s hard to hate any film in which Oliver Reed gets to play a romance with her. David Hemmings makes an effective appearance in the key role of Reed’s brother—years later the two actors also appeared in GLADIATOR, the production Reed died on. Borgnine is fun to have around even if he’s not the least bit convincing as British and we never hate him all that much anyway. Harry Andrews, one of the Krypton Elders in SUPERMAN, has a sizable role, Sybil Danning is unrecognizable as Canty’s mother and the numerous familiar British faces that pop up include PINK PANTHER veteran Graham Stark and Hammer Films mainstay Michael Ripper. In the supporting role of Princess Elizabeth, Lalla Ward actually does have genuine screen presence and it seems to say something that she is allowed the privilege of the film’s final image, helping to give the closing moments more depth than might have been expected.

That final narration is kind of like the film—part amused with itself, part earnest and it has a satisfying effect overall. Besides, who doesn’t want to see a movie where Oliver Reed fights Ernest Borgnine? And if you don’t, what kind of horrible person are you? It’s a minor footnote for everyone involved and even all Richard Fleischer’s autobiography has to say about it is a story detailing a syphilis scare that occurred on set. Considering how unknown it is, it’s pretty surprising that it even got released on DVD. It’s really not at all a bad film and was probably an appropriate choice for the role it played at Radio City. The era of films there was over and showing this, which must have seemed already out of place even then, was no doubt representative of that fact. I shouldn’t oversell it and it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to trim this thing down a little, but it hit me in the right mood. Anyone with an interest in people like Fleischer, Cardiff, Reed, a few of the others involved or just this genre in general really might want to check it out. It actually feels like a film that should be seen in a huge movie palace and these days that’s saying something.


le0pard13 said...

I have to admit I'd never heard of this film. I was pretty surprised to see almost the Three/Four Musketeers cast reunion, too (which is a fav of mine). I've added it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the heads up and review, Mr. Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

At times like this I get worried that the person who takes me up on something like this winds up hating the film in question. Hope that doesn't happen here and that you enjoy it! If you liked the MUSKETEERS films then it's a good possibility you will!

Anonymous said...

The film is now a haunted relic
of the early, still-optimistic days of Jimmy Carter's presidency
before the shadows of economic malaise would ignomiously de-throne him....the political "power exchange" of Twain's social reformist classic was the perfect allegory for the rebirth of hope
after the national disgrace of Nixon and Watergate, but even by the spring of 1978, when "Crossed Swords" was released, the disillusionment with the peanut farmer from Georgia (pauper) who was now Leader of the Free World (prince) was allready beginning to set in..could that be one the reasons why the film has so completely fallen through the cracks of popular memory?