Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Introduction

 Welcome to Stuart Fernie’s Blog



Please scroll down or find on the right links to articles, pages of reflections on films, books, TV series (including "Dead Poets Society", "Good Will Hunting", "Callan", "The Hill", "Cool Hand Luke", "The Hustler", "Road to Perdition", "The Verdict", "Three Colour Trilogy", "Jojo Rabbit", "Jeremiah Johnson", "Collateral", "Joker", "Barry Lyndon", "The Bridge at Remagen", "Le Mans '66 (Ford v Ferrari)", Charles Foster Kane ("Citizen Kane"), "The Deer Hunter", "Highlander", "No Country for Old Men", "Gattaca", "The Adventures of Robin Hood"(1938), "Apocalypse Now", "Spartacus", "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "The Long Good Friday", "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", "The Third Man", "Finding Forrester", "The Outlaw Josey Wales", "Untouchable" (2011),"Unforgiven", "The Manchurian Candidate", "The Wild Bunch", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Papillon" (1973), "Public Eye", "Existentialism in society today", "Seven Samurai", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Don Quixote", "We're No Angels", "The African Queen", "Babette's Feast", "War for the Planet of the Apes", "Dunkirk", “Dances With Wolves”, “Inherit The Wind” and “The Prisoner”), and occasional pieces of flash fiction. These are additions to similar pages which may be found at www.stuartfernie.org .


link to my YouTube channel with video presentations of a number of my pages.

After I retired from teaching, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to these memoirs, some French support pages and reflections on "Les Miserables" below.


I can be contacted through the comments sections or at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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Reflections on characters and themes in Dead Poets Society

 

Reflections on “Dead Poets Society”

Directed by Peter Weir

Written by Tom Schulman

Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke,

Josh Charles and Gale Hansen

 


A video presentation of this material is available here.

The script and direction, by Tom Schulman and Peter Weir respectively, offer characters that are remarkably well drawn and themes that arise naturally from the relationships and conflicts between the characters, imparted with exceptional clarity.

Although the charismatic John Keating may be regarded as the principal character, in fact he is more of a catalyst who motivates change in others, and it is these others who supply the bulk of dramatic interest and engagement.

The theme and very purpose of education is explored as John Keating, a newly arrived but experienced teacher of English at Welton Academy prep school for boys, makes use of unconventional strategies and methods to engage and inspire his students. These techniques will cause some friction and will contrast with the conservative principles and teaching methods employed at Welton, whose core values are tradition, excellence, discipline and honour. Fine values indeed, but in fostering them Welton appears to advocate conformity, the training and moulding of the individual and robotic learning to promote the creation of model citizens and success in society.

This contrasts sharply with Keating’s view that the purpose of education is to allow or enable an individual to think for himself or herself and he encourages passion, personal fulfilment and ambition based on one’s own aspirations, not the expectations of others.

This does not mean the abandonment of old principles and values, but it does imply the recognition of personal freedom and choice, and the need to adapt. It is probably no accident that the action of the film takes place in 1959, on the cusp of the sixties. Our story may reflect something of a turning point in society as we moved from relative rigidity and intransigence toward the freedom, challenge and counterculture of the 1960s.

Keating introduces his students to the concept of “carpe diem” or seize the day. He draws attention to the fact that his students’ days are numbered and therefore they should make the most of life and the opportunities presented to them. He advises each student to find his voice and live in such a way that there should be no regrets at the end. He champions personal fulfilment over playing a role or fulfilling the dreams and ambitions of parents, teachers or other interested parties. Curiously, in many ways this resembles the philosophy of Sean Maguire, the teacher also played by Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”.

Keating’s convictions are embodied in his instruction to tear out an introduction in a text book devoted to the study and analysis of poetry. This introduction promotes a somewhat mechanical means of measuring the worth of a poem and Keating rejects it entirely, suggesting this coolly analytical, almost mathematical approach to understanding poetry denies or ignores the very purpose and point of poetry. Keating wants to explore and sensitise his students to the raw reactions, passion, feelings and thoughts of poets as they reflect on love, disappointment, delight, relationships, nature and life in general. He wants his students to aspire to indulge such feelings and thoughts and to express them in their own words.

Clearly, this desire conflicts with the controlled, distant and uninvolving process of analysis advised in his students’ text books, a method which may lead to exam success but which ultimately may fail to elucidate the meaning and purpose of the poems studied.

These boys are sent to boarding school to develop and evolve, but in a particular mould, and they experience the age-old pressure to please their parents and conform to others’ expectations and guidance. There is no doubt that their parents and teachers want what is best for these young people, in their view, but at what point should the character, aspirations and hopes of these youngsters themselves be taken into account?

This existential conundrum, with repercussions on both sides of the debate, is beautifully and sympathetically depicted here, though it is taken to extremes for dramatic effect.

In contrast with this pressure to conform, Keating encourages the boys to look within themselves and recognise and explore their own thoughts and feelings. The effect varies from individual to individual, but all make choices, all gain and all come into conflict with the status quo and with themselves.

Todd, with direct and personal intervention from Keating, manages to overcome his shyness and insecurity to find his voice and express his inner thoughts in class. He will go on to lead the defiant expression of recognition and sympathy at the end of the film.

Charlie discovers his own hidden depths as well as wit and daring as he leads an uprising against the status quo in a quest for modernisation, adaptation and reform within the school.

Knox falls head over heels in love with a young lady named Chris, which is not attributable to Keating’s influence, but the fact he recognises his own feelings and finds the courage to approach Chris and express his feelings for her, is undoubtedly due to Keating’s teaching.

Neil finds the courage to fulfil his ambition to act and he wishes to pursue this as a career but this brings to a head the friction between him and his parents and, unable to see a way of both satisfying his parents’ ambitions for him and fulfilling his own desires, tragically he takes his own life…

Keating is judged by the school to be largely responsible for this tragedy and he loses his position at Welton, though he may be viewed as something of a scapegoat as society seeks to apportion blame in this existentially complex matter.

There is a tremendously moving final scene in which Keating’s students convey their view of things when, in reference to a previous lesson, they stand on their school desks, in defiance of the headmaster’s commands to sit down, suggesting they have taken on board Keating’s urging to see things from a different perspective and to think for themselves.

 


The acting of all concerned is to be commended and Robin Williams is often rightly praised for his wonderful performance, but I would say that the performances of the boys also deserve the highest praise, especially that of Robert Sean Leonard.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

 

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)                HOME                 BLOG

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Reflections on characters and themes in Good Will Hunting

 

Reflections on “Good Will Hunting”

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Starring Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Stellan Skarsgard and Minnie Driver


A video presentation of this material is available here.

“Good Will Hunting” has something of a European feel about it in that it is primarily a character piece about personal growth, but its pace and entertainment value highlight its American pedigree.

The story is fairly predictable but the film delivers in a highly engaging, touching and at times amusing way. How it arrives at its conclusion is perhaps more important than the conclusion itself.

Friendship, relationships, education and personal development are among the themes that are explored, but underpinning everything is a debate about what constitutes success in life.

Will is a 20-year-old self-taught genius who displays talent in a number of fields as he appears to possess a photographic memory, allowing him to retain facts and text with remarkable clarity. However, his talent goes beyond mere memory recall as he sees connections between things and passes reasoned judgments, revealing a sharp intelligence and “soul” or compassion.

Will is also socially damaged. He is an orphan who has been passed from pillar to post when growing up and who has suffered physical and emotional abuse and neglect, the result of which is a difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships. This is accentuated, perhaps, by his wit and intelligence which propel his willingness to speak up and criticise. He has by-passed the traditional norms in terms of family, education and career yet he has satisfied a seemingly voracious appetite for knowledge and understanding by reading prodigiously in a local library. He is also quite lacking in a sense of self-worth, undoubtedly due to the effects of the abuse and neglect he endured in his formative years.

He has a group of poorly educated and unsophisticated but faithful and sincere friends who all support one another despite regular bickering and teasing. When Will and his friend Chuckie first meet student Skylar in a bar in Harvard, her fellow student, Clark, attempts to belittle the open and friendly Chuckie with a display of confidence and knowledge about economic factors in American southern society prior to the Civil War. Will is able to challenge not just the historical perspective offered by Clark but, more importantly, his mindless regurgitation of facts and text gleaned from others’ work. Will accuses Clark of unoriginality of thought and wasting large amounts of money on an education that could be gained simply by reading books freely available in a public library, implying that society values a costly certificate more highly than knowledge and education itself. Clark replies that even if that is so, he, Clark, will remain superior as he will have a degree and a good job while Will may end up serving Clark’s kids in a fast-food restaurant.

Will is left quite unperturbed by Clark’s assertion, going on to suggest that even if that were the case, he would rather be original, and perhaps by implication remain true to himself, than pursue Clark’s traditional and uninspiring means of measuring achievement.

This is the film’s first allusion to an apparent predilection for the value of personal fulfilment over academic or social success. The juxtaposition and possible opposition of these two outcomes or pursuits is hinted at or alluded to at various other points in the film and, indeed, the choice between the two may even be viewed as the very crux of the film around which the several other themes and issues turn.

Professor Gerry Lambeau and Sean Maguire were roommates at university and were very close, though life choices have since separated them. Both work in the field of education, with Gerry winning the illustrious Fields Medal and achieving a professorship at the prestigious and costly M.I.T., while Sean teaches psychology in a local reasonably-priced Community College. Gerry has pursued a high-flown career in academia working with the elite in students and Sean works quietly and unceremoniously helping ordinary students make educational progress.

When Will gets himself into trouble with the courts, he is released on two conditions, that he should be supervised by Gerry (who is dazzled by Will’s mathematical prowess and who will go to considerable lengths to help Will develop and apply his abilities) and that he should undergo therapy, for which Gerry eventually turns to his old but estranged friend Sean.

Gerry appears to have devoted himself to academia and his career. No mention is made of personal relationships, though he flirts occasionally with young students in a somewhat furtive and perhaps duplicitous manner which suggests a lack of relational experience and emotional depth.

Sean, on the other hand, was married to the love of his life and is still in mourning after her recent death. Pursuing a career was certainly subordinate to the personal joy and satisfaction of being with his love as the happiness and fulfilment he gained from his relationship appears to have transcended any career-orientated gratification.

Gerry cannot see beyond (or behind) Will’s mathematical genius and all he could accomplish in academic and social terms if he were employed by any one of a number of interested parties who could put his talents to good use.

Sean is concerned with the impact Will’s history of abuse may have on his character, disposition and especially the choices he will make for his future.

In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Will’s encounter with Harvard student Clark, these two friends argue in a bar over which direction Will should take and at one point Gerry suggests, in frustration at Sean’s refusal to concede to his view, that Sean is driven by jealousy of his awards and success, thus emphasising Gerry’s lack of emotional intelligence and his failure to truly understand his friend’s point of view. Gerry even goes so far as to denigrate Sean’s choice of direction in life, implying he is a failure. Sean angrily refutes Gerry’s judgment and accuses him of arrogance but he makes no attempt to defend his life choices, perhaps because he knows Gerry could never understand or concede to his viewpoint but also, perhaps, because he is entirely happy with the choices he has made.

Despite infrequent meetings and clearly differing priorities in life, these two men have remained good friends and shortly after their argument, both demonstrate the esteem in which they hold their friendship by opting to ignore their disagreement and the cutting personal remarks each made to the other. The dichotomy between social and academic achievement and personal fulfilment is encapsulated and embodied by these two well-intentioned but very different men. Perhaps we need both these perspectives if we are to make anything of our lives and these two characters reflect the conflict within each of us when we consider choices we must make and directions to follow.

Will and Gerry’s relationship may be characterised as that of a proud mentor and a gifted student. Gerry displays pride, respect, some envy and perhaps a degree of reflected glory as he is dazzled by Will’s brilliance and potential. However, it boils down to plundering his talent for the benefit of others in return for position, plaudits, accolades and money – all goals Gerry aspires to and towards which he will guide Will. Their relationship is not based on emotional attachment, holistic interest or nurturing of character. It is about social and academic success.

The relationship between Will and Sean is more akin to that of father and son, indeed by the end of their time together Sean refers to him as “son” and at one point when Will wonders if Sean is mocking him, Will says he can’t take that, not from him, suggesting Sean has come to hold a special and hallowed place in Will’s heart.

From the outset, Sean is interested in Will the man, not Will the mathematician. They come to share intimate thoughts, experiences and feelings, helping Will evolve and deal with issues that have long since troubled him and have been a source of pain and problems with social integration. It is not easy at first and Sean shows deep-felt anger when Will tries to manipulate him and pushes him too far on personal issues. This display of humanity and hurt touches Will to some degree and eventually he participates in conversation which leads to discussion and friendship, and friendship is what they both need at this point in their lives. Will needs a father-figure with whom he can discuss matters of emotional depth and Sean needs to talk out his grief and feelings of self-imposed isolation and solitude. Each challenges the other to open up and discover possibilities life has in store for them.

Will tires of Gerry’s monotonous insistence on logical and mathematical puzzles which are, by dint of his extraordinary gifts, far less taxing and compelling to Will than they are to Gerry. Throughout the film, when Will solves a problem it gives him some satisfaction, perhaps explaining why he took a job at M.I.T., but it does not provide the same joy and excitement it may give to someone with less ability. Academic success means less to Will, exactly because there is little challenge.

Will is far more intrigued by relationships, perhaps because he has not yet learned, due to his tragic history of neglect and abuse, how to initiate and maintain a lasting relationship. He can learn nothing from Gerry, either mathematically or emotionally, but he sees possibilities in his association with Sean. And Skylar.

When Will meets Skylar, who is a well-balanced, thoughtful and caring individual, his life starts to change as he learns he can respect and develop feelings for another, but he must share thoughts, feelings and truth if he is going to make it work and allow her to reciprocate his feelings. At first, due to issues arising from his low self-esteem and thinking the relationship will be short-lived, Will concocts a familial background (which is somewhat exaggerated) in keeping with traditional and successful family situations and values in order to fit in and to impress Skylar. Eventually, he comes to realise that in so doing he is actually jeopardising his chances of success in the relationship and also that true happiness and fulfilment can only be realised if he changes and comes to terms with his past.

In the end, change or evolution require challenge and Sean and Skylar prompt development in Will while his friends, however touchingly and blindly supportive they may be, cannot elicit the change required for him to evolve. Chuckie recognises this when he tells Will that the best part of his day is when he approaches Will’s home in the morning and he hopes that Will will no longer be there. He recognises the need for Will to escape their circle, though he and Will’s other friends really can’t point him in the right direction. They can, however, continue to support their friend and provide him with the physical means of achieving escape by gifting him a car for his birthday.

Both Sean and Skylar (eventually) recognise the inhibiting effects of Will’s past and the emotional and psychological issues it has engendered, and they are willing to help Will overcome them and allow him to fulfil his potential as a fully-functioning and well-adjusted human being.

By abandoning a steady company position in favour of seeking out Skylar in California in the vehicle provided by his friends, Will is taking the first step on his way to investing in himself and achieving personal fulfilment.

 


The script and direction allow individual characters to develop in their own right while contributing to our understanding of the main character, his issues and the reasons for his choice at the end of the film.

While all the actors play well, special credit must go to Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Damon incites compassion for Will and he imbues Will with just the right degree of vulnerability, thought and challenge to make him interesting as well as emotionally engaging.

Robin Williams is simply masterful in his role, making Sean broken, defiant, human, vulnerable and real. I’ve often marvelled at the way comedians can transform into great actors and I think Robin Williams proved that point here as he gives a controlled, touching and towering performance.

 


My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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Thursday, 10 June 2021

Reflections on characters and themes in Callan (TV series 1967 - 1972)

 

Reflections on “Callan” (TV series 1967-1972)

Created by James Mitchell

Starring Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter,

Anthony Valentine and Patrick Mower

“Callan” takes place in the Cold War era and this series portrays with quite overwhelming realism the grimy, dirty and often painful business of undercover operations intended to ensure national security.

According to the premise of this show, assuring the safety of the nation when normal legal and diplomatic channels have failed, can involve underhand and amoral activities such as fraud, theft, blackmail and murder. Authorities working in a group referred to as The Section, under the command of a man whose title is Hunter, have to be cold, calculating and somewhat amoral themselves as they make frequent use of unprincipled and unscrupulous means toward the pragmatic end of protecting the nation’s security, and of course it is implied that every developed nation will have such a service.

To help achieve their end, these authorities are willing to turn to less respectable or honourable members of society who may have developed skills and talents The Section might find useful. Of course, they also recruit “professional” agents such as Meres and Cross but they appear to be chosen on the basis of their devotion and ambition, and perhaps their traits of psychopathy. They will tend to follow orders unquestioningly and kill with little reflection or consideration.

David Callan, as we know him - this is not his original name - is quite different though at first glance he may appear to fit the authorities’ criteria. He has developed skills and cunning that allow him to survive in an unpleasant and dangerous world.

Having lost both parents in the London Blitz, Callan displayed the intelligence, determination and spirit required to survive and become self-reliant, but he has retained humanity, curiosity and a sense of fairness. Doubtless lacking direction and purpose, Callan joined the army, serving in Malaysia, and his energy, spirit and survival instincts were channelled to help him become a highly effective soldier both in terms of tactics and his ability to kill, if required. He has problems with authority and, though he saved an officer’s life, he also argued and fought with others of higher rank, perhaps reflecting independent thought, humanity and intelligence.

After leaving the army, undoubtedly unable to settle for a prosaic and mundane career in book-keeping, and perhaps missing the visceral excitement of military sorties and combat, Callan resorts to a life of crime, though he is rather unsuccessful and spends two years in prison.

It is on his release that The Section approaches him, clearly wishing to take advantage of his skills and character flaws for their own ends.

However, Callan brings not just military fighting and survival skills, but also his fundamental humanity, independence and questioning intelligence. He asks questions and seeks to understand when he is expected to obey orders. He may even doubt the wisdom of his instructions and follow his own instincts and common sense, though generally he achieves the mission set to him, but on his own terms and having satisfied his own desire to understand, even if he doesn’t always like or approve of the result, reflecting a moral dilemma.

Rather like many who fulfil roles they don’t particularly like in society, he grudgingly recognises the need for what he does and his own talents and abilities within that context, but he can rue certain decisions and actions that have led to this juncture in his life and the fact he feels trapped as he cannot simply change direction since his departure would have security implications, possibly threatening his own survival.

What makes “Callan” such gripping viewing is the existential nature of the world in which these agents work, with little consideration of moral niceties, and the conflict, inner and outer, Callan brings to the piece as he wrestles with his sense of duty and purpose, and the nagging and questioning humanity he demonstrates as he carries out his duties.

Callan’s one good friend is Lonely, a skilled small-time thief, forger and informer, who regularly helps Callan in the course of his work without fully knowing Callan’s background or situation. In circumstances that rather mirror his own relationship with his superiors, Callan regularly applies bullying tactics in his relationship with Lonely, though he often shows regret at having to resort to such methods which he uses to ensure control of Lonely and to maintain his compliance, but also to protect his friend by keeping him out of the loop and open to pressure and threat.

Another reason for the show’s success is the realism of the stories and characters themselves. Made at the height of the Cold War, many of the storylines and settings were vaguely familiar to audiences and it was intriguing to see headlines brought to life in believable, if sometimes grimy and painful, plots. Characters were always well fleshed out and drawn and it was rarely a simple case of “goodies versus baddies” as all had reasons, valid or otherwise, for their actions and we as an audience were invited to share in the complexity, pain and consequences of the situation, and sympathised with Callan as he had to act as judge and occasionally executioner, often contradicting his orders, and as he paid a heavy personal price in terms of relationships and personal life for his efforts.

 

This was not the first time in cinema and TV history that those of dubious background or character were used for the purpose of national security. “The Dirty Dozen” was released in 1967 and there had been numerous Cold War spy films with characters whose motives and backgrounds were a little murky, but I think that “Callan” was the first to properly delve into the murky existential waters of the Cold War on TV and fully explore characters, motives and especially consequences for all those involved. In so doing, a unique and almost melancholic atmosphere and mood were created, summed up beautifully by the opening titles and the haunting theme tune, and I think the creation of that atmosphere and indeed the premise itself played a huge part in the success of the series.

Of course, this premise has been used many times since, in a number of variations of the theme, notably in Luc Besson’s “Nikita” which itself spawned a TV series and a Hollywood remake.

All who wrote, directed, produced and acted in the four series, film and TV film deserve much praise, but special credit must go to Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter who created indelible characters still worth seeking out and watching more than fifty years after they first played them.

 


My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Reflections on themes and characters in The Hill (1965)

 

Reflections on “The Hill”

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Script by Ray Rigby

Starring Sean Connery, Harry Andrews,

Ian Hendry, Ian Bannen et al.

 


Within a military context, but equally applicable to a variety of social contexts, discipline and rules promote order and are tools toward the end of achieving desired outcomes.

However, while seeking compliance with rules, perspective and proportion in terms of seeing the bigger picture and recalling their primary purpose may be lost, and insistence on adherence to regulations may become an end in itself, with the result that some rules may take on a greater weight and significance than they merit or, indeed, a vital consideration or purpose in their enforcement may be overlooked.

A chain of command and a system of rank may allow or even encourage the dodging of personal responsibility as blame can nearly always be attributed to another of higher or lower rank. This may also incite a certain lack of consideration for the consequences of one’s actions or decisions.

Pride in a position of authority may aggravate a situation as defiance or challenge may be taken personally and emotions and tempers can flare with potentially explosive consequences. Indeed, some may be so consumed by their position that they come to virtually personify the rules they advocate and they may become protective or even defensive of their position.

Of course, position and authority are open to abuse through lack of professionalism, lack of commitment, poor judgment or lack of compassion and humanity, especially when imposing a regime on those who do not necessarily share enthusiasm for it.

One method of ensuring compliance is to punish the many for the actions of the one, thus inviting pressure from the many on the one to change his or her attitude. This tactic demonstrates a disregard for the thoughts and grievances, justified or not, of individuals, and emphasises the promotion of blind obedience and compliance.

Expectations of loyalty and devotion accompanying compliance to authority and rank can lead to a sense of kinship but also ambition and jealousy among those who wish to build a career within such a structure, or outrage at those who reject this fraternity and its implied values.

All of us contribute to social systems and situations, if only through tacit approval. However, if we are uncomfortable with a state of affairs or perceive what we regard as an injustice, it is our duty to speak up and not allow the situation to continue or develop.

These themes, and several more, are explored in this underrated but excellent, if intense and painful, WW2 drama.

The storyline of “The Hill” is relatively simple. Five new prisoners arrive at a British military stockade in North Africa, all found guilty of relatively minor acts of indiscipline or insubordination and all sent to this facility to be broken and rebuilt as soldiers worthy of their uniform, under the keen eye of military martinet, Regimental Sergeant Major Wilson and his staff.

Staff Sergeant Williams, also newly arrived, is very keen to make his mark and impress R.S.M. Wilson, and he willingly takes on the task of instilling discipline and inflicting punishment on his charges in order to bring about the desired change in their attitude. However, he takes things too far and one of the new prisoners dies as a result of his excessive regime of exercise and discipline.

This death brings into sharp focus differences in attitude toward regulation, humanity and responsibility on both sides of the prison population, and a clash becomes inevitable.

Each character is beautifully defined and drawn and each represents a variation in attitude toward the military mindset and how best to survive such a regime.

R.S.M. Wilson is a proud and tough non-commissioned officer who believes utterly in the sanctity of rank and regulation. He is devoted to his profession and has total confidence in the worthiness of his mission to transform weak or poor soldiers into real military men worthy of the uniform they wear. He is proud of his position and his authority which he guards with zeal, turning on anyone who offers challenge or who shows perceived weakness in the carrying out of instructions and following regulations. He may feel he belongs to an elite group of worthies and he expects loyalty from and among his men. He does not doubt himself or the system he represents and enforces by the book.

This is undoubtedly why he takes against Joe Roberts, a former Sergeant Major dispatched to prison for “rehabilitation” after he struck his commanding officer who had insisted Roberts should lead his men on a suicide mission. Roberts refused to blindly follow an order because he foresaw the consequences in terms of the bigger humanitarian picture, and he will go on to point out the consequences on others of orders while in prison. His faith in a system to which he adhered previously was weakened by the prospect of a thoughtless waste of life and mindless obedience to a chain of command. He appears to accept the need for discipline in order to achieve things, but this must be tempered by reason and humanity, an attitude that will surely bring him into conflict with Wilson and his staff.

Roberts does not lack courage either physically or in terms of conviction, and is willing to fight for a cause. He knew what the consequences would be when he struck his C.O. and he is willing to put in a complaint about Williams, despite being fearful and knowing the position in which this will leave him.

This is in direct contrast to Williams who postures behind position and authority and displays cowardice and a bullying viciousness when he is forced to make a stand. Like many prisoners, Williams does not truly belong to the group in which he is serving. Wilson and Staff Sergeant Harris may differ in temperament but they share essential military values while Williams has merely found an outlet for his sadistic character. In a way, Williams is the principal catalyst of the drama and he poses a greater threat than the likes of Joe Roberts to the sanctity of discipline and authority as he has no real regard for military values and manipulates rules, regulations and people to indulge his passions while covering himself and assigning responsibility to others.

He sought his current posting in North Africa to avoid the Blitz in London and he appears to take pleasure in tormenting and bullying men who would be persecuted if they retaliated. He clearly has a healthy opinion of his own abilities as he sets out to climb the hill, a sizeable mound of rock and sand that prisoners are compelled to climb repeatedly in the searing North African heat, doubtless hoping to brag to prisoners of his prowess. However, he disappoints himself and loses self-esteem when he fares badly, despite making his effort in the relatively cool night-time. This loss of self-respect is only reinforced when he loses to Wilson in a drinking contest.

Thus, his insistence on inflicting the hill as a punishment, especially to poor, exhausted Stevens who is visibly at the end of his tether, only further diminishes our regard for him as we know that he is aware of how painful and difficult this exercise is, and he appears to wish to humiliate and demean his prisoners principally to boost his own sense of position and self-worth.

Bartlett is a poorly educated self-centred opportunist. To a degree, he provides comic relief but he has little gumption and he is unwilling to make a stand and do what is right by others when the situation demands.

Staff Sergeant Harris shows humanity, compassion and cunning as he tries to manipulate Wilson into showing consideration and leniency toward Stevens. He understands Wilson’s military mindset and fans his ego to bring him round, but Wilson is too self-important and proud to take advice on how to treat prisoners. Harris recognises Williams for what he is but is persuaded not to take action by Wilson’s rhetoric based on loyalty and accountability. However, after Stevens’ death, and bolstered by the efforts and suffering of Roberts and the Medical Officer, he overcomes his fear and hesitation and he insists on an investigation into Williams’ methods and actions, allowing humanity and responsibility to take precedence over military organisation and command.

Jacko King suffers racist abuse, largely with good humour, and displays much common sense. Toward the end of the film, he makes a highly memorable stand against not just the racism to which he has been subjected, but also against the inhumanity and abuse they have all suffered in the name of military mentality, rules and regulations. He removes his clothes and quits the army on the spot, refusing to recognise military authority over him. He sees the Camp Commandant and, treating him as an equal, effectively and brilliantly points out that regulations and authority in the army, and in society in general, only apply with mutual consent. The authority of one person over another depends on recognition and acceptance of that authority. As if to emphasise this point, King picks up a number of the C.O.’s cigars and nonchalantly saunters across the parade ground, to the delight of his fellow prisoners.

In a democracy, those to whom laws apply wish to see justice, fairness and transparency both in the structure of the law and its application, otherwise it may be considered unfit for purpose and inappropriate.

The Medical Officer is probably a good man but he lacks commitment to his job and has become somewhat casual and apathetic. His lack of attention and care may have contributed to the situation but he is certainly not alone in creating an establishment and conditions in which a man has died due to the treatment he received. He is pushed into action when he is vaguely threatened by Williams and Wilson, who are ready to pin responsibility on him to save their own necks. Once again, humanity and responsibility are revived and placed above military organisation, though in this case due largely to the threat of personal consequences.

McGrath, rather like the M.O., is fundamentally a good man but he is principally concerned with his own position and survival. When faced with overwhelming evidence and injustice, McGrath opts to accuse Williams of misconduct and will go even further in his condemnation of Williams….

The Commanding Officer and Stevens share certain traits. Neither seems very strong, determined or able, and each seems devoted to his wife. Stevens is a perfectly nice, home-loving man not made for the rigours of military discipline, while the C.O. appears somewhat ineffectual and leaves all the work and day to day administration of the camp to his staff, principally R.S.M. Wilson who is very happy to take on the duties, responsibility and position of running the camp.

In the end, Williams is to be investigated and Roberts is vindicated and relieved, but when the badly injured Roberts is threatened with a further assault by Williams, this proves too much for King and McGrath who set about Williams.

Roberts begs them to stop, insisting they have won and are now ruining everything. Reason and humanity had won over regulation and regimentation, but that advantage will be lost as King and McGrath resort to the kind of conduct they all fought to condemn. It must be said, however, that Williams’ squeals of panic and fear are most satisfying…

 

This is a superb, intimate and intense drama well served by the constant development of the story and the clearly defined characters. Sidney Lumet’s direction makes you feel like you have shared this experience in both time and space and he manages to lend dynamism and engagement to virtually every scene despite the confined and claustrophobic setting.

Sean Connery is the star whose presence undoubtedly allowed the production to go ahead but this is an ensemble cast. The acting by each participant is outstanding and Sean Connery was, I believe, rightly proud of this difficult but highly worthwhile film.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

 

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Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Reflections on characters and themes in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

 

Reflections on “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Written by Donn Pearce and Frank R Pierson

Starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy

 

The scene is set in the opening few minutes for the conflict, drama and influence that will form the core of interest as they are developed in the course of the film.

We first meet Luke as he calmly, if drunkenly, sets about removing parking metres from a series of evenly spaced and orderly posts and it is clear that this is a nonviolent but determined, if relaxed, expression of his dislike of regulation and the imposition of petty order by society on its citizens. When the police arrive, Luke gives a broad and friendly grin suggesting no malice and also indicating a natural, free spirit and even a degree of innocence or purity.

Next, we see a chain gang labouring in intense heat and under close supervision. In stark contrast to Luke’s free spirit, the convicts are totally submissive as they seek permission from their guards to take even the smallest action, such as removing an item of clothing, ending every request with “boss”. They appear to have learned and accepted, perhaps under pressure, their place in the prison pecking order, though by extension they may represent those citizens who have succumbed to regulation and authority in society.

When we meet the guards, they are generally faceless and expressionless, offering little or no interaction with their charges beyond giving or denying permission. They may represent anonymous authority whose power and dominance are emphasised by the way they are filmed, with shots from the back of the head or looking up from a position of inferiority.

When Luke and a few other new arrivals turn up, the more experienced inmates set about using rules and manipulating men and situations for their own amusement and effectively establishing a pecking order among the inmates, perhaps in a desire to build their own egos.

Initially, Luke does his time rather quietly but eventually, after a distant but sensually provocative encounter with a local temptress, he suggests to well-established inmate Dragline that he is doing himself and the others no favours by reliving the moment and sharing his thoughts and torment, and Dragline challenges him to a boxing match.

Luke is outmatched by his sizeable opponent but he refuses to concede defeat, perhaps demonstrating Luke’s attitude to life and its challenges in general. Each time he is knocked to the ground, he rises to face his adversary again, despite advice from the other convicts to stay down, perhaps reflecting a general attitude to life and authority among them. Luke virtually turns the other cheek and allows Dragline to knock him down again and this has the effect of removing the “sport” from the occasion, with no victory or defeat and reducing it to what it was always intended to be, a beating. The onlookers walk away in disappointment and dismay but this event has revealed Luke’s spirit and strength, and incites respect and admiration for Luke, and acceptance.

Two or three more events instil and extend Luke’s influence on his fellow inmates.

He wins a game of cards with a very poor hand but bluffs his way to success, almost in an act of faith and another refusal to concede, and he gains his nickname in the process, a sure sign of belonging and acceptance.

He lends purpose and excitement to the convicts’ lives by accepting a challenge to eat 50 boiled eggs. The preparation, support and associated betting surrounding this event do much to unite and uplift the spirits of the convicts who are no longer rule-bound and keen to build themselves up at the expense of others.

This injection of spirit and unity culminates in a display of determination and energy, bordering on defiance, when the men are instructed to resurface a lengthy stretch of road, a back-breaking and time-consuming task. They complete the work in record time as a result of Luke’s inspiration and high-spirited challenge to take on and exceed the expectations of the warden and guards. In so doing, the convicts complete the job on their own terms and are elated by the sense of success, control and freedom they experience. Of course, the guards are left anxious as, effectively, they lose control of the situation though their prisoners have done only what was asked of them, but they set the pace and did not behave as if this was a punishment. It appears that freedom can be achieved through an attitude of mind.

By now, Luke has achieved virtual hero status and he becomes an essential element in the convict community. He is consulted regularly on various aspects of prison life and he even adopts a certain familiarity with the guards who respond in kind. Things seem to be going relatively smoothly as Luke’s influence has raised the spirits of all concerned, fostering a brighter and more positive outlook.

Luke’s mother visits him and we are given some insight into his upbringing. It appears his father was never around though he bears his father no ill will, and Luke clearly loves his mother who has always admired Luke’s spirit and winning ways, to the extent that she declares she has always favoured him above his brother. She informs Luke she is dying and will leave her worldly goods to his brother by way of compensation for her favouritism and preference. Luke is unperturbed by this apparent slight as he clearly values his mother’s love and admiration above mere possessions.

The turning point in the film and the direction it and Luke take comes with the death of Luke’s mother, or rather the actions of the warden and guards in response to news of her death. Luke is incarcerated in “the box”, a sort of isolated and cramped punishment cell, to ensure he makes no attempt to escape and attend her funeral. This lack of compassion and understanding is in sharp contrast with the easy-going acceptance of position and authority, and the humanity Luke has fostered since his arrival and he tells the guard that stating he is doing his job does not make it right.

Luke may always have been ready to challenge the status quo and identify inconsistencies or injustices, but he has shown willing, while in prison, to compromise and accept his punishment, but this blatant injustice and inhumanity pushes him over the edge and he is no longer willing to play the game.

Luke sets out to escape and does so with the connivance and collaboration of his fellow inmates. They almost seem to live their lives vicariously through Luke and his exploits, and his daring, panache and style assure his hero status in their eyes.

Although recaptured, he escapes again, duping the guards and further building his standing. He even manages to send a photo of himself with two attractive young ladies to Dragline and this image cements Luke’s iconic status for the others who, like many, seem to need someone or something greater than themselves to believe in, if only to give them hope as they face difficult or insurmountable circumstances.

Eventually captured once again, Luke is punished by having to repeatedly dig a grave-shaped ditch and refill it until he is utterly exhausted and is willing to capitulate and concede to the warden’s demands. Clearly, the warden and guards seek to destroy his image and status by publicly destroying the man while Luke’s friends sing spiritual songs in an effort to maintain his morale. He is knocked into what is effectively a grave and this may be intended to represent the death of his defiance. He arises a broken and weakened man willing to accept whatever conditions are demanded if it means he can stop digging.

As he faces his fellow convicts, despondent and physically and emotionally exhausted, Luke rejects his hero status and the pressure that entails by stating that he has failed and the image he sent during his escape was faked. Dreadfully disheartened and disappointed, they lose heart as they lose faith in their hero. One convict symbolically tears up the image and it is stashed under a mattress.

In one final daring, intelligent and stylish bid to escape, Luke steals a truck while on a work detail and Dragline, carried away by excitement and inspiration, jumps on as well. However, Luke seems to be aware he will not make it, separates from Dragline and heads to a town church where he proceeds to pray to and address God.

This is the culmination of a whole series of Christian images, including the way he lies when he is placed on a table, suggesting Luke may be viewed as something of a Christ figure.

He is a pure-hearted loner who has challenged, without violence, the political and moral status quo, has shown humanity, turned the other cheek and lifted the spirits of all those around him. His family background is familiar and he was rejected by those he helped, and now Dragline effectively acts as Judas as he draws the authorities to Luke, albeit believing he is actually doing Luke a favour.

In the church, Luke talks to God and says he can’t understand the path He has chosen for him, and asks for a sign whereupon Dragline appears. In the end, Luke is fatally wounded and Dragline turns on the authorities, leading to further punishment, yet Dragline goes on to talk vividly about his friend’s exploits and character, almost like a disciple. In the final scenes, the work party sets about its work but all are reasonably positive and inspired. Luke may have died but his sacrifice (for he knew things would not turn out well for him) has led to a change of attitude. Spiritual freedom has been achieved even if the same physical restraints are still in place.

As we pull away from the work party, a crossroads forming a cross comes into view, and the torn image of Luke with his lady friends also appears, showing the same cross where the photo has been repaired…..

The script and direction of this excellent film maintain pace and engagement throughout, though the film really takes off in the second half with Luke’s unjust imprisonment in the box. All the characters are nicely fleshed out and played but Paul Newman and George Kennedy certainly deserve particular credit and praise.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie         stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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