Reflections on a variety of films and topics - Seven Samurai, It's a Wonderful Life, Don Quixote, We're no angels, War for the planet of the apes, Dunkirk, The African Queen, Babette's Feast, Dances with Wolves, The Prisoner (1967), Inherit the wind, humour in drama, nature of regret, the influence of multimedia, memoirs of a teacher of French.
Please scroll down or find on the right links to articles, pages of reflections on films, books, TV series (including "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 .
A link to my YouTube channel with video presentations of a number of my pages.
Having retired from teaching fairly recently, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to the various chapters on the right, though chunks of the text (but perhaps not all) may also appear below. If you suffer from insomnia, this may help!
Click on the arrows to access links to 2016 and then December.
I can be contacted through the comments sections or at email@example.com
Starring Humphrey Bogart,
Walter Huston and Tim Holt
A video presentation of this material is available here.
“The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre” opens in oil-rich Tampico in Mexico in the 1920s, a place and
time which attracted many due to the lure of readily available natural
resources and the presence of enterprising businessmen all too willing to seek
their fortunes by plundering these resources.
Unfortunately for Fred
Dobbs and Bob Curtin, by the time of their arrival the major oil field had all
but dried up and we witness Dobbs forced to beg in the streets in order to
Dobbs (and by extension, Curtin) are reduced
to the level of beggars and have thus, apparently, reached the bottom of the
barrel. They may be viewed as desperate, worthless and unworthy of respect. But
they have not resorted to criminality. They may lack money and social standing
but they retain a modicum of self-respect as they remain honest and seek work
in order to get by. Indeed, within the fraternity of the impoverished there is
evidence of human compassion, understanding and sympathy despite, or perhaps exactly
because of, their shared hard times.
Dobbs is approached to buy
a lottery ticket by a young Mexican lad. He is initially unpleasant to him and
gruffly rejects the boy’s sales pitch. However, the boy accepts Dobbs’ rough
treatment of him and persists in his attempt to make even a small sale,
indicating his desperation. After reflection, Dobbs buys a lowly part-share in
the lottery ticket almost as a way of helping the boy survive, suggesting
Dobbs’ fundamental humanity despite his situation, frustration and anger.
Dobbs and Curtin consider
themselves the dregs of society and are grateful to receive offers of work from
Pat McCormick. However, Mr McCormick represents a section of society which is
without scruples and is willing to take advantage of Dobbs and Curtin’s
situation, desperation and willingness to work. He scams them (along with
several others) of their pay, showing no remorse or compassion and is willing
to advance self-interest at the expense of others. Dobbs and Curtin may have
hit an all-time low, but they would not sink to these depths.
Eventually, they catch up
with McCormick and demand what is theirs. There is a vicious fight and when
Dobbs and Curtin emerge the victors, they take their spoils. However, they take
only what was due to them. Anything more would have been theft and that is
clearly against their honest natures.
Next, they meet Howard
who offers an alternative to financial struggle and dependence on others for
survival. He is a gold-digger and he presents a less traditional and less
society-dependent way of getting by – seeking gold. He embodies spirit, hope
and determination while readily recognising the awful consequences on men of
seeking and finding gold – a lack of trust in others and increased selfishness
– though he appears willing to live with these consequences if it means he can
access wealth by way of gold.
And so, they form a team
and set off in search of their fortunes. They travel a considerable distance
across Mexico and leave behind “civilisation”, society and the social
structures they impose. Large social groups involve complex frameworks which
allow their members to co-exist, support one another and eventually become
interdependent. They come to rely on one another to provide services but also a
source of income, a means of getting by and even fraternity. This dependence on
one another requires trust and reliability – they need one another to survive,
especially financially. The gaining of excessive wealth removes the fundamental
need for such structure and dependence on others, and may lead to distrust and
suspicion as the wealthy become protective, self-centred and unwilling to
Thanks to Howard’s
experience and hard-won knowledge they find their gold and gradually Howard’s
warnings of loss of trust and selfishness come true. Dobbs is particularly
distrustful, perhaps because he felt shame at his circumstances in Tampico and
has no desire to return to that social position and so becomes highly
protective of his finds, and he makes accusations which do little to build or
retain any sense of fraternity and confidence between the men.
Thus, Dobbs, Curtin and
to a lesser extent Howard (who knew to expect this consequence of finding
wealth) have a taste of independence, yet they realise they remain reliant on
one another’s honesty. Alone and in the wilderness far from social niceties of
morality and laws, trust evaporates and they start to lose sight of one
another’s principles and are increasingly aware of criminal possibilities.
Curiously, they remain
fundamentally honest at this point as they merely express distrust in one
another and wish to protect their own gains. They do not seek to take what
isn’t theirs – it is not a question of personal greed but rather suspicion of
greed and dishonesty on the part of the others.
This situation should be
compared to earlier scenes in which, jobless and taken advantage of, Dobbs is
willing to share his good fortune (when he wins a small share of the lottery)
to stake Curtin in their gold-seeking venture. They share what little they have
after receiving no pay and they are happy and willing to help one another when
all are needy and require assistance. Their common needs help them to form a
social pact in which each supports the other to the benefit of all concerned.
The arrival of a
stranger, Cody, who wishes to throw in with them (on a basis of honesty and
fair shares) tips the already teetering balance of morality in favour of
self-preservation. Our three seekers of wealth hold a reasoned discussion
regarding Cody and they decide they should murder him in order to protect and
advance their own interests, pure and simple. They consider this action
acceptable if all three share the guilt. This marks a notable deterioration in
the view of morality of all three – not only are they willing to take a life
merely to advance their own interests, they recognise they will feel guilt (and
thus that they are doing wrong) but they are ready to live with it if it means
they can have their gold.
They make their way to
Cody in order to take his life but encounter a common enemy on the way –
bandits who are also willing to do anything to advance their own interests,
including taking the lives of our band of gold-seekers. Cody defends himself
and his would-be murderers against the bandits but pays with his life.
Having survived the
bandit attack and recognising Cody’s contribution, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard
discover a letter to Cody from his beloved wife. While previously they regarded
Cody simply as a threat to the accomplishment of their mission, the reading of
this letter brings home to them that Cody had a past, relationships,
responsibilities and a future – he did not belong solely to their present. We
are all multi-facetted individuals whose paths cross and exercise influence on
others and it is often too easy to see individuals only in terms of their
immediate effect on us.
Upon reflection, and
having gained a wider perspective on friend Cody and his life, and taken in to
account the fact he helped them survive the bandit attack, they decide to share
a portion of their good fortune with his family in Texas.
We see that they remain
open to empathy and compassion as they are reminded of social structures and
warm relationships, but continued isolation, obsession and desperation lead to
a lack of consideration and respect for others. Thus, en route toward
“civilisation”, Dobbs shows himself willing to kill Curtin as his suspicions
and paranoia get the better of him. He has been so focused on gold for so long
that he has lost perspective and is now losing the one thing he retained
despite everything – his honesty. Even when reduced to the status of a beggar
in the streets he held on to his honesty. Now, technically wealthy, he loses
his grip on self-respect and morality as he shoots Curtin and takes all the
gold. He believes he has killed him but is plagued by guilt and uncertainty,
especially when Curtin’s body disappears.
Virtually within sight of
a town and the means to cash in on his efforts, Dobbs encounters some of the
murderous bandits he has met on at least two previous occasions. In the end,
Dobbs is murdered for next to nothing while his fortune in gold dust is not
even recognised for what it is (the bandit assumes it is sand and empties the
bags containing it on the ground). The few goods for which he is murdered have
more immediate value to his murderer than the fortune Dobbs has spent an age
uncovering. All that matters to his bandit killer is that Dobbs had something
he wanted or needed. The value was of no consequence. Perhaps Dobbs was
travelling down the same path toward similar values – he had crossed the line
and having lost his grip on morality and his self-respect, he might have been
tempted to kill (as he thought) again.
On the way to the
mountains our group encountered fierce winds and there were warnings that nature
will not be defeated. As they approach the town, winds are once again raised
into a violent storm and they whip up sand, soil and gold dust which they carry
off, returning it to its rightful resting place. Nature has indeed triumphed
over man’s petty efforts to gain from it.
When faced with this
devastating loss, Howard and Curtin (who survived Dobbs’ attack) recognise the
irony of the situation and concede defeat. They laugh uncontrollably at the
ease with which nature has reclaimed that which took several months of hard
labour to wrest from the Earth.
They ponder their futures
and are not tempted to further pursue apparently easy-gotten wealth. On the way
from the mountain, Howard saved the life of a native child through applying
what was, for him, basic medical knowledge, but the villagers are willing to
adopt him as a sort of medicine man and Howard decides to take them up on their
proposes to head to Texas to look up Cody’s wife. Perhaps he hopes to pick up
the life Cody left behind.
It is interesting to note
that both survivors of this venture opt for futures in society, surrounded by
people and in the warmth of relationships rather than pursue gold which, they
have seen, can lead to the destruction of relationships, the breakdown of society
and unleash an unattractive and amoral independent streak in men.
The script and direction by
John Huston are completely assured, engaging and clear. The general atmosphere
of social desperation and the gradual descent into suspicion, paranoia and
amorality are superbly done and are presented as a natural progression (or
deterioration) at a steady pace.
I have to say that for me
a couple of the plot developments seemed a little unnatural. The letter from
Cody’s wife seemed to trigger too easy a transition to compassion, and Howard’s
saving of the native boy and his quasi-mystical induction into the tribe seemed
contrived, but both these elements served the purpose of opening up the story
and offered social alternatives to the self-centred and obsessive pursuit of
All the actors acquitted
themselves remarkably well, though special mention must be made of Walter
Huston’s Academy Award-winning performance. His shrewd but likeable Howard
encapsulates the strength, character and spirit of those willing to chance
everything but able to pick themselves up if or when they fail.
Humphrey Bogart is simply
outstanding as Fred Dobbs. He captures brilliantly Dobbs’ deterioration from
the honest, ambitious but failing down-and-out to the suspicious, lost and
demented wealthy man who loses everything, including perspective, before he
loses his very life.
My thanks for taking the
time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
A video presentation of this material is available here.
Part documentary, part
social commentary and part drama, this is an adventure story with a difference.
Adapted from the vivid, colourful and gripping autobiography of Henri
Charrière, “Papillon” dares to challenge the premise, integrity and merit of
the French colonial penal system of the 1930s (French Guiana ceased receiving
convicts in 1938 and was closed in 1953).
Papillon (the nickname of
Henri Charrière), Louis Dega and their companions are all convicted criminals
and are to be dispatched to French Guiana for the duration of their sentences
(and double it in some cases) as France, they are told, has washed her hands of
them. Papillon insists he is innocent of the murder for which he was condemned,
though he does not deny involvement in lesser crimes. Dega is a forger and
embezzler. Thus, a major issue and challenge in terms of audience investment in
the film is sympathy, or lack of it, for the main characters. The source of
interest and key to engagement with the film is not indignation at a
miscarriage of justice, but rather an investigation into the conditions and treatment
of those incarcerated, the appropriateness of punishment to fit crimes
committed, and an examination of effects (both negative and, amazingly,
positive) of incarceration and treatment such as those meted out at that time.
From the outset it is
made clear that these men have lost more than their freedom as a price for
their crimes – they have lost their homes, their families, their country, their
dignity, their rights and their futures. The relatively naïve and unworldly
Louis Dega desperately tries to hold on to trust in his wife and lawyer to
extricate him from his predicament, but he is quickly disabused of this notion
by the more worldly-wise Papillon. He suggests that from that moment on and in
that place (though perhaps also in life in general) it is every man for himself
and each must do what he has to do in order to survive. They make a mutually
beneficial pact which will form the basis of a long and rewarding friendship
The harsh reality of
their circumstances hits home as Papillon defends Dega from murderous thieves,
a young fellow convict, unable to cope with his situation, is killed in an
apparent bid to escape, and another wounds himself seriously to ensure he is
sent to hospital where he will have time to reflect on how best to try to
escape. Hopelessness and desperation set in when a fellow convict who has tried
to escape once too often is guillotined before their eyes as a warning.
Apparently, washing her
hands of these convicts means France is willing to turn a blind eye to
corruption, institutional violence, racism, bullying and, of course,
deprivation of human rights as guards and staff accept bribes, organise bounty
hunters to foil escapes (sharing the bounty), use convicts’ efforts to fill
their own pockets and apply pressure by deprivation as a means of “persuasion”
Deprived of hope,
rehabilitation and humanity, Papillon and his compadres are driven to take
matters into their own hands and set out to escape.
It could be argued that the
penal system itself should be viewed as the principal antagonist, compelling
its prisoners to comply, face destruction or defy it and seek escape.
Curiously, those who choose defiance discover unknown or untested depths of
character in themselves and learn to admire and value aspects and traits of
common humanity they may previously have taken for granted or simply not
These men are far from
innocent and readily admit their wrongdoings but they are driven to greater
acts of criminality by a system which pushes them to desperation merely to
survive and leaves them with little or no sense of self-worth. Somewhat
ironically, facing such hardships and inhumane treatment brings out the best in
Papillon, Dega and their fellows as they discover the value of friendship,
loyalty, determination, courage, compassion and spirit, all in the pursuit of
freedom from what they may regard as punishment out of proportion with their
Papillon refuses to
denounce Dega after the latter supplied coconuts during the former’s solitary
confinement, an act of loyalty Dega has not previously experienced, but is much
appreciated by him. Dega physically helps his friends escape, showing courage
and loyalty of which he never knew he was capable and lepers show compassion by
providing a boat for Papillon and his group because he and his friends treat
the lepers with respect and consideration.
Those who share hardship
and difficulty may share a bond which forges friendship, compassion and
understanding, often in contrast to those who enforce regimes that cause such
hardship and who may even display some of the qualities and behaviours
condemned by legal systems and courts.
I am unconvinced that
Henri Charrière learned the lessons depicted in the film or set out to draw
attention to the themes developed within it. Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple
Jr.’s script distils and accentuates elements touched upon in Charrière’s much
disputed but fascinating account of his adventures.
In passing, I would point
out that Charrière’s book was published just over a century after Victor Hugo wrote
“Les Misérables” in which he set out to describe the consequences of an
inhumane and heartless penal system and how, with a little compassion and
understanding, a man’s life can be turned around.
Franklin J. Schaffner
took a difficult and perhaps unsympathetic subject and managed to wring
sympathy and concern from it by focusing on the harshness of the environment
and regime, and the stoicism of his protagonists underpinned by their slow but
steady development as flawed human beings, but all tinged with regret and
perhaps despair at the sheer waste of life on display.
Steve McQueen and Dustin
Hoffman are quite superb in their roles. Hoffman’s nervy, twitchy and downright
annoying performance captures perfectly the quirky, awkward and increasingly sorrowful
Dega and is in direct contrast with McQueen’s calm, controlled and determined
Papillon. Many write Steve McQueen off as just another action hero (albeit a
charismatic one) but anyone who ever doubted his acting ability should see his
performance here, especially in the scenes of solitary confinement. Sheer heart-rending
My thanks for taking the
time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.