Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” (1967)

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Kobayashi’s “Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu” (Samurai Rebellion, 1967) is like “Kwaidan” in starting slowly and building to a searing climax, and in being enhanced by a fine musical score by Takemitsu Toru, but if it is a horror movie, the horror is capricious human tyranny, nothing ghostly. (It has a different cinematographer, but another great one, Yamada Kazuo, who shot “Miyamoto Musashi,” the third part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, and “Chushingura”/47 Ronin).

After an opening scene of the senior swordsmen testing a new sword, a scene that is fairly mystifying at the time, but in retrospect becomes very important, the first hour or so of “Samurai Rebellion,” looks like an Ozu film set in 1727. That is, it looks like a story of family adjustment in pretty tightly confined space (a traditional Japanese house rather than a modern apartment).

Matsudaira (Matsumura Tatsuo), the daimyô (feudal lord) who was the senior swordsmen from the first scene, sends an underling with what amounts to an order for Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune Toshirô) to marry his eldest son to a woman, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko), discarded by the daimyo after she bore him a son. Not unreasonably, Isaburo wants to know what she did that she is being banished from the castle, but the emissary will not tell him. He and the wife (Ôtsuka Michiko) he loathes both oppose the marriage, but the son Yogoro (Katô Gô) agrees to do as the daimyo wishes for the good of the family.

The exiled/disgraced woman turns out to be a model wife, even placating her tyrannical mother-in-law. Yogoro comes to love the wife who was forced on him and she him. She tells him what happened to get her banished (in a flashback within a flashback) and vows to stop worrying about the son she left in the castle. Soon she bears a daughter, on whom Isaburo dotes.

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Then, the heir apparent of the clan dies, leaving Ichi’s son as the only heir. It is not proper for the mother of the future daimyô to be married to a vassal, so she is recalled. The clan leaders demand that Yogoro petition the daimyô to take Ichi back. He refuses, backed by his father. This leads to some extremely tense deputations, clan meetings, household bickering, and getting Ichi out of the house by trickery. The formality of the meetings is very striking, but the resistance by Ichi, Yogoro, and Isaburo is unwavering.

The final negotiation in the courtyard of the Sasahara family is amazing (like the finale of “Harakiri”). I don’t think that it is giving much away to say that the long-delayed swordfight occurs. Actually, there are three major fights in the last half hour of the film. Isaburo slays a lot of the daimyô ‘s swordsmen (as Mifune did in a number of other samurai movies). The duel between Isaburo and the other master from the opening scene (Kobayashi’s frequent star, Nakadai Tatsuya, who also played in many Kurosawa films, some with Mifune, and after Kurosawa’s epically stupid break with Mifune, the leading roles in “Kagemusha” and “Ran”) finally comes.

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The restraint of Mifune and Nakadai, their extreme reluctance to fight, are impressive. The visual composition of every scene is, also. As I already indicated, many are in confined indoor spaces, but the outdoor shots are every bit as carefully framed. A messenger’s headlong ride on an isolated road and the outpost guarded by Nakadai are particularly haunting (aided by the music of Takemitsu Toru).

The stylization of encounters in feudal Japan apparently bores some audiences, but I think it is fascinating as portrayed in the films of the great postwar Japanese film-makers. The leading characters in many of the films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ichikawa go through hells of various sorts, many of them perishing. “Samurai Rebellion” is not light entertainment. Everybody does not live happily ever after. Indeed, hardly any of the characters have any chance of doing so! The characters here are pushed beyond endurance and rise to heroism in resisting tyranny within rigid rules. Not the special effects but the characters are actions in “Samurai Rebellion” and are awe-inspiring.

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This was the second Kobayashi film I ever saw (the first, which I have not rewatched was the much heralded (Including Oscar-nominated) 1964 trilogy of ghost stories “K[w]aidan”) and the last of his films available on Hulu or Criterion. (There were six more, including the 4-hour documentary on the Tokyo war crimes trial, before he died in 1996.) I think that “Samurai Rebellion” has the best Mifune performance not directed by Kurosawa.

 

©2016, Stephen O . Murray

 

 

 

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Harrowing critique of samurai ethos: “Harakiri”/Seppuku”

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“Seppuku” (“Harakiri,” 1962, directed by Kobayashi Masaki), is a bit too long. It takes a while to get going, but becomes enthralling (if more than a little horrifying), and all too relevant to organizational dissembling in other times and places than Pax Tokugawa Japan ca. 1630. Like Kobayashi’s excellent and excruciating “Human Condition “trilogy, the movie’s convincingness depends on the great Nakadai Tatsuya (who also played the gunslinger in “Rashomon” and the central roles in Kurosawa’s last great historical movies, “Kagemusha” and “Ran”).Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion,” in which Nakadai played an important part, but Mifune Toshiro played the central role akin to Nakadai’s in “Seppuku,” is not quite as horrifying (it is similarly withering a critique of the bushido code that the humiliated heroes live and die by). As the younger ronin Ishihama Akira (Boyhood, My Sons’ Youth,  The Rose on His Arm) is also extraordinary.

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The gruesome, extremely unerotic suicides in  are motivated by parental and uxorial love (and the samurai honor code). The first suicide (with a bamboo sword, a scene that made a number of those in the audience of the film’s première at Cannes faint) stems from a desperate father (Motome portrayed by Ishihama),trying to feed his sick wife and child. This story is told in flashback by  Nakadai, as Tsugomo, a ronin who spends most of the movie immobile kneeling in the center of the same courtyard, seething with bitterness and guilt and discomfiting Iyi Clan elder, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni).

After telling Motome’s story and his relationship(s) to Motome, Tsugomo takes many Iyi retainers with him. It is a stunningly acted and photographed film with Takemitsu Tori’s first soundtrack (a very innovative one), bravura cinematography by Kobayashi regular Miyajima Yoshio, and one of many mesmerizing performances by Nakadai.

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The alternation of Takemitsu Toru ‘s haunting, spare music and lack of any background music is very effective and the visual compositions are very impressive (as in “Samurai Rebellion” which is even more geometrical). The suppressions and explosions of emotion are very Japanese, as are the seppuku rituals, the glorification of suicide, and the rigidly frozen assemblies. Like the “Human Condition” trilogy, it is a forbidding masterpiece, but definitely a masterpiece.

There is a superbly remastered Criterion edition (Bluray and DVD), with a second disc that includes interviews with Kobayashi (interviewed by Shinoda Masahiro, and less voluble than Shinoda), Nakadai, and screenwriter Hashimoto Shinobu (the latter two are forthcoming, providing insights into their processes and the making of the movie).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s Magnum Opus: “The Human Condition” trilogy

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Perhaps there are many Japanese movies that have not been exported about the perilous situation of Japanese soldiers at the time of the empire’s surrender concluding World War II. Counting Kobayashi Masaki’s “Ningen no joken” (released as the trilogy “The Human Condition” in the West, as a tetraolgy in Japan) as one, there are three stunningly photographed and emotionally devastating late-1950s Japanese movies about the end of the war for soldiers at the edges that did make it to international audiences: Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma” (obviously set in Burma, though mostly filmed in Japan), Ichikawa’s “Fire on the Plains” (set in the Philippines), and Kobayashi’s ten-hour portrayal of the sufferings of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) in Manchuria.

The full impact (wallop!) of the movie requires not knowing what difficulties are going to befall Kaji next, so I recommend skipping my plot discussion (even though I am not going to reveal the ending), blocking out the ten hours (the first DVD runs 208 minutes, the second 181 minutes, the third 190 minutes) and watching the whole thing. Beginning in 1961, there was a theater in Tokyo that showed the whole thing every night for two years. I don’t know if any suicides resulted, though it would be easy to understand them. One DVD at a time seems harsh enough a regimen to me, though the finale is heartbreaking even with a week between each part, the way I saw it.

Storyline

Although a war movie, one of the greatest ones ever made, indeed, it takes roughly seven hours to get to a battle. The first part (“No Greater Love“) shows Kaji in 1943 as a fresh-faced idealist advocating more humane treatment of slave labor and in love. He is exempted from the draft and sent into northern Manchuria to try out his ideas in a slave labor (mining) camp. Productivity rises with (Japanese) prostitutes servicing the (Chinese) laborers. Arrangements are complicated considerably when prisoners are consigned to hard labor. The military commanders don’t care how many prisoners die, so long as none escape. Kaji attempts to protect all the workers and the conflict with the military culminates in his being tortured by the military at the end of the first part.

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The second part (“The Road to Eternity“) shows Kaji survived the torture, but was thrown into the army. He again gets in trouble with the brutal veterans trying to protect a sad-sack fellow draftee (Tanaka Kumie) in whatever Japanese boot camp is called. The physically and emotionally strong Kaji is then put in charge of a new group of recruits. In the second part, he is beaten up by Japanese soldiers denied taking out their aggressions on the new draftees. Kaji and half the new soldiers, including one transfixed with the full samurai honor code, Terada (Kawazu Yusuke) are out on a ditch-digging assignment when the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and its troops swarm into Manchuria.

Soviet tanks roll over the Japanese position, but do not notice Kaji and Terada. The third part (“A Soldier’s Prayer“) shows their difficult journey south. Various other refugees (including some “comfort women”) join them, as Kaji again takes responsibility for trying to save others. He expels a trio of marauding Japanese soldiers from the group, and an old friend of his who is a True Believer in communism goes off to surrender. Kaji and Terada become Soviet prisoners, and find the Japanese soldiers they expelled have positions as trustees in the Soviet prison/slave labor camp in which the other Japanese are being starved. Before they are all shipped off to Siberia (where survivors were held eight years), after failing to save Terada, Kaji escapes with the aid of his friend (whose faith has only slightly been shaken by the egregious mistreatment of the Japanese POWs) and sets off across a frozen hell. Even with all the suffering Kaji has seen and endured, indeed, in that he has survived so much and is resolute in his determination to get back to his wife Machiko (Aratama Michiyo, last seen on a visit to the army camp in the middle of the second part), Hollywood-raised audiences anticipate the final triumph of the great-souled Kaji… But this is not a Hollywood movie.

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The incidents shown are searing. Nakadai Tatsuya—who was discovered by Kobayashi and starred in most of his movies and was also in more Kurosawa movies than Mifune was, played the main characters in the towering late Kurosawa masterpieces “Kagemusha” and “Ran”—is more than charismatic as he attempts to hold onto humane ideals and a sense of social responsibility in very extreme conditions. His interruption of beheadings in the first part, the visit of his wife when they are allowed a night in a warehouse with no blankets, his conduct on the battleground and in trying to save as many people as he can in the trek south and inside the Soviet prison camp are heroic in a very stoical way. Both his patrons and those outraged by Kaji’s treatment of enemies (and Japanese subordinates) as human are strikingly portrayed, with Kawazu Yusuke’s changes in the part of Terada especially compelling. Aratama Michiyo does not have a whole lot to do, but her own bravery in visiting her suspect husband is unmistakable.

The final part provides the most stunning vistas and grimmest images (though the botched beheading in part one is not easily forgotten). The cinematography by Miyajima Yoshio is superb throughout, flashiest in “A Soldier’s Prayer.” The musical score by Kinoshita Chuji is markedly restrained in contrast to the bombast of Hollywood war movies (recent ones as well as those made during World War II) and the sentimentality of other soundtracks for his brother Keisuke’s films or for Kobayashi’s earlier ones.

The set of movies is based on a novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, but also upon Kobayashi’s experiences while stationed in Manchuria at the end of the Second World War. Although running ten hours with intermissions, “The Human Condition” does not drag (as Kobayashi’s movie best-known in the West, “Kwaidan,” seems to be to do, though its visual composition in color are remarkable). The middle part is a bit baffling, and perhaps suffered some cuts, though the basic situation and trajectory are clear.

The print and soundtrack used were somewhat compromised by age (and 2.2:1 is not quite the original aspect ratio), but they are more than adequate to show what a stupendous masterpiece Kobayashi wrought. (There are Japanese side-titles for Chinese speech and English subtitles under the picture.) “The Human Condition” makes “The Bridge on the River Kwai” look quite silly in comparison, with an indictment of Japanese militarism (and licensed mayhem) that is both more credible and stronger than that much-honored movie.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

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The National Steinbeck Center has some John Steinbeck memorabilia and multi-media somewhat-interactive displays. The number of different videos and audiotape goins simultaneously make for overlapping sound. To listen to Steinbeck’s resonant Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the perfectiability of man, I sat down on the floor practically behind a wall (of the gazebo in Sag Harbor in which he found all inspiration to write gone).

The exhibits begin with East of Eden and end with Travels with Charly, though earlier work is featured in between. I thought that I had read most of what Steinbeck wrote before I was born, but I didn’t even know there was a book of WWII reportage, Once There Was a War, that includes the landing at Salerno.

I can say that I turned the crank of a model-T. Not that it started the engine, or that I understood why it was in the East of Eden room, but, hey! I turned it.

It seems Steinbeck wrote in pencil (legibly) on yellow legal-size pads. There is a book titled Steinbeck’s Typewriter that has a picture of a typewriter that is at San José State, but if he typed, it was to copy pencil drafts. Or to answer correspondence?

I wonder how much The Moon Is Down influenced the Nobel judges. If the award had come during the 40s, it probably would have been met with less contempt than it was in the early 60s. It might have dried him more completely sooner.

Anthony Burgess wrote that Steinbeck was a worthy but not an important writer. Steinbeck was an important writer in the New Deal era, though Burgess means important as a writer to the arts of writing. The chords Steinbeck struck must continue, since all his books of fiction seem to be in print.

Steinbeck wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson and was an appreciated supporter of LBJ’s war (in which both of his sons fought). A liberal humanist (I saw part of “The Forgotten Village”), I won’t hold him responsible for Spencer Tracy’s hammy trickster-drunk in Tortilla Flat” (also on display with the less condescebding performance of John Garfield).

The Nobel speech connects to Faulkner, someone less likely to be compared to Steinbeck than Hemingway. (Steinbeck scoffed at the dialogue of The Sun Also Rises, but realized Hemingway’s prose mattered in ways his writing didn’t.)

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We had lunch  at the large Victorian house a few blocks away (at 124 Central Avenue) in which Steinbeck  was born in 1902 and in which he  lived in until he left to start Stanford in 1917. It is now a restaurant maintained by a local nonprofit guild, with  some memorabilia on display with photos, and a gift shop called Best Cellar on the side at ground level.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The Steinbeck Festival in Salinas is this week, and for my blog it’s now back to Kobayashi films. I’ve posted on the best movies based on Steinbeck fiction and two of his best known and most California Central Valley fictions, The Red Pony (within The Long Valley) and Of Mice and Men. I think the best introduction to his work is The Portable Steinbeck.

 

 

John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony”

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John Steinbeck‘s “The Red Pony” is far from being a heartwarming book for children. It is, rather, a chilling book partly about an only child on a meso-California farm early in the 20th century and almost as much about old people whom middle-aged people are impatient to be rid of.

It is an indicator of American values that the death of a pet rather than the despair of human elders is what is remembered of this pseudo-novel. It is actually four stories that Steinbeck did not bother to edit for continuity (reintroducing the characters in each). The first three stories originally appeared together in what must have been a very short book, a 1937 limited edition. The sequence of four stories end the one collection of short stories Steinbeck published, The Long Valley(1938). The first one, “The Gift” was filmed as “The Red Pony” in 1948 (with a young Beau Bridges).

The boy Jody Tiflin gets ponies in the first and third stories (The Gift, The Promise). The red pony of the title does not survive the first story. And Jody takes out some of his anguish at the loss on a “buzzard” (a turkey vulture). The hatred of carrion-eaters is foreshadowed, but the scene is very powerful. Jody’s stern father, Carl, chides Jody: “The buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?” The wise ranch-hand and horse expert, Billy Buck, sticks up for him. “Can’t you see how he’d feel about it?” is the last line of the story. The answer to the question is no. The father gives no indication in any of the stories of having any inkling of what his son is feeling. The father recurrently belittles the boy and is none too considerate of the feelings of others, either.

The relatively inconsequential third story, “The Promise” concerns waiting for a replacement colt to be born. It also ends in pools of blood, the old (mare) being sacrificed for the young (colt).

“The Great Mountains,” the second story centers on an old Mexican who was born on what is now the Tiflin farm who comes back to die where he began. This is not an idea that meets with Carl Tiflin’s approval. Jody has been very curious about the back-country and wants to know from Gitano what it is like. Gitano decides to go up into the mountains to die and rides off on the old horse (Easter) Carl has been using as an example of the useless old who should be shot.

The final story, “The Leader of the People,” provides a variation on the theme of the second story. Again, Jody is interested in hearing about the wild(er) past and listens to an old man to whom no one else pays any attention. This time it is not a stranger with heretofore unknown connections to the Tiflin ranch, but Jody’s maternal grandfather.

Carl is unhappy to learn that his father-in-law is coming for a stay. Carl knows that the old man will tell the same stories in exactly the same words for the umpteenth time. Jody can see that his mother is not listening to her father’s stories of leading a wagon train, fighting Indians, and whatnot. Jody is balanced between his childish interest in the adventure stories and compassion for the old man. Jody knows what it is like to be crushed by harsh words from Carl.

Carl is brusque, trying to block the old stories after dinner, but failing. In the morning, before Grandfather has emerged, Carl is complaining to his wife, “Why can’t he forget it, not it’s done. Why does he have to tell them over and over? He came across the plains. All right! Now it’s finished. Nobody wants to hear about it over and over.” He has the grace to be ashamed of the pain he has inflicted.

Grandfather tries to explain to Jody, “I tell those old stories, but they’re not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.” Whether or not Jody understands that, he has advanced from self-absorption to recognizing and want to provide balm for wounds inflicted by his father on others. This is more of a happy ending than the other stories, either the others in The Red Pony, or those in The Long Valley.

Jody grows up a bit between the first story and the last, at least in terms of thinking and caring about others. I don’t think the totality is a “coming of age.” Nor do I think that the four stories form a novel. More variations on two themes.

The Red Pony strikes me as being more suitable for young readers than Of Mice and Men is. I think that young readers can understand and identify with the longings of the very young and the very old as portrayed in The Red Pony and also the idealization of Billy Buck, the noble cowboy who understands Jody better than his father does. The deaths of horses and of one unlucky vulture are gruesome.

For adults there is the conflict of the generations and, especially in “The Leader of the People” a representation of conjugal tension. There is less of a sense than in many other Steinbeck writings that the males would be happier if there was no woman around. The character of the mother is little developed—less so than the elders who appear in only one story each. Other than defending her father’s prattling she does very little other than nag Jody about stocking the kitchen woodpile. She does not appear to have any trouble managing three or four males of three generations.

In Steinbeck, there are loving mothers and there are dangerously sexual women. The only sex in Red Pony is equine—and violent. Elsewhere in The Long Valley are slightly veiled panics about female sexual desire (“The Snake,” “The Chrysanthemums”) and portrayal of women all but killing men’s spirits (“The Harness”; also the novella Of Mice and Men).

©2001, 2016

I spent the last week in “Steinbeck country” (Monterey County, California) and interrupted my voyage into the most harrowing Kobayashi films. I’ll get to the “Human Condition” trilogy soon. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is celebrating its annual Steinbeck festival and I visited the house in which he was born and the National Steinbeck Center on Thursday (see photo atop my reflections on films adapted from his fiction here).

John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”

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Roughly a hundred pages, and easily transformed into a play and movie, Of Mice and Men would seem to be John Steinbeck’s tightest construction. It has a plot that does not seem forced even though its design is very schematic. Like ancient Greek tragedies—or those of Steinbeck’s contemporary and fellow Novel laureate, Eugene O’Neill — the doom is foreshadowed from the beginning and fate moves inexorably to cut down men and to dash their plans.

For the migrant and stationary (maimed) farmworkers, the plan is of owning a small farm rather than working for others. The hulking mentally deficient Lennie is fixated on being in charge of the rabbits on the farm George is going to buy with their save-up earnings. The reader may wonder if even rabbits can breed fast enough to maintain their numbers with a caretaker who tends to pet animals to death. He doesn’t mean to kill the soft beings to which he is drawn, but. . . There was that woman back in Weed. The dead mouse. Then the puppy. . .

For George, who “looks after” Lennie (and probably only is hired because he delivers so formidable and mindless a worker as Lennie) the farm is a dream. That is, he knows it is never going to happen, because he is never going to save the money to buy it. And then a prospective partner with assets jolts him into transforming fantasy into plan. And George could have complained to Steinbeck, “You only build me up to tear me down—down—down.”

There is a lot of repetition in this short novel, not just Lennie’s obsessive telling and being told about the farm he and George are going to have. And there is also room to show the pain of racial exclusion. (In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck recalled that there was only one black family when he was growing up in Salinas. A family, even in Steinbeck, may provide a bulwark against a hostile world, but Crooks has no family and is excluded from the amusements of the bunkhouse, forced to rely on the cold comfort of books: “Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody—to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” Hmmm. And often even when he does, as Curley and Lennie do.)

There are two slabs of would-be lyrical nature writing. I don’t think that Steinbeck’s inclusion of Crooks works, since his plight is not parallel in any significant way to George’s or Lennie’s, but the two passages about what is happening in the woods other than what the humans are up to seem to me to contribute to showing the indifference of the cosmos to the fate of the characters.

Steinbeck’s sexual (and other kinds of) politics

There’s a bully, the rancher’s son Curley in testosterone overdrive because he is unable to satisfy his newly acquired wife. She is constantly on the prowl. Steinbeck does not bother to giver her a name, so let’s call her Eve—the archetypal woman disrupting a male paradise, offering fatal temptation to those poor witless creatures, human males. Steinbeck does allow her to give voice to her own loneliness and frustrations cooped up with a bantam who is all crow but whatever his sympathies for her plight, he has her brings down destruction on her games, George and Lennie’s plans, and her own life.

In that Steinbeck’s two recurrent mythical archetypes were the Garden of Eden and the Knights of the Round Table — with special emphasis on women disrupting homosocial utopias with heterosexual desire and jealousy— I do not think that I am imaging the “logic” of misogyny here. And a terror at female sexual initiative (see “The Snake” from The Long Valley for more openly expressed distaste. Also, as usual, there is a wise man’s man (here named “Slim”) based on Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts .And while I am on the subject of Steinbeck’s misogyny, the idealization of the woman as beautiful and peaceful-appearing once she is safely dead bears mentioning.)

There are racial politics and sexual politics and class differences, but I don’t read Of Mice and Men as a “protest novel” or even “political.” If anything, the sensationalizing of the “animalistic” dangerousness of a seemingly placid hunk from “the lower orders” is illiberal. (Steinbeck was a liberal, but a hawkish liberal supporting wars waged by liberal presidents, including the unpopular one in Vietnam.)

After Eve is the catalyst for The Fall, there are Cain and Abel. The ending of the novel seems to me a variant on the knowing one killing the unknowing one. The real-life model was, like Tularecito in The Pastures of Heaven, sent off to the state hospital for the criminally insane at Napa. Incidentally, the real-life model repeatedly stabbed with a pitchfork the rancher who was going to fire his friend. I bring this up, possibly heavy-handedly, to emphasize that the source and victim of violence was male and provided the possibility of a more political economic critique. Making a woman responsible and enacting a death sentence on her were Steinbeck’s modifications—modifications paralleling much of his other writing.

Conclusion

Obviously, I have some qualms about what Steinbeck created. With some major flaws (besides the slackness of the scene in Crooks’s room, I mean Lennie’s hallucinations at the end: it seem to me a mistake in that the perspective through the rest of the book is external and I suspect a misguided attempt to compete with Faulkner in this), Of Mice and Men remains a powerful book, probably Steinbeck’s most accomplished fiction. It clearly continues to be widely read.

Appendix: On the suitability of the book as reading matter for pre-adults

George’s mix of patience and impatience for Lennie and the tragic ending are what I remembered from reading Of Mice and Men in junior high school. Given the high level of violence graphically portrayed in much current American culture, I was puzzled that the book was the book that ranked fifth in attempts to remove books from circulation in libraries last year. I reread it to try to guess why.

In the opening scene, George uses a lot of profanity. Would-be book banners might not get as far as the casual acceptance of prostitution as a fact of life. And I suppose that the third “p” could be read into the book, too (Curley’s wife flirting with the childlike innocent — except that it seems to me that she is interested in the man, not the child in Lennie. . .).

I certainly do not think that the book should be banned, but I think that it is a book for adults. Not because of the profanity or the sex or the violence — all of which are ubiquitous in America 2001 A.D. — but because I do not think that very many (if any) adolescents can understand the kinds of desperations driving the characters. Teenagers have their own desperations, but the kinds of disappointments the characters have had are opaque to adolescents.

As I said, I read the book for the first time myself in junior high school. I don’t think that I was in any way harmed by reading it, but I am sure that I failed to understand Curley and Curley’s wife, in particular. I might have understood some of George’s anguish, especially in the final act, but doubt that I understood his weaknesses. Of course, had anyone told me that I wasn’t old enough to understand the book, that would have ensured my reading it to prove any paternalistic adults wrong. (I wish I could find the book report I wrote on Dante’s Inferno in 8th grade to see if I understood anything of it then!) I would urge others who may have read the apparently simple book at similarly young ages to reread it. It may be more troubling to adult readers who can understand more of it than to adolescents!

(I also think that Steinbeck’s The Red Pony has much for adults to ponder and much to unsettle younger readers, too.)

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Films of John Steinbeck work

(the house at 124 Central Avenue, Salinas, CA where John Steinbeck was born 27 Feb. 1902)

Like Sinclair Lewis, another very popular writer whose award of a Nobel Prize for literature drove many literary critics to paroxysms of scorn, John Steinbeck’s novels have been better served on screen than those of the Holy Trinity of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or (with the exception of two screen adaptations of To Have and to Have Not) Hemingway. Moreover, it is the major books — The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men — that were the bases for the most memorable movies (unlike the good movies based on work by Faulkner and Hemingway; as far as I know there are no good movies based on work by Fitzgerald).

The four films with screenplays by Steinbeck all have striking visuals. I have only seen parts of “The Forgotten Village”(directed by Herbert Kline 1941, narrated by Burgess Meredith), a documentary about progress (modern medicine and boiling drinking water). The parable of greed and despair, “The Pearl” (directed by Emilio Fernández with Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués, 1946), looks great with even more stunning chiaroscuro cinematography (by Gabriel Figueroa). Surely influenced by Eisenstein’s “Que Viva México,” there are also strong visual compositions (Joe McDonald’s) in “Viva Zapata!” directed by Elia Kazan in 1952 with standout performances by Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn (the latter winning his first Academy Award in it), and by Zapata’s white horse

“The Red Pony” (directed by Lewis Milestone, 1949) is not a great film (as “The Grapes of Wrath” is). It does have a great musical score, Aaron Copland’s best. It also has the great Myrna Loy. Although down on the farm is not where she belonged, it is a pleasure to see Ms. Loy anywhere. It has Margaret Hamilton, also not where she belonged: as a teacher. It has Robert Mitchum while he was still smoldering and wasn’t phoning in his performances. What is unforgettable about the film is the death scene (to avoid spoiling the impact for anyone unfamiliar with it, I will not specify whose).

Steinbeck disavowed Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film “Lifeboat” in anger at the stereotypes to which Canada Lee’s character was reduced, some anti-labor union rhetoric that I don’t remember, and an implicit message that to defeat the Nazis required being more like them in organization and single-mindedness that I do remember. What most people remember from “Lifeboat” is Tallulah Bankhead’s sangre-froide. If the story was truly Steinbeck’s, her presence would be the source of trouble, but instead it is basically her boat and she consents to take in others, even as she is gradually stripped of her comforts and possessions (perhaps the sadistic jettisoning of the tools of her trade — camera and typewriter — are remnants of Steinbeck’s story). John Hodiak manfully resists Bankhead’s ardent advances and William Bendix hallucinates.

I hadn’t heard of “A Medal for Benny” (directed by Irving Pichel 1945) until I saw a production still from it at the Steinbeck Library. I’m sure it’s heartwarming, possibly in a curdling way. J. Carroll Naish received an Oscar nomination, and Dorothy Lamour played the girl Benny left behind who finds ways to occupy herself in his absence.

Steinbeck Novels Adapted by Others (from best to worst)

The indisputable great film of Steinbeck’s writing is derived from his most famous and Pulitzer Prize-wining novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The film, directed in 1940 by John Ford, provided a defining role for Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and very memorable ones for Jane Darwell (in her Oscar-winning portrayal of Ma Joad) and John Carradine as the Rev. Jim Casey. The photography by the great Gregg Toland is very striking, both the daytime vistas and the firelit night-time people. Most of the political bite was defanged before being put on screen and a more upbeat Hollywood ending was added.
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In that James Dean died after making only three films, I can’t say that “East of Eden” defined him, though I think it was made before “Rebel Without a Cause.” I will say that “East of Eden” (directed by Elia Kazan, released in 1955) is the best film starring James Dean. Adam is the most memorable performance by Raymond Massey after being the young Abraham Lincoln, and there is a moving performance by a non-fluttering Julie Harris. Plus as Eve — renamed Kate — Jo Van Fleet chews up the scenery playing the mother who fled the Trask household to become the bordello keeper of Salinas. (She was Oscared for her snarling performance.) The primary problem with the film (other than lacking the background to what is shown; the film is taken from the last quarter of Steinbeck’s long novel) is Richard Davalos as Aaron Trask. (1) He can’t hold the screen with Dean or Massey, (2) he is turned way too goody-goody, and (3) he is still alive at the end of the movie —I’d guess in order to spare the blood being on James Dean’s hands. For a version of the Cain and Abel, this will not do! (I thought that Hart Bochner, who was more priggish but less jealous in the 1981 miniseries made more sense; the miniseries also covered the whole novel.)
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The other really memorable film based on a Steinbeck novel is “Of Mice and Men” (directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939). Burgess Meredith appeared in many films (Winterset, Rocky, Grumpy Old Men, etc), but other than being the Penguin on the tv “Batman,” his memorable screen work was as George. Rereading the book, I could hear his voice. I can see Lon Chaney, Jr. in my mind as Lenny, but the cadences of his speech are not lodged there as Meredith’s are. Charles Bickford played the variant of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts (Slim) here, one of a long line of wise, tough foremen (etc.) in his career. Betty Field played the Eve (or Pandora) figure. “She was made for love and tragedy”? Not much of a tragic figure and more made for flirting than for love, I think. There’s splendid cinematography (Norbert Brodine) and a good musical score by Aaron Copland (though not nearly as good as that he would do for “The Red Pony”). There have been two later versions: A 1981 with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quaid as Lenny, and a 1992 version in living color directed by Gary Sinise, who also played George, with John Malkovich playing Lenny, from a screenplay by Horton Foote. The latter one is quite good and in color.

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The Red Pony” was well transferred to film in 1949by Lewis Milestone with the unlikely pair of wise parents played by Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy with Peter Miles as their son, owner of the pony, and Beau Bridges as another boy named Beau.

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James Franco’s best movie (as a director) to date is the 2017 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1936 fruitpicker strike movie In Dubious Battle. It is quite faithful to the original book for three-quarters of its length, and retains the dubiousness of either success or a new system without new oppressors (the iron law of oligarchy).

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Irving Pichel directed the wartime propaganda film of “The Moon Is Down” (1943) with Cedric Hardwicke as the Nazi commandant confronted by Norwegian mayor Henry Travers and sabotage by townspeople. I think that I saw it on tv once upon a time, but I don’t remember anything about it, and it may be equally long ago reading of the novel (possession of which was a capital crime in the Third Reich) that makes it seem familiar.

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I have not seen the film of “The Wayward Bus” (Victor Vicas, 1957). The novel is deservedly forgotten, but a film starring Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield in a tropical storm must have some camp cachet.

Both the novel The Pearl and its 1947 Mexican screen adaptation (directed in English  by Emiio Fernandez, starring Pedro Armendariz)  are simplistic, but the black-and-white cinematography by Gabriel Figuero (who would shoot “The Fugitive” for John Ford and “Night of the Iguana” for John Huston) is outstanding and won a Golden Globe.

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I enjoy Spencer Tracy’s sly Pilon in “Tortilla Flat” (directed by Victor Fleming, 1942) about as much as hearing fingernails scraping on chalkboards. I think that, in general, Tracy is a very overrated actor, but his patronizing turns as “men of the people” (Hemingway’s “Old Man in the Sea” is another instance, and his Oscar-winning sailor in “Captains Courageous” another) make me want to puke — or at least fast-forward. Hedy Lamarr slums in the picture (the ultra-glamorous star of “Algiers”, not to mention of “Ecstasy,” as “Sweets”!). The main reason to put up with Spencer Tracy and the romanticization of poverty in this is to enjoy John Garfield as the sweet, relatively simple-minded Danny. Frank Morgan was nominated for an Oscar for his wide-eyed Pirate who has visions of St. Francis, has a canine pack, and a bag of quarters to buy a gold thousand-day candlestick for St. Francis’s statue in the local church. I find his performance nearly as noxiously hammy as Tracy’s.

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Cannery Row” (directed by David Ward, 1982) is a complete disaster despite Nick Nolte and Debra Winger being cast in roles that seem plausible for them — until one sees the result. John Huston’s narration is over-the-top parody of the Steinbeck faux heartiness. It combines material from Sweet Thursday with material from Cannery Row though the only part that works at all is the frog hunt.

I don’t remember much about the 1983 tv movie of “The Winter of Our Discontent” starring Donald Sutherland, Terri Garr, and Tuesday Weld, or various remakes of “Of Mice and Men,” The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Pearl”, and “The Red Pony.” I’d really like to see the 1959 tv version of “Burning Bright,” because it starred Colleen Dewhurst. And I’d like to see the tv adaptation of Travels with Charley, narrated by Henry Fonda (I heard some of it at the Steinbeck Museum while I was looking at Rocinante, the camper Steinbeck drove around America.)

Listed as being in post-production is a film version of Steinbeck’s story “Flight.” And another version of East of Eden is rumored, too.

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray