10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 7 and 8
Essays by Gerald DiPego
These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now. They are in no particular order.
Movie 7 - THE FOUR FEATHERS, '39
This Brit film played again and again on early TV, as if it was made for the boy that I was in the 1940s (born in 41) and early 50s. My favorite book then was “Kipling’s Stories for Boys,” and I read and reread his tales of India and the clashes there between the colonizing Brits and native peoples who rejected British Rule. I loved the illustrations, uniforms, scenes of conflict and sense of history, and I collected toy soldiers to match that period and carried out great battles on the floor, whispering the shots, outcries and bugle calls.
This is a film of epic size, directed by Alexander Korda, with battle scenes that thrilled me again and again, but it was the story and the journey of the main character that made this movie so meaningful.
Boys playing war do begin to think – what if that was me? What would I do? Would I be heroic? Would I be terrified? I received a good lesson from this film and its lead character, Harry Faversham. His father is a respected general, and he sits at a formal table as a teen and listens to retired officers talking about their battle experiences. He is shy and reticent, and his father is a stern bully, and Harry knows very early that he will be sucked into a military life. How he will perform and how will he be judged by his father and his ancestors, whose portraits line the wall of his father’s great house.
That’s the intro – now we see Harry as a young officer in a peacetime regiment in England, gathering his young officer friends at a party at his father’s home to celebrate Harry’s engagement to his love. During this party, telegrams are delivered. War has broken out in the Sudan, and his regiment is being called up to join the war against the Mahdi’s tribesmen. Only Harry receives the telegrams – for himself and his three fellow officers, and, in a moment alone, a moment of fear, he tosses the telegrams into a fireplace. He has planned to leave the army, and this ‘delay’ that he is causing will give him time to become a civilian and marry his girl and never face battle.
Well, he is seen ‘burning something’ that night, and when questions are raised, he admits what he has done. Before going off to war, his three officer friends each present him with a white feather of cowardice. He is hit very hard by this, but then shattered when his fiancé breaks the engagement and gives him a white feather of her own.
So, as a boy watching this film, I had now lived through Harry’s conflict and cowardice, and I was shattered, too. I watched him as a broken young man who is tempted by suicide. I stared fear and shame in the face.
But Harry rouses himself and makes a very bold plan. He travels to the Sudan as a civilian and there he learns how to disguise himself as a cast-off Sudanese, darkening his skin, wearing ragged clothes and becoming what appears to be a brain-addled mute, who can travel without much notice all the way to the battlefront. His plan is to watch over his officer friends and find a way somehow to help each of them in the conflict, to protect them, to win back their respect and cause them to take back their feathers of cowardice.
So, as a boy, I have now been plunged into a heavy situation of fear and shame that rattles me, and, in the rest of the film, I take this journey with Harry, which has become my journey, toward redemption. Harry’s bravery is not the trumpeting kind. He suffers, stays hidden, follows, waits for his chances, risks his life and comes very close to sacrificing his own. So when redemption is reached, both Harry and I have changed, deepened, aged, and I’ve lived through the shame that most boys fear, and then seen that one can come back from this, can survive and redeem oneself – an important journey for me in this old film that I watched six or seven times at least – for its thrills and its lessons.
Let’s jump forward to the 1970s in LA where I’ve begun a career as a screenwriter for television films. A producer, Norman Rosemont, is making quality films from classic stories, which open as features in the U.K and play on American TV (such as “The Count of Monte Cristo”). My agent calls and says that Rosemont is offering me the writing job for his next film, and he asks me, “Have you ever heard of a book called ‘The Four Feathers?’
So, yes, it actually happened, and I wrote my version of this classic story that I had carried deep inside myself all those years. What a business. What a life. Beau Bridges and Jane Seymore starred, and the well-made film was directed by Donald Sharp. By now there were at least four remakes of this story. I began my own particular opening scene with Harry, as a young boy, playing on the floor of the mansion with his lead soldiers – blending Harry and Jerry forever.
Movie 8 - THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, ’48
This is also a film I saw on early television, and watched more than once, not only because of the excitement and adventure, but because the characters reached inside of me, living there as real people, and I watched them stumble along, facing strong odds, trying to make decisions that would get them what they wanted -- the treasure that was inside that mountain, but at what cost?
Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt play busted men in Tampico, Mexico in the 30’s – rigging oil camps when they can get the work and cheated out of their money and fighting the crooked boss to get it back – and then wondering what’s next, what job? What chance? And where’s the hope?
In a rat-trap flop house they meet a very lively and talkative old knock-around played by Walter Huston (academy award for this). He’s been around, been wealthy and busted more than once, and he’s both funny and philosophical. He talks about gold – not just as money, but as a kind of fever, says he’s chased it around the world and, old as he is, he’d go again if he had the money for the equipment.
Bogart and Holt think hard about this – and then pool their money with what the old man has left, and by god, they do it. Huston knows just what to buy, and they outfit themselves with burros, tools, food and all they need to create a prospecting camp.
They go into the wild Sierra Madre – the tougher to get to the better, says Huston – where no one else has been.
As their journey begins, a theme is introduced by composer, Max Steiner. It’s a ‘going-along’ melody, a ‘song’ of this little group, played lightly as a ditty, as they wind upward into the Mother Mountain.
When the old man sees the first signs of gold in the rocks and dirt he laughs like crazy and even dances a jig – and then they get to the labor of tearing that precious metal out of the mountain.
They work hard, finding a cave to make into a small mine, shoring it up and going at the veins of gold in the rocks with picks. They’re already doing well, gathering the raw gold like sand, weighing it each night, already thousands of dollars ahead, and here comes the moment, the moment in this film that went so deep and stayed with me all these years.
Holt is carrying a load out of the mine and Bogart is still in there slamming away at the walls – and that’s when the cave-in comes. The beams that shore up the dig crack. Bogart cries out. Holt turns and sees a billowing of dust pour out of the cave as it’s mouth is covered by rocks and broken beams. He hurries to the entrance and stares in through the rubble. He can’t even see where Bogart is lying hurt – or dead. He stares in shock, and then…the look deepens into something else as a thought overtakes him. It’s a deep and weighty look, a wondering look, and you know, you KNOW what he’s thinking – if only two of them are left, each gets a larger share of the gold.
He starts to move away from the cave in – and then stops – and struggles – and then, with great determination, moves toward that rubble and starts to move it away with all his strength, digging with his bare hands toward his friend. At this moment that musical theme comes back, but it’s played strongly and building, that song of the three of them and the ragged brotherhood they have formed. It’s a moment that has never left me and never will. Without a word it celebrated the triumph of brotherhood over greed, and it builds to a kind of symphony as Holt pulls the unconscious Bogart out of the collapsed mine.
As a boy this scene filled me with great emotion, even tears, and as an old man, the tears come even more freely.
Greed and gold-fever haunt this film, and I won’t go into how the story goes so you can see it as new if you’ve never seen it, and, if that’s the case, I envy you and the first-time emotional twists and punches that await you as each man is brought to the edge of darkness. The way the characters meet this challenge has so much to say about that scale that has gold dust on one side and love on the other.
Wonderful direction by John Huston, and if you call me, I’ll sing you that theme.