“All Aboard the Orient Express”

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Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

 

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According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

 

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In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

 

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Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

 

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Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

 

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was called in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

 

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This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017)

In this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel, in which Kenneth Branagh directed and starred, Poirot solves a theft at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The detective hopes to rest in Istanbul after traveling there via the Mediterranean and Agean Seas, but a telegram summons him to London for a case and he boards the Orient Simplon Orient Express with the help of young Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. When an American passenger named Samuel Rachett is found stabbed to death following his second night aboard the Orient Express, Poirot is asked to solve his murder.

 

 

This movie featured the departure of the Simplon Orient Express around 7:00 p.m., instead of eleven o’clock. However, this is probably the only adaptation of Christie’s novel that featured the strongest similarity to the real Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul, the train’s eastern terminus.

However, I also noticed that passengers boarded via the dining car, at the tail end of the train. That is correct. This adaptation also has a dining car attached to the Orient Express in Istanbul, instead of having it attached at Kapikule, the Turkish-Bulgarian border crossing. And unlike the previous adaptations, the dining car and the lounge car are dark blue like the sleeping compartments, instead of a color mixture of dark-blue and cream-colored. Which was an error.

 

 

The movie did not feature a stop in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It did, however, featured a brief stop at Vinkovci, before it encountered a snow drift, later in the night. Since it was definitely at night when the train stopped at Vinkovci, no error had been committed. Especially since it was not quite dark when the train departed from Istanbul. And the journey between Istanbul and Belgrade lasted roughly 24 hours. At the end of the film, Poirot departed from the Orient Express at Brod. This is also appropriate, since the train had been snowbound somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod in the novel. More importantly, unlike the 2010 adaptation, Poirot gave his false resolution to Rachett’s murder to the police … in Brod and not in the spot where the train had been trapped.

 

 

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1700s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1700s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1700s

 

1. “John Adams” (2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death. Tom Hooper directed.

 

 

2. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

 

 

3. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this television adaptation of Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s novels about a British aristocrat who adopts a secret identity to save French aristocrats from the guillotine during France’s Reign of Terror. Directed by Clive Donner, Ian McKellen co-starred.

 

 

4. “The History of Tom Jones – A Foundling” (1997) – Max Beesley and Samantha Morton starred in this adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel about the misadventures of an illegitimate young man in the mid-1700s, who had been raised by a landowner. Metin Hüseyin directed.

 

 

5. “The Book of Negroes” (2015) – Aunjanue Ellis starred in this television adaptation of Laurence Hill’s novel about the experiences of an African woman before, during and after the American Revolution; after she was kidnapped into slavery. Clement Virgo directed.

 

 

6. “Black Sails” (2014-2017) – Toby Stephens starred in this television series, which was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”. The series was created by Jonathan E. Steinberg
and Robert Levine.

 

 

7. “Garrow’s Law” (2009-2011) – Tony Marchant created this period legal drama and fictionalized account of the 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. Andrew Buchan, Alun Armstrong and Lyndsey Marshal starred.

 

 

8. “Poldark” (1975/1977) – Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees starred.

 

 

9. “Outlander” (2014-present) – Ronald Moore developed this series, which is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s historical time travel literary series. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan starred.

 

 

10. “Poldark” (2015-2019) – Debbie Horsfield created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson stars.

Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

 

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1750 and 1799

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1750 and 1799: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1750 AND 1799

1 - The Last of the Mohicans

1. “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) – Michael Mann directed what I believe is the best film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel set during the Seven Years War. The movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi and Russell Means.

2 - Dangerous Liaisons

2. “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) – Stephen Frears directed this sumptuous Oscar nominated adaptation of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage play, which was an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel. The movie starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfieffer.

3 - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) – Ang Lee directed this superb Oscar winning adaptation of Wang Dulu’s wuxia novel. The movie starred Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

4 - Amazing Grace

4. “Amazing Grace” (2006) – Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch and Romola Garai starred in this biopic about British politician/abolitionist William Wilberforce’s efforts to end Britain’s TransAtlantic slave trade. Michael Apted directed.

5 - The Scarlet Pimpernel

5. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this superb adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Directed by Clive Donner, the movie co-starred Ian McKellen.

6 - Pride and Prejudice 2005

6. “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) – Joe Wright directed this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The movie starred Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

7 - 1776

7. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this adaptation of Peter Stone’s 1969 Broadway musical set during the American Revolution. Peter H. Hunt directed.

8 - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

8. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” (1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh”. James Neilson directed.

9 - Jefferson in Paris

9. “Jefferson in Paris” (1995) – Ismail Merchant co-produced and James Ivory directed this semi-fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to France. The movie starred Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow and Thandie Newton.

10 - April Morning

10. “April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about a early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

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“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, there seemed to be this idea – especially with the British media – that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.

When I first read McQueen’s criticism of Hollywood’s failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three – and one of them is “AMAZING GRACE”, the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce‘s efforts to end Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Looking back upon “AMAZING GRACE”, I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “LINCOLN”. Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain’s Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States’ efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. “AMAZING GRACE” focused upon the end of Britain’s official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. “LINCOLN”, on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country’s participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.

“AMAZING GRACE” begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.

The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God’s work by fighting for the issue of Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce’s convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song, “Amazing Grace”. Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce’s efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.

I am going to be brutally frank. “AMAZING GRACE” did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as “LINCOLN”. I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of “AMAZING GRACE” that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of“LINCOLN”. I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce’s original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like “LINCOLN” and “DJANGO UNCHAINED” more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character – what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain’s abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.

I have one last problem with “AMAZING GRACE”. The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative’s past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie’s historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence’s erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that “AMAZING GRACE” is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain’s abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although “AMAZING GRACE” mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery – Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano’s tour of a slave ship and Newton’s verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, “AMAZING GRACE” also touches upon Wilberforce’s personal life – especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai’s credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.

“AMAZING GRACE” is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie’s overall visual style. In the case of“AMAZING GRACE”, the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury’s set decorations. And since “AMAZING GRACE” is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie’s time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.

All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for “AMAZING GRACE”, it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt’s idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician’s wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character’s own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce’s love interest.

Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce’s mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton’s pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain’s slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell’s very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N’Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983’s “MANSFIELD PARK” together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces’ close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Without a doubt, I regard “AMAZING GRACE” as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie’s visual style, intelligent script, excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd, and solid direction from Michael Apted made this film worthwhile for me.