“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never seen a movie or television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace”. Never. Well . . . I once made an attempt to watch the 1956 movie adaptation directed by King Vidor. Unfortunately, I could never go the distance. In fact, I have never read the novel. 

However, many years passed. When I heard about the BBC’s latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give “WAR AND PEACE” a chance. The six-part miniseries is simply about the experiences of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Those families include the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and theDrubetskoys. The miniseries seemed to be divided into three segments during a period between 1805 and 1812-13. The first segment featured the introduction of the main characters and Russia’s preparation of a war against Napoleon’s France. This culminates into the Battle of Austerlitz in which two major characters – Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov – participate.

The second segment featured the characters’ personal experiences at home. During this period, the miniseries explored Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov’s failed marriage with the beautiful, but vapid and unfaithful Princess Yelena “Hélène” Vasilyevna Kuragina; the Rostov family’s financial woes and how it affected Nikolai Rostov; the emotional strains within the Bolkonsky family; Prince Boris Drubetskoy’s efforts to advance his military career; and especially Countess Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova’s love life, which included both Andrei Bolkonsky and Prince Anatole Vasilyevich Kuragin. This segment also included news of Treaties of Tilsit of 1807, which ended hostilities between Imperial France and Imperial Russia and Prussia. The miniseries’ final segment focused on France’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and the characters’ efforts to survive it.

I could compare director Tom Harper and screenwriter Andrew Davies’ adaptation with Tolstoy’s novel, but it would be a useless effort. As I had earlier pointed out, I have never read the novel. But I do have at least two complaints about the productions. One of them revolved around the relationship between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. I realize that the publicity machine on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone a great effort to build up the relationship between the pair. Frankly, I found the publicity campaign rather wasted. The Natasha/Andrei romance struck me as a disappointing and wasted effort. The majority of their story arc – which began with their meeting at a ball near the end of Episode Three, continued with Natasha’s brief romance with the slimy Anatole Kuragin, and ended with Natasha’s romances with both men crashing around her by the end of Episode Four; had moved . . . so damn fast that it left my head spinning. I cannot help but wonder if the entire arc could have been portrayed with more detail if the series had stretched a bit longer.

I also had a problem with Edward K. Gibbon’s costume designs. I found most of them very colorful, especially for the aristocratic characters. But I also found most of them rather troublesome. Well . . . to be honest, I found them either mediocre or historically questionable. One of them left me gritting my teeth:

But my jaw had literally dropped at the sight of a few costumes worn by actresses Tuppence Middleton and Gillian Anderson – including those shown in the images below:

 

WHAT IN THE HELL??? Their costumes looked more appropriate for present-day evening wear than the early 19th century. What was Mr. Gibbons thinking?

Despite the rushed Natasha Rostova/Andrei Bolkonsky romance and despite the rather questionable costumes, I managed to enjoy “WAR AND PEACE” very much. I am a sucker for family sagas, especially when they are seeped in a historical background. And “WAR AND PEACE” nearly pushed every one of my buttons when it comes to a well made saga. It had everything – romance, family struggles, historical events and personages. When I realized that Tolstoy had originally focused his tale on five families, I did not think Andrew Davies would be able to translate the author’s novel in a tight story without losing its epic quality.

There were certain sequences that really blew my mind, thanks to Davies’ writing and especially, Tom Harper’s direction. I thought Harper did an outstanding job of re-creating battles like Austerlitz and Borodino, along with the French Army’s retreat from Moscow. Harper also did a great job in directing large parties and ball scenes. My two favorites are the party held at St. Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon in Episode 1 and the ball where Natasha and Andrei met in Episode 3.

But it was not just the battle and crowd scenes that impressed me. “WAR AND PEACE” is – after all – a melodrama, even if many literary critics are inclined not to admit it. I never thought I would find myself getting caught up in the lives of the saga’s main characters. But I did. I must admit that I admire how Tolstoy . . . and Davies managed to allow the three main characters – Pierre, Natasha and Andrei – to interact with the five families, regardless of blood connection or marriage. I especially enjoyed the explorations into the lives of Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. At first glance, some might regard the miniseries’ ending that featured a picnic with the families of the three leads as a bit on the saccharine. It did have a “happily ever after” tinge about it. But I read in a newspaper article that complained about Tolstoy’s “realistic” ending – one that featured a less-than-happy view of the protagonists’ lives and a critique from Tolstoy on all forms of mainstream history. Thanks to Davies’ screenplay, audiences were spared of this.

“WAR AND PEACE” featured a good number of first-rate performances from a supporting cast that included Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Rebecca Front and Aneurin Barnard. However, I was especially impressed by certain supporting performances. One came from Greta Scacchi, who portrayed the Rostov family’s practical and sometimes ruthless matriarch Countess Natalya Rostova. I also enjoyed Brian Cox’s portrayal of the world weary General Mikhail Kutuzov, who has to contend with not only Napolean’s army, but also the amateurish interference of the Czar. Tom Burke did a great job in portraying the wolfish and ambitious army officer, Fedor Dolokhov, who eventually becomes a better man following Napoleon’s invasion. Jack Lowden’s portrayal of the young Count Nikolai Rostov really impressed me, especially when his character found himself torn between following his heart and marrying a wealthy woman to restore his family’s fortunes. And Jim Broadbent gave a very colorful performance as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, the mercurial and controlling patriarch of the Bolkonsky family.

And what about the production’s three leads? Lily James gave a very charming performance as Countess Natasha Rostova. Well . . . I take that back. Describing James’ performance as simply “charming” seemed to hint that I found it rather shallow. Yes, James handled Natasha’s “light” moments with her usual competence. More importantly, she did an excellent job in conveying Natasha’s personal struggles – especially during the series’ second half. There were times when I did not know what to make of the Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. He struck me as a very unusual protagonist. Although I found him rather honorable and filled with valor, Andrei did not always struck me as likable – especially in his relationship with adoring, yet ignored wife Lise. And Norton superbly captured the many nuances of Andrei’s character. If Andrei Bolkonsky struck me as an unusual protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov struck me as one of a kind. Well . . . one of a kind for a literary piece written in the 19th century. Sometimes, I get the feeling that someone like Pierre could easily translate into a late 20th century or early 21st century geek. Or perhaps not. I think Pierre is too kind and open-minded to be considered a geek. But he is very unusual for a leading man. And thanks to Paul Dano’s superb portrayal, Pierre has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He did a stupendous job in conveying Pierre’s character from this insecure and rather naive man to a man who learned to find wisdom and inner peace through his struggles. Dano was so good that I had assumed that his performance would garner him a major acting nomination. It did not and I am still flabbergasted by this travesty.

My taste in period dramas usually focused on stories set in the United States or Great Britain . . . with the occasional foray into France. I was very reluctant to tackle this latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel. But I was in the mood for something new and decided to watch the six-part miniseries. I am happy to say that despite some flaws, I ended up enjoying “WAR AND PEACE” very much, thanks to Andrew Davies’ screenplay, Tom Harper’s direction and an excellent cast led by Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

Serving as the fourth entry in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, this 1973 novel continued the story of Harry Flashman, a character previously from the 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and now a British Army officer in Fraser’s novels. This particular novel, “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, recalled Flashman’s experiences during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. 

One could say that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” could almost serve as a prequel to Fraser’s 1975 novel about the Sepoy Rebellion, “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Almost. But it seemed quite obvious to me that the latter is a sequel to the 1973 novel. At least two supporting characters from this novel reappeared in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And the theme of Imperial Russia’s attempts to wrestle control of India from Great Britain in the 1975 novel, began in this novel.

The 1973 novel began with Harry Flashman enjoying the London social scene with his beautiful wife, Elspeth. With Great Britain on the brink of war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf, the cowardly Flashman believed that the only way to avoid combat was to have his Uncle Bindley secure him a post with the Board of Ordinance – the British Army’s armory. However, Flashman’s luck failed to hold (not surprisingly) and his meeting with the young German prince, William of Celle (a relation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) led him to become a staff galloper for Lord Raglan, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. The new position drew Harry against his will into the chaos of the Crimean War and in becoming a participant of one of history’s most infamous cavalry engagements – the Charge of the Light Brigade. This famous military action also led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war at the estate of a Cossack nobleman named Count Pencherjevsky

At Count Pencherjevsky’s estate, Starkosk, Flashman has a reunion with a former Rugby schoolmate, Harry “Scud” East. After the two English prisoners learned of Russia’s plans to invade India and kick the British out, they decided to make their escape following a serf uprising at Starkosk. Unfortunately for Flashman, a sleigh accident led to his recapture by the Russians and a political officer named Count Nicholas Ignitieff. Flashy’s incarceration at Fort Raim led him to an acquaintance with two famous Muslim freedom fighters from the state of Kokodad, Yakub Beg and Issat Kutebar. Luck finally caught up with Flashman, when he and his two new acquaintances are rescued by Yakub Beg’s mistress, Ko Dali’s daughter, and a band of Kokodans. Following the rescue, Harry participated in one last action against the Russians against his will . . . so to speak.

I must admit that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” turned out to be a well-structured and well-written novel. Unless I am mistaken, the novel was written into three parts – the London prelude, Flashman’s Crimean War experiences that included his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Starkosk estate, and finally his incarceration at Fort Raim and experiences with the Kokadans. Fraser began the novel on a strong note and finished it in a similar manner. My only sole complaint centered on Flashman’s journey to Starkosk and his time at the estate. In short, it seemed to me that the sequence threatened to bog down the pace. I suspect that Fraser’s in-depth look into Imperial Russian serfdom during this sequence is responsible. As much as I found it interesting, I also wondered if Fraser got caught up in his subject, which would seem ironic considering his failure to explore American slavery in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. As much as I had enjoyed Flashman’s time spent with Count Pencherjevsky and his family on the Starkosk estate, no one felt more relieved than me when he and “Scud” East finally escaped, thanks to a serf uprising. I had become rather weary of Flashman’s period as a prisoner-of-war.

Despite some of my problems with the novel, I cannot deny that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” is a well-written novel. Fraser did an excellent job in recapturing London during the early and mid 1850s and Great Britain’s pro-war mood on the cusp of the Crimean War. He also expertly drew readers into the world of the British Army during the first months of the war. His description of the Army caps and hospitals at Alma just before the Battle of Balaclava literally had me cringing in my seat a bit:

“So the siege was laid, the French and ourselves sitting down on the muddy, rain-sodden gullied plateau before Sevastopol, the dismalest place on earth, with no proper quarters but a few poor huts and tents, and everything to be carted up from Balaclava on the coast eight miles away. Soon the camp, and the road to it, was a stinking quagmire; everyone looked and felt filthy, the rations were poor, the work of preparing the siege was cruel hard (for the men, anyway), and all the bounce there had been in the army after Alma evaporated in the dank, feverish rain by day and the biting cold by night. Soon half of us were lousy, as some wags said, who’d holiday at Brighton if he could come to sunny Sevastopol instead?”

Another memorable passage featured Flashman’s participation in the Light Brigade Charge. Fraser did a superb job in describing not only the Battle of Balaclava, but particularly the Light Brigade Charge. I found his description of the famous military charge filled with heady action, chaos and terror – especially from Flashman’s point-of-view:

“I had only a moment to look back – my mare was galloping like a thing demented, as I steadied, there was Cardigan, waving his sabre and standing in his stirrups; the guns were only a hundred yards away, almost hiddenin a great billowing bank of smoke, a bank which kept glaring red as though some Lucifer were opening furnace doors deep inside it. There was no turning, no holding back, and even in that deafening thunder I could hear the sudden chorus of yells behind me as the torn remnant of the Light Brigade gathered itself for the final mad charge into the battery. I dug my heels, yelling nonsense and brandishing my sabre, shot into the smoke with one final rip from my bowels and a prayer that my gallant little mare wouldn’t career headlong into a gun-muzzle, staggered at the fearful concussion of a gun exploding within a yard of me – and then we were through, into the open space behind the guns, leaping the limbers and ammunition boxes with the Russians scattering to let us through, and Cardigan a bare two yards away, reining his beast back almost on its haunches.”

However, one of my favorite chapters in the novel featured Flashman and the Kokordans’ attempts to destroy the Russian gunboats filled with weapons to be used against the Kokordans and the invasion of India. Before this battle took place, Ko Dali’s daughter drugged the cowardly officer with hashish (bhang) in order to force him to overcome his fear for the operation. The scene of the cowardly Flashy acting like George Armstrong Custer on crack struck me as one of the funniest passages in the entire series:

“God, what a chaos it was! I was galloping like a dervish at Kutebar’s heels, roaring ‘Hark forrard! Ha-ha, you bloody foreigners, Flashy’s here!’, careering through the narrow spaces between the sheds, with the muskets banging off to our left, startled sleepers crying out, and everyone yelling like be-damned. As we burst headlong onto the last stretch of open beach, and swerved past the landward end of the pier, some stout Russian was bawling and letting fly with a pistol; I left off singing ‘Rule, Britannia’ to take a shot at him, but missed, and there ahead someone was waving a torch and calling, and suddenly there were dark figures all around us, clutching at our bridles, almost pulling us from the saddles towards a big go-down on the north side of the pier.”

George MacDonald Fraser did take historical liberties with one particular character – the novel’s main villain, Count Nicholas Ignatieff. The author described the Russian character in the following manner:

“And as our eyes met through the cigarette smoke I thought, hollo, this is another of those momentous encounters. You didn’t have to look at this chap twice to remember him forever. It was the eyes, as it so often is – I thought in that moment of Bismarck, and Charity Spring, and Akbar Khan; it had been the eyes with them, too. But this fellow’s were different from anything yet: one was blue, but the other had a divided iris, half-blue, half-brown, and the oddly fascinating effect of this was that you didn’t know where to look, but kept shifting from one to the other.

For the rest, he had a gingerish, curling hair and square, masterful face that was no way impaired by a badly-broken nose. He looked tough, and immensely self-assured; it was in his glance, in the abrupt way he moved, in the slant of the long cigarette between his fingers, in the rakish tilt of his peaked cap, in the immaculate white tunic of the Imperial Guards. He was the kind who knew exactly what was what, where everything was, and precisely who was who – especially himself. He was probably a devil with women, admired by his superiors, hated by his rivals, and abjectly feared by his subordinates. One word summed him up: bastard.”

The above passage described Flashman’s opinion of Ignatieff during their first meeting on the road to Starkosk. They met for the second time, when Flashman and “Scud” East overheard Ignatieff, Czar Nicholas I and other Russian officials discuss plans to invade India during a secret meeting at Starkosk. And their third and final encounter happened after Flashman was recaptured, following his escape from Starkosk and attempt to reach the British lines on the Crimean peninsula. It was Ignatieff who tossed Flashman into the prison at Fort Raim. From what I have read, the real Ignatieff had never been quite the villain as portrayed in “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. Fraser even admitted that he taken liberties with the character in order to provide the novel with a main villain. Mind you, I believe he could have done that a lot easier with a fictional character. Why he had decided to take a historical figure and change his character in order to make him an effective villain is beyond me.

After reading “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, it is easy to see why it remains very popular with many fans of Fraser’s novels. It is a well written comic-adventure tale filled with interesting characters – fictional and historical. The novel also featured two very unique passages, namely the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and the usually cowardly Flashman behaving in a brave and aggressive man during a major battle. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” also happened to be one of those rare Flashman novels that began and ended on a strong note. Not only does it remain popular with many Flashman fans, I personally consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works.

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Hollywood film industry had released many films that were later dubbed as”blockbusters”. These films were made to compete with the growing popularity of television during the post-World War II era. Most of the blockbusters released during the 1950s turned out to be period dramas and musicals. The period dramas and musicals continued way into the 1960s. However, they were joined by all-star comedies with long running times. One of these comedies turned out to be 1965’s “THE GREAT RACE”

Directed by Blake Edwards, “THE GREAT RACE” told the story of a long distance road race from New York City to Paris in 1908, between two daredevil rivals. One of these rivals happened to be Leslie Gallant III (aka “The Great Leslie”), a handsome, brave and dashing daredevil who represented the epitome of the well-bred American gentleman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leslie also possessed a slightly condescending manner that matched his superficial perfection to a “T”. The Great Leslie’s daredevil rival was a swarthy, mustache-twirling villain named Professor Fate. But whereas Leslie’s successful stunts gave him respectability from American public, businessmen and the media, Fate has been nearly regulated to the status of a buffoon, due to his constant failures. The latter resulted in Fate’s eternal grudge against his more handsome and successful rival. When the white-suited hero proposed a long road race from New York City to Paris in order to promote a new car (the Leslie Special) designed by him and built by the Weber Motor Company, Fate decided to thwart Leslie’s plans of victory by building his own super car for the race (the Hannibal Eight). Meanwhile, a female photojournalist and suffragette named Maggie Dubois managed to convince the editor of the The New York Sentinelto hire her to cover the race.

I might as well be blunt. I tend to have mixed views about Hollywood blockbusters. I either love them, in spite of themselves. Or I dislike them. While viewing some of these blockbusters from the 1950s and 60s, they struck as bloated as some of today’s blockbusters. And “THE GREAT RACE” certainly seemed like the blockbuster of the bloated variety. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, it seemed to long for a mere comedy. Really. The movie also shared a similar flaw with another 1965 blockbuster, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”. In other words, it is a long comedic movie about a race in which only a small percentage of the film featured the actual event. First of all, Edwards and his co-writer, Arthur A. Ross, spent at least 40 to 45 minutes of the film setting up his characters and the preparation for the race. Forty-five minutes. And although the next two hours centered on the actual race, moviegoers only saw the participants race during the first leg of the race that featured the results of a series of sabotage committed by Fate’s assistant, Maximilian, against Leslie and Fate’s other competitors. Most of the movie centered around the main characters’ adventures in the small Western town of Boracho, in the wintry chills of Alaska, Imperial Russia and a fictionalized European country called Carpania and its capital of Potsdorf (during which the movie became a spoof of Anthony Hope’s classic, “The Prisoner of Zenda”). Moviegoers were able to see the race one last time, when the Leslie Special and the Hannibal Eight raced along the outskirts and within the city of Paris – the final destination. For a movie called “THE GREAT RACE”, very little racing was actually seen.

Another problem that “THE GREAT RACE” shared with “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”was the abundance of slapstick humor in the story. It came dangerously close to being too MUCH for my tastes. I did not mind the Boracho saloon fight (an obvious spoof of fight scenes in Hollywood Westerns). Nor did I mind Maximilian’s sabotage of Fate’s other competitors at the beginning of the race. But Fate’s attempts to sabotage Leslie’s daredevil stunts in the movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes and the pie fight inside the Potsdorf royal kitchen irritated me to no end. I believe that both scenes may have unnecessarily dragged the film.

Yet, bloated or not, I cannot deny that “THE GREAT RACE” is a very, very entertaining film. Edwards and Ross did a top notch job in creating a story set during the pre-World War I era in the United States and Europe. During this period, Western society was in its last gasp of clinging to the nineteenth century – a world filled with constricting fashion for women, elegant manners, European royalty with some political power, and binding society’s rules. And yet . . . Edwards and Ross’s story made it clear this world was also disappearing, due to the presence of motorized vehicles on the roads, the suffragette movement, the popularity of daredevils like Leslie and Fate, the threat of political loss for European royalty and the diminished presence of Native Americans in the West. What made “THE GREAT RACE” so amazing was that Edwards revealed these social changes in a cinematic style straight from silent era films like “THE PERILS OF PAULINE”, with slapstick comedy added for good measure.

Speaking of the movie’s comedy, I realize that I had complained a good deal about some of it. However, Edwards and Ross’ script did provide plenty of comedic moments that I absolutely enjoyed. One such moment featured the Great Leslie’s meeting with the board members of the Weber Motor Company. The meeting itself merely served as the springboard for the race. But a surprise visitor gave the scene a comedic touch that I found particularly funny. Other funny moments included:

*Maggie Dubois’ reaction to singer Lily O’Lay’s flirtation with Leslie

*The entire Boracho sequence

*Miss Dubois’ brief, yet successful attempt to replace Hezekial Sturdy as Leslie’s co-driver

*Fate’s explanation of the attraction between Leslie and Miss Dubois

*The entire Alaska sequence

*Fate, Miss Dubois and Max’s arrival in a Russian town

*General Kuhster’s attempt to instruct Fate on how to impersonate Crown Prince Hapnick’s laugh

*Leslie and Miss Dubois’ quarrel during the last leg of the race

*Fate’s rant against Leslie’s perfection after the two competitors reached the Eiffel Tower and the finish line

“THE GREAT RACE” also included an entertaining score written by Henry Mancini. The composer also co-wrote two songs with Johnny Mercer – a charming tune called “The Singing Tree” (that also served as the movie’s main tune) and a rousing song called “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”. Donfeld aka Don Feld designed some colorful costumes, reminiscent of the fashions of the 20th century’s first decade. However, I must admit that I found some of Natalie Wood’s costumes a bit over-the-top – namely two of the Western outfits she wore in the Boracho sequence. The movie also featured a swordfight between Leslie and a Carpanian aristocrat named Baron Von Stuppe (Ross Martin) during the Potsdorf sequence. And I consider that particular swordfight to be one of the best in Hollywood history. I am aware that Curtis had some theatrical sword fighting experience in some of the swashbucklers from the 1950s. But Ross Martin’s skills with a sword took me by surprise. Perhaps he had learned it, while training for the theater.

As far as I am concerned, the best asset of “THE GREAT RACE” was its cast. Edwards managed to collect a top-notch cast filled with extremely talented performers. Aside from the stars, the movie was filled with some great talent. Arthur O’Connell and Vivian Vance were hilarious as Maggie Dubois’ long-suffering editor and his pushy suffragette wife, Henry and Hester Goodbody. Marvin Kaplan portrayed Frisbee’ Mr. Goodbody’s slightly befuddled assistant. The Boracho sequence featured a hilarious performance by Larry Storch as the town’s ruthless local outlaw, Texas Jack. And Dorothy Provine gave one of the movie’s best performances as Boracho’s local saloon chanteuse, Lily O’Lay. Not only did she give a rousing rendition of “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”, she also injected her character with plenty of wacky humor and charm. The Carpania sequence provided George Macready to give a solid performance as Prince Hapnick’s solid, but traitorous aide, General Kuhster. And Ross Martin was deliciously suave and villainous as Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, General Kuhster’s ally in the coup d’état against the Crown Prince.

Peter Falk garnered a great deal of notice as Maximilian, Professor Fate’s loyal, yet slippery henchman. And he deserved all of the good notice he had received, thanks to his subtle and sly performance. More importantly, Falk managed to create a first-rate comedic team with the likes of Jack Lemmon. Keenan Wynn’s role as Hezekiah Sturdy, Leslie’s assistant. Wynn basically gave a solid performance as Leslie’s right-hand man. But Edwards gave him two scenes in which he absolutely shone without saying a word. One featured a moment in which his character tried to work up the courage to ask a beautiful Carpanian aristocrat to dance at the royal ball. Another featured his silent, yet long-suffering reactions to Leslie and Miss Dubois’ final battle-of-the-sexes quarrel during the race’s last leg into Paris.

Tony Curtis had worked with his two co-stars in previous movies. He had co-starred with Natalie Wood in 1964’s “SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL” And he worked with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In “THE GREAT RACE”, he re-created screen chemistry with both of them for the second time. In this movie, Curtis portrayed the handsome, clean-cut and well accomplished daredevil, Leslie Gallant III aka the Great Leslie. Superficially, his character seemed rather dull and bland in compare to Lemmon and Wood’s more theatrical roles. Superficially. But after watching Curtis portray the embodiment of early 20th century male perfection, one could finally understand why Professor Fate disliked him so much. Curtis’ Leslie struck me as INSUFFERABLY perfect. Anyone who spends even a day in his company could easily develop an inferiority complex. And Curtis did such a superb job in portraying Leslie’s rather annoying perfection with an excellent mixture of slight pomposity and tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best moments featured a long speech by Leslie, followed by a cinematic twinkle in his eyes or on his teeth that led other characters to do a double take. Curtis’s Great Leslie gave a perfect example of why straight arrow types are secretly despised.

The one character that managed to create cracks in Leslie’s perfectionism turned out to be the suffragette/journalist, Maggie Dubois – portrayed with great enthusiasm and perfection by Natalie Wood. The curious thing about Miss Dubois was that she was portrayed with a mixture of both Leslie and Fate’s personalities. Like Leslie, Miss Dubois was an accomplished and highly intelligent woman who also happened to be a multi-linguist and excellent fencer. On the other hand, she shared Fate’s cunning and talent for lies and manipulation. She also possessed a moral ambiguity that led her into conning Hezekiah to relax his guard, so that she could handcuff him onto an eastbound train. Unlike other women, Miss Dubois never allowed herself to swoon at Leslie’s feet . . . even if she wanted to. Instead, I found it a pleasure to watcher her tear down Leslie’s self-esteem, until he found himself declaring his love for her.

One cannot discuss “THE GREAT RACE” without mentioning Jack Lemmon’s superb performance. His Professor Fate has to be one of the best roles in the actor’s career. More importantly, I believe that Fate is one of the most entertaining villains in Hollywood history. This was a character that seemed to revel in his villainy with a bombastic manner, a five o’clock shadow on his chin and deep impatience and contempt toward anyone who was not . . . well, him. Yet, he was shrewd enough to surmise that Maggie Dubois’ dedication toward women’s sufferage would prove to be the Great Leslie’s Achilles’ heel. And his rant against his handsome rival near the film’s conclusion was a delicious study in Fate’s own insecurities about Leslie. If portraying the moustache-twirling villain was not enough, Lemmon also portrayed the affable, yet drunken Crown Prince Hapnick of Carpania with a slight effeminate twist during the film’s parody of “The Prisoner of Zenda”. Hapnick’s regal, yet slightly drunken entrance turned out to be one of the film’s highlights for me. I always thought it was a shame that Fate and Hapnick never really got the chance to interact with each other. Considering Lemmon’s comedic talent, such a scene would have been a hoot.

As I had stated earlier, “THE GREAT RACE” has plenty of obvious flaws. It is an overblown film about a long distance road race, in which little of the actual race was shown. And there were times when the slapstick comedy threatened to become just a bit too much. Especially during the famous pie fight sequence. But Blake Edwards, with co-writer Arthur Ross, created a fun and colorful film that re-created the world of old-fashioned road races and daredevil stunts during the turn of the last century. It also featured colorful costumes and settings, great humor, one of the best screen swordfights ever and a superb cast led by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. I highly recommend it.