Samurai Vendetta aka Hakuoki

Samurai Vendetta aka Hakuoki
Rating: **
Origin: Japan, 1959
Director: Kazuo Mori
Source: AnimEigo DVD

Some regard Kazuo Mori’s tale of a tragic love triangle as a masterpiece of samurai cinema, but I’m not among them. I find Mori’s direction pretentious and haphazard, compelling in one scene and then awkward in the next. The visual style switches from natural to impressionistic and overwrought without warning, which is jarring rather than emphatic. And there’s an over-reliance on narrative voiceovers to more the plot forward or tell us what the characters are feeling when a well-acted dialogue scene would do the job better. That said, with dialogue like, “Ours is a twisted world of warring titans,” maybe we’re better off with the voiceovers.

The film nonetheless has several points of interest. First of all, it’s a prequel of sorts to the Japanese national epic of Chushingura, or the Forty-Seven Ronin, telling the backstory of one of those famous martyrs to the samurai warrior code. Raizo Ichikawa does a fine job as the first male lead in the role of Tangé Tenzen, a dishonored fencing instructor forced to separate from his wife. Even more interesting is the second male lead, one of the forty-seven named Yasubei who’s played by a very young Shintaro Katsu, years before his international stardom as Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. Katsu has the best fencing moves in the picture, plus he gets to weep in the rain and be the only survivor of a scene of horrific slaughter—good training for the future Zatoichi.

 

Viking Women and the Sea Serpent

Viking Women and the Sea Serpent
Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1957
Director: Roger Corman
Source: Lionsgate DVD

Well, there went sixty-five minutes I’ll never have again. In the late fifties, movies about giant monsters were popular, many of them produced by the shlock-house of American International Pictures, and filming a bevy of half-clad starlets had never gone out of style, so producer-director Roger Corman combined the two in this miserable would-be epic. Its pompously-overlong full title is The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, which is the only thing the least bit clever about this dud. In Norway, which you probably didn’t realize looks exactly like southern California, at a village whose men went off a-Viking and never returned, the women are voting on whether to go search for them by the traditional Nordic method of hurling their spears into the “Yes” tree or the “No” tree. The deciding “Yes” vote is cast by the priestess Inger, the only non-blonde, who is suspected of wanting to go on the mission so she can get her hooks into one of the missing men, a Viking who belongs to the blonde woman with the ponytail. (Since none of the blonde women have been granted distinctive personalities or dialogue, the only way to tell them apart is hairstyle.)

The women go to sea in a cheesy-looking fake drakkar, a prop so crappy that pieces are visibly falling off it as it’s launched. (Apparently the whole crew of Viking women damn near drowned when the guy piloting the tow-boat fell asleep and they were all carried far off-shore.) Once they’re at sea the only subject the women want to talk about is men, so you know this is a fantasy. Fortunately, the only man left in town, a shirtless blond surfer dude, has stowed away, so there’s somebody trustworthy on board who can make important decisions and deliver exposition like, “It’s the monster of the vortex!” Said monster is the worst sea serpent ever back-projected in Hollywood, but it’s monster enough to swamp the crappy drakkar, which for good measure is set afire by gratuitous lightning. The crew abandon ship, and we’re treated to the sight of a flaming six-inch model of an entirely different longship swirling down into a tiny whirlpool.

The crew wash ashore somewhere on the coast of Malibu, where they’re promptly captured by a tribe of mounted barbarians and marched off to an unconvincing matte painting of a generic castle. There the barbarian chief tells them with a leer that they are now slaves who must do whatever the barbarians wish—but first there must be a boar hunt, so the Viking women are given horses and spears, and off they all go. (Don’t ask about the sad fake-tusked porker that plays the boar.) The rest of the film makes just as much sense. There’s a rowdy feast with “exotic” dancing, gratuitous woman-whipping, escape, betrayal by Inger (never trust the dark-haired one!), recapture, reunification with the lost and enslaved Viking men, more escape, more recapture, and a flaming sacrifice of the Vikings to the barbarian gods that is dowsed in a literal deus ex machina when Inger redeems herself by calling on the god Thor to save them. That leaves only the final battle with the titular sea serpent, who has apparently been able to terrorize the coast of Malibu for generations because nobody ever thought to stick a sword into it. Well, I never.

The Warriors (UK: The Dark Avenger)

The Warriors (UK: The Dark Avenger)
Rating: ***
Origin: USA / UK, 1955
Director: Henry Levin
Source: Warner Archive DVD

Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) was a minor studio known for inexpensive action-adventure films like the “Bomba, The Jungle Boy” series. In the mid-fifties Allied wanted to get in on the historical epic boom led by MGM, Warners, and Columbia with a big film of their own, so they rented the English studio MGM used for Robert Taylor’s medieval trilogy, and bought a script about Edward, the Black Prince, and his adventures during the Hundred Years War. And for their bankable star they hired Errol Flynn, for what would be his last swashbuckler.

 

The film’s reputation is as the last hurrah of a has-been, but really, it’s better than that. Oh, Flynn does look tired in the broadsword fights, and is frequently doubled, but he still has much of the old charm. The story, though conventional, is economically told, and moved right along by director Henry Levin (“The Return of Monte Cristo”). It’s full of fine British actors like Michael Hordern, Peter Finch, and Rupert Davies, the combats are convincing and period appropriate, and the whole thing clocks in at only eighty-five minutes, so no time is wasted.

 

It’s 1359, and after the English under Prince Edward (Flynn) have defeated the French and captured their king at Poitiers, King Edward III returns to England, leaving the Prince behind to rule Aquitaine. But the French, led by the ruthless Comte de Ville (Finch), subvert the peace, and soon Aquitaine is at war again. To draw out Prince Edward, de Ville abducts Lady Joan Holland (Joanne Dru), Edward’s childhood sweetheart. The Prince falls into de Ville’s ambush, and there’s a spirited cavalry skirmish, but Edward escapes the French trap. Separated from his men except for Sir John (Davies), Edward decides to rescue Joan himself by infiltrating de Ville’s castle disguised as a nameless black knight. The story presents this well enough to actually make such a reckless plan believable, and derring-do ensues.

 

The fine castle built for “Ivanhoe” makes another appearance, or rather two, the interiors standing in for de Ville’s medieval château, with the exteriors used as Edward’s castle in the climactic siege. After a couple of tries, Edward manages to rescue Joan and escape to his stronghold, but de Ville has been reinforced by the villainous Bertrand du Guesclin, who wants Edward’s head, so the French have fun storming the castle. Mantlets and bombards are deployed, the English longbow wreaks its havoc on the French chivalry, and the laws of drama are obeyed as the principal antagonists meet in personal combat on the castle walls to resolve their differences the old-fashioned way. It’s pretty good.

 

Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sole Season)

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sole Season)
Rating: ** (first half) / *** (second half)
Origin: UK, 1956
Director: Ralph Smart, et al.
Source: Amazon streaming video

With the first season of The Adventures of Robin Hood a runaway success on both sides of the pond, the British ITV network called for a companion series, and Sapphire Films was happy to comply. Lancelot was made at the same studios as Robin Hood, employing the same writers and directors, and sharing actors, costumes, and sets. But despite this, the new series seemed to lack the spark of Robin Hood, and got off to a slow start. Star William Russell wasn’t as sharp or versatile as Richard Greene, and the initial episodes are flat, clichéd, and seem aimed at a juvenile Hopalong Cassidy level.

The stories are reasonably well grounded in the Arthurian legends, though without using the actual tales, and with 100% less adultery. Oh, Lancelot and Guinevere make eyes at each other for the first few episodes, but then they dial it down and the knight takes up flirting with whoever is the lady guest star of the week. Merlin, as in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, is a fraud and a charlatan, but here he’s a wise advisor who uses chemistry and optics to appear to cast spells. Lancelot, however, sees through his tricks, though he doesn’t reveal them, and takes advantage of his cleverness. Unfortunately, the limited budget means a smallish cast, which makes battles and sieges seem faintly ridiculous when conducted with five combatants per side. And though there are at least two sword fights in every episode, the swordplay is rubbish.

However, halfway through the first season somebody seems to have noticed that the series was flagging and decided to do something about it, because after episode 13 the scripts show a marked improvement. Russell doesn’t get any better, but the stories suddenly come alive, the situations are more complex, and the characters show some depth. Furthermore, starting with ep 16, the series is shot in full color, a first for a British TV show. Alas, it must have been too little, too late to save the series, because it wasn’t renewed for a second season.

But that does leave us with a good eight or ten episodes that are worth seeking out. Start with ep 10, “Roman Wall,” an early outlier in which Lancelot finds a lost and forgotten Roman outpost. The first of the better later episodes is 14, “Shepherds’ War,” which is clearly inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Episodes 23 and 27, “Lady Lilith” and “The Missing Princess,” address the situation of women in medieval (and, by extension, 1950s) Britain, going about as far toward advocating equality of the sexes as could be done on fifties TV. But the best episode is 29, “The Thieves,” in which Arthur and Lancelot, for a wager, are disguised as branded thieves, and learn for themselves how the lowest of the underclass are treated by society. (Did I mention that this series is written by the same blacklisted left-leaning American scripters as Robin Hood?)