Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue
Rating: ***
Origin: USA / UK, 1953
Director: Harold French
Source: Amazon streaming video

 

Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734) was a Scottish outlaw who took part in two Jacobite rebellions against the English, was in and out of trouble his entire life, and seems to have been a pretty tough customer. Romanticized accounts of his exploits began appearing in the popular press as early as 1723, in his own lifetime. He became a hero of Scottish legend, and even the title character of a novel (1817) by Sir Walter Scott. This Disney live-action film follows that tradition, presenting a lively though highly-fictionalized account of the outlaw’s career. It was mostly shot in the gloomy grandeur of the Highlands, which suits the tone of the picture, darker than that of most Disney adventure films. It fact, it was a disappointment at the box office, due I think to this somber tone, and to the portrayal of the hero by star Richard Todd, whose hard-bitten Rob Roy is a bit too grim and vengeful to be truly sympathetic.

The story is the time-honored tale of the doughty but disorganized Scots, brave with their swords and shields, beaten again and again by the perfidious English with their serried ranks of muskets and bayonets, not to mention their horse dragoons and artillery, the big cheaters. The victorious English oppress the Scots, the clansmen exact reprisals, and the cycle continues. The Scots here are mostly broad caricatures, hard-fighting and hard-drinking, the camera dwelling on their colorful celebrations of marrying and burying, the pipes skirling at every opportunity. To be fair, the wicked English are cartoon parodies as well, their bewigged officers taking snuff and curling their lips, sneering in contempt at the barbaric Scots. The halting English of their imported German king, George I, also comes in for its share of mockery, so no nationality goes unscathed.

In truth, the only sympathetic and three-dimensional people in this thing are Glynis Johns, lovely and heart-breakingly earnest as Rob Roy’s lady-love Helen MacPherson, and the massive James Robertson Justice as the Duke of Argyll, a Scottish noble seeking to find an honorable way to end the ongoing bloodshed. Whenever he shows up, his commanding presence dominates the screen, and we know he’s going to win in the end by dint of sheer moral authority. But not before we’ve had the requisite number of ambushes and escalades, pursuits and escapes, and pitched battles with howling swordsmen and roaring cannon. Scotland Forever, I guess.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Rating: *****
Origin: Japan, 1955
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

For a movie less than two hours long, there’s an awful lot going on here. As the second film in a trilogy, this one has to do the heavy lifting of supporting the central arch of the hero’s character development, as well as shuffling the story forward and setting up the climactic final movie, and it does all this with clarity, economy, and finesse. And that’s important, because this is the part of the story where the legendary Musashi Miyamoto, played once again by Toshiro Mifune, must evolve from an angry and arrogant bully into a humble and honorable samurai warrior.

As far as Musashi is concerned, the story is a succession of fights separated by encounters with surprising mentors—a caustic old monk, an accomplished geisha, a reverent sword-polisher—who teach him how to look within to find himself. For the rest of the ever-burgeoning cast, it’s a frantic dance of deceit, adoration, conspiracy, rape, greed, ambition, calculation, and murder, in a carefully orchestrated flow of short, sharp scenes that keep the story moving so deftly you can almost ignore its series of mind-boggling coincidences. All the characters introduced in the first movie return to be joined by an equal number of new faces, most of whom make it to the end of this film with their plots still unresolved. The most important new character is Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Suruta), a wry and cynical young swordsman who seems to dog Musashi’s every footstep, showing up whenever there’s trouble, sometimes fomenting it, sometimes defusing it, but always with an eye toward how everything points toward an inevitable showdown with Musashi.

Speaking of showdowns, there’s a lot of fighting in this entry, much more than in the previous picture, and director Inagaki shows himself to be a master of the form. But of all the combats in the film, significantly only the first and last are shown from beginning to end, because they bookend Musashi’s character arc; all other fights are only partially depicted, mere links in the chain of the story’s progress.

The movie opens on the first duel, in which Musashi has been challenged by Baiken, a master of the kusari gama (chain and sickle). Musashi, facing an unfamiliar weapon, is unsure of himself, gets caught by the chain, and wins only through audacity and desperation. An aging monk who witnesses the duel tells him disapprovingly that though victorious, he is no samurai, as he didn’t win by art or skill, only sheer force. “You are decidedly too strong,” he says.

Only as events unfold does Musashi begin to glimpse what the monk means. He gets into a protracted squabble with the many swordsmen of the Yoshioka fencing school, whom he repeatedly defeats while demanding a match with the young samurai who has inherited the school’s mastery—a duel which is always denied him, because the Yoshioka students secretly fear their master is no match for Musashi. They keep trying to kill him in failed or mistaken ambushes, and the wrong people die. Meanwhile all the secondary characters pursue their agendas of love and avarice in and around this feud, and hostilities sharpen and harden.

Finally a duel between Musashi and Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihito Hirata) is set for dawn at Ichijoji Temple—but once again the master is diverted, and some eighty of his students set an ambush for Musashi. Forewarned by Akemi, one of the three women pining for his affections, Musashi defies the ambushers and then battles the lot of them in a magnificent fighting retreat, carefully choosing his terrain so they can only come at him a few at a time. After dropping two dozen adversaries, Musashi eventually breaks away into the forest, nearly exhausted, only to be confronted by Seijuro at last. Musashi can barely contain his rage: after taking the measure of his opponent, he defeats Seijuro in a single pass, but then refrains from killing him as all his recent life lessons combine to restrain his hand. And then all the elements are set up to perfection for resolution in the final film.

 

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.