by Dean Brandum
A bit late with my inaugural post here, but let get things rolling in a style not normally my own.
Late last week, fighting the ravages of the flu and a lousy nightshift, I loaded up the truck and headed down the coast to visit the parents, wife and bubby in tow. With mum bustling about the kitchen preparing more food than we could ever imagine eating (as per usual) dad was kept well occupied by my daughter and her never-ending collection of farm animals that she had loaded into his lap. Meanwhile, my darling wife kept the conversation going as I made the odd muttering from the couch, whenever my fatigue-addled brain could summon the energy to contribute something intelligent (hard and rare enough for me at the best of times).
Anyway, as is always the case, dad and I got to chatting about movies so I took to hunting through his pay-TV guide to check if there was anything there I knew would take his interest. Within seconds I had struck gold. In a couple of days TCM would be hauling out The Hill once again, one of dad’s favourites. Dad was thrilled and he was determined to watch it again. Having always admired the film too I made a promise to myself to also set aside the time for it, if I could squeeze a couple of free hours from a busy weekend schedule.
The process lab must have been told to set The Hill (1965) to ‘highest contrast possible’. Filmed in that grey and white monochrome peculiar to British cinema of the 60s, when the characters do occasionally emerge from the charcoal murky hue it is into white of the burning magnesium variety – there is very little middle tone. A stark, harrowing affair, Sidney Lumet’s film tells of the dehumanising disciplinary practices undertaken at a British military prison in North Africa during the Second World War. The titular hill is a man-made sand and rock construct the fully-kitted prisoners are forced run up and down in the sweltering sun, ostensibly for matters of discipline, but in truth for the pleasure of the sadistic warden and his psychotic staff sergeant. In this film the dialogue is barked rather than delivered by a powerful cast including Sean Connery, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Michael Redgrave and Ian Bannen, along with a number of faces familiar to those fans of 60’s British cinema.
The Hill has always been a firm favourite of mine and I find the drama no less engrossing no matter how often I watch it. Sadly, it is a somewhat neglected flick, usually filed away with the backhanded compliment of an ‘actors piece’. Viewing it this very day I came to wonder why it was that both my father and I shared a fascination for this film and indeed, if such preferences were hereditary, like thinning hair or stalled fashion sense (sadly I’m the recipient of both). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced it may be the case. Now dawdling my way through academia and well-enough conversed in enough film theory to make patter with the wankers at a film fest launch (making the most of a the free grog table) I am, I suppose, what could be termed a ‘cineaste’. Both of my parents would roll their eyes at such an expression, their disdain well-known for pretension. Let’s leave it at a ‘glorified film buff’, if you like. Mum and Dad belonged to a generation who were buffs long before the term was coined. Cinema-going was a weekly ritual – like laundry on a Tuesday and a roast on Sunday. A wide experience of cinema derived from whatever screened at their local for the week. From mum I gained a love of horror films, British cinema and crime thrillers. From dad it was adventure, westerns and stark drama. My preferences have been coloured over time with excursions into other genres, art-house sensibilities and national cinemas and certainly the flavour has been tainted towards to trashier end of town, but overall the foundations are as strong as ever. The apple has not fallen far from my parents’ corner of the orchard.
But back to The Hill, for a minute. Yes, the drama is intense, but what is the hook that kept dad coming back to it? A bit of amateur psychology on my part might provide the answer. Perhaps it was ‘the hill’ itself, of Dad’s unhappy (but never complaining) family life as a young man being forced to scale that metaphorical hill over and over by his miserable father and ungrateful siblings. The distaste of which, I would offer, led to an unwillingness to conform to the expectations for a young bloke in the 1950s. The dux of his school he was forced into an apprenticeship he held little interest in so instead of sticking with it for life – as was the done thing – he spent the decade wandering the country and parts of the world. Sleeping rough and often living the life of an itinerant bum. Odd jobs here and there and mixing with many other escapees of 1950s conformity in outback shitholes on freight trains and aboard Africa-bound oil-tankers. The places of the books and magazines he cherished. Yet even then he refused to conform to the bum’s lot and by avoiding the grog and the blues he did not join them in prisons or early graves but made a late charge to the life of a working class family man. He still hated the rigmarole of knuckling down to a single job but cherished and thrived and being a husband and father. ‘The Hill’ never beat him and although it took time he had great pleasure in serving a big “fuck you” to those that had made him run it.
Thinking back to dad’s movie tastes I can detect a bit of a theme (although I doubt he would ever admit to it). He loved films about men taken from society and having to survive on their wits in unforgiving surrounds. The Naked Prey (1966) was a firm favourite, as were The Omega Man (1971), The Sands of the Kalahari (1965) Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Time Machine (1960) as well as Flight of the Phoenix (1966). In fact he liked all of those tough Robert Aldrich flicks such as Emperor of the North Pole (1973) and Too Late the Hero (1970) and of course The Dirty Dozen and its ilk of all-star epics – The Professionals (1966), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In regards to that film most fans remember it for the ultra-cool presence of Steve McQueen, but I would reckon that although Dad got a chuckle from the ‘Cooler King’ he would have preferred the quieter methods of the James Coburn character and, faulty Australian accent aside, he is one of the few to get away with it.
That was dad – little fuss and with few noticing he always got away with it in the end. That is why he was never much of a John Wayne fan. Yeah, he could watch some of his films and would probably enjoy them but he couldn’t suffer “all that Duke bullshit” as he called it. For dad, his western heroes were cut from the Randolph Scott saddlecloth, especially the fabulous series he made with Budd Boetticher. Lean, mean tales of somewhat damaged protagonists and their small-scale business, getting by on wits and honed skills rather than bluster, ego and grand-scale Duke-bullshit. Any day of the week he’d take Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) over Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959). In the same way he preferred Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949) over Sly Stallone in Rocky (1976). Yet although he demanded a healthy dose of realism for his ticket price he did love the garlic-infused stylistics of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”. For all those tight close-ups quick cuts and hysterical soundtracks dad found the truth he was looking for – he’d never been to the American west but having survived the Australian outback he knew that such terrains were populated with nothing but the sleaziest and sharpest of gringos and it is every bastard for himself. Django (1966), on the other hand pushed the envelope a little too far – “dragging that bloody gatling gun around in a coffin, you’ve got to be kidding me!”
The closer an American film took place to the border, the more Dad seemed to like it. Especially when there was a racist, sexist sheriff/landowner/patriarch figure involved. Burl Ives, Rod Steiger, James Mason and even Benny Hill in his “Big Daddy” character. Come to think of it, a straight line can be drawn here between Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Hill. Paul Newman digging then refilling trenches, Sean Connery trudging up and down a mound of sand. Men in harsh environments refusing to let the bastards get the better of them.
I don’t want to give the impression that dad was nothing but a hard and miserable bastard who took pleasure in the bleakest of cinema. That could not be furthest from the truth. Anyone who had the opportunity to sit through an episode of “The Three Stooges” would never forget the laughter that invariably plunged into coughing fits. My poor mum (who hated that particular comedy troupe) would roll her eyes heavenwards and shake her head, bewildered that someone could find such inanities amusing. They did however, share a love for “Carry On” movies and I can think of few more enjoyable occasions than a quiet night in with them both, watching Carry on Abroad (1972) and hearing dad’s guffaws as Spanish hotel owner (Peter Butterworth) would mispronounce pompous tourist Mr. Farquar’s (Kenneth Williams) name as “Mr. Farty-Arse”.
It must be hereditary, as I find that film hysterically funny.
On a similar note I’m reminded of the time I was watching an episode of “Deadwood” and chortling away to a certain phrase. Dad (he loved the show) watched the disc the following week and we shared endless amusement for weeks afterwards with the words “San Francisco Cocksucker”. Ah dad, he loved that Al Swerengen and so did I.
Mate, I have so very much to thank you for and my love of movies is only a tiny, tiny fraction of all you have given me. But you helped fuel a love a cinema in me which is why I am here on this blog today. You hated the habit of modern movies to be longer than they needed to be – “Do directors these days get paid by the bloody foot of film they shoot?” you’d ask after sitting through some flaccid recent opus. On reading this you’d be wondering “Deano, are you getting paid by the word?” So I’ll wind it up there.
Love ya Dad and thanks.
(Although I watched The Hill over the weekend, sadly dad didn’t. A few hours after were left from our visit he died peacefully in his sleep from a heart attack. This post is dedicated to the most wonderful father a bloke could wish for and the most prescient appraiser of a genre flick you could hope to find. If there is a cinema in heaven he’ll be leaning over to the person next to him and whispering “See that bloke there? I betcha a pound to a peanut he’s the undercover cop”. Sorry dad, but that was a bloody infuriating habit. But jeez, I’m going to miss it).
Kevin B 30th March 1933 – 29th February 2008.