Thursday, May 8, 2014

THE WIND AND THE LION: Blu-ray (MGM 1975) Warner Archive Collection

Whatever became of Candice Bergen; the stunningly handsome supermodel who effortlessly segued from fashion to films, and later, became a sort of fictionalized proto-feminist martyr for the career-driven single gal, raising a baby on her own in the TV series, Murphy Brown? Bergen’s star is on the ascendancy in John Milius’ The Wind and The Lion (1975); a would-be historical epic somewhat tethered to ancient folklore; also mildly impeded by Milius’ artistic affliction to transform real history into a faux Rudyard Kipling adventure yarn. The movie’s influences are fairly transparent and not altogether successfully integrated – even if the final result remains immensely entertaining. Billy Williams’ cinematography is desperately trying to recapture the breadth and scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), while Milius’ screenplay remains a cross between Teddy Roosevelt meets Gunga Din (1939).
In retrospect, The Wind and The Lion is a movie of compromises; Milius unable to secure Omar Sharif or even Anthony Quinn for the pivotal role of the fiery Berber pirate; while Faye Dunaway suddenly became ill just as production was about to get underway; replaced at the last possible moment by Bergen. Milius definitely has his work cut out; particularly wrangling with his two co-stars; Connery admittedly very ‘sour and dour’ throughout the shoot, while Bergen reportedly was more concerned with maintaining a level of impractical glycerin beauty, despite the arduous circumstances of her character’s suffrage. The rumor is Milius would have preferred Julie Christie to Candice Bergen: perhaps, true, although it seems Christie was never even offered the part. In keeping with his clever melding of fact and fiction, Milius had also aspired to cast Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane (the character he played in Citizen Kane 1941). In the end, the threat of a lawsuit was enough of an incentive for Milius to nix this idea.
It all manages to work out – superficially speaking – despite some lumbering dialogue and a fairly tepid ‘relationship’ built upon a rather fascinating mutual respect brewing between Bergman’s priggish upper crust American, Eden Pedecaris, and Sean Connery – woefully miscast as Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli; commander of the Berber insurrectionists vehemently opposed to the Sultan Abdelaziz (Mark Zuber) and his uncle, the Bashaw of Tangier (Vladek Sheybal).
The Wind and The Lion is a highly fictionalized retelling of ‘The Perdicaris Incident’, involving the kidnap of American businessman, Ion Perdicaris on May 18, 1904 by Raisuli in Tangier. The movie typically rewrites this part for a female protagonist instead, portraying the assault on Ion’s vine-covered summer villa, the Place of Nightingales, as daringly destructive.The truth is, none of Ion’s servants were slaughtered by Raisuli’s advancing hoards during this ‘home invasion’. Nor was the estate trashed and/or looted, its hand-woven rugs trampled under horses hooves; sabers slashing into family portraits on the wall. Ah me, it all makes for heady theatrics, doesn’t it? Nothing sells tickets more than abject violence, particularly against women and children.
But the real Raisuli’s sole purpose in kidnapping Perdicaris was to extract $70,000 in ransom from the Sultan in trade for safe conduct; also to gain control of two of Morocco’s wealthier principalities. Shortly after their departure from Tangier, Perdicaris broke his leg in a fall from his horse. Raisuli tended this wound with great care and pledged eternal protection for his prisoner. Indeed, after the incident, Perdicaris (who had renounced his American citizenship prior to the time of his capture) came to regard Raisuli as neither a bandit nor murderer, but a patriot “…forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.”  
Nevertheless, U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt (superbly portrayed by Brian Keith in the movie) became embroiled in a resolution, indignantly claiming America’s involvement in Perdicaris’ rescue was a matter of national pride; this against the strenuous objections of his Secretary of State, John Hay (John Huston). At the behest of Hay and the Consul-General of Tangier, Samuel R. Gummere (Geoffrey Lewis) seven warships under Admiral French Ensor Chadwick’s (Roy Jenson) command were dispatched to the region; also several Marine divisions under Major John Twiggs Myers (who does not appear in the film). Roosevelt's resolve was slightly weakened after he realized Perdicaris was no longer a U.S. citizen; his feeble attempt to involve Britain and France backfiring when both countries refused to participate. France even went so far as to reinforce its own garrison against the anticipated American invasion, possibly to act as a buffer in the event of a war.
In an act of wily diplomacy, both Britain and France encouraged the Sultan to acquiesce to Raisuli’s demands, thereby taking America’s side in the matter without actually forming an alliance with Roosevelt’s more gregarious plan for an invasion. Meanwhile, Roosevelt maintained his fiery disposition on the home front to see either “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”  Ultimately, Perdicaris was released by Raisuli, the ‘incident’ hushed and all but forgotten once Perdicaris moved his family to Tunbridge Wells in England, where he continued to maintain lucrative business interests until his death from natural causes in 1925.
The Wind and the Lion isn’t particularly interested in any of this back story, although it should be referenced in any review of this film – if for no other reason – than as a valid counterpoint to the movie’s fictionalized retelling.  If Milius ‘facts’ are more than a tad wonky, he manages, spectacularly at times, to retain the spirit of national fervor over the incident. The Wind and The Lion is an undeniably lush and fairly engaging melodrama. However, it does fall marginally short of being a bona fide desert epic; perhaps because the crux of the story is increasingly centralized on the somewhat campy interplay between Connery’s curmudgeonly Berber and Bergen’s feisty lioness. It’s a queer chemistry; hardly romantic, frequently adversarial; occasionally infused with a touch of awkwardly misplaced screwball comedy, though ultimately rich and rewarding to observe.
At its crux, The Wind and The Lion is the story of two immovable objects; one, nobly motivated to rise to the occasion for his people; the other driven by ambition to become a man of the people. The film’s strength derives from Sean Connery and Brian Keith’s splendid sparing – done a million miles removed from each other; their adversarial relationship culled in the film’s editing process from a delicious exchange of ideologies. The Wind and The Lion is cobbled together from various actual locations mimicking other localities where the real story takes place. Spain’s Seville, Almeria and Madrid convincingly doubled for Tangier and Fez – even Washington and Yellowstone National Park, where Keith’s Teddy Roosevelt delivers his now famous ‘grizzly bear’ speech. In our present era of anti-nationalism, the impact of Roosevelt’s poignant reflections is marginally blunted. Thus, only in retrospect, does it reek of American imperialism.
“The American grizzly is a symbol of the American character: strength, intelligence, ferocity. Maybe a little blind and reckless at times... but courageous beyond all doubt,” Keith’s Roosevelt explains to a small gathering of reporters, “And one other trait that goes with all previous…loneliness. The American grizzly lives out his life alone; indomitable, unconquered - but always alone. He has no real allies, only enemies. But none of them as great as he. The world will never love us. They respect us - they might even grow to fear us. But they will never love us, for we have too much audacity. And, we're a bit blind and reckless at times too…the American grizzly embodies the spirit of America. He should be our symbol. Not that ridiculous eagle - he's nothing more than a dandified vulture.”
At the other end of this equation is Connery’s Mulay Hamid El Raisuli; equally as eloquent, yet imbued with an unconquerable fighting spirit; intensely passionate, though relatively even-keeled. In some ways, Connery’s Berber is the far more compassionate man of action; his purpose, his creed. Connery’s presence is actually what sells this movie – despite his heavy Scottish brogue. After all, Raisuli’s words conclude the show, putting a period to the incident, and summarizing the natural ebb and flow of the historical record neatly; “To Theodore Roosevelt - you are like the Wind - and I, like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance, but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours.”
Our story begins with composer Jerry Goldsmith’s spectacular underscore, played under the opening credits; a rousing Arabesque march segueing into the film’s highly romanticized central theme. Goldsmith is a master at such transitions; this one seemingly fit more for the grand Errol Flynn swashbucklers from the 1930’s than a faux historical saga made in 1975. The year for our story is 1904; the setting – Morocco – a glistening jewel off the Strait of Gibraltar, corrupted by the presence of Imperial German, French and British influences; each attempted to establish their supremacy over its indigenous citizenry. Morocco’s location has obvious American interests as well; namely, the Suez.
Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli is the commander of a band of Berber pirates; so considered the last of a vanishing breed of noble warriors. He is equally opposed to the young, Sultan Abdelaziz and his uncle, the Bashaw of Tangier; both men beholden to the Europeans for their political status. In a daring assault on the city, and the Pedecaris’ household in particular, Raisuli takes Eden Pedecaris (note the difference in spelling) and her two children, William (Simon Harrison) and Jennifer (Polly Gottesman) hostage. It is a violent assault, capped off by the death of Sir Joseph (Billy Williams) – who runs out of bullets in his defense of Eden and her children and is shortly thereafter cut through with a saber by one of Raisuli’s men. Raisuli is infuriated when his inability to mount a horse stolen from the stables amuses Eden, who laughs at him. He strikes her with the back of his hand; then, hurries their escape to his base camp located along an abandoned stretch of beach. Surely such a brazen kidnap will embarrass the Sultan and start a civil war.  
Eden is disgusted by the pirates’ barbarism. En route back to the base camp, Raisuli and his small army capture, then decapitate a pair of Arab travelers who have drunk from his well without his permission. Later, the pirates display a human tongue to Eden and her children – viewed as a trophy with great pride. In America, this incident does not go unnoticed. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt is all but convinced he has found the impetus for his re-election campaign; exploiting the incident to simultaneously bolster his own political agenda while he demonstrates to the world America's military emergence as a superpower. The decision to invade Morocco is met with apprehension by Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay; who encourages patience and planning over rash war-mongering.
Meanwhile, the American Consul to Tangier, Samuel Gummere, is unable to negotiate with the Sultan. Indeed, he is denied only the briefest access to the Bashaw, their languorous delay of negotiations met with mounting frustrations back home. In reply, Roosevelt orders Admiral French Ensor Chadwick’s South Atlantic Squadron either to retrieve Pedecaris by force or persuade the Sultan to accede Raisuli's demands. However, as time passes, Roosevelt finds himself respecting Raisuli, whom he comes to regard as an honorable man who also just happens to be his enemy.
Eden and her children remain Raisuli’s hostages in the Rif. Yet, here too, the mood has decidedly shifted from fear and concern to admiration. William, in particular, becomes fascinated by the Berbers’ valor despite Eden’s infrequent admonishments of Raisuli as “a brigand and a lout.” In the dead of night, Eden awakens her children for a daring escape with the aid of one of Raisuli’s less trustworthy followers (Aldo Sambrell). Alas, they are led astray, taken deep into the desert to be traded to a den of unscrupulous thieves for a few gold pieces.  Mercifully, Raisuli has suspected this betrayal and tracked the family down. In short order, he manages the slaughter of many of their tribesmen, saving Eden and her children from a fate, arguably, worse than death.
Made guests in his lavishly appointed home, Eden and the children are well looked after; Eden ashamed of her behavior, as she has come to realize Raisuli means her no harm. The surrender of Eden’s contempt is fittingly revealed in a tender exchange with Raisuli, in which he reveals he is only bluffing with the Americans.  Later, around the campfire, Raisuli regales Eden, her children and the rest of his followers with his perilous youth; taken captive by the Bashaw many years ago, bound and left for dead in an isolated dungeon where, nevertheless, he managed to survive of faith alone. His devotion since has been pledged to the beloved prophet and to Allah whom Raisuli regards as his saviors; he, merely the instrument to do their bidding on earth. Eden is riveted by this tale, her affinity for Raisuli firmly cemented.
Meanwhile, Gummere, Chadwick and his aide, Marine Captain Jerome (Steven Kanaly) have tired of the Sultan’s dishonesty. Jerome’s ambitious plan, to charge the Bashaw’s palace in Tangier and take command of the government by force unsettles Gummere, who nevertheless green lights the plan into action. Jerome leads a small battalion of marines, flanked by a detachment of sailors through the city’s streets. They overwhelm the palace guards and take the Bashaw prisoner, thus forcing his hand into negotiations with Raisuli for the Pedecarises safe return.
Alas, this peaceful exchange of prisoners is sabotaged by German and Moroccan troops under the command of Von Roerkel (Antoine Saint-John), despite the presence of Jerome and a minor contingent of Marines. Superficially, Sherif of Wazan (Nadim Sawalha), who has acted as an intermediary in this exchange, feigns disloyalty toward Raisuli – allowed by Von Roerkel his leave from the city. Secretly, however, Wazan begins to amass his forces in the desert for a daring assault and rescue. Meanwhile, Eden takes Jerome by surprise, convincing him and his men to stand their ground and aid in Raisuli’s liberation; thereby upholding Roosevelt’s word and – by extension – the honor of the United States.
In response to her gallantry, Jerome and the Berbers create a united front against the German/Moroccan forces. Raisuli is saved, Eden and her children returned to the relative safety of Tangier. Back home, Hay breathes a sigh of relief. Roosevelt’s popularity with the American people is more galvanized and Teflon-coated than ever. He will surely win the election. As Hay and the other presidential advisors retire for brandy and cigars in the library, Theodore unveils his statue of the grizzly bear; a mighty beast with claws extended. However, as he reads Raisuli’s letter, “I (Raisuli), like the lion, must stay in my place, while you, like the wind, will never know yours,” Roosevelt sits quietly alone with his statue, pausing to contemplate his own mortality.   
The Wind and The Lion is Milius’ fabulous attempt to resurrect that bygone era of sword and sandal screen epics. It succeeds partly, though not without a few misfires along the way; mostly made by Milius’ ridiculous infusions of some lighthearted comedy into this otherwise faux historic and very glamorous entertainment. In retrospect, it is something of a minor wonder the picture was made at all. At the start, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer trademark is preceded by a rather ironic moniker, marking the studio’s golden anniversary and “celebrating our next fifty years”; a contradiction and, in retrospect, sad reminder of the studio’s own financial entrenchment. In 1969, Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian controlled 40 percent of Metro’s voting stock. A few short years later, he became its principle shareholder, the looting and downsizing of MGM “as a hotel company and a relatively insignificant producer of motion pictures” well underway by the time Milius received his financing for The Wind and The Lion. Actually, the movie was independently produced by Herb Jaffe Productions, receiving additional funding and distribution by MGM in the United States. If anything, The Wind and The Lion bears the mark of MGM’s old-time panache for telling grand and frothy screen spectacles. In its heyday, the regime of L.B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg would surely have smiled on such an epitaph as the studio’s fond farewell.
Warner’s Archive division has released The Wind and The Lion to Blu-ray in a fairly fabulous looking 1080p transfer. I must admit being very impressed with this disc. Overall, color fidelity is extraordinary, the razor-sharpness of the image revealing startling clarity. There are a few shots that appear ever so slightly softly focused. There are also one or two brief inserts that seem to suffer from a hint of color fading. Otherwise, this is a superb presentation that will surely not disappoint, featuring vividly saturated color, solid contrast and an absolutely gorgeous sense of depth. Grain has been accurately reproduced too. Better still, Warner has utilized a very high bitrate to achieve impressive compression results.
The general release of The Wind and The Lion was in mono; but its limited road show engagement in 70mm included a six-track stereo mix, presumably the basis for this new 5.1 DTS soundtrack. Dialogue remains firmly grounded in the center channel, but major action sequences and Jerry Goldsmith’s score exhibit exquisite dynamic range. Warner has ported over the extras from its 2005 DVD release. We get Milius’ commentary, plus a vintage ‘making of’ featurette and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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