Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Eighteenth Film: “The Visitors”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s eighteenth film, “The Visitors.” The review below was first posted on December 24, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Elia Kazan had been one of America’s most celebrated and influential film and theatrical directors in the 1940s and 50s, but by the early 1970s, after the financial failure of five of his previous six movies, he could not find backing for a new film project written by his son, Chris Kazan, which explored themes regarding the unpopular Vietnam War. Kazan opted to film “The Visitors” himself on a shoestring budget using a 16mm camera.

The Visitors
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring James Woods, Patricia Joyce, Steve Railsback, Chico Martinez, and Patrick McVey
United Artists, 1972, 88 minutes

4 Stars

Plot

Bill (Woods) and Martha (Joyce) and their infant child live in a Connecticut farmhouse owned by Martha’s domineering father, Western pulp fiction writer, Harry (McVey). They are not married and their relationship seems to be somewhat strained.

Two visitors, Sarge aka Mike (Railsback) and Tony (Martinez), show up at the house unexpectedly. They had served together in the same platoon with Bill in Vietnam, but Bill had testified against them at a court martial for wartime atrocities. The pair had been released due to a legal technicality after having been imprisoned for two years and had driven from Kansas to Connecticut to find Bill. The intentions of the visitors are unclear and Bill is nervous and fearful.

Harry stops by for a visit. He’s an overbearing redneck who enjoys the company of the two manly guests as much as he openly despises his daughter’s passive boyfriend.

As the night progresses, Martha learns from Bill the details of the wartime atrocity, which involved the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl, and she angrily confronts Sarge. While she abhors him, she is also strangely attracted to his aggressive demeanor. Bill breaks things up and attacks Sarge. A fight ensues and Bill is beaten to a bloody pulp. Martha is also attacked. The visitors leave, satisfied that they have meted out justice. After Bill regains consciousness, he asks Martha if she’s all right. She just stares back at him with silent contempt.

The moral of the story: It was bad enough to see the violence of Vietnam on the television screen, but it was something altogether different when it crossed over your threshold.

Commentary

Kazan stated in an interview that “The Visitors” was an “anti-war picture,” and that it was about “the price of the Vietnam War on the soul of the American people.”  While the production quality is unsurprisingly low given the budget constraints, the rising tension between the characters is palpable. Railsback’s character is especially convincing as a coiled cobra patiently waiting to strike its victim. The script was loosely based on a portion of Daniel Lang’s book, “Casualties of War” (1969), which also inspired Brian De Palma’s same-titled 1989 film.

Like the Bill character, Kazan had also testified against his friends at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1952 when he named the names of former associates of the American Communist Party. While I haven’t read of Kazan having ever been physically attacked because of his testimony, he was widely ostracized by liberals on both coasts until his death in 2003.

The shoestring-budget movie was partially filmed at Kazan’s home and property at 10 Old Mill Road* in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut (yes, THAT Sandy Hook where 20 elementary school children and 7 adults were massacred by a disturbed young man in 2012). It’s unique among all of Kazan’s films because of its basic, no-frills production quality. “The Visitors” had an extremely limited release. Of all of Kazan’s nineteen films, “The Visitors” is the only one not on DVD, but it is available as a VHS tape and through Amazon streaming.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The United States’ protracted involvement in the Vietnam War wore down the resolve of the American people. By the time Kazan made “The Visitors” in 1972, the nation had had enough. In 1973, America ceased military operations in Vietnam. South Vietnam eventually fell to the North Vietnamese-led forces in 1975.

The First World War was proclaimed to be “the war that would end all wars.” International organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations were established to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts. But conflicts and wars continue. As the Bible says, the hearts of men are desperately wicked. Individuals have a difficult time maintaining harmonious relationships let alone nations. The only lasting peace comes through a relationship with the Lord, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.

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Above: A Google Maps street level view of 10 Mill Road, Sandy Hook, Connecticut as it appears today

Lower the landing gear. Next month we’ll re-review Kazan’s final film, “The Last Tycoon.”

*Kazan owned adjoining property and a house at #4 Old Mill Road where the bulk of “The Visitors” was filmed, but it appears that house is no longer standing (see here).

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Seventeenth Film: “The Arrangement”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s seventeenth film, “The Arrangement.” The review below was first posted on November 13, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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The Arrangement
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Boone
Warner Bros., 1969, 125 minutes

4 Stars

Following the release of his previous film, “America America” (1963), director Elia Kazan turned to writing fiction. His semi-autobiographical novel, “The Arrangement,” was surprisingly the highest-selling fictional work of the year when it was published in 1967. Kazan adapted the novel to the screen two years later.

Plot

Middle-aged Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising executive living a very comfortable, upper middle-class lifestyle with his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr), in a sprawling Southern California home complete with servants and an in-ground pool. But Eddie secretly despises the “arrangements” and the compromises he’s made in his life and unsuccessfully attempts suicide on the highway. While convalescing, Eddie has flashbacks of his unsatisfying career and of the young, outspoken, co-worker, Gwen (Faye Dunaway), who goaded him to follow his own desires and whom he partnered with in an extramarital affair. Following his recovery, Eddie reluctantly returns to the job he hates, but finds he cannot tolerate it and surrealistically buzzes the company office tower in his private plane as his final parting shot.

As Florence wonders WHAT is going on with her suddenly unhinged husband, Eddie is summoned to New York City to be with his ailing father (Richard Boone). He uses the opportunity to visit Gwen, who had moved to the Big Apple primarily to get away from the conflicted Eddie. Although Gwen has a new boyfriend, Eddie is undeterred. Meanwhile, Florence chases Eddie to New York to keep close tabs on her increasingly unpredictable husband.

Eddie sneaks his father out of the hospital in the middle of the night according to his wishes and brings him back to the old family homestead. The old Greek is suffering from dementia and insists Eddie take him to the bank for a loan to restart his oriental rug business. At the house, Eddie has painful childhood flashbacks of his domineering and abusive father.

After the family absconds with the father and commits him to a nursing home, Eddie walks in on a meeting with Florence and her lawyer, Arthur (Hume Cronyn), as they draw up divorce papers. Eddie is arrested after setting fire to the old family home (symbolizing the extirpation of the painful childhood memories). Eddie is subsequently committed to a mental institution where he’s satisfied to stay, but Gwen prods him into leaving and moving forward with his life. The father dies and the family gathers at the cemetery; Eddie and Gwen are together while Frances appears to have found a new partner and provider in Arthur.

Commentary

While the film is not completely autobiographical, it does draw very heavily on the director’s life experiences. Kazan later wrote extensively on his troubled relationships with his father, his first wife, Molly Thatcher, and his spirited mistress and second wife, actress Barbara Loden. He had also experienced a bit of a personal, water-shed crisis after becoming extremely dissatisfied with his role as a theatrical director while desiring to be a writer.

Kazan admitted later that alpha-dog, Kirk Douglas, was entirely wrong for the role of troubled Eddie. His take-charge personality could not be concealed from the camera. Dunaway is bit over-dramatic as the strong-willed mistress. Kazan originally envisioned Barbara Loden playing the part of Gwen, which would have equated to the former-mistress-turned-wife portraying herself. Boone is spot-on as the overbearing father and Kerr is okay as the painfully long-suffering wife.

Kazan employs a number of questionable techniques in this film which serve as distractions. There’s some cartoonish “Ka-pow” graphics straight out of the then-popular Batman television show. The conflicted Eddie is made to debate his successful and sales savvy alter-ego within the same scene and adult Eddie is featured as an in-frame observer in flashbacks to his youth. There’s plenty of additional flashy editing that was “cutting edge” hip in the late 60s.

“The Arrangement” was not well-received by the public. Kazan later blamed the film’s failure on some “missing key elements” from the novel that had to be left out of the script for brevity’s sake. Excuses aside, this film has only a few redeeming qualities, but Kazan fans will appreciate the many references to his own personal life, which he would later elaborate on in great detail in his fascinatingly candid 1988 autobiography. “The Arrangement” was one of the first films dealing with “finding one’s true path,” a theme that would later preoccupy Hollywood and the culture in general. The 2007 DVD offers no commentary although the trailer and a short but interesting promotional documentary are included.

Additional thoughts from a believer

We’re all aware of the fabled, “mid-life crisis.” We’ve seen others go through it to some degree and, if we’re old enough, we’ve seen it in ourselves. A person reaches their forties or fifties and is confronted with their mortality. They ask themselves, “Is this all there is to life?” After working hard for so many years to please others by conforming to family or societal expectations, some resolve to please only themselves with the remaining time they have. Sometimes they go to sadly comical, stereotypical extremes, like the 55-year-old guy who buys a high-performance, red convertible sports car and dumps his wife for a 30-year-old girlfriend.

The protagonist in “The Arrangement” is suffering through a “mid-life crisis” on steroids. Will he find true and lasting happiness and fulfillment as a struggling writer living with his former mistress? Methinks not. Much of “The Arrangement” reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:1-2). Without Jesus Christ as your Savior, life is empty, life is meaningless, life is hopeless. Accept Christ as your Savior. Christ can save you from the coming judgement for your sin and give your life everlasting meaning in Him.

Kazan went on to write five more novels, but none would reach even a fraction of the popularity of “The Arrangement.” He began divorce proceedings against Loden in 1978, but dropped the suit when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Lodan succumbed to liver cancer in 1980. Kazan’s “post-arrangement” life was as unfulfilling as what preceded it.

The runway is definitely in sight, my friends. There’s only two more Kazan films left to re-review.

Trivia: “The Arrangement” is actually something of a sequel to “America America.” Eddie is the nephew of the protagonist of the 1963 film, Stavros Topouzoglou. In “The Arrangement,” the much-older Stavros is shown covetously eyeing the shoes of his dying brother, eliciting memories of the importance of a pair of shoes in the earlier film. Grizzled actor, Richard Boone, who portrayed Douglas’ father in the film, was actually six-months younger than his co-star.

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Sixteenth Film: “America America”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s sixteenth film, “America America.”* The review below was first posted on October 25, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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America America
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Stathis Giallelis, Lou Antonio, John Marley, Paul Mann, and Linda Marsh
Warner Bros., 1963, 168 minutes

5 Stars

After directing fifteen films based on the ideas and scripts of others, Kazan worked up the nerve to write the screenplay of “America America” by himself. The movie loosely chronicles the immigration of Kazan’s uncle to America.

Plot

With the Armenian and Greek minorities facing increasing intolerance and persecution in 1890’s Turkey, the Greek Topouzoglou family sends their eldest son, Stavros (Giallelis), from their small village to Constantinople in the hope that he can establish the family in the relatively safer environs of the city. But Stavros secretly dreams of immigrating to the mythical America, with its promises of security and prosperity. Along the journey to the city, the naive and trusting Stavros is robbed of his family’s cherished possessions by a comical Turkish rascal (Antonio) and arrives at his cousin’s rug store with only the clothes on his back. Stavros balks at his cousin’s scheme to marry a wealthy merchant’s unattractive daughter and begins working as a lowly hamal (porter) to buy passage to America. After months of back-breaking toil, he is robbed of his savings by a prostitute. Stavros associates with a group of anarchists and is nearly killed in a government ambush. He returns half-dead to his cousin and disingenuously agrees to marry the daughter of merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Mann). Stavros has feelings for the plain Thomna (Marsh) and is tempted by the comforts of domesticity, but won’t be swayed from his goal. The middle-aged wife of one of Sinnikoglou’s wealthy customers takes a shine to young Stavros and arranges for his ocean passage to America as her “traveling companion.” When her husband learns he’s been betrayed, he tries to have the young Greek returned to Turkey, but Stavros takes the identity of a deathly-sick Armenian friend (Gregory Rozakis), who voluntarily jumps overboard so that Stavros may realize his dream. Stavros arrives at Ellis Island and kneels down to kiss American soil. He shines shoes in New York City with a passion, saving his hard-earned coins in order to eventually bring his entire family to America.

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Above: Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) is tempted by Thomna (Linda Marsh) and her family to remain in Constantinople and enjoy the pleasures of domesticity

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Kazan based his novel, “America America” (1962), and the subsequent film adaptation on the journey of his uncle, Joe Kazan, who had a cameo in one of Kazan’s early films; “Boomerang.” Kazan moved the filming to Greece because of Turkish censorship. The exquisite black and white cinematography was done by the legendary Haskell Wexler. Newcomer Giallelis’ performance at times borders on the amateurish and his broken English is occasionally undecipherable, but his facial expressions are wonderfully dramatic. The 22-year-old Greek actor had to learn English for this role. Kazan employed a large number of weathered native non-actor extras who sharply contrast with the professionals of Kazan’s Actor’s Studio. Linda Marsh breaks your heart as the rejected bride-to-be and deserved an Oscar nomination. Paul Mann is outstanding as the domineering but big-hearted future-father-in-law. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

“America America” was Kazan’s favorite film. It’s extremely long at almost three hours, but I would have a hard time deciding which scenes to cut. This is a wonderful movie, an epic testament to the courage and determination of our immigrant ancestors who sought the freedoms of America. They pined for an America where they heard the streets were literally paved with gold and where they would be “redeemed” and washed clean of the injustices of the old homeland, as Stavros says in the film. However, after they arrived in America, many immigrants found the conditions in the late 19th and early 20th-century urban sweat shops and tenements to be as oppressive as conditions in the “old country.”

Warner Bros. finally released this film on DVD in 2011. Film historian, Foster Hirsch, provides an informative and infectiously enthusiastic commentary. Kazan would go on to complete the trilogy of Stavros’ epic tale with the novels, “The Anatolian” (1982), and “Beyond the Agean” (1994). Spoiler alert: In his later years, Stavros becomes disillusioned with America and yearns for the old homeland.

See one of the trailers for “America America” here.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Kazan directed “America America” when he was 54 years old. Once the celebrated “golden boy” of Hollywood and Broadway, the despised, friendly-witness of the 1952 House Un-American Activities Committee would direct only three more films. Like “America America,” they would all be commercial failures. Kazan had felt uncomfortable as a Greek immigrant “outsider” in Hollywood’s illusory world of fabricated glamour. With this movie, Kazan embraced his ethnic roots and, to a certain degree, tried to come to terms with his strained relationship with his deceased father, a theme he would deeply explore in his next film, “The Arrangement.”

Everyone who doesn’t know the Lord has a spiritual void they seek to fill. When I walked away from the Lord for many years, I tried to fill the vacuum by reading many books about my ethnic heritage. It became an obsession (see here). Millions of Americans log into Ancestry.com every day to try to determine exactly who they are in this rootless society. In the end, it doesn’t satisfy. The only Rock and sure foundation is the Lord, Jesus Christ. If He is not your personal Savior, you don’t have anything.

*Grammar note: Nope, that’s not a typo. Kazan did not include a comma in the title of “America America.”

Next up: Kazan’s seventeenth film: “The Arrangement”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fifteenth Film: “Splendor in the Grass”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass.” The review below was first posted on October 16, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Splendor in the Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, and Audrey Christie
Warner Bros., 1961, 124 minutes

5 Stars

After the dismal commercial failures of his three previous films (the so-called “Southern Trilogy”), Kazan turned to popular playwright, William Inge, for a box-office-friendly teenage melodrama.

Plot

Arthur “Bud” Stamper (Warren Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) are king and queen of their high school in 1928 Kansas and madly in love. Bud is from a wealthy family and the top jock on campus (although not a gifted student), while Deanie is from a much more modest background, but is one of the school’s most attractive and popular girls. Together, they’re an ideal couple, but must increasingly battle the temptation to become more intimate. Deanie’s materialistic mother (Audrey Christie) counsels her daughter to remain chaste because Bud is the “catch of a lifetime” and he surely wouldn’t marry a “bad girl.” In the meantime, Bud tells his Type-A-on-steroids father, Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), that he can no longer fight lustful temptations, so he’s determined to marry Deanie immediately after graduation and run the family ranch, but the small-town oil baron insists that academically-challenged Bud go to Yale in order prepare himself to take the family oil business to the next level. Bud’s scandalously immoral older sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), has brought shame to the Stamper name and Ace hopes Bud can redeem the family’s reputation.

Recognizing that he can no longer control himself, Bud cools the relationship with “good girl,” Deanie, but lets off some steam with Juanita (Jan Norris), the school “floozy,” thereby humiliating Deanie, and sending her into an emotional breakdown. Somewhat recovered and desperate to win back her boyfriend, she forces herself on Bud, but he rejects her uncharacteristic advances. Deanie becomes so distraught, she attempts suicide. As Deanie teeters on the verge of a complete mental collapse, her doctor advises an anxious Bud to end all contact for her health’s sake.

Bud goes to Yale, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s failing all of his subjects. An Italian waitress, Angelina (Zohra Lampert), befriends him in his lovesick misery. His father visits Yale in an attempt to rally Bud, but ends up jumping from a New York City skyscraper when the stock market crash of 1929 devastates his business. In the meantime, Deanie is sent to a sanitarium to recover her mental and emotional stability. There, she befriends a male patient and a lukewarm romance blooms. When Deanie is released after a long, thirty-month stay, she returns home, and immediately asks to see Bud to determine if there’s any spark left in their relationship. She visits Bud on his struggling ranch and learns he’s married to Angelina, with one infant child and another on the way. Disappointed but not broken, Deanie stoically commits to going forward with her life, “finding strength in what remains behind.”

Commentary

“Splendor” resonated with audiences across the country. Inge won an Oscar for his screenplay (Kazan had a large amount of input) while Wood was nominated for her performance. This was Beatty’s film debut, another notable “find” for Kazan. Hingle’s full-throttle performance is quite memorable, but skirts with being “over the top.” Most of the movie was shot around New York City.

I first watched “Splendor” when I was in my early teens and was floored by the unorthodox conclusion (the video below captures the final 3.5 minutes). Kazan stated in later interviews that the last reel was his favorite of all of his films. It certainly wasn’t a stereotypical Hollywood ending. Two characters in love are supposed to live “happily ever after,” but real life is rarely so orderly, which is why “Splendor” struck a chord. I remember being quite smitten with the lovely and vulnerable Deanie character, probably like many of the film’s teenage male viewers. The startling uniqueness of this film launched my decades-long study of its director.

The two DVD’s of “Splendor in the Grass” released by Warner Brothers unfortunately provide no commentary or remarkable bonus features.

Trivia alert: Screenwriter, Bill Inge, has a small role as a Protestant minister saddened by the spiritual emptiness of his church’s biggest contributor, Ace Stamper.

Additional thoughts from a Christian believer

Kazan was a Marxist atheist who rebelled against religious and societal norms of morality. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, Kazan used “Splendor” to attack “middle-class materialism” and “puritanical morality.” Antagonists Ace Stamper and Mrs. Loomis are presented as the duplicitous enemies of the pure love of their children. Bud and Deanie struggle to adhere to their parents’ hypocritical moral code, ultimately destroying their love.

“Splendor” was somewhat revolutionary in its day for its exploration of teenage sexuality, but by today’s standards it hardly raises an eyebrow. It’s interesting to note that Leftist crusader, Kazan, carried on an affair with Loden throughout the filming of “Splendor,” returning to his wife and children each evening at his comfortable estate in the tony suburb of Newtown, Connecticut. Hypocrisy?

Christians understand we cannot satisfy the ultimate moral code, the Ten Commandments. But God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. He conquered sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as Savior by faith alone. As Christians, we attempt to follow the Lord in obedience, albeit imperfectly. As a teenager, I struggled with sexual temptation. Those hormones were firing like a well-tuned 350 V-8 engine. It’s a common experience, right? These days, teens are experiencing even greater pressure to give in to temptation at an even earlier age. The Lord gave us guidelines for a reason. To protect our physical and emotional well being and the well being of others. Rampant premarital and extramarital sexuality have led to all kinds of individual and social problems. Perhaps the church would have done better to present sexuality positively, as a natural and wonderful gift of God for married couples, rather than negatively, as something dirty and not to be spoken of. After all, The Song of Solomon is in the Bible. But a person must accept Christ as Savior before they can follow Him in obedience.

Natalie Wood left her then-husband, Robert Wagner, for co-star Beatty during the filming of “Splendor,” much to the delight of Kazan, who sought emotional reality from his actors. Wood would reunite with Wagner in 1972. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1981 while on an excursion on the Wagners’ boat, the ironically-named “Splendour.” William Inge committed suicide in 1973. Beatty would go on to achieve fame mainly as Hollywood’s celebrated #1 Lothario.

After watching “Splendor,” I can remember scrambling to the library to read William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” (1804), with the famous passage cited in the film:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

Scholars still debate whether Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Christian. Most of his earlier poetry glorifies nature as a semi-deific force. Later poems displayed a much more orthodox Christian view. In his “Ode,” the poet admonished his readers to move forward with their lives rather than dwell in the past.

God’s Word has much to say about looking back. Believers are to focus on Christ and Christian service and not look back at the world’s temptations with desire.

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” – Philippians 3:13

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1: 24-25

See here for more Bible verses about looking forward in Christ.

Below, the final poignant scene of “Splendor in the Grass”:

Next up: Kazan’s sixteenth film: “America America”

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fourteenth Film: “Wild River”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River.” The review below was first posted on June 27, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Wild River
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes

5 Stars

Director Elia Kazan had visited the Cumberland area of Tennessee in the early 1930s as an idealistic, young communist. He admired the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tamed the flood-prone Tennessee River while providing much-needed hydro-electric power. For many years, Kazan desired to make a film about the tensions involved in the push for the greatest common good as represented by the TVA versus the disruption of individuals’ lives caused by the project.

Plot

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It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Monty Clift), a TVA bureaucrat based in Washington, is sent down to Garthville, Tennessee with the mission of removing the last remaining holdout, eighty-year-old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), is attracted to the urbane Glover and the two quickly form a relationship. Glover persuades Ella’s Black tenant farmers to leave the island along with their families, but the matriarch remains adamant. At the same time, resentment mounts among the local White citizenry towards Glover’s policy of paying Blacks the same wages as Whites to help clear trees in preparation for the controlled flooding. Carol aggressively pursues the ambivalent Glover, asking him to marry her at the very moment the rednecks arrive at her house in order to send Glover packing. He can only admire Carol’s spunky defiance of the gang of good ol’ boys and asks her to elope. A federal marshal is finally brought in to evict Ella from the island. She is provided a small house on higher ground, but dies of heartbreak shortly after. On their way to Washington D.C. via airplane, Glover, Carol, and her two children look down and view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery plot containing Ella’s fresh grave. Glover admired Ella for her foolhardy stubbornness, but she stood in the way of “progress” and had to be sacrificed.

Comments

Kazan filmed “Wild River” on location in the towns of Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee. Close to one-hundred locals were used as extras. Emotionally-crippled Monty Clift barely held it together throughout the filming. Kazan’s accounts of the actor’s performance are quite interesting. While Kazan bragged that he bullied Clift into remaining sober throughout the shoot, town lore has it that the McClary sisters regularly snuck liquor up to his room at the Cherokee Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old Lee Remick is superb as the young, love-starved widow. When she confidently and aggressively courts Clift, it’s all he can do just to sit gape-mouthed on the couch, leaving every viewer scratching their head. Jo Van Fleet is fantastic as Ella, skillfully portraying the eighty-year-old matriarch at the age of forty-five. Albert Salmi is entertaining as the alpha good ol’ boy. Overall, it’s a wonderful cast which includes several Kazan regulars.

“Wild River” was one of Kazan’s favorite films although its limited art house release guaranteed unprofitability. Fox was convinced 1960 movie audiences would not be interested in a film about the TVA. The movie was rarely shown on television and was only recently (2013) released on Blu-ray DVD.

Kazan had attempted to write the film script himself, but eventually hired seasoned screenwriter, Paul Osborne. Kazan especially admired the conflict between Glover and Ella in which both held to positions that were simultaneously right and wrong. Relations between Blacks and Whites in the 1930’s segregated Deep South are portrayed quite candidly for a movie made in 1960.

I’ve seen “Wild River” many times but I appreciated watching it for the first time in HD on Blu-ray. Commentary is provided by Time magazine film critic, Richard Schickel, who doesn’t hide his deep admiration for “Wild River” or for Kazan and Remick. This is a pretty good film, but Remick’s performance as someone attempting to straddle both “tradition” and “progress” was Oscar-worthy outstanding.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The Black workers on Garth island and Carol and her children regularly sing old Gospel hymns, with “In the Garden” featured most prominently. Kazan contrasts Christianity and “traditional” values (which includes negative attitudes such as racism) with utopian Liberal Progressivism. I’m all for improving people’s physical circumstances, but true redemption can’t be found in either progressive or conservative politics. Jesus Christ transcends politics and physical circumstances. But in all fairness to Kazan, one of the main messages of this film is that even the most “successful” progressive social engineering project will have its share of victims.

Next up: Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Thirteenth Film: “A Face in the Crowd”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s thirteenth film, “A Face in the Crowd.” The review below was first posted on June 6, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

4 Stars

Director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg had had a huge success with “On the Waterfront” in 1954 and teamed up one more time for this quirky and amazingly prescient movie.

Plot

A radio show producer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), discovers a talented drifter, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), in a small-town, Arkansas jail, and presents him with the moniker, “Lonesome.” Rhodes is given a slot on a local radio station and his folksy, irreverent humor is so popular he’s soon invited to host a Memphis television program. Although Rhodes infuriates the show’s sponsor, his audience loves him. A wheeler-dealer office gopher, Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa), sets himself up as an agent and brokers a deal on behalf of Rhodes for a nationally televised show broadcast from New York City. Predictably, Rhodes’ soaring popularity and influence goes to his head. He’s rude to his staff and dumps fiancé Marcia for a 17-year-old baton twirler, Betty Lou Fleckum, (Lee Remick). Rhodes’ politically-conservative sponsor soon has him playing kingmaker by having him stump for right-wing U.S. Senator, Worthington Fuller, for President. Staff writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), attempts to turn Marcia against Rhodes, but she’s already souring on her discovery. When Rhodes candidly berates his viewership during the closing credits of his show, Marcia, unbeknownst to him, manipulates the sound board, purposely broadcasting his insults over the airwaves. His audience and sponsors abandon Rhodes overnight. When no one shows up at his gathering for conservative politicians and corporate big wigs, Rhodes calls Marcia threatening suicide. She goes to Rhodes’ penthouse to reveal she was the one who betrayed him. The movie ends with Rhodes screaming for Marica to come back as she rides away in a taxi cab.

Comments

Andy Griffith is an absolute hoot in his film debut. Few people saw this, his finest performance, but Griffith would find his audience three years later on “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968) on television, playing a character quite unlike Lonesome Rhodes. Patricia Neal gives a great performance. The film did poor box office, which is understandable given the protagonist is an unlovable monster. There’s no doubt the movie was ahead of its time as Bud Schulberg’s script eerily foretold the role of television in politics. Sources reveal the character of Rhodes was inspired in part by homespun heroes, Arthur Godfrey and Will Rogers.

“A Face in the Crowd” has some wonderful scenes and some great performances, but it’s not quite a five-star movie. Schulberg and Kazan over-reached the mark with this undisguised left-wing, preachy, soapbox. One gets the feeling that with “A Face in the Crowd,” Schulberg and Kazan were saying, “Sure, we may have named names before HUAC, but see, we’re still good liberals!”

Ted Turner’s Turner Movie Classics (TMC) cable channel aired “A Face in the Crowd” repeatedly during the 2016 presidential primaries and campaign. Evidently, the folks at TMC felt there were more than a few parallels between Lonesome Rhodes and candidate Donald Trump’s blustering brand of populism.

In 2019, Criterion released “A Face in the Crowd” on Blu-ray as part of its collection of distinguished films (joining Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”). Regrettably, a commentary from a film critic/historian was not included.

Trivia alert: Kazan filmed the opening scenes of “A Face in the Crowd” in Piggott, Arkansas. As in most of Kazan’s later films, many non-actor locals were used in small parts and as extras. The house with the swimming pool was the home of businessman, Karl Pfeiffer, who often entertained his sister and her husband, Ernest Hemingway, poolside.

Additional thoughts from a believer

With “A Face in a Crowd” Kazan and Schulberg warn of the burgeoning influence of television and right-wing manipulation via media demagogues. Sixty-four-years later, we’ve witnessed both ends of the political spectrum attempting to sway public opinion through the medium, but the reality is that the Left has actually become much more adroit at media manipulation than the Right.

So, then, what is our bottom line? Marxist and atheist Kazan saw society in terms of a battle between Left and Right, in which the Right had to be defeated in order for society to advance. But are political solutions the answer to man’s overarching problems? Is either the Right or the Left capable of ushering in a “Great Society” of peace and prosperity for all?

As believers, our hope is in our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, and we anticipate His coming Kingdom. The political ebbs and flows of this fallen world may affect us to varying degrees, but our focus is always on our Heavenly King as we endeavor to fulfill our mission as His ambassadors and emissaries on our brief journey through this world.

Next up: Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River” (1960)

Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Twelfth Film: “Baby Doll”

Today, as we re-start our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s twelfth film, “Baby Doll.” The review below was first posted on April 25, 2017 and has been revised.

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Baby Doll
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker (nee Karolina Piekarski) and Eli Wallach
Warner Bros., 1956, 114 minutes

All of Elia Kazan’s previous eleven films contained some type of hard-hitting social message. With the farcical, dark comedy, “Baby Doll,” Kazan would break the mold and also begin his “Southern Trilogy.”

Plot

Middle-aged, Archie Lee Meighan (Malden), is at the end of his rope. He had bought the dilapidated Mississippi Delta plantation mansion, Tiger Tail, with plans to renovate it for his young bride, Baby Doll (Baker), but a modern, syndicate cotton gin plant has put the small, independent ginners in the area, like Archie Lee, out of business. Compounding his financial humiliation is the public’s knowledge of Archie Lee’s wedding pledge to Baby Doll’s father to refrain from consummating the marriage until her twentieth-birthday, just a few days away. But Baby Doll is repulsed by the financially strapped and increasingly unhinged Archie Lee. The last straw comes when all of the Meighans’ furniture is repossessed. Even the poor Black folk of the area hold Archie Lee in derision.

Archie Lee gets revenge for his misery by burning down the syndicate gin. The owner, Silva Vacarro (Wallach), suspects Archie Lee is the culprit and the very next day arrives at Tiger Tail with a convoy of raw cotton. While Archie Lee is gleefully preoccupied processing the cotton with his ramshackle gin, Vaccaro and Baby Doll remain at the mansion. He coyly coaxes her into signing an affidavit admitting that her husband was responsible for burning down the syndicate gin. That evening, Archie Lee returns to the mansion, and with the affidavit safely in his pocket, Vaccaro goads him to the breaking point. Archie Lee grabs his shotgun while Vaccaro scoots up a tree. When the local sheriff hauls Archie Lee off to prison, Vaccaro victoriously proclaims he’ll be back the next day with more cotton to gin. Baby Doll turns to her demented Aunt Rose Comfort (Mildred Dunnock) and says with a mixture of hope and despair, “Well, let’s go in now. We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we’re remembered or forgotten.”

Sometimes, big shot, you don’t seem to give me credit for very much intelligence at all. I’ve been to school in my life – and I’m a magazine reader! – Baby Doll to Archie Lee

Commentary

Baker, Dunnock, Tennessee Williams (screenplay), and Boris Kaufman (cinematography) were all nominated for Oscars, but it was Malden who stole the show as the tragically comic foil. The movie was filmed in Benoit, Mississippi at the abandoned Burrus Plantation, which has only recently been renovated (see here). As in many of his other films, Kazan used local citizens to augment the cast, including many African-Americans. There are several examples in the film of the segregation of the Deep South in 1956. It’s ironic that Archie Lee seeks swift justice for the perceived wrongs he has suffered while the segregated Blacks of the town must silently endure systematic abuse from Archie Lee and the rest of the White population.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Although it’s a simple farce without much of a plot or message, “Baby Doll” is ultimately about revenge and justice. Archie Lee seeks revenge and justice by destroying what he views as the cause of all of his problems; the rival syndicate gin. Vaccaro seeks revenge and justice by seeing that Archie Lee is successfully charged with arson. Baby Doll wants to extricate herself from her hopeless situation and sees in the suave Vaccaro a possible escape.

Can a follower of Jesus Christ garner anything from this “tiger’s tail”? Elia Kazan may have been an atheist, but his films often had excellent critical insights into the “human condition.” How much of our energy goes into striving to rise above others through our jobs/careers and number of possessions? How much of our self-worth is tied to money, the things we own, and social status? When we suffer loss or embarrassment, is our kneejerk reaction to seek revenge? How many of our undesirable circumstances are the “other guy’s” fault. How much do we live by, “Doeth unto them before they doeth unto you”? Why does it feel so good to hang onto a grudge?

We are all sinners full of self-serving hypocrisy and until you can admit to that, there is no hope for you. But God provided a way out from the eternal punishment we deserve through His Son, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior by placing your faith in Him alone.

“I did not come to call the [self-proclaimed] righteous [who see no need to repent], but sinners to repentance [to change their old way of thinking, to turn from sin and to seek God and His righteousness].” Luke 5:32 AMP

Next up: “A Face in the Crowd”

Kazan Redux Resumes!

Nope, I’m not a movie fan by any stretch of the imagination (especially Star Wars movies! 😖), however, I’ve been a student of film and theater director, Elia Kazan (1909-2003), for fifty years. Some of you younger readers may have never heard of him, but back in the late-1940s and 1950s, Kazan was widely considered to be the most influential film and theatrical director in the United States. Many of the topics he tackled in his movies and plays were very controversial at the time. Kazan loved to expose the foibles and hypocrisies of humanity/society and I enjoy culling spiritual lessons and applications from his material.

I had previously reviewed all of Kazan’s nineteen films over the period of December 2016 to December 2017. If you blog long enough, you’re liable to repeat yourself, so in January 2020 I got the bug to re-watch and re-review all of Kazan’s films, but I only got as far as #11, “East of Eden,” back in July. What prompted the long pause? I forget, but my email inbox has been flooded with demands to get back on track! 🤭 Not!

One of my blogging resolutions for 2021 is to resume the Kazan Redux series where I left off and finish the eight remaining films. Hopefully, I’ll publish the first of the re-reviews next week. Once I’m done with this series, folks, I seriously don’t foresee a Kazan re-redux series down the road.

Below are handy links to my 2020 Kazan Redux re-reviews of the director’s first eleven movies:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – 5 Stars – A family clings to hope despite the ravages of alcoholism – featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner

The Sea of Grass (1947) – 2 Stars – A cattle baron competes with homesteaders – Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker

Boomerang (1947) – 4 Stars – A district attorney resists pressures to prosecute an innocent man – Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Cara Williams, and Karl Malden

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) – 4 Stars – A Gentile journalist feigns a Jewish identity in order to expose anti-Semitism in the U.S.A. – Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, and John Garfield

Pinky (1949) – 4 Stars – A bi-racial woman navigates bigotry in the Deep South – Jeanne Crain, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Barrymore

Panic in the Streets (1950) – 5 Stars – A New Orleans medical examiner must stem a virus outbreak before it turns into an epidemic – Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter (Jack) Palance, and Zero Mostel

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – 5 Stars – A distraught and desperate Southern Belle enters into what she believes is a safe harbor only to discover it’s a cobra’s den – Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter

Viva Zapata! (1952) – 4 Stars – A Mexican revolutionary fights for the peasantry – Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn

Man on a Tightrope (1953) – 4 Stars – A ramshackle circus attempts to escape Soviet Eastern Europe – Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, and Cameron Mitchell

On the Waterfront (1954) – 5 Stars – A longshoreman takes on his corrupt union – Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger

East of Eden (1955) – 5 Stars – A rebellious son tries to win the affection of his unloving father – James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet

American Gospel: Christ Crucified

American Gospel: Christ Crucified
Directed by Brandon Kimber
Transition Studios, 2019, 176 minutes

5 Stars

In his previous documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone” (2018), Brandon Kimber confronted the false prosperity gospel. See my review here. In this latest film, Kimber turns his attention to the “emerging church movement” (ECM).

The leaders of ECM adopted a post-modern, relativistic approach to the Bible, insisting that God is strictly a God of love and acceptance and dismissing those passages in God’s Word that proclaim God’s wrath against sinners, His judgement, and the eternal damnation of unbelievers in hell. ECMers are especially roiled by the doctrine of the “penal substitutionary atonement” of Jesus Christ; that God the Son voluntarily bore the wrath of God the Father and the penalty for sin in the place of sinful mankind, and that only those who repent of their sin and trust in Jesus as Savior by faith alone are redeemed and born-again as God’s children.

What ECMers teach is an updated form of Universalism; that most/all people are destined for Heaven/Nirvana/paradisaical bliss. Some of the most prominent proponents of the ECM false gospel are featured in this documentary, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell, and Catholic Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr. Opinionated atheist, Bart Campolo, is prominently featured as an example of how ECM is a foundationless, slippery slope and naturally progresses into outright atheism.

Counterposing the ECMers are defenders of God’s Word and the genuine Gospel, including Voddie Bauchman, Alistair Begg, Ray Comfort, Steven Lawson, John MacArthur, Justin Peters, and Paul Washer. The spine of the documentary is the journey of believer, Alisa Childers, who was being misled by a crypto-ECM pastor, but by God’s grace became an outspoken critic of the ECM heresy.

Observations and comments

I enjoyed this documentary quite a bit. Several of the ECMers come across as quite “snarky,” especially Tony Jones, Rob Bell, and the two young, know-it-all brats manning the Deconstructionist Podcast (Adam Narloch and John Williamson). In all fairness, believers can be arrogantly “snarky” as well. I was glad to see Kimber include William Paul Young, the author of “The Shack,” as one of the ECMers. Unwitting evangelicals eagerly consumed Young’s Universalist kool-aid. Kimber and company did an excellent job of breaking down the all-important doctrine of “penal substitutionary atonement,” a theological term that sounds dauntingly complicated, but is at the heart of the Good News. The documentary begins by rapidly juxtaposing interview segments with ECMers and orthodox believers, which can be confusing for viewers who don’t know who’s who. I had to stop the documentary and explain to my wife what was going on. After an interval, the viewer is be able to differentiate between the “bad guys” and the “good guys,” but it’s confusing at first. As with the previous documentary, the title, “American Gospel: Christ Crucified,” is regrettably incongruent; a subtitle normally complements the main title rather than contradicts it.

Kimber included Stephen J. Nichols as one of the defenders of the genuine Gospel, which leads me to my closing thought. Kimber has now examined two heretical movements; the prosperity gospel and the emerging church. I wish that his next documentary would examine the growing ecumenism with Roman Catholicism within evangelicalism. Stephen J. Nichols wrote a children’s book, which included Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits, as a “hero of the faith.” There’s A LOT of that kind of ecumenical compromise and betrayal of the Gospel floating around within evangelicalism these days.

“American Gospel: Christ Crucified” is available via Amazon video streaming as a 48-hour rental for $4.99.

American Gospel?

American Gospel: Christ Alone
Directed by Brandon Kimber
Transition Studios, 2018, 139 minutes

5 Stars

The documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” was first released in October 2018, and I’ve been meaning to see it ever since. I was recently made aware that the film is available on Netflix and watched it with my wife over the course of two evenings.

First off, the documentary establishes what the genuine Gospel is: salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The film does an EXCELLENT job of contrasting the genuine Gospel with Roman Catholicism’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. Grateful kudos to Kimber and all involved for their uncompromising stand.

The documentary continues to establish what the Gospel isn’t as it turns its attention to the increasingly popular word of faith, health and wealth, prosperity false gospel. Pentecostalism, with its claims of restoring the apostolic gifts of the Holy Spirit (tongues, healing, prophecy), had its beginnings in 1901 at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. Pentecostalism spread and its practices eventually entered mainline Protestant denominations via the charismatic movement beginning in 1960. Pentecostals/charismatics emphasized subjective religious experiences. Key teachings that grew out of this movement are that God will heal all sicknesses (health) and that God will provide abundant material blessings (wealth) IF the suppliant has enough faith AND contributes sacrificially to the minister or church.

Prosperity gospel pastors, evangelists, and faith healers exploit people’s desire to be healthy and wealthy. This documentary exposes some of the biggest charlatans in the prosperity “industry” including Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Bill Johnson, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and Todd White. The film also points out that the prosperity gospelers have sought rapprochement and unity with Roman Catholicism via the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

The defenders of the genuine Gospel of grace featured in this film include Paul Washer, Costi Hinn, Ray Comfort, Steven Lawson, Mike Gendron, Justin Peters, and John MacArthur.

This is a vitally important and masterful exposé of the word of faith, health and wealth, prosperity gospel sham and I highly recommend it to every believer. As I mentioned, it’s readily available on Netflix.

Postscript #1: The title of this documentary, “American Gospel: Christ Alone,” is confusing in its incongruity. The “American Gospel” portion alludes to the fact that the prosperity gospel has its roots in American Pentecostalism and is now being exported to all corners the world. The subtitle, “Christ Alone,” refers to the contrasting genuine Gospel. In general usage, a subtitle complements/clarifies the main title rather than contradicts it.

Postscript #2: Discerning viewers will note a couple of subtle dichotomies in this documentary. (1) Well known pastor, John Piper, is featured as one of the critics of the prosperity gospel, yet he embraces Pentecostal/charismatic practices; the wellspring of “health and wealth” theology. (2) Some of the featured defenders of the genuine Gospel include individuals identified as employees of RZIM – Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. In contrast to the warnings against ecumenism with Rome presented in this film, apologist, Ravi Zacharias (d. May 19, 2020), championed ecumenism with Roman Catholicism! I’ll be discussing more about Zacharias in an upcoming post.


My blogging friend, Bruce, had a concern about this post and I thought it would be helpful to post our exchange from his blog’s comments section. Thanks, Bruce!


Bruce: I noticed that you lumped all Pentecostals with the NAR and that is not necessarily true, this link refers: http://www.spiritoferror.org/2013/06/the-assemblies-of-god-and-the-nar/3246

Tom: Thanks, Bruce. I get it. As a cessationist, I am more apt to overlook/dismiss distinctions that a continuationist would not. I have read criticisms of this documentary from pro-prosperity, Arminian continuationists who note that all of the well-known spokespersons for the genuine Gospel in this documentary are Reformed. That’s fine with me as I lean towards Calvinism. The argument of the pro-prosperity Arminian continuationists is that the spokespersons in the documentary attack their views while harboring their own “heresies,” i.e., predestination. Glad you brought this up so we could present various views. As an ex-Catholic and a cessationist, I believe continuationists are in a bit of pickle when it comes to ecumenism with Rome. Catholic Charismatics (including tens of thousands of priests) who still hold to Rome’s false gospel and are not born-again according to the genuine Gospel manifest the requisite “gifts of the spirit.” Anti-ecumenical continuationists argue that the Catholic charismatics are manifesting counterfeit gifts, but you can see this is problematic.