Remaking History Hollywood Style

Lost Horizons are lost while that Hamilton woman rides again.

May 1973By Comments

I LOOKED FORWARD TO ROSS Hunter’s musical remake of Lost Horizon because a rehash of the ultimate romance of my childhood—and because, I realize, I believe in Tinker Bell (to hell with Shangri-la) and I like to think that Oh! What a Lovely War and Cabaret have had some sort of influence on the makers of musical movies. And with Peter Finch the “now” replacement for Ronald Colman, the Conway of Frank Capra’s $2,000,000 two-hour spectacular and yummy 1937 film with Robert Riskin’s screenplay of the James Hilton novel; Liv Ullmann as the truelove at the end of the trail; Michael York as the ambitious worldly kid brother; Sally Kellerman for Isabel Jewel; John Gielgud and Charles Boyer replacing H. B. Warner and Sam Jaffe as Chang and the Lama, I guess I could dream a little, all to the “now” sound of Burt Bacharach.

So maybe there’s a Shangri-la and I still believe in Tinker Bell. But miracles from Hollywood in general and Ross Hunter in particular you shouldn’t expect. “What is this?” asks Peter Finch and the this turns out to be Sir John Gielgud, our goodly host. Off in the distance, the only blonde in paradise is clutching flowers on a balcony, and by George—or Ross—it’s lovely Liv Ullmann, looking—and before long behaving—just like Julie Andrews.

In fact, when she romps around with the kiddies (she’s the local teacher, of course) she looks just like Mary Poppins in Chinatown and sounds like Deborah Kerr in Siam although “Getting to Know You” has been replaced by an item called “The World is a Circle.” Need we note that Bacharach & David ain’t no Rogers & Hammerstein, even though the former’s Shangri-la theme is highly reminiscent of the latter’s “Bali Hai”? Columbia Pictures insists the singing is done by the respective actors; I leave you to the evidence of your own eyes and ears (except in the cases of Miss Kellerman and of Bobby Van). Miss Ullmann sings in pure American but speaks with her charming Scandinavian accent. At very least, she and Finch get assists with their high notes and full-voiced phrasings.

The musical aspects are the most disastrous because the cast is a first-rate one in straight performance. Peter Finch, as always, is both credible and touching, perfect as the world-weary diplomat; Michael York is fine as the impatient young man; Miss Ullmann is the ultimate princess in paradise, and George Kennedy is excellent in the Thomas Mitchell role, his fugitive American banker up-dated to conglomerate-head. Miss Kellerman’s role has also been up-dated from that of tubercular scarlet woman to Newsweek correspondent. She is a “today” girl who went from “passionate involvement with causes and men” to pills and is now suicidal—hardly a tribute to Newsweek gals or women’s lib. But Miss Kellermann makes it for real, playing with irresistible charm and singing with grace and goodwill even with a song cue like “The trouble with you, Sam, is that you have no inner resources,” leading to a song about “Reflections.” Bobby Van, that superb song-and-dance man of No, No, Nanette, has replaced the Edward Everett Horton comedy-relief fossilized fossil-expert as a night club comic. He’s just fine even though offered little beyond bad jokes and an ersatz “Do-re-mi” classroom number with the kiddies philosophically involving “Question me an answer/I will answer with a question.”

The weakest member of the cast is Olivia Hussey, as the Maria Margo so exotically created in the original. Alleged to be a Manchu, Miss Hussey (Zeffirelli’s lush little Juliet) looks, sings and dances like a Bennington girl on a Ravi Shankar kick; York’s comment that “In the outside world you’d be a knockout” is one of the film’s few funny lines.

And there we were, glooming about a Hal Wallis rehash of the stuff that Alexander Korda’s 1941 That Hamilton Woman was made on when up comes The Nelson Affair, as absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable an historical romance as we could wish for. And there we were, with mouth-watered anticipation of all the goodies Luchino Visconti could heap upon the plate in dealing with that mad king of Bavaria whose fixations included castles, boyfriends and Wagner when up comes Ludwig, just ludicrous and loony. It’s enough to turn one to Anticipators Anonymous.

The Nelson Affair works, of course, for the very simple reason that it is not a re-hash of That Hamilton Woman, which was a British morale-on-the-home-front builder made by Britons in Hollywood. Its hero-worshipping point focused on Laurence Olivier’s heroism and on Vivien Leigh’s lovely fragile nobility in helping him save the homeland from the tyrant invader—what did for Napoleon obviously would do for Hitler.

Hal Wallis, that old Hollywood pro, is aware, however, that what did for 1941 won’t for today and that it is the person within the historical gown and period panoply who must carry the message. In the 1970 West End production of Terence Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation, he apparently saw that Hamilton woman plain. With Rattigan’s screenplay from his own drama, with a new young television-bred director, James Cellan Jones (known here for segments of the BBC The Forsythe Saga), and with a brilliant cast, Wallis has produced both history and drama and has done so with remarkable effectiveness.

Together again (and let us sigh for the days when a parent company would have shreiked it out in ads—except that this is a Universal film and Sunday Bloody Sunday was from United Artists) are Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, as Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. What a dynamic duet they offer! There is such sparkling intelligence in script and performance that we totally believe what Nelson himself calls “the tragedy of a love unsuitable to a national hero” and quickly amends to “not a tragedy—an obsession.”

For indeed, by the summer of 1805, when Nelson returned from two years at sea to spend some quiet months with his “dearest, beloved Emma,” that lady was deep in the comforts of brandy and blowsiness, a large and uncouth cry from the ethereal figure Romney had painted and Alexander Korda had seen as Vivien Leigh. It is Miss Jackson, that consummate actress, who keeps the Romney aura just around the corners of her eyes and mouth as she bawls and brawls her arrogant and tender way through society, frank and proud and prideful and spiteful and making it quite clear just what an obsession can be. That she becomes a figure of tragedy is the proof of her art.

Rattigan’s gift—as he showed in The Winslow Boy—is in seeing a period and people through the eyes of the young. In this case it is Nelson’s nephew, George, who sees the estrangement between his family and Nelson’s wife, Frances; who learns of her harsh treatment at the hands of the uncle he idolizes; and who then encounters the to-him-horrendous Hamilton woman. It is, in fact, almost as if the story were gleaned from the young man’s diary, from his encounters with his uncle and with the other adults who try to explain the inexplicable. Who can, in his youth, understand the “cruelty” of a wife who forces her husband to make a choice and then, bitterest of all, offers him forgiveness. “What do you do with an enemy that won’t hate you?”

The domestic triangle dominates most of the film, for it is the “affair” with which we are primarily concerned. But the sense of time and place never falters and, inevitably, the weary ailing admiral is brought back to his calling, to Cadiz and to Trafalgar. It is, on the day of the final battle, that Nelson makes his “bequest” to the nation, asking that Lady Hamilton, who had even been denied her honors and pension as an ex-Ambassador’s wife, be cared for by King and country. She wasn’t, of course, and died in penury, while Nelson was immortalized. She was indeed “unsuitable.”

Certainly I do not know if Lady Nelson called on Lady Hamilton after the hero’s death and offered to maintain her. Yet so perfectly do Miss Jackson and Margaret Leighton, marvelously fragile and aging as the rejected but so determinedly forgiving wife, carry off the scene that I believe every tearprovoking moment thereof. The climax is Miss Jackson’s boozy bare-footed spraddle up the stairs to oblivion.

The supporting cast is of first quality: Michael Jayston, the memorable czar of Nicholas and Alexandra, as Nelson’s righteous flag captain; Anthony Quayle, as his confidant; Dominic Guard, the enchanting youngster of The Go-Between, as the nephew, outstanding among them. And not with all the DeMillean splendors and extravaganza could anything prove more effective than Mr. Jones’s stunningly vignetted Battle of Trafalgar in providing a sense of the blood and guts and gutsiness of the sea battles of the time. This is the kind of “historical” that transports one in time to encounter timeless truths about people. And therein is the satisfaction.

Certainly the mental aberrations of the aristocracy hold endless fascinations, but their re-examination ought to provide just a little something more than a freak show. Visconti’s Ludwig doesn’t even provide a good Grand Guignol. It is the kind of “historical” that permits a giggle early on which doesn’t even develop into a belly-laugh. The film is simply a waste of talent and time all around.

If you close your ears and your mind, your eyes can feast upon sights and scenes of mid-nineteenth-century Bavaria and the luscious interiors and exteriors of those crazy castles (complete with indoor grottos, endless mirrored-halls and disappearing furniture) that Ludwig squandered his money on. That Visconti, who used his sensuous sense of time and place to such elegant and eloquent effect in The Damned and to Death in Venice, would be fascinated by Ludwig is understandable. Visconti’s tendency to grand-operatic cinema could have a built-in excuse, what with Ludwig’s claim to fame being his rule-long patronage of Richard Wagner and lifelong dedication to all the Romanticism and mythology that Wagner embodied in his music. I am sure Visconti had some striking master-plan in mind, and it may well have been in the film that was originally scheduled to open here last December. Since then he has been re-editing the film, which now runs two hours and 53 minutes, 13 minutes shorter than originally announced. I daresay all the coherence vanished in those 13 minutes.

Ludwig offers us the Greek-goddish Helmut Berger as the Greek-goddish king who came to the throne at the age of 19 in 1864 and died 22 years later after being confined as insane for some years. For hours, with a forwards-backwards series of episodes and statements, we explore his advancing lunacy, his unrequited love for his cousin (Romy Schneider, looking lovely and remarking, “we’ve always known Ludwig is a bit eccentric”); his chumminess with Wagner (Trevor Howard here, noting bitterly in private that he must depend on “this half-witted boy, latest lunatic in a family of lunatics” but leeching on him nevertheless), and his degenerating into playing footsie with his footmen and lusting after the lederhosen boys. His hairline recedes, his teeth turn black (an attempt to make them look missing, which they don’t) and he looks paranoid as all get out. Then he and his shrink go walking—and then they’re both dead.

There is no apparent intelligence in the way all this has been stuck together, let alone the way in which mind-shriveling dialogue has been assigned various mouths. Ludwig says, “To be king is not easy,” and announces cheerfully “I am an enigma and I want to remain an enigma forever—to others and to myself.” Better Visconti should have respected the poor man’s wishes.

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