The Sand Pebbles 1966 ****

In 1966, an epic didn’t mean spacemen, aliens and super-heroes; it meant tough men, machines, history and a three hour running time. Three hours isn’t enough for Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, a dramatic story of US sailors on board the titular boat, who find themselves caught between different factions in 1920’s China. Despite denials from the talent involved, Vietnam is a clear subtext, and there’s a clear through-line of guilt about the cost of patrolling and bring peace to the unwelcoming locals. Steve McQueen gives it his considerable all as a mechanic who steps up when the crew gets threatened, with Candice Bergen as the love-interest missionary, and Sir Richard Attenborough as the best pal who doesn’t make it to the final, impressive climax. Incidentally, co-star Emmanuelle Arsan went on to become the Emmanuelle, whose book became a notable soft-porn sensation and spawned countless imitations. She presumably had a good time making this; under Wise’s skilled direction, and with remarkable production values, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

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The Haunting aka The Terror 1963

Seemingly improvised on the sets of another film over a fleeting period, The Haunting, better known as The Terror but not terribly well known as either, is an oddity even by Roger Corman’s standards. With Francis Ford Coppola amongst the producers and Monte Hellman on wardrobe, there’s plenty of behind the scenes talent, while in front of the camera there’s a substantial role for Corman cameo specialist Dick Miller, and a generation-spanning central twosome of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. While no-one would doubt that Nicholson has proved many times since that he’s a great actor, he’s not quite in his comfort zone as an army officer in Napoleonic war era France. Karloff is on much more familiar ground as a widowed Baron who is haunted by the ghost of his wife. There’s some plot-twists here, seemingly improvised, that really don’t make any sense, but there’s a high curiosity value of watching such a motely crew of actors; it might come up short of horror, but The Haunting is a strange document of old and Hollywood collectively bending over to make a buck.

Royal Flash 1974 ***

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Malcolm McDowell takes the lead in this period romp from Richard Lester, based on the Flashman books by the late George MacDonald Fraser. A period James Bond with cowardly tendencies, Flashman is enlisted by Bismarck (Oliver Reed) into impersonating a Prussian dignitary, but Flashman soon finds himself over his head in European intrigue. As well as a sexy turn from Florida Ballkan, Royal Flash offers an array of great supporting work from Alastair Sim, Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Britt Ekland and a tiny role for the late Bob Hoskins as a police officer. The mix of slapstick violence, fake patriotism and espionage doesn’t quite gel, but Royal Flash is worth seeing for its cheerful irreverence and lavish period detail.

Wilde 1997 ***

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A nice piece of casting, by having the 21st century’s most lauded online wit, Stephen Fry, play arguably the most acerbic man in history, Brian Gibson’s BBC film pulls off something of a coup. Based on Richard Ellman’s book, Wilde focuses less of Wilde’s writing career than on the series of personal relationships that cause him considerable torment; as a husband and father, Oscar Wilde finds himself at the sharp end of societal judgement when he embarks on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law). Orlando Bloom pops up as a rent boy, Tom Wilkinson turns up as the Marquess of Queensberry who prosecutes Wilde, and Martin Sheen and Ioan Gruffud add some British spit and polish. And at the centre, Fry gives a strong performance as Wilde, dealing with inner anguish and spitting out bon mots with considerable style.

Black Robe 1991 ***

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Bruce Beresford’s film would make a good double-bill with Roland Joffe’ s The Mission; with Jesuit priests as their main characters, both films explore the difference between heaven and earth with skill. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, set in 164 Quebec, Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) sets out across snowy wastelands to establish contact with a remote mission, only to find the superstitions amongst his party tearing it apart. Based on a true story, Black Robe contrasts the beautiful but deadly vistas of remote locations with the physical and mental tortures that men exert on each other; it’s a darkly spiritual film that repays patient viewers.

Grey Owl 1999 ***

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Sir Richard Attenborough’s deeply personal film about the true story of Grey Owl was barely released worldwide, and not at all theatrically in the US; the casting of Pierce Brosnan as a Native American seems to grated on modern sensibilities. The point of the film was that Grey Owl was not a Native American, but a British man from Hastings called Archie Belaney who successfully passed himself off to the media as an environmental spokesman. A young Attenborough was amongst those who gathered to hear Grey Owl speak, and his intelligent, stately film details how Belaney was converted to environmental causes, and how his identity crisis came to public attention. Brosnan is better here than he is as Bond, and there’s a genuine warmth in his scenes with Annie Galipeau as his wife Pony. Grey Owl doesn’t rank alongside Attenborough’s best, but it’s a strong and relevant film that doesn’t deserve to be dropped into the dustbin of cinema history.

The Man Who Would Be King 1975 ****

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John Huston belied his early promise to make some right rubbish before his 1970’s career rebirth; The Man Who Would Be King is one of his best, a rollicking adventure yard from the pen of Rudyard Kipling, a passion project for Huston who had tried to get it on screen for several decades. In 1975, he got a dream cast, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, plus Christopher Plummer as Kipling himself. The tall tale pitches the two soldiers who become gods amongst the natives during British rule in India. The Man Who Would be King questions notions of white superiority, but also finds time for plenty of star-powered entertainment; in a pre-Indian Jones world Huston’s film is about as big and brassy as period adventure gets.