The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

Star Wars 1978 *****

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Of course, once upon a time in Hollywood, there was no A New Hope about it. George Lucas may have had a number of trilogies planned in his Starkiller sequence, but it was unusual to have a sequel at all in those days, so Star Wars was the title, short and to the point. With a glut of product that shows no sign of slowing down, it’s worth taking a moment to remember why, for a generation, seeing the original film in 1978 was like getting hit by lightning.

A number of things went right in Star Wars, mostly deliberate, some have to go down as the best of luck. Some of the personable young cast went on to remarkable careers, notably Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. For the older cast, British stars like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness added RADA gravity to the fight between good and evil. John Dykstra was the special effects lead, inspired by footage of WWII fighter planes to create ‘dirty space’, with dynamic designs for X-Wing and TIE-fighters, all dwarfed by massive Star Cruisers and the Death Star against a background of inky black space. Considerable imagination was at work in all aspects; from tiny Jawa merchants and vicious Sand-people, to the collection of misfits in the Mos Eisley cantina, where a grotesque jazz band played and the clientele were a little rough around the edges. And who, or what was Darth Vader? You never even saw behind his mask! What was that tentacle creature that lived in the bin-chute? And that ‘walking carpet’ Wookie, you know, he’s actually a thousand years old! And wrapped around it all, a joyful, dramatic John Williams score that made your heart soar and your knees weak as you stumbled out of your local flea-pit, squinting in the bleak light of the real world.

If there was one element that Star Wars wouldn’t work without, it would be the casting of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. It’s not unusual for central characters to be blandly underwritten, a blank surface that the audience can project themselves onto, and wholesome farm-boy Luke Skywalker worked just fine in that respect. But what a friend he had in Han, an intergalactic smuggler who CNGAFF about the rebels, the plot, or even the film; Ford famously wasn’t confident about George Lucas’ writing, and, like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere else, which is perfect for a character who acts like he doesn’t care, but secretly does. Han is more like something from Sergio Leone than Luke’s goody-two-shoes, he’s got no time for the force and light-sabers, just give him a good old-fashioned blaster. Han shoots first and doesn’t have time to ask questions later.

Both director and actor may well have been running out of patience when Ford improvised his comic response over the intercom to a stuffy Death Star operator, which ends abruptly when Hans uses his blaster to shoot the console and remarks ‘It was a boring conversation anyway.’ Back in 1978, it was a line that caused uproar in the cinema, drinks and sweets thrown in the air, cheers, applause, drumming on the backs of seats. Star Wars was not about boring conversations, it was about anarchy, taking it to the man, beating the system against incredible odds.

Fast forward to 2019, and everything has changed. Star Wars isn’t about beating the system, it is the system, the template for which most big films take a lead, including the Star Wars films themselves. British actors are still villains, the cream of young talent are the heroes, the effects are more amazing than ever, and yes, there’s still humour left in the films. But the sense of fun, the lack of responsibility, the carefree sense of adventure seem long gone; both the actors and the characters had tragedies ahead of them, and Star Wars catches them, like the audience, in a moment of blissful adolescence, a simultaneous sunrise and sunset of the heart.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 2019 ***

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…in which JJ Abrams performs a sky-walk of shame, walking back all kinds of ideas that just didn’t work for the Star Wars universe. Abrams, of course, seemed to herald a new kind of film-making when he took to the big screen after the success of Lost. Where once George Lucas had struggled to create a consistent universe in his reviled prequel trilogy, Abrams was seen as the cure for the disease, a fan-boy who knew exactly what fans wanted and would give it to them. The Force Awakens was heralded as the beginning of a golden era for Star Wars, new characters, new worlds, a new on-message PC mind-set, and a blockbuster franchise to last a lifetime.

Fast forward to 2019, and fans can’t wait for the Abrams Star Wars era to end. Sure, there are some satisfied customers, but they’re few and far between; complaint is the main content of any Star Wars conversation. And fatigue is part of the issue; The Rise of Skywalker fights for advertising space alongside a glut of licenced products including the Fallen Order video game, the Galaxy’s Edge theme park, and a new TV show (The Mandalorian) which has ignited genuine interest. With characters like Finn and Rey failing to engage audiences, legions of fans are looking elsewhere rather than the flagship trilogy.

The third of the four trilogies originally mooted circa 1978, The Rise of Skywalker has continuity issues; Abrams has killed off too many of the key characters too early, and his faith in the new recruits seems misplaced. Does anyone care if Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to the dark or light side of the force? Does Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his redemption hold much water after he killed his father in The Force Awakens? Will Poe (Oscar Isaac) ever find, erm, whatever he’s looking for? And as for Finn (John Boyega), who knows? He’s side-lined as effectively as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), discarded toys tossed asunder due to a lack of traction in key markets. Meanwhile Han and Luke are gone, but not forgotten, reduced to motivational-trainer ghosts shouting encouragement from the side-lines like soccer-moms, while poor Carrie Fisher has her grave comprehensively robbed as deleted scenes are artlessly repurposed to create the illusion that she’s still alive.

The Empire Strikes Back’s climactic plot twist has proved a mill-stone around the neck of Star Wars in terms of creating soap-opera rather than space-opera expectations; the revelation that Rey is, spoiler alert, the grand-daughter of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) doesn’t resonate at all, other than to throw up the series complete lack of interest in this villainous character as anything other than a get out clause. When did Palpatine have time to have kids, or even grand-kids? Abrams, as with Lost, is far better at asking questions than providing answers; when the solutions finally appear, the audience has lost interest.

Fan-service is a dirty word, and yet it’s the one thing, other than casting and packaging, which Abrams does so well; the call-backs to personnel, themes and scenes all create some genuine connection to a beloved universe, and for some, that will be enough. But in terms of plot and character, the third Star Wars trilogy has been a misbegotten, stuttering disaster. There’s no more films scheduled beyond this, and rightly so; the inverted pyramid of expectations that snuffed out George Lucas’s talent seems to have claimed further victims in the undoubted abilities of Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams. Until some new talent emerges, it’s probably best to keep the fourth and final trilogy on the shelf for now.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

Doomwatch 1972 ****

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Director Peter Sasdy deserves his cult reputation; from the Whispering Gallery finale of Hands of the Ripper to the enigmatic hysteria of The Stone Tapes, his best work has an iconic feel. Viewers of the BBC science-fiction drama Doomwatch generally felt that this 1972 feature film was a somewhat cruder affair, but as it resurfaces on streaming, Sadsy’s film is likely to entice the curious. Moving amongst characters created by Dr Who scribes Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, Doomwatch sees Dr Shaw (Ian Bannen) tackling chemical dumping on the fictional Scottish island of Balfe, although being a Tigon production, Cornwall doubles for the beauty-spot. There’s not much picturesque about what Shaw finds; growth hormones used on fish are getting into the food chain, and mutations are resulting. Does the Admiral (George Sanders) know more than he’s saying? Of course, he does, and Doomwatch is way ahead of its time in suggesting government conspiracies, and expressing anxiety about what we eat. Small roles for James Cosmo, Bond star Geoffrey Keen and Shelagh Fraser (who played Luke’s aunt five years later in Star Wars) keep things interesting. The original series is now impossible to locate in it’s enturity, so this capsule version of Doomwatch is well worth seeking out as a period piece with some unpleasant ideas which still resonate. Judy Geeseon co-stars.

Solo: A Star Wars Story **** 2018

When this Star Wars spin-off debuted, Ron Howard hailed the opening weekend $100 million US debut as the best of his illustrious career.  Yet Solo is regarded as a flop and a misfire, with well-publicised negativity stemming from the firing of the original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Away from the hoopla, Howard’s finished film doesn’t bear much evidence of different cooks at work; it’s a Star Wars film, but it’s more of a small-scale character study that a multiple-story epic, and presumably that’s what put the public off; the whole film builds to an off-screen shooting rather than a interplanetary battle. Aiden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo, and it’s fun to see how her meets up with Chewbacca and falls under the mentor ship of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  Equally, it’s nice to see a young Lando (Donald Glover) and catch the moment that Han wins the Millennium Falcon from him. In fact, pretty much all of Solo works, it’s just not cut from the same cookie-cutter template as every other film in the franchise. Wouldn’t it be great to make a film like The Friends of Eddie Coyle but set in the Stars Wars Universe? Sure, but don’t expect anyone to turn out to see it. Perhaps Star Wars fatigue was inevitable with this film released while The Last Jedi was still in cinemas; either way, Howard’s amusing film deserves better than it’s franchise-killer reputation.

The Adventures of Gerard 1970 ***

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Jerry Skolimowski’s 1970 film has been quite elusive; rarely shown on tv anywhere, an unknown quantity on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. That’s a pity, because this action-adventure provides the missing link between two huge cultural touchstones. The technical consultants here are Adrian Conan Doyle, here helping four of his father’s stories onto the screen in one sitting. The other technical consultant is the late John Mollo, who would go on to create the iconic costume designs for Star Wars. Peter McHenry stars as Gerard, a brigadier in the Napoleonic army used as a useful idiot by Napoleon (Eli Wallach). Jack Hawkins and John Neville make the most of their brief bits, along the way, and Claudia Cardinale gives it both barrels in her big dancing scene. With lots of fourth-wall breaking chats to the camera, plus speeded-up film and a very 1970 jaunty score, The Adventures of Gerard is a sincere attempt to revive the comic-historical epic, and one that’s well worth seeking out for collectors of such whimsy.