THE BLACK STALLION

 

If I’m going to be in a movie, I say — bring on the horses!

I grew up yearning for a horse and devoured any book about them. My favorites books were the Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. I probably read the book so many times its cover fell apart.

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All through my childhood, Walter Farley wrote a steady stream of new Black Stallion books  — and I read every one of them. About his colts and fillies. About Alec Ramsey, who grew from a teenage boy to a man in the course of the series. Of Henry Daily, the old horse trainer whose career is revived by his accidental encounter with Alec and The Black. Many stories, as the years went on, were about the racing stable Alex and Henry build in upstate New York for which The Black was the founding stud. To this day, I know more about horses and horse racing than most people … because Walter Farley told me all about it in book after book.

Throughout my young years, I wished they would make The Black Stallion into a movie. I wanted to see The Black, to see Alec ride him. To see him come from behind and become the greatest horse to ever run on a track. I was bewitched by horses and was convinced I would need nothing else in this life if I had a horse.

bucephalus

Oddly, the great Secretariat’s real accomplishments — winning the Triple Crown in 1973 — remarkably mirrored those of the fictional Black. Watching Secretariat’s career — in the real world — made up for never having seen The Black race.

I never got a horse. Gradually real life overtook my fantasy life. College, work, husband, baby, home, friends replaced dreams of riding bareback on the greatest stallion of them all.

But the magic wasn’t over me because in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola made the movie I’d yearned for since childhood. He based the movie, The Black Stallion, on the first of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, the one he wrote in 1941. In making the movie, they changed the story some. This would have made me crazy as a kid, but by the time I saw the movie — in an old theater in Jerusalem, Israel — I was a 30-year-old mother living overseas and able to cope with relatively minor digressions from the original tale.

Last week, Turner Classic Movies showed “The Black Stallion.” So, of course, we watched it again. I’ve seen it many times. Each is seeing it for the first time.

I am swept away to a desert island for the adventure of a lifetime. Even if you aren’t a great horse lover, the score and the cinematography are so extraordinary, the movie is like a dream. They set the story in its original time period, the early 1940s which helps augment the dreamlike effect.

Black Stallion Beach.jpg

I want to be on that island with The Black. To ride him along the edge of the ocean, free from everything but the sun, the wind, the sand beneath my horse’s pounding hoofs. I would give a lot for just one day to live that dream.

“The Black Stallion” is a paean to horses, nature, and overcoming adversity. You don’t have to be a kid to love it. It also contains the least dialogue of any movie since the talkies took over Hollywood.

Director Carroll Ballard tells the story with luscious cinematography and a lovely soundtrack. Music fusing with images that wrench your heart.

WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in a year ago by Audible.com, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

WHEN THE GAME CHANGED

IT WAS NOT EXACTLY WHAT I HAD IN MIND.

Being a cast member on a movie set wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. Maybe I wasn’t sure what to expect since my experience with working on a film was vicarious, drawn from depictions on television or movies. Even subtracting 95% of what I thought I knew to align with reality, I thought something should be happening. I guess it was, if you were one of the stars or co-stars.

movie-set-boston

But extras? Which is what I was, though these days the term “extras” is out of favor and “background performer” is in. Whatever you care to call us, we got shuttled from set to set, fed three meals at lavish buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners where everyone chowed down with extreme prejudice.

Otherwise, we waited. And waited. Then, we waited some more. While we waited we had to be silent. Don’t annoy the stars. Don’t be in the way. Don’t go anywhere — including the bathroom — without permission. Permission was from one of the dozens of assistants, those attractive young people running around with headsets and clipboards.

It was confusing, tiring, and dull. You never knew if someone might decide you or your group were needed in a scene, but even if you were never in any scene — entirely possible — you had to act as if you were about to be “up” any moment. Your presence or absence was (apparently) life or death. On a movie set, it turns out everything is treated like life or death. It’s a Hollywood thing.

It was mid-November, night in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I hadn’t worn enough layers. Cold.

My feet hurt. Not to mention my back.

I needed to pee.

I was bored.

The director was on the 128th take. Before the night was done, he would close in on 250 takes of this particular scene. It was the turning point of the plot. It included every member of the cast except a bunch of us “background performers.” No matter. We still had to be there. Just in case.

I wondered how much money I was going to make, just standing around. I didn’t think it was going to be enough especially since it seemed unlikely this would be the night Hollywood discovered me. I wished I’d brought a book, though in the dark I wasn’t sure if I’d have been able to read.

That was when I noticed the woman. She was standing just off to my right, leaning against a street light. It looked like she was reading, but whatever it was she was holding wasn’t a book. Something else. It had a light attached.

I sidled over.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“You’re reading? What’s that? I’ve never seen one.”

“It’s a Kindle.”

“OH,” I said, things clicking into place. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one before.”

She looked up and smiled. “It’s wonderful. I don’t know how I lived without it. I can bring books with me everywhere, as many books as I want. See?” she said, and she began to show me all the cool stuff it could do. Like being able to bookmark passages, get definitions of words and phrases. And carry a whole library with her in just this little thing no bigger than a paperback.

I held it, turned it this way and that. “You know,” I said. “This might be exactly what I need.”

Certainly my bookcases at home were bursting at the seams. Anything that let me buy books without finding someplace to put them sounded like a really good deal. And this thing would let me take books everywhere without hauling a trunkful of paperback. It seemed a good idea. But the price was still too high for me and I wondered if I would like a book that didn’t smell like ink and paper. It was convenient, but it lacked ambiance.

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Nonetheless, that conversation stuck in my brain. Long after the movie — in which I did not appear, though I had one scene which was cut and left on the editing room floor — had faded into memory, I remembered the lady with the Kindle. When the new generation of Kindles was released and the prices dropped, I bought one.

Then I bought one for everyone in my family who reads books. And I bought another one that plays movies and audiobooks and checks email. Finally, I got an even newer one that does the same stuff, but better and faster. And bigger, lighter, and takes (and sends) pictures.

I can’t imagine life without my Kindle. I don’t want to. I’ve got hundreds of books, audiobooks, music, everything on it. It goes with me everywhere.

A week or two ago — don’t remember exactly when — I had to read a paperback. It was heavy. It was awkward. I couldn’t hold it in one hand. And where was the light?

This may sound like no big deal. Just another toy, one more electronic doohickey. But it isn’t. It was a game and life changer. Finally, I could always have a whole library of regular and audiobooks with me.

I’ve gone through four or five iterations of the Kindle experience since. By now, all my friends have them. Many of us have several, in different sizes and styles. I can’t imagine reading without them.

And finally, after my most recent upgrade to the next to the latest version of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ super tablet, I gave my iPad to my granddaughter (hers was pretty beat up and mine has 64 gigs rather than 32, like hers). After I got the newest (for me, but there is an even newer version available and probably will be yet another generation shortly), I had no further interest in the iPad which had always annoyed me anyway.

So everyone is happy. Skyping and reading and listening and watching … all because I met a lady when I was briefly (very briefly) a movie extra in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Watson, the game is on!

GORT! KLATU BARADA NIKTO!

As Patricia Neal said to Gort (per Michael Rennie): “GORT! KLATU BARADA NIKTO!”

That’s alien robot talk for “Hey, Gort! Don’t destroy the world, but please bring me back to life, if it’s not too much trouble. Thank you very much.”

ROBBIE AS GORT

An afternoon of classic 1950s science fiction can ruin your brain for days afterwards. “It Came From Outer Space” (based on “The Meteor” by Ray Bradbury), followed by “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”

I’ve got my own robot, so around here, I give the orders.

“Gort! BERENGA!” (Get in the spaceship, we’re leaving.)


 

Honorific – If you could pick one person to be commemorated on a day dedicated to him/her alone, who would you choose?

I CHOOSE ROBBIE!!

ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM AND ME – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn and I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Robert Mitchum on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) last night. We laughed a lot. It was a reminder of how good late night talk shows were. It also showed the legendary tough guy Mitchum as an affable and literate man who didn’t take himself seriously.

The Cavett show originally aired in 1970. I met Robert Mitchum the following year. Turned out to be a memorable encounter.

Robert Mitchum was in Boston to shoot “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, a film about small The_Friends_of_Eddie_Coyletime criminals. There was nothing small time about Mitchum. I lobbied for and got the TV interview assignment. Those were the days of “The big three” television stations in Boston. Two of the stations had prominent entertainment reporters. I was the “go to guy” at my station.

The established entertainment reporters had first dibs on Mitchum. Fine by me. I waited until shooting had wrapped for the day. I lucked out because they finished just before 1pm. The star was in a good mood because his work day was over. We shot one reel of film and I got everything I needed.

Mitchum seemed surprised we weren’t shooting more. Actually, he smiled when I said we had a wrap.

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me. Nothing, I told him. I was through for the day unless I was called for a breaking news story. I also assured him I probably would not be reachable. He smiled. He asked if I knew any quiet places where he could have lunch without being bothered. I nodded and he invited me to join him.

It was a small, dark place. It could’ve been a setting from one of Mitchum’s film noir of the 1940s. He smiled approvingly as we walked in. Several people greeted me. No one gave Mitchum a second look. We settled back with the first of many rounds that afternoon. At one point, Mitchum took off his tinted glasses, looked around the place and said I should call him “Mitch”. I nodded. He wanted to know how I could just disappear for the rest of the day. I told him I had recorded my voice tracks, shot all my on camera stuff and relayed cutting instructions after the film was “souped”. Mitch smiled broadly and went to the bar for another round of drinks.

robert_mitchum_by_robertobizama-d4ktib7We spent the next couple of hours talking about sports, music, women, work and celebrity. He noticed how people would look and nod but not bother us. I told him this was one of my secret places. Blue collar. No suits. He wondered why I hadn’t asked him about the “Eddie Coyle” movie or shooting in Boston.

Not necessary, I told him. Everyone knew about that stuff and it would be mentioned by the anchors introducing my stories. He smiled again, lit one more cigarette, and ordered another round.

It dawned on me that Mitch was leading the conversation. Talking about me. How I was faring as a minority in a predominantly white profession. Just like the movies, I told him. I explained I did spot news stories to get the opportunity to do features which I really enjoyed. He laughed and we did an early version of the high 5.

We swapped some more war stories, including a couple about Katherine Hepburn. He talked about working with her in “Undercurrent” with Robert Taylor when he was still a young actor. Mitch said Hepburn was just like a guy, professional, and lots of fun.

I mentioned meeting the legendary actress after I was summoned to her Connecticut home during my stint at another TV station. Mitch stared as I talked. I had tea with Katherine Hepburn who had seen me on the Connecticut TV station. She liked what she saw but had some suggestions about how I could improve what I did. I never could fathom why Katherine Hepburn would choose to spend time with this young reporter. No modesty. Just puzzlement. Mitch loved the story and ordered another round.

I glanced at my watch and figured I couldn’t stay incognito much longer. This was before pagers, beepers and, mercifully, long before cell phones. Mitch caught the look on my face and nodded.

Mitch walked me to my car and asked if I was good to drive. I tried to give him a Mitchum look and he just laughed. We shook hands and vowed to do it again.

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

VIOLENCE WITH GUSTO IN TOMBSTONE

The first movie I remember seeing with my mom was “Gunfight at OK Corral.” It was a busy day at the Utopia Theater. A small movie house. There were hardly any seats left by the time we got there, having walked from home. I had a non-driving mom who believed in healthy outdoor exercise.

Wyatt Earp at about age 33.

Wyatt Earp at 33. (Photo: Wikipedia)

We found a seat in the second row. Burt and Kirk had heads 20 feet high. It left an indelible mark on my mind. I became an O.K. Corral aficionado, catching each new version of the story as it was cranked out by Hollywood. When video taped movies became available, I caught up with all earlier versions, too.

I stayed with “Gunfight” as my favorite for a long time. Maybe I’m just fond of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Garry generally favors “My Darling Clementine” but he is a John Ford fan.

In 1993, along came “Tombstone.” One viewing and it was my favorite version of the gunfight story. A few more viewings and it morphed into my favorite western. There are a lot of contenders for second place.

I don’t love it for its historical accuracy, though It is nominally more accurate than other movie versions. It omits as more than it includes. The Earps were a wild and crazy family. Doc Holliday was even wilder and crazier.

English: John Henry "Doc" Holliday, ...

John Henry “Doc” Holliday (Photo: Wikipedia)

They were all lethal and no more honest then they needed to be.

There were other Earp brothers who are always left out of the story, maybe because they weren’t in the peacekeeping business. Dad was a real piece of work and deserves a movie of his own. Although I tend to be prickly about historical details, I do not watch westerns for historical accuracy.

I watch westerns first and foremost, because I love horses. I will watch anything with or about horses. You could just run films of horses in a field and I’d watch that too.

Next, I love westerns because when I was growing up watching Johnny Mack Brown movies on the old channel 13 (before it became PBS) in New York, I always knew the guys in black hats were villains and the ones in white hats were heroes. It appealed to my 8-year old need for moral simplicity.

tombstone

In westerns, revenge and righteous violence are good, clean fun. Not merely acceptable, but desirable. In the Old West, when you find a bad guy, get out the six-shooter, shotgun, or both — and mow’em down. Justice is quick and permanent. Without guilt. You can be a wimp in real life, but watching “Tombstone,” as Kurt, Val and the gang cut a swathe of blood and death across the southwest — I can cheer them on.

TombstoneOKCorral

“Tombstone” is deliciously violent. The gunfight at O.K. corral is merely the beginning. There’s a deeply satisfying amount of killing to follow. I revel in it. When Kurt Russell declares that he’s coming for them and Hell will follow … I am there. Yes, kill the bastards. It’s so cathartic!

Garry and I made a personal pilgrimage to Tombstone.

Tombstone shopping

I have argued with people who keep saying the movie was filmed on a sound stage. Unless everyone in Tombstone was victim of a mass hallucination  — mass hallucinations are not nearly as common in real life as they are in Hollywood — during which time a movie company rebuilt the town to look like historical Tombstone, then filmed a movie, “Tombstone” was filmed in Tombstone.

I have pictures of Tombstone. We bought tee shirts. It was our favorite part of a long summer’s vacation in Arizona. Although there may have been some re-shooting on a set, the bulk of the film was shot in Tombstone. It was and remains the only thing of note to happen there in the past 100 years.

August was not the best time to visit, but our host worked. It was hard to find a good time to visit. The mercury climbed to 128 and never dropped below 120 while the sun shined. Which, that time of year, it does relentlessly. I think that’s why they invented awnings over the wooden sidewalks.

It was painfully hot. Maybe that how come everyone was shooting everyone else. Who wouldn’t want to shoot people living in that heat without air conditioning? It makes one cranky.

I don’t watch movies for a dose of reality. I have plenty of reality. I watch films to escape and entertainment. Westerns let me immerse myself in raw emotions that are unacceptable otherwise.

I love Tombstone. We’re going out west again in January, this time to Monument Valley. I’m counting on a John Ford rush!

NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN

The Sean Connery Years, part 2

When Sean Connery looks across the card table during a game of Baccarat Chemin de Fer in the opening of Dr. No to give his name to his female opponent, he started one of the greatest movie series ever by responding, “Bond, James Bond.”  Since then the Bond films have gone on to be one of the most successful movies franchises ever.  The eight Harry Potter films achieved unprecedented box office numbers.  If you add up all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, they get number one on the revenue list, but there are 11 popular and recent films; you know, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and they are not all about one character so does it count?  There are 25 Bond films, and it will take at least 2 more for the series to equal the Potter gross revenue figures.

Previously we recapped the first 4 Bond films, staring Connery as the super spy.  Connery was back for the fifth outing in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, based loosely, very loosely, on the 12th Ian Fleming novel of the same name.  Since the novel is a continuation of a story line from a previous novel, not yet filmed, we are in for some Cold War era rewrites here.

Consider this paragraph a giant spoiler alert.  In the opening Bond is sent to Japan where he is set up and killed by foreign agents.  The naval commander is buried at sea and that is the end of Bond.  OK, it’s not. It is all a set up so Bond can go under cover in Japan to work with the head of the Japanese secret service to find out who has captured an American spacecraft.  Here we get to see Bond train as a ninja and invade, along with a female assistant, of course, an island run by an evil SPECTRE mastermind.  There are battles, explosions, chases and remarkable rescues, just the usual Bond magic.

Remarkably, the next movie is based on the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).  The sixth Bond production brings on a new actor in the role of the super hero and a new director.  Since Connery decided to retire from the role, the producers elected to go with an unknown Australian actor and model, George Lazenby.   His good looks and screen tests won him the role.  It was the only time a person not from Great Britain would take the lead.

The story involves a “Bond girl” who James saves at the opening, then later meets at a casino. It’s actress Diana Rigg in an early role as a Countess. Her father sets Bond on an investigation of her solicitor which in turn leads Bond to an evil plot by the head of SPECTRE to set in motion a plan to distribute biological warfare.  This may all sound rather fantastic, but this time the producers tried to stay closer to the book.  Yes, the film series got people reading the books.  Imagine that!

By the end of filming, Lazenby had decided that he had enough of Bond, even though he was offered the next movie which was to be The Man With The Golden Gun.  He passed on it and the movie was put on hold.  It was reported that Lazenby’s agent told him the Bond series would be out dated by the 1970’s anyway.

After a couple of years and a film that did not have the box office magic of the Connery films, there was only one thing for the producers to do.  They decided to bring back the magic.  The story was switched to Diamonds Are Forever (1971).  Guy Hamilton was brought back to direct.  He was the director of the critically acclaimed Goldfinger.  John Barry again did the score, as he did for all but one of the Bond films at this point.  Shirley Bassey, who sang the title tune for Goldfinger, is back for this title tune.  There is a gorgeous “Bond girl” with Jill St. John.  Just one more element was needed to insure a return to the top for the movie series.

Producers gave their Bond actor over a million dollars (unheard of territory then)  and a piece of the gross to take on the super suave spy.  Finally, the major challenge was met and Sean Connery was set to return as “007.”

The story is based on the 4th Ian Fleming novel published in 1956.  Bond is chasing diamond smugglers and the action moves from South Africa to Holland to the United Kingdom and on to Las Vegas.  Of course, a bit of a rewrite of the story allows us to have an old nemesis, Ernest Stavro Blofeld, a SPECTRE mastermind. The Bond girl is appropriately named, Tiffany Case.  Fleming loved to give the girls names with double meanings within the story.  The Las Vegas chase scene almost makes the movie experience worth the time. The casino owner at the middle of the thriller is played by Jimmy Dean.  Yes, that Jimmy Dean, country singer and sausage king.

From here the film series moves on to the Roger Moore years.  In 1973 Moore becomes the famous spy for the next seven films.  Connery moves on to other film projects, promising never to play the secret agent again.

Owners of the Thunderball rights, won in a court battle, desired to film the movie.  Additional court battles over what could be used would follow upon any attempt to make a rival Bond film in the midst of the Bond years.  Even while the Roger Moore films were being released, plans for a rival Bond movie were moving forward.  Not wanting to call the film by the same name and facing a variety of legal challenges, the producers went ahead with a similar story and no rights to the iconic music.  Even with a good script, how could they be successful in the same year with the release of a Roger Moore film?

The only solution seemed to be a film starring Sean Connery as James Bond, but Connery was 52 years old.  Moore, on the other hand, was older.  While Connery looked fit and able to play an action hero, as many his age had for action heroes, the story was modified as if “007” was under used due to age and he is brought back to deal with the hijacking of 2 nuclear bombs.  Like Thunderball, there is a limited time to find the bombs and save the world from massive destruction.  Connery makes the most out of playing an aging James Bond who can still deliver in times of crisis.  The overall result is a film much more satisfying than the original Thunderball.  Some thought the short underwater climax was disappointing, but it was better than the overblown original.

Connery provides us with all the charm you would expect of the world’s most famous “secret” agent.  The film did almost as well at the box office as the Roger Moore/James Bond film that year, Octopussy.  The title of the Thunderball remake was suggested by Connery’s wife who reminded them that Connery had previously said “Never again” to playing the famous British agent.

Related:

Bond, James Bond – The Sean Connery Years