THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN – this and Attenborough’s OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR must have kept the British acting fraternity busy during that busy year 1969, as again, most of them turn up here, led by Laurence Olivier as Lord Dowding. Ralph Richardson has a splendid set-to squaring up to German office Curt Jurgens, and those valiant airmen include the likes of Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Ian McShane, and Edward Fox, with Nigel Patrick, Michael Redgrave, Harry Andrews and Trevor Howard as assorted officers. Christopher Plummer and Susannah York are the married couple of forces personnel who can never find time to be together – good to see York reunited with Kenneth More (from THE GREENAGE SUMMER) and then of course there are those planes and the dogfights in the skies over England in 1940 as airmen wait to get airborne and there is that “Battle in the Air” by William Walton for the climactic fights. As produced by Harry Saltzman and directed by Guy Hamilton it is all high, wide and handsome and remains stirring stuff. Some odd lapses of period detail though – Shaw and McShane exit from a house with a very modern glass door, hardly the type used in 1940 and though the other women in the background have period hair and dress, Susannah York looks like she strolled in off the Kings Road with her very ‘60s hair and make-up. Frankly, the kind of film I did not bother with when young back in 1969 but fascinating to catch up with now, if only for that cast.
THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN cries out for the epic treatment it deserves but does not get it here, but this 1969 film of the hit Peter Shaffer play remains curiously fascinating. As the blurb puts it: “Driven with the desire to find the mythical Kingdom of Gold, conquistador Fancisco Pizarro (Robert Shaw) sets sail for the Americas seeking riches beyond any man’s dreams. Far from being a land of savages, Pizarro encounters the magical Inca empire and their fabled leader Atahualpa (Christopher Plummer). The initial mistrust and suspicion between the two men is replaced by mutual faith and respect –emotions not held by other members of Pizarro’s exploration party, who are purely intent of claiming the Inca gold for themselves”. Empires collide indeed in this telling of the epic story of civilisations and beliefs clashing during that strange period of history when the Old World discovered the wealth of the New and began to savagely convert them to the Church, while of removing all that gold.
I have a personal interest in this one, as when I was 20 and new in London in 1966 one of my first theatrical experiences was seeing the original spellbinding production up in the cheap seats at the Old Vic with Robert Stephens incredible as the Inca king Atahualpa opposite Colin Blakely’s Pizarro. It was splendidly staged with the conquest of the Inca empire suggested and mimed, which works in the theatre but the film does not have the budget to show it. It is though efficiently directed by Irving Lerner and produced by Philip Yordan. Again, the cast is the thing as here Robert Shaw is the grizzled conquistador Pizarro, with Nigel Davenport, Michael Craig, Leonard Whiting (Zeffirelli’s Romeo) as young scribe Martin, James Donald as the Spanish king, Andrew Keir as the bloodthirsty priest and topping it all a totally extraordinary performance once again by Christopher Plummer as the Inca Atahualpa. His many admirers who saw this on account of his Captain Von Trapp must have been startled by his appearance here, toned and buff and gleaming with those costumes and the birdsong way of speaking and moving. It is totally daring and compelling. It boils down to a two hander between Pizarro and the king while the rest of the conquistadors wait to loot and pillage and melt down that gold, which we see happening in the background. It does quite well actually on a budget suggesting the might and splendour and strangeness of the Inca empire which did not resist the onslaught of the ravaging newcomers. The invaders have to kill Atahualpa but he believes he will rise again from death the next morning when the sun arises and Pizarro desperately needs to believe him, so instead of being burned his body is kept whole ... this was all stunning in the theatre, but somehow less so in the film, but then it was conceived for the theatrical medium. Shaffer of course wrote AMADEUS and EQUUS and this is more of the same with great language and ideas.
CONDUCT UNBECOMING was a stage play and a talky one at that, being basically a courtroom drama concerning the honour of a regiment in India in the days of the British Empire. Michael Anderson opens it out a bit and there is some location shooting but it does get rather stodgy. Again, it is the cast that holds the attention – Trevor Howard and Richard Attenborough as senior officers, Christopher Plummer and Stacey Keach as military personnel, James Donald as the doctor, Susannah York as the widow of the regiment’s hero who claims she has been assaulted (but has she really?) by young wastrel James Faulkner who just wants to be sent home. It falls to reluctant Michael York to defend him and discover the rather laboured truth. This one sank without trace back in 1975 and now one just wanted it to hurry up and finish.