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My Top 60 - No 11: 'Field of Dreams' (1989)

‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) is like the Robert Redford vehicle ‘The Natural ‘(1984) before it, a mystical and magical film but one that as its backdrop is the sport of baseball.  However ‘Field of Dreams’ has something extra special about it which demands regular viewing in that it has a true spiritual core, that is both affecting and moving.

Its history is interesting in that it is based on the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ written by Canadian writer W P Kinsella which tells the story of a father and husband Ray Kinsella (played here by Kevin Costner in his prime) who runs a farm with his wife (and 1960’s rebel) Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman). Whilst out farming one day, Ray hears a voice telling him “If you build it, he will come” and he sees a vision of a baseball ground. He then feels called to cut down his farm and build said baseball ground with floodlights etc effectively bankrupting him and his young family.

Eventually, from nowhere a baseball player (‘shoeless’ Joe Jackson- a player banned from playing in real life due to an infamous 1919 betting scandal and someone adored by Ray’s late father) appears and asks if he can bring the rest of his team to play. When they also turn up (they think the field is Heaven) it emerges that they were all members of the same betting scandal, but now they just want to play ball.

Whilst wife Annie tries to keep the farm from being re-possessed by the bank and keeping their family together, Ray hears another message telling him to “ease his pain”. He believes that it has something to do with reclusive author Terence Mann (the brilliant James Earl Jones) (based on real life novelist and recluse J D Salinger) who wanted to play big time baseball himself and one of his characters in his book has the surname Kinsella….

So, starts an epic mystical journey that Ray Kinsella makes to meet Terence Mann and to work out what these messages to him means for him and his family, and what he should do next…

‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) is a simply wonderful movie. You might think it is just about someone who loses their marbles, starts hearing messages and ends up putting his whole family and himself in peril, but it is much more than that. It is fundamentally about a man who is still grieving over his father, who said some awful things to him, wants to take them back and say that he loves him but can’t because it is simply too late. But Life gives him another chance. It is also about how sometimes you need to dream ‘big’ and say ‘Yes’ to what is asked of you, no matter how absurd it might be.

The mystical elements of the movie are where it excels. James Earl Jones as Terence Mann realises that rather than be a recluse because of the unwelcome fame that his classic novel brought him, that he should simple do what he is –a writer. A cameo by Burt Lancaster as a no hit wonder baseball player but who finds his true vocation in saving peoples’ lives is also a real highlight and one of the finest performances of his long career.

Writer Director Phil Alden Robinson has weaved a wondrous film with a first class cast and makes you feel better having just watched it, and you will want to watch it again. It has real good humour and love at his core and it shows just how good an actor Kevin Costner can be.

My Top 60 films -No 10 -'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (1976)

Clint Eastwood is a top man. No doubt about it, and although off screen some of his behaviour can be somewhat erratic and controlling, he is both a very fine actor and very accomplished filmmaker.

His body of work is hugely impressive – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), The Gauntlet (1976), Palerider (1985), Unforgiven (1992), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), American Sniper (2014), the list goes on. And at the ripe old age of 88 (his first acting role was in Revenge of the Creature (1955)), he is still acting and making films.

For me, perhaps his best and most accomplished film was The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). It was perhaps the first modern western (Blazzing Saddles (1974) apart) that I really liked. The movie also has a very interesting history.

It is based on the book Gone to Texas (1972) written by a certain ‘Forrest Carter’ (named after an American Civil War General) but in fact that was an alias for Asa Earl Carter. His colourful background (if you pardon the pun) was that he a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader in the 1950s and the co-writer of the segregationist speech by American President hopeful George Wallace when he said in 1963 “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Carter had previously set up a KKK group that attacked (and tried to kidnap) singer Nat King Cole. Carter later seemed to eventually abandon these activities and relocated himself to Texas and became a writer. His most well-known work became the basis for The Outlaw Josey Wales. Carter sent his novel to Eastwood, who, unaware of the author’s KKK connections and politics, greenlighted making the movie.

Originally, the film was to be directed by Phillip Kaufman, who did co-write the screenplay but Eastwood fell out with Kaufman and sacked him, being replaced by himself as the Director. Kaufman went on though to co-write Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and write and direct The Right Stuff (1983).

The Outlaw Josey Wales starts with Eastwood as Josey Wales who is a settled man during the American Civil War with a family and a farm in Missouri until a group of Pro-Union Army ‘red legs’ turn up raping and killing his wife and murdering his only child. Seeking revenge, Wales joins a group of pro-Confederate ‘bushwhackers’. Following conflicts and fights with Union troops and the end of the war, the group give themselves up but are duped by both their leader and a Union Capt (both played by Eastwood regulars John Vernon and Bill McKinney.  This leads to Wales trying to come to his comrades’ rescue by wiping out most of the red legs (and a fair bit of the Union army) with a Gatling gun in the style of John Rambo.

Wales escapes and whilst a large bounty is put on his capture/death, he heads out on his journey whilst being stalked by a variety of militia and hunters. During this, we get to the real heart of the movie when our hero (or is that anti-hero?) Josey Wales says “I don’t want no one belonging to me”, but people want to belong to him, as he picks up a selection of companions.

These include proud rebel Jamie (Sam Bottoms), an old Cherokee (played brilliantly by Chief Dan George who was a real life Chief of the Canadian Tsleil-Waututh Indians), a Navajo Indian saved by Wales (Geraldine Keams – a real life Navajo herself) and two ‘Kansas Pilgrims’ (Paula Trueman and a certain Sondra Locke). Locke of course became Clint Eastwood’s romantic partner off screen living together from 1975-1989 before falling out in a very bad way via a palimony suit and dying just in late 2018. A very fine actress herself, she starred in 6 Eastwood productions over that period.

The success of The Outlaw Josey Wales and why I like it so much is in not just a really fast moving plotline of Wales going from being the Hunter to being Hunted down, but in the great personal onscreen chemistry between him and the companions he picks up on the way. There is very good humour as Wales spits his tobacco juice just before he takes someone out, his caustic barbs with Chief Dan George (not a very good Indian), and his film long duel  (and relationship) with John Vernon’s Capt Fletcher. There are also some cracking lines -Four Union soldiers recognise Wales in one scene and even though he is carrying his provisions, he barks at them “Are you going to pull those pistols or whistle ‘Dixie’?”-before wiping them out.

It is also a strangely moving film as Josey Wales goes from a grieving father and husband seeking retribution to finding some kind of peace at the end – as the Paula Trueman character of the pilgrim granny remarks to him that he has “..changed from a murderous bushwhacker on the side of Satan to a better man trying to delivers us from the philistines” . Say Amen to that!

My Top 60-No 9: 'The Great Escape' (1963)

Just a few days ago (24th March to be precise), I was fortunate enough to go along to commemorate the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest WWII escapes, that at Stalag Luft III in Poland in 1943. This resulted in 76 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) escaping from the camp, however only 3 POWs successfully returned home. Of the remaining 73, 50 were callously murdered on the instructions of Hitler known as ‘The 50’ with the others returning to the camp.

That event was immortalised in both the 1950 book by Paul Brickhill (who was himself incarcerated at the camp and was due to escape if it was not because of his claustrophobia- he also wrote Reach for the Sky-1956 and The Dambusters -1955) and the 1963 classic movie The Great Escape (1963). And it was a re-showing of that movie in amazing 4K technology that was the main feature of the 75th commemoration.

Around 3,000 people at the Eventim Hammersmith (Odeon and Apollo as was) enjoyed the movie as well as an educational series of talks surrounding the true life events which included one of the original stars of the film John Leyton, the grandson of perhaps its main British star Richard Attenborough, and one of the original motor bike stunt drivers who doubled for Steve McQueen as he rode the Triumph TR6 Trophy (made in Solihull) so thrillingly towards the film's climax.

So on to the film.

The Great Escape is still a magnificent movie that is the first thing to say. You also have to say that is also loosely based on the original book and actual events but certain major liberties were made to make the film more commercial especially in the USA. So you have a number of American prisoners such as Virgil Hilts (‘The Cooler King’) played by Steve McQueen & Robert Hendley (‘The Scrounger, by James Garner), who did not exist and the camp did not have any USA POWs. The film also underplays the role played by Canadian prisoners (over 150 of them were part of the escape plans) and interestingly a number of true life events that formed part of the escape were excluded at the direct request of a number of POWs who were concerned that they might impact any future escapes in new conflicts. But I think these are minor points because The Great Escape has what I would call ‘the greater Truth’-it is broadly accurate in what was planned and what happened.

For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing it, the movie opens to a searing Elmer Bernstein theme as German troops bring allied troops to the camp. It doesn’t take them long to try to escape. Within a few minutes the Polish ‘tunnel king’ Velinski (Charles Bronson), Australian Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’ (James Coburn with an awful aussie accent),  Dickes (John Leighton) and Ives ‘The Mole’ (Angus Lennie) all hide in workmen’s trucks before they are found out almost immediately.

The action though really starts when Roger Bartlett (‘Big X’ or the Mastermind of escapes) is escorted to the camp by the SS/ Gestapo and it is clear that he has been beaten to a pulp by them. Attenborough turns in an outstanding performance as Bartlett who was de facto the real Sqn Leader Roger Bushell. He is the heartbeat of The Great Escape as Bushell was for the real event. Early on when meeting the Senior British Officer at the camp (James Donald), he delivers one of the finest pieces of dialogue in any war movie:

“Look sir, you talk about the high command of the Luftwaffe, then the SS and the Gestapo- to me they’re the same, we’re fighting the bloody lot. There’s only one way to put it, Sir. They are the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom. If they didn’t approve of Hitler, why didn’t they throw him out?”

That sets the tone for the POWs to dig not just one tunnel but three and to get not just a few men out but 100, 200 or 300.

The movie is a long one (170 minutes) but it does not feel like one. Part of that is down to a very rich and colourful script written by James Clavell (also a POW and writer of another great war movie 633 Squadron) and WR Burnett the veteran American screenwriter (Little Caesar & The Asphalt Jungle). They infuse the film with some great pithy dialogue (Virgil Hilts to the Commandant: “I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over” & Hendley (James Garner) to Blythe (Donald Pleasance): “Blythe, what are you doing here?”, “I am in photo aerial reconnaissance. My own fault really. Went for a joyride to see for myself”. “No, I mean what do you DO here?”. “Oh, I’m the forger”

The relationships between the POWs are also very strong, no more so than between the two opposites of Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Archie Ives (Angus Lenny)- both end up in the cooler several times which Hilts can take (provided he has his baseball glove and baseball) but Ives cannot. In the end, Ives goes mad and ends up being machine gunned down whilst trying to get over the barbed wire fence. Angus Lenny’s performance as the desparate young Scotsman POW is strong stuff and you believe him too.

The Great Escape has everything really, great humour, great cast chemistry, a tremendous musical score and some very fine acting by a stellar (mainly British) character actor cast –Nigel Stock, David McCullum,  Gordon Jackson and Tom Adams to name just a few.

It is also very poignant – the film is “Dedicated to the 50” who were so cruelly murdered. A postscript to that war crime is that following news of what happened to them, there was a post war investigation that led to several Gestapo officers being prosecuted and later executed for their role in the slaughter.




My Top 60 - No 8: 'Fire!' (1977)

Now here is a rarity for you. Fire! (1977) was actually a made for TV movie that found its way on a theatrical cinema release here in the UK. It went on release to ABC cinemas in 1978 and although you will never see it listed (if at all) as a great film by critics, it did thanks to its outstanding cast have a very gentle and winning charm.

It stars Ernest Borgnine (Bad Day at Black Rock & Marty (both 1955) as Sam Brisbane an all-round good fella who owns a lumber mill who needs to help the local community when nasty villain Neville Brand escapes from jail and decides to indulge himself into a bit of arson in an Oregon forest leading to a potential disaster for the nearby mountain community.

Thrown into this mix is a testy husband/wife relationship between Patty Duke and Alex Cord, a teacher (Donna Mills) who made the fateful decision to take her children onto a class outing and the fact that Sam loves (and has always loved) widowed Vera Miles , who says that it is too late to do anything about it.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that Fire! comes from Producer Irwin Allen who was regarded as ‘The Master of Disaster’ after his huge hits The Poseidon Adventure (1972) & The Towering Inferno (1974). Most kids of my generation will recall his TV work such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and Fire follows on from his disaster movie legacy.

What though makes this film stand out from the others is the cracking cast and as they take it seriously, so too do you. The chemistry between Borgnine and Miles is really warm and you can believe that they are aged lovers kept apart from each other until now . As the villain, Neville Brand is at his psychotic best. He was the genuine American character actor- you would see him popping up as a drugs counsellor in Kojak (1973-1978), Bonanza (1960-1970) or in Police Woman (1974-1978) but he was always good as a villain, thug or madman.

As irony would have it, when I saw Fire! the pre programme music in the cinema was Sam , the Olivia Newton John song that was unrelated to the film but acted as a very pleasant warm up –it got to No 6 in the UK charts in 1977.