Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thunder Rock (1942), John & Roy Boulting, with Michael Redgrave, James Mason, Barbara Mullen

The Boulting Brothers' (John & Roy) debut film, Thunder Rock (UK/1942) has been on my to-see list since about 1978 or 1979, making it a 30-plus-year quest. Oddly, the triumph of finally snaring it earlier this year via the download wonders of the internet was not accompanied by an immediate viewing. My head was at that time, and has been in other places, (probably mostly up my ass), with film viewing far from being a priority.

The film got on my list early thanks to the (overly) heavy influence in my formative cineaste years of Leslie Halliwell, who ranked it a particular favorite. So watching it two nights ago inevitably was accompanied by a slight disappointment, not that I really knew what to expect. And yet the vague feeling of letdown was salved somewhat by a sense of delighted surprise at how weird the film was -- and I mean Powell & Pressburger-style weirdness, and this before P&P's Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, and the rest.

The movie came from a 1939 play of pseudo-philosophic bent -- a flop in New York but a resonant hit in Britain during the war years -- and in the transfer from stage to screen there evidently were noticeable changes, with the historical flashbacks apparently taking up more of the film version's running time than was the case with the stage rendition. There are actually two sets of flashbacks in this; one detailing the lighthouse keeper's recent history as a globetrotting, crusading journalist and book author futilely trying to awaken the distracted British and the U.S. public to the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan. The other and longer set going back 90 years to the lives and fates of persecuted immigrants fleeing Europe for America on a packet steamer doomed to shipwreck during a Lake Michigan gale.

The story is weird in the telling and perhaps even weirder to convey in a short review. The Thunder Rock of the title is an isolated lighthouse plunked onto a barren rock in the middle of Lake Michigan due east-mortheast of Racine and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having lived in Milwaukee for four years during my college years it's hard to think of anything fairly close to that city as being mysterious. In this film it's almost made to seem as remote as King Kong's Skull Island. Maybe you had to be in Britain at the time to see it this way...

In short, our journalist martyr anti-isolationist hero, David Charleston (Michael Redgrave), has given up the game of crying wolf, resigned to world collapse, and retreated in his own form of defeatist isolation to the boring comfy post of lighthouse keeper on Thunder Rock. The story begins as civil service bureaucrats notice an odd discrepency in the government ledgers showing a seemingly impossible credit in its favor. They trace it to the fact that Charleston (waiting for the world to end and in no use of money) has not been cashing his paychecks. Officials board a pontoon biplane, with Charleston's level-headed adventure buddy Streeter (James Mason) in tow to help talk some sense into him.

Streeter's pep talks to rouse Charleston from his lethargy and get him to reengage with the world largely fall on deaf ears, making him even more adament at staying put. Charleston, it seems, has gone a bit off the deep end, obsessing over the contents of a placard commemorating an 1849 shipwreck in which a steamer carrying immigrants from the old world sank only yards from the present lighthouse, with the loss of all 60 hands and crew. In pondering their fates, and trying to understand why (like him) they ran from persecution, he begins to conjure an elaborate fantasy in which he believes he actually sees their ghosts and their lives reincarnate. His main ally in this is the ghost of the ship's captain, who, like Streeter, seems given to straight talk and who vigorously criticizes Charleston's self pity and misplaced idealism about the immigrants. Charleston's constructs of the immigrants lives, it seems, are prim and shallow, and the captain lets him know it, guiding him, a la Dicken's A Christmas Carol, to flashbacks showing them as they really were, warts and all, and mainly showing him the courage that they had, to fight and to act, in contrast to Charleston.

This is all very interesting, but it is here that Thunder Rock founders on the rocks of mixed messages. The playwright or the screenplay writers at some point get themselves into a bit of a sticky wicket by suggesting that these courageous immigrants from persecution are somehow cowards for not staying in the old world and fighting (thus, facing almost certain misery and death) rather than starting anew and planting their ideals in the new world. It's an absurd conceit and it seems adopted as a way to rather lunkheadedly mirror Charleston's cowardice and resignation. To say the least, it does not work, nor does the Leni Reifenstahl like iconography at the end of Charleston silhouetted heroically against the clouds as he moves forth again into the world.

The film's rather lumpen contrasts are sometimes embarassing. In a scene set in a movie theater, the earnest Charleston (in flashback) seats himself, rapt in the newreels about Hitler entering the Sudentenland and annoyed by the boredom and distraction of his fellow film patrons, all of whom perk up when the Popeye cartoon unreels to let them laugh their troubles away. Interestingly, in Preston Sturges' film of the same year, Sullivan's Travels, we are told that this is a good thing.

David Shipman, in his marvelously bitchy The Story of Cinema, calls the film meretricious for acting high and mighty in hindsight ("see I told you so"), and I definitely see his point. Also, the idea of chiding the audience for being a bunch of dumb asses (though it may be true) as a way of rousing its patriotic fervor is fraught with peril (you were all stupid and blind, but you won't make that mistake again)... I won't even go there.

Thunder Rock is filled with plenty of what must have been considered thought-provoking philosophic meat at the time, and indeed its quirkiness and vivid historical reenactments make for a good show, as do the beautiful performances of Frederick Valk as a visionary physician hounded for his early adoption of anesthetic and Barbara Mullen as a feminist suffragette. This latter story, though somewhat pedantic in presentation, is also very moving and surprisingly enlightened, though perhaps not so much when one realizes how much "man's work" women were called upon to do during the war years.

Despite the absurdities of its central, misguided argument, the film is a memorable, little-discussed gem. Some will either find its period prejudices charming or recoil in horror at same. I'm thinking specifically of a slimy Japanese delegate, made-up ridiculously and played very broadly by an obviously non-Asian actor.

James Mason-o-philes might be under the impression that he's in the film a lot. He isn't, but hits bullseye early on. The lighthouse also does not figure in the film as much as I thought it would. Other impressions I got while watching included reminiscences of the supernatural elements in the 1941 film version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, though it is unlikely that that film could have had any influence over the ghostly distortion effects in this due to the closeness of their production dates. Finley Currie was kind of a perfect type for a sea captain, hawk-nosed and weathered and gruff, a bit of a contrast to Rex Harrison's urbane curmudgeonly ghostly sea captain in 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Hitchcock probably would have loved the model work, which is obvious but well enough done to add charm rather than to detract.

Grade: B

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