WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Travel

Category: Movies and TV (Page 1 of 2)

Collective memory and space movies

Not very many films have been made about real-life space travel. Flying a rocket into space is always dangerous, but it usually doesn’t make for good story material. Spaceflight is clinical, precise, and often boring. It offers filmmakers little in the way of conflict. Something goes wrong on every space mission, but the vast majority of them end happily. Fictional space films set in the near-future and using recognizable hardware usually over-compensate for the relative safety of space travel by killing off large numbers of astronauts in their stories. (Most recent example: Gravity [2013].)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Let’s take a look about two non-fiction space films that cover a similar subject from very different angles: The Right Stuff (1983) and Hidden Figures (2016). The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book by the same name. It is a long, sprawling epic about flight testing and the beginning of NASA’s space program in the 1960s. Although the book has a more serious, reflective tone, the movie Right Stuff is written almost like a cartoon, with the paparazzi and Vice President Johnson being especially over-the-top. There are many factual inaccuracies in the movie, but it is also quite fun to watch for the most part. The movie was hugely influential for developing the visual language of spaceflight and heroism in a high-tech era.

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

In the Right Stuff book, Tom Wolfe explored the masculine world of flight-testing and spaceflight, and tried to understand how and why the early astronauts were made into heroes. The movie is less self-aware, instead taking the astronauts’ heroism at face-value. It un-self-consciously portrays a sexist, racist time, and some parts are hard to watch now.

A completely different perspective is given by the recent Hidden Figures. While The Right Stuff wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test—and forget about portrayals of people of color in it—Hidden Figures is about three African-American women working at NASA Langley in Virginia in the early sixties. The characters (composites of actual women whose factual stories are explored in a book by the same name) perform the calculations that allow the first Americans to fly into space and return home safely.

The black computers of Hidden Figures in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

The human computers of Hidden Figures watching a space mission in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures is very much a product of its time, when Americans are being more reflective about race and gender inequalities. The story of black human computers (as the characters of Hidden Figures were called) would never have been told in a major feature film in 1983, much less in the early sixties. The film’s approach to race is a little sentimental, but overall I thought the movie was very well written and a good watch.

Apart from portraying social dynamics very differently from each other, the films also diverge in their portrayals of the technology of early space travel itself. In this respect, the otherwise cartoonish Right Stuff is much more accurate than Hidden Figures. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because it portrayed events that were much more in living memory in 1983 than in 2016. More than half of Americans alive in the early eighties would have remembered the early sixties, but a much smaller portion of the population would have remembered back that far by the mid-2010s.

Living memory of the early space age, combined with strategic use of stock footage to save production costs, meant that The Right Stuff faithfully portrayed the Mercury spacecraft, pressure suits, buildings, and control equipment of the era.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreate early NASA publicity photographs.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreating an early NASA publicity photograph. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

Hidden Figures didn’t need to be as faithful. Several times while watching it, I suppressed a groan in response to inaccurate set design or portrayal of some other aspect of the technology. (The launch gantry for the Mercury-Atlas rocket was especially unfaithful to the original.) The filmmakers even depended on their audience’s not knowing the technology. At the beginning of the movie, the flight of a CGI Russian rocket is intercut with NASA engineers at ground control. The audience is supposed to think that this is a NASA rocket, until at the end of the scene the rocket rolls and—surprise!—there is a big hammer-and-sickle on the other side. (The surprise was lost on me because I recognized it as a Russian rocket from the start. The filmmakers were depending on most of their viewers’ not having built model rockets of that design as kids.) In reality, the Soviet rockets of the time didn’t have such big hammer-and-sickles on them, but the filmmakers needed to add this detail so the audience would know what they were looking at.

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The further we get from historical events, the more our collective memory of them becomes fuzzy. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because the events it was portraying were more in living memory. Hidden Figures didn’t need to be that accurate, and it even needed to change some details in order to tell things to the audience that The Right Stuff’s audience would simply have known.

Blood in the canal

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Mother India is a monumental and deeply disturbing film. (Spoilers ahead!) Released in 1957, ten years after the Partition of India and independence, the film features Bombay leading lady Nargis as Radha, the mother of a family and an archetype of Indian motherhood. When the film opens, it is the present day (the mid-fifties), and a canal has just been completed. Radha, the oldest resident of the village nearby, is given the honor of pulling a rope to release water into the canal at the dedication ceremony.

As Radha is grasping the rope and just about to pull it, the narrative shifts back to when Radha was a young woman and a newly-married bride. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this flashback. Radha’s adult life is a series of calamities: her husband loses his arms in a farming accident and abandons the family to die alone, the village is washed away in a flood, and Radha’s baby is killed. Then when Radha’s two surviving sons grow up, Birju, the ever-rebellious younger son, terrorizes the villagers and turns to a life of banditry. Birju murders the village landlord, and in the end Radha herself wields a rifle to shoot her wicked son and end his reign of terror once and for all.

After Birju dies in his mother’s arms, the flashback ends, and Radha is back at the dedication of the canal. She pulls the rope, and water rolls through canal’s gate—red at first, then clear. And thus the film ends.

Why is the water in the canal red? Because the scene takes place immediately after the son’s death, it is clear that the red water is a symbol of Birju’s blood, shed for the good of the village. To me, the red water in the canal has a broader significance as well, and it is this—more the kin-murder—that makes the film so disturbing.

I read Mother India as a metaphor of socialist nation-building. Birju’s murdering the landlord represents land reform. In turn, Radha’s killing Birju refers to the rooting out of dissident anti-national elements to create a homogeneous socialist society. This happened on a large scale in China and the Soviet Union, and on a smaller scale in India. As in the large communist countries, the Indian government suppressed certain indigenous and other non-mainstream communities in the interest of national unity.1 India’s socialist development also dispossessed untold millions of villagers as land was cleared for infrastructural projects such as the canal that Radha dedicates. These people’s blood is also in Mother India’s canal.

  1. To be fair, capitalism could be just as destructive of non-mainstream communities. Consider the systematic destruction of Native American communities during westward expansion in the United States. []

Good action and bad stereotypes on the Northwest Frontier

I recently watched the 1959 British movie North West Frontier, which was released in the United States under the title Flame over India. The movie is about a team of colonialists (including one American, played by Lauren Bacall) who, along with a couple of trusted Indians, spirit a rajkumar (prince) out of harm’s way when a native state is overwhelmed by rebels in early twentieth-century India. Most of the action takes place in and around a train, powered by a shunting locomotive, which is used to bring the prince to safety. I must say that I enjoyed the film for the most part. With one very notable exception, the movie holds up well after all of these years. The plot is interesting and the pacing is particularly good. There are also some impressive location shots.

The plucky locomotive that saves the day in North West Frontier.

The plucky locomotive that saves the day in North West Frontier.

My favorite part of the movie is the first ten minutes, during which the rebels attack and kill the raja, while the rajkumar and his caretakers narrowly escape. Hundreds of refugees swarm into the British fortress before the doors are forced shut, leaving hundreds more stranded outside. The scene is dramatically shot, with a huge cast of extras. Except for opening narration, the first ten minutes have no dialogue. The action carries the story forward.

The rebels attack.

The rebels attack.

Even though the story is set somewhere in the North-West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan, the opening scene was shot around Jaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is very identifiable for those familiar with the area. The raja’s palace is Jal Mahal, an iconic lake palace visible from the road to the old capital of Amber. In the 1950s, the lake was low and Jal Mahal stood on dry ground, allowing the stuntmen rebels’ horses to gallop right up to it. Since then, the dam has been refurbished and the palace once again appears to float in the lake.

Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal Sagar, missing much of its water.

Jal Mahal Sagar, missing much of its water.

Jal Mahal after the restoration of the reservoir.

Jal Mahal after the restoration of the reservoir.

The British fortress is none other than Amber Fort, one of India’s most famous castles. It was built over the course of a more than a century, starting in the 1590s. In 2013, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Approach to Amber Fort.

Approach to Amber Fort.

Refugees on the path to Amber Fort.

Refugees on the path to Amber Fort.

The courtyard of Amber Fort.

The courtyard of Amber Fort.

Also in Amber, there are views Jagat Shiromaniji Temple (built 1599-1608), Charan Mandir, and a lake behind Jaigarh fort.

The heroes at Charan Mandir.

The heroes at Charan Mandir.

A rebel gunman scenically located in front of Jagat Shiromaniji Temple.

A rebel gunman scenically located in front of Jagat Shiromaniji Temple.

A lake behind Jaigarh and Amber Forts.

A lake behind Jaigarh and Amber Forts.

The heroes’ approach to the British fort gets a little distracting for those familiar with Amber, because they take a route that doesn’t make sense. They head north through a valley on the back side of the fort, then cross the ridgeline south of the fort, and yet somehow manage to arrive at the front gate on the east side.

Most of the train scenes were actually shot in Spain, although the Spanish landscape is enough like Rajasthan to be believable. The train spends plenty of time passing through a valley that made me think of taking Amtrak through the California Central Valley, with the high Sierra in the background.

The one respect in which the film is really dated is its religious stereotyping. The rajkumar, Prince Kishan, is Hindu; the rebels who storm his kingdom and slaughter his father are Muslims. The rebels intercept the train at various points in the story, sometimes galloping up on horseback like Comanches in a western movie. There is also a Muslim character on the train, who turns out to be the story’s chief antagonist, apart from the faceless rebels. Mr. Van Leyden is a journalist who insinuates himself into the train’s crew. After he refuses whiskey, another character asks him if he is Muslim, and he admits that he is. He claims that he is of mixed Indonesian-Dutch heritage – hence his name. The story leaves it unclear whether this is actually the case, because later Van Leyden claims to be half-Indian and fighting for the freedom of his nation, an all-Muslim nation. In his makeup for the role, Herbert Lom, the Czech-born actor who plays Van Leyden, looks credibly half-Indonesian. He does not look half-Indian.

Herbert Lom as the menacing Mr. Van Leyden.

Herbert Lom as the menacing Mr. Van Leyden.

From his position in the train’s crew, Mr. Van Leyden tries to assassinate Prince Kishan. He fails and is defeated in the film’s climax. If Mr. Van Leyden really is half-Indian, the stereotyping of Indian Muslims all as rebels is bad enough. But if he is half-Indonesian, then this is most problematic because it suggests that all Muslims are like him and have a similarly violent nationalist or pan-nationalist agenda.

Mr. Van Leyden is the one postcolonial voice in the cast. When the British leader of the expedition, the daring Captain Scott (Kenneth More), dismisses the rebels as children, a standard colonial trope, Van Leyden retorts that they are grown men – uneducated, yes, but men nonetheless. Van Leyden represents the educated, privileged elite of colonized nations, who were proud of their nation but had also absorbed colonial critiques of it. The character has several good lines in the movie, but unfortunately his ideas are all discredited by his revelation as the villain.

No Muslim characters are portrayed positively in the movie. That this movie isn’t just a colonial fantasy becomes clear in one scene. At the beginning of the movie, the last regular train makes it out of the besieged city; later, the special train carrying Prince Kishan comes across the first train stopped at a station. Its passengers have been killed to a man. Lauren Bacall’s character walks through the three train cars, full of corpses with flies buzzing about them, as vultures flock overhead. The scene is dramatic, and part of what makes it so chilling is how real it is. The film was made only twelve years after Partition, when exactly this happened. In the movie, Muslims kill a trainload of Hindus. In real life, adherents of both religions killed members of the other religion in huge numbers. In the movie, Hindus are portrayed as totally nonviolent – or in the case of the soldiers on the train, acting only in self-defense. As history would show, Hindus could be just as violent as Muslims.

Partition-esque train.

Partition-esque train.

It is this bad portrayal of Muslims that has kept North-West Frontier from becoming a classic, and rightly so, because in America and India (and definitely other parts of the world), the last thing we need is more negative portrayals of Muslims. It’s a shame too, because the film is good otherwise.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén