Welcome to the latest installment of Hidden Treasures. By the way, there’s still room for one more movie in this month’s guest Hidden Treasures. For more information on how to submit your favorite film, click here
Gunga Din (1939)
When director George Stevens first read the script for Gunga Din, he was shocked to learn that the majority of the movie, which centered on a famous 19th century battle in British India, was slated to be shot indoors. Relying on his instincts, Stevens went before the bosses at RKO and said “I need a half million dollars to take this story outside”. The studio agreed, and Stevens brought in some additional writers to make the necessary script adjustments. It proved to be a stroke of genius. With action and excitement at every turn, there wasn’t a soundstage in Hollywood that could have possibly contained Gunga Din. Sgts. Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are loyal British soldiers stationed in India. All three are willing to do whatever it takes to defend Queen and Country…as long as they can have some fun while doing so. When Ballantine announces that he’s leaving the service to marry Ms. Emaline Stebens (Joan Fontaine), his two comrades convince him to sign up for one last adventure before packing it in. So, it’s off to Tantrupar, where a Hindu cult known as the Thuggees are planning an uprising against the colonial British army. Gunga Din’s action scenes, as staged by director Stevens, are spectacular. In one early battle, the three sergeants, heavily outnumbered, take on the opposing forces single-handedly. They start out with some hand-to-hand combat before moving to the rooftops, where they exchange gunfire with the enemy army below. While on this roof, the three discover a cache of dynamite, and before long, they’re tossing it into the enemy ranks, taking out large pockets of the opposing army while blowing up half the town in the process. Once they’ve done all they can do, Cutter, McChesney and Ballantine make their escape by jumping off a huge cliff, landing in the river below. Effective as an action film, a buddy movie, and a humorous look at army life, Gunga Din is still, almost 70 years later, an extremely entertaining film.
Russian Ark (2002)
Every so often, a film comes along that, by way of its startling boldness and courageous technique, demands recognition. Russian Ark is just such a film. There is not a single cut, fade or dissolve in this entire movie, not a single editor’s splice to be found anywhere. Shot on location at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, it is, at 90 minutes, one of the longest uninterrupted shots in cinematic history. We follow the film’s narrator (represented by the camera in a continuous point-of-view perspective) as he navigates the halls of the Hermitage, mystically traveling through time as he does so. Functioning as our guide to this wonderful retelling of Russian history, which covers the events of yesteryear ranging from the reign of 18th century ruler, Peter the Great (Maxim Sergeyev) right up to World War II, the narrator eventually crosses paths with a French aristocrat from the 19th Century (Sergei Dontsov), known only as the Marquis de Custine, who also seems to be traveling through time. A scathing critic of Russian art and history, the Marquis joins the narrator on this journey of discovery, stopping every so often to admire the beautiful artwork that adorns the walls of the Hermitage. Russian Ark contains scenes of both sweeping grandeur (such as the ballroom dance, which features no less than three performing orchestras) and quiet simplicity (in one marvelous sequence, we follow Anastasia, the daughter of Nicholas II, as she playfully runs through the hallway with several ethereal friends). I was left completely overwhelmed by the experience of watching Russian Ark. I bathed in its artistic beauty, was enraptured by its grand scope, and basked in the glow of a bright and courageous filmmaker, one who pulled off an amazing feat of creation. The cinematic accomplishments of Russian Ark are enough in and of themselves to assure the movie a place in the annals of film history. The fact that it is a work of art as well makes its existence an absolute miracle.
Short Cuts (1993)
If you gave Robert Altman a huge cast, he could perform miracles. He did so many times throughout his career, with films such as Nashville, The Player, and even Gosford Park. Well, after watching his 1993 film, Short Cuts, I can safely say that the great director had done it again. No synopsis of Short Cuts could possibly be complete, seeing as the film details the lives of 22 Los Angeles residents, all of whose paths cross, one way or another, over the course of a few days. The main thrust of the story begins with a traffic accident, in which Doreen (Lily Tomin), a waitress, accidentally hits young Casey Finnegan (Lane Cassidy) with her car. Shortly afterwards, the boy falls into a coma, and his parents, Ann and Howard (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison), who had been busy planning Casey’s birthday party, find themselves wondering if their son will even live to see his eighth birthday. Events are further complicated when Howard’s estranged father, Paul (Jack Lemmon), shows up unexpectedly at the hospital, hoping to explain to his son why he and Howard’s mother divorced many years earlier. But this is only scratching the surface. There’s so much more to this film: more drama, more emotion, and many, many more stars. There’s Dr. Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), the physician who treats young Casey shortly after his accident, and whose wife, Marian (Julianne Moore), is an artist. At a neighborhood playhouse, the doctor and his wife meet Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), an unemployed salesman, and his wife, Claire (Anne Archer), who works as a clown for children’s parties. There’s Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn), who cleans pools for a living, and his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works as a phone sex operator, getting guys off as she changes the baby’s diaper or sets the dinner table. Arrogant policeman Gene (Tim Robbins) is cheating on his wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) with Betty (Frances McDormand) whose ex-husband Stormy (Peter Gallagher) is trying to win her back. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Not to worry. This is Robert Altman, the best in the business when it comes to juggling jam-packed stories. In his typical fashion, the director leaves no stone unturned, and no matter how many twists Short Cuts ultimately took, Altman ensured that no character was left behind.