Nothing But a Man (1964)

Nothing But a Man (1964)

“It’s hard to know how to talk to the white folks these days.”

Synopsis:
When a railroad employee (Ivan Dixon) marries the daughter (Abbey Lincoln) of a preacher (Stanley Greene) in a small Southern town, their life as newlyweds quickly becomes increasingly complicated as Dixon struggles to stay employed due to pernicious racism.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Deep South
  • Marital Problems
  • Newlyweds
  • Racism and Race Relations

Review:
German-born documentarian Michael Roemer helmed this groundbreaking look at the impacts of systemic racism on Black Americans in 1960s Alabama. By telling the story of “everyman” Duff Anderson (Dixon), we see what occurs when a person is unable to secure reasonably paid work that allows them to maintain dignity and self-respect.

While there may be plenty of work to be had, it’s low-paid and always comes at some psychological cost: Lincoln’s successful father (Greene), for instance, is shown acquiescing to the white church elder he reports to:

… while Dixon’s co-worker is openly demeaned by their white foreman (who is clearly pissed off that Dixon won’t similarly kowtow to him).

Women in this world, meanwhile, are relegated to roles as either a prostitute:

… a loyal wife and mother, a caretaker, or a classroom teacher (Lincoln’s position).

Lincoln is clearly attracted to and intrigued by the smart, independent man (Dixon) who is courting her, and boldly decides to take a chance on him against her father’s wishes. However, Dixon’s attempts to convince his co-workers they’re being mistreated (“You know… if you fellows stuck together instead of letting them walk all over you, they might not try it.”) quickly leads to not only his expulsion from the company, but a smear campaign and an inability to find any work at all that pays more than survival wages.

Perhaps most powerfully, we see the ripple effect of unjust treatment in the workplace on families and communities: when an employee is shamed by their boss or customers, that almost inevitably trickles down to loved ones at home, who must take the brunt of the person’s shame and anger.

Lincoln is eventually put into this position — but first we see Dixon witnessing this first-hand himself while visiting the home of his alcoholic father (Julius Harris), where his father’s girlfriend (Gloria Foster) is holding up their meager household on every front.

We also learn that Dixon may have fathered a young boy being cared for by an overwhelmed woman (Helen Lounck) who shares that the boy’s mother has run away to get married, and she herself ain’t “got no use for him, neither.”

An ongoing question throughout the film is whether Dixon will reject his father’s cowardly way of being and choose to “do the right thing” by his son, his wife, and his unborn new child (though what this “right thing” is remains elusive other than simply not abandoning them). All of this is undeniably rough to watch — but the film remains a powerful neo-realist depiction of Black Southern communities in the 1960s, and is must-see viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Ivan Dixon as Duff Anderson
  • Fine cinema verite cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique American independent film. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1993 by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Two for the Seesaw (1962)

Two for the Seesaw (1962)

“You do all the giving — because what I have to give, you don’t want.”

Synopsis:
A lawyer (Robert Mitchum) separated from his wife back in Nebraska begins dating a quirky young woman (Shirley MacLaine) he meets in New York City, and the two begin a rocky, unconventional romance.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Divorce
  • New York City
  • Play Adaptation
  • Robert Mitchum Films
  • Robert Wise Films
  • Romance
  • Shirley MacLaine Films

Review:
Robert Wise directed this adaptation of a play by William Gibson (originally starring Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft) about an unconventional couple whose relationship is tinged throughout by doubt. The story is a simple but nicely told tale of two adults who value one another while recognizing their challenges and differences — and we’re left in suspense about how things will end for them.

It’s not must-see viewing, but it’s worth a one-time look for fans of the stars (who embarked upon a three-year romance in real life after meeting on this set, and demonstrate some genuine chemistry).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Shirley MacLaine as Gittel
  • Ted McCord’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Becket (1964)

Becket (1964)

“One can always come to a sensible little agreement with God.”

Synopsis:
When King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) appoints his best friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) as Archbishop of Canterbury, he soon finds that Burton’s loyalty to God is stronger than their friendship.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Friendship
  • Historical Drama
  • John Gielgud Films
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Religious Faith
  • Revenge
  • Richard Burton Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Peter Glenville’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s French play won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (by Edward Anhalt), and was nominated for 11 other awards. It remains a surprisingly compelling character study of friendship, loyalty, leadership, politics, revenge, and spirituality, with King Henry’s toxic narcissism — he needs to be on top, and considers himself more important even than God — as a driving thematic force. One watches with deep discomfort during the first portion of the film as Henry conscripts Becket into his every whim, including planning to bed a young courtesan (Siân Phillips) he knows Becket is romantically involved with:

… and culminating with his insistence that Becket take on the role of Archbishop despite no training or qualifications, simply to suit his own political purposes. What ensues is a fascinating exploration of a concerted attempt to combat evil through integrity:

… and how a petulant tyrant may respond (which, of course, remains as relevant as ever). Watch for Pamela Brown as a put-upon Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine:

… Martita Hunt as Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda:

… Felix Aylmer as the aging Archbishop of Canterbury, who will soon be replaced:

… John Gielgud as King Louis VII of France:

… and Niall MacGinnis as one of the king’s barons.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as King Henry II (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Richard Burton as Lord Becket
  • Fine sets, costumes, and cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s well worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

“The English have a great hunger for desolate places; I fear they hunger for Arabia.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, British officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent by his commander (Donald Wolfit) to the Middle East, where he is tasked with convincing Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to fight against the Turks in the Arab Revolt. Once he arrives, Lawrence befriends a local man (Omar Sharif) and convinces a tribal chieftain (Anthony Quinn) to join their cause — but will Britain honor its promise that Arabia will eventually become free and independent?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • Anthony Quayle Films
  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Character Studies
  • Claude Rains Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Deserts
  • Historical Drama
  • Jack Hawkins Films
  • Jose Ferrer Films
  • Middle East
  • Omar Sharif Films
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • World War I

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning historical drama in his GFTFF, though he selects Peter O’Toole as the Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he writes that Lawrence of Arabia is “the rare epic that has exciting adventure, visual grandeur, and interesting psychological complexity.” In describing O’Toole’s performance, he notes that this character is the first of his “brilliant, bigger-than-life, flawed heroes (some would be royalty) who walk the fine line between humanity and godhood, and struggle to rationalize their godlike actions and attitudes.”

Indeed, O’Toole’s vibrant conception of T.E. Lawrence so thoroughly grounds the film that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role (though both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney were seriously considered). We see Lawrence evolving throughout the film, from an inexperienced would-be explorer (in real life, Lawrence had already done a walking tour across the Negev Desert) to someone radically shaping the course of history in the Middle East.

Lawrence’s fearless sense of right-versus-wrong serves him well when first meeting Sharif, who has the choice to kill him immediately, but doesn’t.

Their odd-couple friendship remains a powerful throughline in the film, underscoring the screenplay’s mild but clear homoerotic undertones — which are brought to a much more sinister level when Lawrence is held captive by Jose Ferrer’s evil Turkish Bey.

An equally prominent theme — one that disturbed many who knew the real Lawrence and other figures portrayed in the movie — is Lawrence’s growing discomfort with his own sadistic impulses. However, this is actually handled remarkably well in terms of showing us a man who recognizes the glee he takes in violence, yet feels an appropriate level of shame. How often do we see that portrayed on film? Not enough.

Indeed, for a wartime adventure flick with plenty of heart-stopping moments — including Lawrence shooting a man (I.S. Johar) he just risked his life to rescue:

… a train being blown up:

… one of Lawrence’s assistants (John Dimech) drowning in quicksand (a truly horrifying sequence):

… and a particularly bloody battle at Damascus:

… this film provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on Lawrence’s character arc, particularly as he travels back and forth to England.

It’s refreshing to see Egyptian movie star Sharif giving such a fine performance in his Hollywood debut as a fictionalized amalgam of various Arabs Lawrence befriended and worked with; meanwhile, well-played supporting roles (of both real-life and fictional figures) include Alec Guinness as Price Faisel (Guinness purportedly spent a couple of hours talking with Sharif, and gleaned an accent from him):

… Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi:

… and Arthur Kennedy as a fictional journalist named Jackson Bentley (based on Lowell Thomas).

There are a lot of players in this film, and chances are most viewers won’t be familiar with the nuances of this particular historical milieu — so don’t be embarrassed to pause and go read FilmSite’s detailed overview of the movie if you ever feel lost; I’ll confess to doing this. And be forewarned that as much as Lawrence was a champion for Arab independence, he inevitably comes across as a sort of white savior; this is very much a film made from a western perspective to glorify a British folk hero.

Note: There isn’t a single speaking part for a woman in this entire ~4 hour film; it couldn’t even take the Bechdel Test, let alone flunk it.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence
  • Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali
  • Numerous exciting action sequences
  • Stunning cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic epic.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

“There are two kinds of women — and you, as we well know, are not the first kind.”

Synopsis:
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, a doctor (Omar Sharif) married to the kind daughter (Geraldine Chaplin) of family friends falls in love with a young woman (Julie Christie) who is being abused by her older lover (Rod Steiger), and whose fiance (Tom Courtenay) is becoming an increasingly radical Bolshevik.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Geraldine Chaplin Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • Julie Christie Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Omar Sharif Films
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Revolutionaries
  • Rita Tushingham Films
  • Rod Steiger Films
  • Tom Courtenay Films
  • Writers

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this epic film by director David Lean — based on Boris Pasternak’s 592 page 1957 novel — in his GFTFF, but he does mention it briefly in his Alternate Oscars, where he asserts that it “comes across as lumbering, pedestrian, and artificial” and notes that “Omar Sharif’s heart attack sequence” is among “the most wretched in film history” (!). Upon my first rewatching of this Oscar-nominated historical drama since my teenage years, I was, unfortunately, also not very taken in. The sets and cinematography (by Freddy Young) are stunning, but the multi-faceted storyline — so complex in Pasternak’s novel that an intricated character map has been created — perhaps inevitably covers far too much territory, without digging meaningfully into character motivations.

Zhivago himself, for instance, is a cipher, with Sharif simply staring out of his liquidy brown eyes most of the time:

… and while it’s clear that Christie’s character (Lara) has gotten herself enmeshed with a sociopathic monster (Steiger), we don’t really understand her back story, including her relationship with Courtenay (whose character is only very loosely limned).

Meanwhile, a major narrative challenge is that Sharif is married to kind Chaplin, and we can’t help disliking him immensely for harming her through infidelity.

While we’re supposed to root for this couple (Zhivago and Lara, who gets her own theme song), we simultaneously feel terrible about it. The gorgeous visuals are the primary reason to check out this phenomenally popular film, which is “the eighth-highest grossing movie of all time”.

Note: Watch for Klaus Kinski in a brief but memorable role as a haunted soldier.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Rod Steiger as Komarovsky
  • Beautiful sets, costumes, and location filming
  • Freddy Young’s cinematography
  • Maurice Jarre’s instantly memorable score

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a one time look for its historical relevance.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

“I know this game backwards.”

Synopsis:
In the summer of 1912, a miserly retired actor (Ralph Richardson) and his morphine-addicted wife (Katharine Hepburn) interact with their alcoholic older son (Jason Robards, Jr.) and consumptive younger son (Dean Stockwell).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Dean Stockwell Films
  • Family Problems
  • Grown Children
  • Jason Robards, Jr. Films
  • Katharine Hepburn Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Sidney Lumet Films

Review:
Sidney Lumet directed this first screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1957 semi-autobiographical Broadway play, widely considered his magnum opus. Shot in sequence after three weeks of rehearsal, it tells a harsh, intentionally claustrophobic tale of deep-seated family dysfunctions emerging over the course of one “long day”. Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Mary Tyrone, a matriarch prescribed morphine upon the challenging birth of her third son (after the early loss of her second) — and to that end, the central theme of a family member who becomes unwittingly addicted to prescription drugs (and simply can’t quit them) rings remarkably true and current.

Meanwhile, the tensions that inevitably emerge whenever grown children return to their parents’ household are shown in full force, with choices around money playing a particularly relevant role. To the credit of everyone involved in this production — from (deceased) O’Neill to Lumet, to the powerful cast, composer André Previn, and a highly capable crew — this undeniable downer of a story never lags, and remains surprisingly compelling throughout its nearly 3-hour running time. While it’s not for all tastes, film fanatics will likely appreciate watching it at least once.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Mary
  • Ralph Richardson as James Tyrone
  • Dean Stockwell as Edmund
  • Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie
  • Boris Kaufman’s cinematography
  • André Previn’s intriguing score

Must See?
Yes, as a powerfully filmed adaptation of a classic American play. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Room With a View, A (1985)

Room With a View, A (1985)

“He’s the sort who can’t know anyone intimately, least of all a woman.”

Synopsis:
When a British woman (Helena Bonham Carter) travelling in Italy with her spinster aunt (Maggie Smith) encounters a free-spirited young man (Julian Sands) staying with his father (Denholm Elliott) in the same rooming house, she becomes confused about her feelings for Sands, and rushes into a formal engagement with her priggish suitor (Daniel Day-Lewis) once she’s back home.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Coming of Age
  • Historical Drama
  • Love Triangle
  • Maggie Smith Films
  • Merchant Ivory Films
  • Romantic Comedy

Review:
Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel — scripted by their longtime collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — was their breakthrough box office success, earning them 8 Oscar nominations (it won 3 — for costume design, art direction, and adapted screenplay). It also offered Helena Bonham Carter her first major role — and she’s perfectly cast as a sheltered but passionate young woman whose sexual awakening and coming of age are precipitated by two key events in Italy: witnessing a brutal stabbing on the streets of Florence, and being kissed in a field by Sands.

She gradually comes to realize that the man she believes she should marry (Day-Lewis) is nothing close to who she actually wants to be with:

… though it’s far from easy for her to acknowledge this openly — a tension which drives the entire screenplay. While the storyline is rather thin in major plot points, it’s richly textured, and populated by numerous quirky supporting characters — including Maggie Smith as Lucy’s manipulative aunt:

… Simon Callow as a local reverend who seems to always be hovering around the periphery of events:

… Judi Dench as the novelist “Eleanor Lavish”:

… Denholm Elliott as Sands’ father, “Mr. Emerson”:

… and Rupert Graves (in his debut role) as Lucy’s hyper-active brother. (The scene in which he, Sands, and Callow frolic nude in the lake is refreshingly unfiltered.)

Day-Lewis’s snobby “Cecil Vyse” — played for laughs — is ultimately too outrageous to generate much sympathy; but we fall for gorgeous Sands, and are glad to see him returning time and again into Lucy’s life: this is a romantic pairing we very much want to see succeed.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch
  • Julian Sands as George Emerson
  • Fine cinematography and location shooting

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, The (1967)

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, The (1967)

“I’ll send flowers.”

Synopsis:
During the height of the Prohibition era, Chicagoland gangster Al Capone (Jason Robards) plots to kill his rival, Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bruce Dern Films
  • Gangsters
  • George Segal Films
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Prohibition Era
  • Ralph Meeker Films
  • Roger Corman Films

Review:
B-movie producer/director Roger Corman was given a substantial budget and studio backing (from 20th Century Fox) to make this “authentic” docudrama flick about one of the most notorious mass murders in gang warfare history. As Paul Frees’ voiceover narration helpfully informs us during the film’s opening shots:

In the years following the passage of the National Prohibition Act of 1920, the nation’s underworld rises to power and battles amongst itself, just as modern nations and corporations do. Open periods of gang warfare are followed by peace treaties, and attempts at consolidation and monopoly, each of which is shattered as new warfare erupts in quest of the booming bootlegging and vice profits. By 1929, the gangs of Chicago operate 21,207 speakeasies, and their gross income reaches $357 million. 618 members of the city’s underworld are murdered within nine years. Corruption extends from the mayor’s office to the humblest side-street speakeasy.

Robards was given a hard time for looking nothing like the actual Al Capone (Orson Welles was the original choice), but he’s effectively surly as the murderous kingpin who will stop at nothing to see his nemesis destroyed:

… and Meeker seems reasonably well-cast as Bugs Moran.

Meanwhile, throughout the film, the voiceover narration provides us with information about each of the leader’s various followers. Peter Gusenberg (George Segal), for instance, is described thusly:

Peter Gusenberg: born Chicago, Illinois, September 22 of 1898. Ex-convict. Mail-robber. Burglar. Hijacker. Professional killer. When, at the age of 13, he came home from school to find his mother dead, his first act was to pry the wedding ring from her finger and pawn it.

… and John May (Bruce Dern) gets the following description.

John May: born Chicago, Illinois, September 28, 1897. Married. Seven children. Twice arrested on charges of safe-blowing and burglary. No convictions. Has worked occasionally for the Moran gang as an auto mechanic. He has promised his wife he will stay out of further trouble with the law, but he is three months behind in the rent.

For others, we’re informed about the cause and date of their eventual demise as well:

Francesco Nittoni, alias Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti: born Montedoro, Sicily, January 9, 1887. Nitti is in charge of the Capone organization’s punishment squad, made up of accomplished strong-arm men and professional killers. On March 19, 1943, while under indictment for income tax evasion, Nitti will use a gun for the last time, to take his own life.

There are a lot of supporting characters in this tale — but history buffs interested in tracking it all will likely find it engaging. Meanwhile, all-purpose film fanatics may enjoy briefly spotting both Jack Nicholson (see him there?):

… and (of course) Dick Miller.

And, naturally, there’s plenty of violence to be had.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography
  • Lionel Newman and Fred Steiner’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Greatest Story Ever Told, The (1965)

Greatest Story Ever Told, The (1965)

“Come with me; I will make you fishers of men.”

Synopsis:
Despite a proclamation by King Herod (Claude Rains) to kill all newborn boys in Bethlehem, Mary (Dorothy McGuire) gives birth to her son Jesus, who grows up to become a spiritual leader (Max von Sydow).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Angela Lansbury Films
  • Biblical Stories
  • Carroll Baker Films
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Christianity
  • Claude Rains Films
  • Donald Pleasence Films
  • Dorothy McGuire Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • George Stevens Films
  • Janet Margolin Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Jose Ferrer Films
  • Martin Landau Films
  • Max von Sydow Films
  • Paul Stewart Films
  • Richard Conte Films
  • Roddy McDowall Films
  • Sal Mineo Films
  • Shelley Winters Films
  • Sidney Poitier Films
  • Telly Savalas Films
  • Van Heflin Films

Review:
In between helming The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and The Only Game in Town (1970) (his final film), George Stevens directed this lengthy, meticulously crafted ensemble tale about the life of Jesus Christ, filmed largely on location in the American Southwest. Anyone who’s attended Sunday School will instantly recognize all the tales told here, especially given how much of the language seems to be taken directly from the Scriptures — and it’s easy to see how Christians would appreciate this sincere and visually impressive dramatization of their holy book. Indeed, this film’s scale is truly epic, featuring gorgeous Ultra Panavision cinematography by William C. Mellor, and cameo roles for seemingly dozens of big-name Hollywood stars.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow made his American debut as the lead figure, offering an impressively human portrayal as perhaps the most famous and beloved individual of all time.

Other relatively significant roles in the narrative are played by Jose Ferrer as King Herod’s son, Herod Antipas:

… Charlton Heston as John the Baptist:

… Telly Savalas (who shaved his head for this role, and continued doing so ever after) as Pontius Pilate:

… and Gary Raymond as Peter.

Other appearances — some for several scenes, others for literally seconds (if that) — include Dorothy McGuire as Mary:

… Donald Pleasence as the Devil (who tries to tempt Jesus during his fast in the desert):

… Sal Mineo as a crippled man cured by a miracle:

… Claude Rains (in his final role) as King Herod:

… Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene:

… and, perhaps most infamously, Shelley Winters as a “Woman Who Is Healed”:

… plus John Wayne speaking a single line in his iconic drawl near the end of the film: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

Other than von Sydow, my favorite performance is by David McCallum as a sorrowful Judas (though, as is the case across the board in this film, we don’t learn enough about him).

See the list of Actors above (or on IMDb) for an even more exhaustive list of who appears at some point.

Unfortunately, while Stevens’ film is entirely earnest — and gorgeous to look at — it’s lengthy, often slow, and not all that compelling as a cinematic narrative (there are no “plot twists” for anyone reasonably familiar with the arc of Jesus’s life). According to TCM’s article, the film wasn’t commercially successful at all — in fact, “audiences stayed away in droves, making The Greatest Story Ever Told the greatest financial flop ever made until the release of Heaven’s Gate in 1980.” However, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, and, not surprisingly, became “a popular rental film at churches, schools, and film societies in the non-theatrical market.”

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ
  • Beautiful Panavision cinematography

  • Alfred Newman’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended simply for von Sydow’s performance, and for its historical significance.

Links:

Greatest, The (1977)

Greatest, The (1977)

“I’m known as Muhammad Ali; Cassius Clay is dead.”

Synopsis:
Muhammad Ali (playing himself) reflects back on his life as a young man (Chip McAllister) and a rising boxing star, as he converts to Islam, refuses to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and receives support from his manager (Lloyd Haynes), trainer (Ernest Borgnine), and physician (John Marley).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Biopic
  • Boxing
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • Robert Duvall Films

Review:
Muhammad Ali starred as himself in this adaptation of his 1975 autobiography of the same name (which was purportedly heavily influenced by his manager, Herbert Muhammad). Indeed, it presents a highly sanitized version of Ali’s life, sugarcoating and distilling key motivational moments, and conveniently skipping a whole lot. Then again, that’s par-for-the-course with a biopic — especially one with such heavy involvement from the person being covered.

I’m aware this film may have played differently upon its release, when Americans were likely keenly interested in getting to learn more about one of their beloved sports idols; these days, the storyline simply feels self-laudatory, as Ali easily snatches up a bodaciously beautiful girlfriend (Mira Waters):

… and then shows off his newfound piety by pursuing a primly dressed bakery worker (Annazette Chase) who he chooses to become his wife. (On a side note, I was interested to learn about the history and relevance of “bean pie” in Muslim Black culture.)

The most exciting moments in the film by far are the (real life) fight sequences, which are expertly woven into the dramatized storyline. Meanwhile, the cast is an interesting one, with Borgnine and Marley in key supporting roles as right-hand men for Ali:

… and cameos by other well-known actors, including Robert Duvall as fight promoter Bill McDonald:

… Dina Merrill as a nastily racist spectator:

… and James Earl Jones as Malcolm X.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Effective integration of real-life fighting footage into the dramatic narrative

Must See?
No, unless you’re an Ali fan.

Links: