Monday, May 07, 2007


Watched another movie from the Tyrone Power Collection, Captain From Castile. Like most of these movies, it's based on a best-selling novel. (This was one thing that seemed to be a pet obsession of Darryl Zanuck: most of his big productions were based on popular novels of the time -- think Grapes of Wrath, Gentleman's Agreement, How Green Was My Valley, Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Other studios adapted plays more often than novels, but Zanuck was always looking to the page, not the stage.) The original novel by Samuel Shellabarger was one of those huge historical door-stoppers that would have required Gone With the Wind length to tell the whole story. With the project limited to 140 minutes, Lamar Trotti, who wrote and produced, decided to end the story midway through the novel, with Power marching off with Cortez (Cesar Romero) to encounter Montezuma.

This ending, though somewhat anticlimactic, actually isn't a bad idea: it ends just at the point where we are sort of expected to know what happened. You could argue that showing the better-known historical events would be more anticlimactic than not showing them.

The movie's problems have less to do with where it ends than with how it ends -- I've rarely seen a film fall apart so completely as it goes along. The movie starts out extremely well: all the scenes in Spain, with Power vs. the Inquisition (which is never really shown, because that wouldn't have made it past the Catholic Legion of Decency; instead the slimy secular villain John Sutton seems to run the whole Inquisition single-handedly), are really well-done, suspenseful and intelligent, with two really shocking moments of violence. The first scenes in the New World are more uneven but do contain some fun scenes, like Power's lustful Sarabande with -- in her film debut -- Jean Peters, and anything with Romero as Cortez (he's the only actor in this thing who doesn't quite take it seriously, which is kind of a relief). But then in the last twenty minutes, as the filmmakers rush to wrap everything up, the movie becomes both confusing and boring: confusing because things are happening at a too-rapid pace, and boring because hardly anything is really happening: without giving too much away, let's just say that Power, the hero, hardly does anything at all in the last reels of his own movie.

Some of this may be attributable to Trotti, who may not have been so great at writing endings (his original ending for Young Mr. Lincoln, with Lincoln talking to his future self or something, was truly awful; John Ford threw it out and made up a different ending), and some of it was probably just the fact that the picture was being shot on location all over Mexico (one of the first historical dramas that tried to shoot on the actual historical locations) and the difficulties of getting the footage in the can may just have overwhelmed any attempts to make sense of the story. But it is a reminder of the biggest fault of Zanuck's productions -- not just adventure dramas, but domestic drama's like Gentleman's Agreement -- he and his team took the stories so seriously that they would feel strangely free to ignore basic rules of structure and characterization. Also, Fox movies often go on for a long time and peter out quickly, front-loading all the best stuff at the beginning.

Castile does have some beautiful shots, courtesy of the cinematographers, the locations, and the studio's star director, Henry King. He was sort of like what John Ford would have been if Ford had been more of a hack. That is, he seemed to have very little involvement in developing the projects he did, with the result that the quality of his movies varied wildly (if he was given a great script, like Margie or The Gunfighter, he would make a great movie; if not, he'd make Carousel; but whether or not the script was good had little to do with him). But his visual style was very similar to John Ford's: the use of long static takes with very little movement, the attempt to make every shot look like a painting, the preference for low-angle shots with the ceilings in view.

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