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Evolution of Character – Oliver Twist

When we think of the work of the great writer Charles Dickens, what usually strikes our memories are the colorful cast of characters that inhabit his stories.  Of these, there are a couple that instantly spring out as the defining Dickensian characters.  Ebeneezer Scrooge of course would be one, but the other character that also stands out as the one that instantly comes to mind when discussing Dickens is Oliver Twist.  The little orphan boy who dared to ask for “more” has become an iconic character in literature, and the quintessential image of a Victorian era outcast scrapping by on his own in an oppressive, unforgiving world.  Naturally, his story is one that has been given attention to by Hollywood, who have continued to mine Dickens’ tale for several generations.  What’s interesting about little Oliver’s journey on the big screen is that it actually delves deeper into the character of Oliver than Charles Dickens ever did in his own book.  The literary Oliver is purely just a catalyst for Charles Dickens to explore larger themes within Victorian society, including class divisions, squalid inner-city conditions, incompetency and cruelty by social services, and the cut throat nature of the criminal underworld.  Oliver is a rather passive character through most of the book; a pawn in a game much larger than himself.  And yet, he has proven to be a powerful symbol, representing the often forgotten outcasts of society who face persecution everyday purely because of their placement on the social strata.  In cinema, Oliver fulfills that symbolic role too, but is also given the grace of a more rounded personality depending on the film.  The interesting about the character and his story is that they can also be reinterpreted in many different ways, like using a different time or place, and still retain it’s primary essence.  In this article, I will be looking at 7 of Oliver Twist’s most notable cinematic versions, and seeing how time has changed the character and story of this iconic character.

JACKIE COOGAN from OLIVER TWIST (1922)

Though not the first cinematic outing for young Oliver, this was certainly the first earnest attempt by Hollywood to adapting Dickens novel.  For the role of Oliver, young Jackie Coogan, the most famous young actor of the time thanks to his star making turn in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), was cast.  Coogan’s involvement was natural given how his part in Chaplin’s classic comedy was in some ways inspired by the character of Oliver.  Here, Oliver is somewhat limited in character mainly due to the constraints of the silent era, but Coogan does a descent job of filling the part.  Bright eyed and broadly mannered, his Oliver is every much the precocious youth that you would imagine him to be for a silent retelling like this one.  His best moments are those he shares with the raggedly dressed and decrepit ringleader of thieves, Fagin, here played by none other than the “man with a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney.  The film, more or less, is purely another showcase for Cheney to disappear into another character with his groundbreaking make-up and physicality, though it is far from Cheney’s most impressive work.  Still, him and Coogan have great chemistry as Fagin and Oliver, and seeing the two play off each other does represent the best subtleties of silent era performances.  Coogan’s young orphan Oliver more or less falls into line with Dickens original, becoming a catalyst for the rest of the plot to revolve around, and his innocence is perfectly conveyed in the film.  Being only 8 years old at the time of the film’s making, Coogan remarkably already hit a high standard for other child actors to match in the years ahead for the role of Oliver Twist.

JOHN HOWARD DAVIES from OLIVER TWIST (1948)

This post-war British production is often considered by many to be the greatest cinematic version of Oliver Twist ever made, and it’s tough to argue.  For one thing, it was directed by the legendary David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) fame, who in his early career was given the prime opportunity of adapting two classic Dickens novels to the big screen.  One was the critically acclaimed Great Expectations (1946), and the other was this 1948 film.  You can see the sense of scale and scope that Lean was clearly trying to refine on display here, because this is even today an impressively constructed film.  The film also features some standout performances from the cast, all capturing the essence of Dickens’ original visions.  Robert Newton brings special menace to the villainous Bill Sykes, and Alec Guinness is almost unrecognizable as Fagin; though his clearly Semitic interpretation of the character is a somewhat troubling reminder of the anti-Semitic leanings of Dickens’ original text.  The role of Oliver was played by young newcomer John Howard Davies, who especially fits the portrayal of the iconic orphan.  With his puppy dog eyes and sallow face, he looks every bit like what you’d expect an impoverished child in Victorian era London to look like.  He certainly has the look of what Dickens wrote down on the page, and that also carries over into his characterization as well.  The movie is also a very accurate retelling of the book, covering all the political and social intrigue that surrounds Oliver’s story, and again, it limits Oliver as a passive character in the process.  Still, Davies tries his best, and comes away as one of the best versions of the character ever put on screen.

MARK LESTER from OLIVER! (1968)

Apart from the David Lean classic, this is probably the most highly regarded cinematic treatment of Dickens’ story.  This big budget, widescreen musical directed by Carol Reed was one of the last of it’s kind from that era of Hollywood, and was the big winner at the Academy Awards, taking away 8 total including Best Picture.  As far as musical adaptations go, it’s hit or miss.  It’s production values are impressive, and some of the performances are strong, especially Ron Moody as the scene-stealing Fagin.  The role of Oliver likewise is a mixed bag.  Mark Lester, who plays Oliver, certainly looks the part, and at times performs very well in the film’s dialogue driven scenes.  But, because this is a musical and he is the lead, Oliver has to sing and unfortunately that’s beyond young Mark’s range.  Pretty much all of the verses sung by Oliver in the movie are dubbed over by another singer; and strangely not by another similar sounding boy either, but by what seems like a grown woman trying to sound boyish.  It’s a distracting element in the movie and one that unfortunately casts a shadow over Mark Lester’s decent performance.  Since he’s the only dubbed actor too, it also makes him feel out of place, especially compared to the vocally trained Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, who was carried over from the original theatrical cast.  It’s clear that Mark Lester’s innocent doey-eyed look is what won him the role, but it came at a cost to performance overall, because he came ill-equipped to match his co-stars vocally.  Still, for an actor as young as he was at the time, it’s still was impressive of him to carry a huge production like this on his shoulders, and it’s often his visage from the “asking for more” scene that we see attached to most visual references to Dickens’ novel.

JOEY LAWRENCE from OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)

It seemed only natural that Disney themselves would approach Dickens’ classic with a musical adaptation of their own.  But, in order to distance themselves from the classic 1968 musical, they approached the story in an entirely different angle.  Instead of Victorian era London, they set their version in Reagan Era New York City.  And instead of orphan children, this version is centered around dogs and cats.  Oliver is no longer a child stuck in an oppressive orphanage, but is instead an unwanted kitten forced to survive along on the streets of the big city.  Though elements of the story remain the same, it is largely an original tale more inspired by Dickens rather than to the letter faithful.  One thing that it does change in an interesting way is the relationship between Oliver and Dodger.  Here, Dodger is very much older than Oliver, and acts as more of a father figure than in previous versions.  He assumes more of the role that Fagin had in the past, who in this film is relegated to more of a supporting role, being one of the few human characters.  A very young Joey Lawrence voices Oliver here, and in many gives Oliver a sense of character little seen before.  He’s a very Americanized version of the character; vulnerable, impulsive, and with a strong sense of setting out his own path.  He also takes a far more active role in his story, even bearing his claws and fighting back against threats at various points in the movie.  The movie doesn’t delve too deep into the more complicated and darker elements of Dickens’ novel (it is Disney after all), but some of the film’s best elements centers around Oliver finding his identity in literal “dog eat dog” world.  Though far from Disney’s best, it at least does a decent job of bringing Oliver Twist into the 20th century and giving the classic character much more of an active role.

ALEX TRENCH  from OLIVER TWIST (1997)

Disney would once again return to the classic story, only this time without the songs nor the modern setting; and on the small screen no less.  This TV movie adaptation, made for ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” program, is a modestly constructed retelling of Dickens’ novel, with a TV friendly budgeted portrayal of Victorian England.  It more or less plays out like a non-musical version of Oliver!, which has it’s benefits.  The film doesn’t get distracted by needless plot points and instead focuses on it’s central characters.  Unfortunately, this leads once again to a passive Oliver.  Here, he is given too little personality to be memorable, and poor young Alex Trench seems out of his element in the role (this would also be his one and only film role to date).  More focus is given to Fagin (played by an over-acting Richard Dreyfus) and to Dodger (played by a pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood), which does provide an interesting character dichotomy to this story that we haven’t seen before.  Here we see both characters act as the two opposing points of view guiding Oliver through his development.  Dodger is the more outgoing and humane, but he attracts Oliver to a world that is far more unforgiving.  Fagin is rigid and suspicious, but putting up more walls helps to shield Oliver from far worse things in the world.  For a TV movie, it does give a richer portrayal to these secondary characters, but Oliver isn’t so lucky.  It does bring the story back to it’s roots with a modern sensibility that sheds new light on the old story in a positive way, which is something that you rarely see in a network made-for-TV movie.

JOSHUA CLOSE from TWIST (2003)

Oliver Twist would once again see a whole other modern “twist” (pardon the pun), only this time far from the family-friendly Disney version seen in Oliver & Company.  Here, we see Dickens story re-imagined with a queer sensibility, with Oliver slipping into the world of street hustling instead of pick-pocketing.  This version of Oliver is considerably older, becoming a wayward youth instead of a lost orphan.  The film delves deeper into the relationship between him and Dodger, played here by Nick Stahl (Sin City), which adds a romantic level to their friendship; one that ultimately turns toxic as Stahl’s Dodger sinks deeper into a drug addiction.  While the new dimension added to the story brings an interesting angle to develop the characters around, the movie sadly doesn’t make it all work in the end.  It’s clear that filmmakers used the blueprint of Dickens’ original story to portray their own window into the seedy underbelly of modern slums and the crime world that festers there, but it doesn’t elevate any higher than the surface level of that to become anything really profound; especially not at the level that Charles Dickens would have gone.  Fresh-faced, handsome Joshua Close does a decent job portraying this grown up Oliver, and his vulnerable performance is one of the film’s highlights.  It’s just too bad a look at a queer themed Oliver Twist had to loose focus and become too indulgent in it’s look at the darker parts of society.    The story is after all about a young child seeking an identity in a world that is constantly acting against him.  It is interesting to see Dickensian social injustice added onto a queer love story, but the film looses the nerve to make it work the way it should.

BARNEY CLARK from OLIVER TWIST (2005)

Here we have one of the more unexpected adaptation of Dickens’ novel.  When you think of all the different filmmakers who would be attracted to the story of Oliver Twist, the last one who would come to mind is Roman Polanski.  The Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) director is no stranger to darker themed stories, but for him to take a straight-forward approach to Dickens’ tale was somewhat unexpected.  And yet, it makes sense, because if there is a running motif in Polanski’s full body of work, it would be the loss of innocence, which Oliver Twist fits perfectly within.  The movie came and went in theaters pretty quietly in 2005, and few people even know that this movie exists, which is too bad because it is probably the best cinematic version of this story since David Lean’s classic in my opinion.  I will even say that this has what is probably the best cinematic portrayal of Oliver Twist as a character that we’ve ever seen.  Here, Oliver is no longer a passive player in his own story, but rather a fully realized person.  The movie does away with all of the political sub-plotting that surrounds the main story, and instead focuses like a laser beam on Oliver’s journey.  It builds a far more personal relationship between Oliver and Fagin (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) for one thing, where you see the strong effect that the old man has had on Oliver’s upbringing, both positive and negative.  Young Barney Clark is also quite good in the role, bringing subtlety and emotion to the character that we’ve rarely seen before.  The fact that he has a lot more to do in the story helps to improve the character greatly, and it’s something that should be celebrated more within the whole history of this character.  Any Dickens’ fans out there should seek this version out because it is worthy of rediscovery.  And for the character of Oliver, it is a milestone, because he finally get the focus that he has long deserved.

So, there you have a look at Oliver Twist’s cinematic journey.  As the years have gone on, we see far more of a focus given to the little boy and his personal journey.  In a way, he has shone more clearly on the big screen than he ever did on the page.  Charles Dickens didn’t exactly treat the young boy as an afterthought in his original book, but it’s clear that Oliver had little impact over his own direction in life.  Cinematic versions, which have streamlined the story over time, have found ways to let Oliver stand out more and give him a personality that makes him distinctive and worth taking interest in.  My feelings is that David Lean’s classic adaptation made the best attempt at capturing the essence of Dickens’ novel while Roman Polanski’s version brought out the best essence of the character.  There are interesting imaginings over the years too, like the two musical version by way of Broadway and Disney, but it’s those two features from wildly different eras that offer the best portrayals of Dickens’ classic.  In many ways, Oliver Twist had to mature as a story with more modern sensibilities in order to fully realize the character himself.  Nowadays, we are better able to find child actors who can carry the weight of a difficult character, as well as filmmakers who can trust their young stars with deeper material.  The story of Oliver Twist is a difficult one to pull off, as it centers around a child in near constant peril and hits hard at the social injustices that have put him in the state that he’s in.  That’s a lot to ask a young performer to undertake on screen, but we have thankfully had a fair helping of capable young actors who have done justice to the character.  In the end, as we still see young people struggle to survive in the modern world, we find that Oliver Twist remains a powerful literary and cinematic icon who continues to remain more and more relevant through every new retelling.

 

Evolution of Character – Jesus Christ

Icon, savior, prophet, rabbi, messiah, son of God.  Whatever your personal beliefs and your view of who this man from Nazareth was (or is), there’s no denying that Jesus Christ is a figure who has shaped the course of human history.  Some believe in his divinity, while others just view him as an influential historical figure.  But still, whether you accept belief in him or not, his influence is felt in all of our lives; sadly, sometimes in very negative ways.  Perhaps the most powerful influence of Christ can be found in art.  Pretty much every great and influential artist of the past millennia has taken their shot at depicting Christ in some way; in painting, sculpture, carvings, performance, and of course, cinema.  Jesus has proven to be just as powerful figure on the silver screen as he has been in any other artistic medium.  At the same time, he is also one of the trickiest roles to fill.  A lot of pressure falls on those who puts on the robes to portray Christ, because if they do a poor job, they run the risk of upsetting a multitude of the faithful, most of whom take the image of Christ very seriously.  Some movies sometimes even take careful measures to avoid any controversy at all by showing Jesus either from a distance, like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) or from over the shoulder without showing his face, like in Ben-Hur (1959).  But, there are plenty of films that do take the risk of not only showing Christ on screen, but also delving deep into his story and analyzing what kind of person he was.  What’s most interesting is how different eras of cinema have incredibly different views on the figure of Christ.  In this article, I will be looking at a few of these, limited solely to depictions from Hollywood; so no international depictions, or TV movie adaptations, nor any Christploitation films the Christian film market.  So let’s look at Jesus Christ’s journey as a cinematic icon.

HOWARD GAYE from D.W. GRIFFITH’S INTOLERANCE (1916)

For an examination of Christ’s presence on the silver screen, it’s fitting to look back and see one of the earliest.  In D. W. Griffith’s now century old epic, we are presented with four interlocking stories depicting different eras in world history, all centered around the theme of intolerance.  The shortest of these story-lines is devoted to the story of Jesus, and his persecution at the hands of the Pharisee priests who are determined to silence his ministry.  The story is sadly limited, but the depiction of Christ is nevertheless interesting in the film.  Actor Howard Gaye certainly was cast based on his resemblance to the commonly accepted image of Jesus in centuries of artwork.  Through Griffith’s film, we see the icon of Jesus that was familiar to the world through it’s artwork brought to life through the magic of cinema.  Because of Griffith’s film, this image of a long faced, flowing hair, and white robed Jesus would endure into the realm of cinema and influence all future depictions from then on.  It’s an interesting aspect that Griffith chose to use the image of Christ in his grand statement on the nature of intolerance.  Though brief, Christ’s story is interconnected with stories of the fall of the Babylonian Empire, religious wars in Renaissance era France, and a present day story of religious zealots breaking apart a disadvantaged family.  What I think Griffith misses however in his film is the irony that the persecution that each of his main characters face is done in the name of someone who went through the same persecution.  I think Griffith was more interested in the cruel cycle of intolerance that humanity has faced over the years, and he viewed Jesus’ own persecution as one chapter of that.

H. B. WARNER from THE KING OF KINGS (1927)

Later on in the silent era, we were given a much more substantial portrayal of Jesus Christ on film, which came from a filmmaker who is now synonymous with the biblical epic genre; Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was already established filmmaker at this point in his career, and had already won praise for bringing The Ten Commandments (1923) to the big screen.  But, many consider his depiction of Jesus Christ in The King of Kings to be one of his greatest achievements.  Here we find a Christ that is both humane and divine; relateable and yet also ethereal.  It is certainly one of the more idealized versions of Christ that we’ve seen on film, with actor H. B. Warner giving a standout performance.  Warner fits the same image iconic image of Christ, but what he brings is more sophistication to his portrayal, making him feel more human and personable.  It’s clearly DeMille’s to utilize the cinematic medium to present Jesus is the most sympathetic light possible.  Here, Christ almost glows on screen, with DeMille using diffused lighting to spotlight Christ and make him standout from everyone else.  Even the Resurrection of Christ utilized some remarkable cinematic tricks, with DeMille inter-cutting a Technicolor sunrise into the scene (color photography was only recently introduced and was considered cutting edge for it’s time, making the shot all the more special).  Though old fashioned by today’s standards, DeMille’s epic became a gold standard for the depiction of Christ on film for many years to come, and it is still to this day one of the most cinematic-ally pleasing.

MAX VON SYDOW from THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

The 50’s and 60’s saw an booming industry in Hollywood for Biblical epics.  For years, it appeared that any biblical story was fair game for adaptation, leading to some of the most impressive cinematic wonders that have ever been committed to celluloid.  Included among them is this George Stevens directed epic about the life of Christ, depicting his baptism (with Charlton Heston as John the Baptism) all the way to his Crucifixion.  Like most of the movies of it’s era, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a star studded blockbuster, which was both a blessing and a curse; it unfortunately had the problem of miscasting several roles, including an awkwardly placed John Wayne as a Roman centurion, who utters the now infamous line, “Surely this man was the son of Gawd.”  But, the movie did strike it rich with the excellent casting of legendary Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Christ.  Sydow brings an intensity to the role that had never been seen before and it makes Jesus a compelling character throughout the film.  From the gracefulness of his gentle ministry to the intense anger that he displays against the money changers at the Temple in Jerusalem, to the quiet vulnerability that he displays while being crucified, Sydow is compelling in the role from beginning to end, and he carries this sometimes uneven film on his sturdy shoulders.  He also does an excellent job of giving the iconic look of Jesus the kind of expressiveness it needs to work in a more sophisticated cinematic outing.  The movie is an odd mixture of old Hollywood melodrama, mixed in with a more modern sensibility towards the role of religion in our lives and how the image of Christ fits into that, and Sydow’s Jesus is a perfect match for that more modern image of Christ in our changing culture.

TED NEELEY from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

The 1970’s yet again was another shifting time for cultural attitudes towards religion, and this was reflected in some of the interesting ways that religion found it’s ways into movies at the time.  In this Norman Jewison directed adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, we saw a completely different kind of portrayal of Christ brought to the screen.  Sure, it is kind of jarring to see Christ and his followers singing rock tunes out in the desert (shot on location in Israel), but the movie is still surprisingly respectful to the image of Christ, both scripturally and cinematically.  Christ remains a figure of intense spiritual purity in this film, but it’s the aura that surrounds him that defines his power.  Like the title of the film states, Christ’s persona gives him a superstar status among the people around him, giving him a cult of worshipers that he clearly struggles with.  It’s a superstar status that makes him beloved, but also reviled, and he finds himself at odds whether remaining the savior for humanity is really something he should have resting on his shoulders.  It’s a more conflicted side of Jesus than we’ve seen before, but one that still represents the spiritual power that we’ve seen before.  Ted Neely, who was brought into the film after playing the role first on stage, clearly fits the image of Christ very well, and his impressive pipes give an interesting new intensity to the character as well.  Funny how the image of Christ was not a huge leap to make from the usual aesthetic of the average hippie at the time of this film’s making.  Neely had little more to do than just put on a robe and he becomes Jesus automatically; which literally does take place in the film’s opening minutes.  It’s a product of it’s era, but still, an interesting new direction to take the persona of Christ into on the big screen.

WILLEM DAFOE from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

Here we have probably cinema’s most human depiction of Christ, which itself resulted in quite a bit of controversy.  Adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial book of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s film is an interesting spiritual examination of Jesus’ struggles with his own destiny.  In this movie, Chirst knows he’s the son of God and that his purpose is to die for all the sins of humanity, and this is a burden on him that makes him feel distant from the rest of humanity.  In his dying hours on the cross, Jesus asks God why he has forsaken him, and then the film stops to show what life would be like for Christ if he had denied his purpose and refused to sacrifice himself, instead choosing a normal life.  This section itself was what stirred up the controversy behind the book and film, because it shows Christ in what some consider a sacrilegious portrayal; getting married, having sex, fathering children, and denying his divinity.  But, many forget that in both cases these are just visions and not reality.  Christ still dies on the cross like he was destined too, and everything we see beforehand is just a final temptation by the devil to coax him away from his destiny.  Scorsese still considers himself a devout Christian, but he’s also an introspective filmmaker who wants to explore interesting concepts when it comes to religious themes, and that’s what attracted him to this film.  He made a very wise choice in the casting of Willem Dafoe as Jesus, who gives the character a remarkable vulnerability that we have never seen before on film.  Dafoe perfectly embodies a version of Jesus that is both frightened of his destiny and yet determined to see it through, and it’s that introspective view of the journey ahead that makes his performance so compelling.  When he triumphantly smiles in the closing moments of the film and proclaims, “It is accomplished,” it is a powerful depiction of a man who has conquered evil, both on the outside and from within, and that makes for one powerful portrait of Jesus Christ.

JIM CAVIEZEL from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)

The other most controversial depiction of Jesus Christ is also the one that strives for the most accuracy.  Mel Gibson’s often divisive portrayal of Christ’s torturous final hours is an interesting cinematic experiment, because it goes out of it’s way to recreate the period of time it is set in; even to the point of using dead languages in all of it’s dialogue.  Whether that makes it historically accurate is debatable since it’s source of story comes from the Gospels.  Still, it’s an interesting choice for a director to make in order to set their depiction of Christ apart from all the rest.  Mel also cast largely unknown actors in most of the film’s roles, except for a couple exceptions; one being Jesus himself.  The role of Christ went to established American actor Jim Caviezel, who took on the role based off of his own devout Catholic background.  And like the person he was portraying, his own experience would turn into a test of faith.  Not only did he have to endure long hours working outdoors in very little clothing, but he also endured some rather bizarre freak injuries while filming.  At one point, one of the whips used in the scourging scene missed the padded protection on his back and actually cut a real gash on his side.  And then during the crucifixion scene, he was struck by lightning in the middle of filming.  Not to mention he had to learn to deliver all his lines in Aramaic.  Suffice to say, this is a definitive example of an actor suffering for his art, but it does translate into a powerful performance on screen.  Caviezel embodies a quiet strength as Jesus, enduring such horror but still remaining steadfast in his resolve.  Whatever you think about the movie itself, you still have to admire the work that the actor put into it, making a determined attempt to be more true to the personage of Jesus than anything we’ve seen before.

EWAN MCGREGOR from LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT (2016)

Here we have one of the more recent depictions of Christ on the big screen.  The movie imagines a fictional encounter during Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, where he is confronted by the devil and is told that he holds the fate of a family he has met on his journey in the balance.  It’s a tight, simple narrative that nevertheless offers an interesting window in understanding the psyche of someone like Jesus.  Ewan McGregor takes on the dual role of portraying Christ and the Devil (who is shown in the  film as a twisted reflection of Christ, confident and sinister while Jesus remains doubtful but pure).  His portrayal is a unique one, having his Jesus be someone who is still trying to understand his purpose.  What’s more, his Jesus is someone who knows of his disconnect from humanity, having grown up without knowing his true father, and feeling frustrated with the fact that he is unable to communicate with him.  This movie grapples with the notion of whether Christ was truly divine or not, and it’s dealt with in a very open-ended way.  Jesus sees God’s signs everywhere, and he imagines the Devil by his side as a manifestation of all his doubt and anger, but in the end he is unsure if God really has set him apart for a reason, or if he may possibly not be there at all.  And yet, the movie shows the eternal spiritual purity of Jesus, and how his journey would inform the spirituality of many more after him.  McGregor gives Christ a very subtle humanity, one that doesn’t have to marry itself to all other depictions before it, and yet still remains true to the character.  Here, he portrays a man seeking self discovery before his fully obtains the confidence to becoming the Savior of humanity.  It’s interesting that the movie chose to explore the often overlooked period of Jesus’ fasting in the desert, because it’s really the best point to examine Jesus as a blank slate, something that Hollywood has rarely dared to tackle before.

So, there you have some of the many depictions of Christ that we have seen on the big screen.  Interestingly enough, apart from these straightforward portrayals of Christ’s life on the big screen, you can still see his influence in a variety of other movies.  You see it very clearly in the common cinematic trope of the Chirst-figure character; a main protagonist who is specially singled out by some mystical prophecy or fate that makes him the only person capable of destroying evil.  Whether it is Neo from The Matrix (1999), Harry Potter from his wizarding world franchise, or Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, many of cinema’s most famous heroes have often fallen into this Christlike path of destiny.  The Lego Movie (2014) mocked this trope perfectly by referring to it’s hero as “the Special.”  Darth Vader from Star Wars can often be viewed as a Christ figure in reverse; a character of special significance whose destiny only leads him towards becoming more evil.  But, despite how Hollywood has exploited and made fun of the Christ figure in cinematic history, you’ll never actually see an actual mockery of Christ the person.  Even movies that do attempt it often do it through the misguided insanity of one of their characters, like “Buddy Jesus” in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), which is representative of a ill-advised public relations campaign by a church to make religion appear more “hip.”  Even the always irreverent South Park, which includes Jesus as a regular character, portrays him as a pure soul and a force for good.  There can be many ways to do a bad portrayal of Christ on screen, but even some of the good ones can still draw the ire of some very devout followers.  Regardless of where anyone stands on faith, we still have to acknowledge the importance of Christ as a symbol, both in everyday lives and in our art.  He has remained a constant force on the big screen, and will so for many years to come, and it’s our responsibility as storytellers and filmmakers to make sure that his image is used only for the purposes of good in our world.

Evolution of Character – The Devil

the-devil

Halloween’s iconic band of monsters and ghoulish rogues consists of many different types.  From ghosts, to vampires, to abnormal beasts, and more commonly nowadays the rising dead, there are plenty of creatures that inspire everything from costumes to movies found around this time of year.  But, while most of these monsters are diabolical in their own right, there is no greater monster spread throughout pop culture and literature than the “man in black” himself; The Devil.  Whatever name he goes by (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub), the Devil is certainly an iconic monster without rival.  He is the antithesis to everything good, and the source of all evil in the world, which would make him the commander of all the other icons of Halloween given that description.  Though the origins of the Devil are varied in many different cultures over several millennia, the image we most commonly associate him with today comes from the Christian conception of the demon.  The Biblical devil would go on to influence the creation of Dante’s Inferno in the 13th Century; an epic poem that helped to build our modern day conception of Hell, the devil’s domain.  These two sources are what Hollywood usually draws their image of the devil from, though his purpose in many of his screen appearances is surprisingly varied.  Unlike other characters from the Bible, and from other cultural conceptions of the Devil, there is no set rules for the right or wrong way to depict him.  For the most part, he shows up in movies, books, and other forms of entertainment, purely to represent evil in it’s purest form.

Because of the open-endedness of how best to bring the Devil into one’s story, there are so many different and varied depictions of “old Nick” in movies throughout the years.  And it’s interesting how versatile a character he can be.  He can serve as an impartial judge of your sins in Ernest Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943); a granter of wishes in Bedazzled (1967); a client for a private eye in Angel Heart  (1987); a lovelorn cartoon character in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999); on the search for a mate in End of Days (1999); a seedy gangster in Constantine (2005); or even the source of a super hero’s power in Ghost Rider (2007).  And yet, even in all these different purposes in a variety of different movies, they all mostly fall back on the traditional image of the devil that we are all familiar with; clothed in black or red (or both), dark beard (usually pointy), and usually with horns on his head.  But, in rare occasions, movies will deviate from this image and hide the identity of the devil into someone or something unexpected.  In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), they even went as far as to depict the Devil as a compassionate little girl, leading that film’s Jesus Christ into the titular temptation, while he’s being crucified on the cross.  For this article, I have picked out some of the most notable versions of the Devil on film, both to show how his use on film has changed or not changed over the years, and to show the many variances we have seen of the character on the big screen.  So, delve down into the depths of Hollywood’s Hell and see the Devil in his most dastardly forms.

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CHERNABOG from FANTASIA (1940)

Funny how one of the most vivid and compelling depictions ever of the Devil on the big screen comes from a film by Disney.  Found in the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Disney’s Fantasia, this Devil is as close to a traditional, Dante-esque version of the character you’ll ever see in any movie.  But, why does Disney give him the name Chernabog.  It’s not an attempt by the animation powerhouse to distance their character from a biblical source.  The credit for naming the creature was Disney animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, the man responsible for animating the character in the film.  Tytla drew from his Ukrainian heritage to produce what he needed for this segment, and in the folklore of his native country, there is a demon spirit known as the Chernabog, which is very equivalent to the Christian concept of the Devil, so he married the two into one unforgettable creation.  Tytla’s final animation of Chernabog is nothing short of amazing (something that animation experts still hold in high regard today).  Gargantuan and all powerful, you really get a sense that Chernabog is the master of all evil in the world from this sequence.  Though the segment has him do nothing more than rise ghosts and ghouls from their graves and make them perform dances in front of him, his menace is still palpable.  Whether he is the truest sense of the Devil or not, he certainly fits the bill alright.  He’s still to this day a favorite Disney villain to many, and why shouldn’t he be?  The winged beast has gone on to be a standard representation of how the Devil should commonly look visually, and many other movies have taken Disney’s lead on that.  Chernabog, over all others, brought the Devil his most epic of screen presences.

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WALTER HUSTON from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

Here we have a classic old Hollywood take on the Devil.  A contemporary retelling of the Faust legend, the movie tells the tale of a farmer who promises his soul to the devil in return for economic success.  After gaining a lot of wealth due to the wish granted by the Devil but little personal happiness, the farmer seeks to cut himself free of the contract and he enlists a lawyer named Daniel Webster to argue his case for him; although Webster himself is also under contract with the Devil.  Going by the name, Mr. Scratch, this cinematic version of the devil is fine example of how to convey his image without making it obvious.  Mr. Scratch, played in a wonderfully hammy way by Walter Huston (father of director John Huston), looks ordinary to anyone within the film, but the pointy, dark eyebrows, mangy goatee, and devilish grin make it clear to us who he really is.  I especially like the touch of the brim on his hat, turned up on the sides to give the impression of horns on his head.  What’s interesting about this version of the devil is that he’s not actively a force of evil, but instead one who capitalizes on the evil deeds of us mortals, merely supplying the means for our own destructive ends.  He’s manipulative to be sure, but this movie also states that it’s our own vices and greedy ambitions that give him his power.  It’s very different from the Biblical version of the Devil, who is a more active sower of discord.  Here, he’s just waiting for us to slip up so that he can collect what’s left of our souls, a reminder of which the movie leaves on, with Huston breaking the fourth wall and pointing directly at his audience in the movie’s haunting final shot.

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TIM CURRY from LEGEND (1986)

While the previous example I shared only suggested the image of the Devil, this version leaves nothing out.  When anyone asks what the Devil should look like, this is probably going to be the first image that comes to mind.  So, it’s interesting that this particular character has nothing to do with the traditional Devil found in scripture.  The character here, known simply as Darkness, merely adopts the look of Satan, though he might as well be him, given his place within the story.  Ridley Scott’s quintessentially 80’s fairy tale adventure features the character of Darkness as the master of all evil in the realm, so the Satanic persona fits very well.  The movie is mostly hit or miss; the 80’s cheese has nostalgic value, but Tom Cruise in the role of an elfish forest child is a little odd.  But, Tim Curry’s performance as Darkness is nothing short of amazing.  For one thing, you have to respect the time he put into getting all that makeup applied to his face, and then acting through it all.  Curry is without a doubt the highlight of the movie and the demonic vision that he and the makeup team has created is nightmare inducing.  The sharp, grotesque features of his face are enough, but the over the top gigantic horns and burning yellow eyes make him all the more frightening.  This is a very romanticized version of the Devil put on screen; beauty in the twisted and profane.  He’s also a very sexualized version of the devil, preying on the heroine in a predatory way, and yet persuasive in his deception.  While re-purposed for a different kind of fairy tale, this version of the Devil is probably cinema’s most dynamic recreation to date, giving us the iconic image in all it’s glory with an actor and design team inspired enough to pull it off.

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JACK NICHOLSON from THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)

Let’s face it; it was going to be inevitable that an actor like Jack Nicholson was going to play the Devil some day in a film.  No stranger to playing the bad guy in movies (the Joker in Batman) nor a stranger to horror films either (The Shining), Jack Nicholson just seems tailor made to play the Master of everything evil in the movies.  So, naturally the chance finally came along to play the Devil in George Miller’s dark comedy, The Witches of Eastwick.  The film centers on three women in a small New England town (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher) who encounter a mysterious newcomer named Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson).  Daryl buys the mansion on the outskirt of town and invites each of the women there, and through their encounters, each discovers their own powers and become witches.  But, gaining the powers only isolates them from the rest of the town, and soon they devise a way to turn their powers against him.  This is a very different take on the Devil that we’ve seen to this point, and one that’s suited more towards the persona of the actor playing him.  In this film, the Devil is a suave, playboy manipulator; ensnaring beautiful women through gifts and empowerment while at the same time, collecting their souls.  Jack’s performance as Daryl is naturally within his wheelhouse, easily slippng into the charismatic playboy that the character must be.  His performance stays strong even after that polished veneer is lifted once the witches turn their magic against him.  Nicholson becoming unhinged towards the end, revealing more of the demon inside, is definitely one of the film’s highlights, especially the now famous “Women” monologue speech he delivers.  The Devil himself couldn’t have made that moment any better.

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AL PACINO from THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997)

Just as inevitable as Jack Nicholson playing the Devil in a movie, we have also seen Al Pacino fill the role on the big screen.  His version comes in a considerably darker film, co-starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.  In The Devil’s Advocate, the Devil fills a very different role than we’ve seen before, which is that of a litigator.  The souls he collects are not random victims, but rather clients, all of whom wish for the best defense that money can buy.  But, it’s not them that this version of the Devil seeks the most; it’s Keanu Reeve’s hot shot lawyer that he wants under his power.  Al Pacino is an actor with two different modes; either he’s very reserved and collected, or he’s wildly over the top insane, and by God he uses both modes here.  The movie itself is a bit too dour and bleak at times, but Al steals every scene he is in, giving it the manic energy it needs.  The climax of the movie, where Pacino’s Devil reveals his true nature and ambitions, gives the actor the free reign to do whatever he wants and it is a gloriously unhinged scene.  His “I’m a fan of man” speech is ridiculously over the top, but it feels appropriate given who this is.  What I like about this version of the character is that, like Mr. Scratch from The Devil and Daniel Webster, he’s a Devil that preys on man’s own misbehavior, and that his power is only possible by misdeeds of our own sins.  As he states in the movie, vanity is his favorite sin, because serving solely in one’s self interest leads to every other bad deed in the book.  It’s no mistake that this Devil goes by the name of John Milton, the same moniker of the author of Paradise Lost, another parable about ambition gone wrong.  It was a masterstroke getting Al Pacino on board for this movie, and while the movie is sometimes boring, Al never disappoints.

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ROSALINDA CELENTANO from THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)

Here we return to the more biblical version of the Devil, with Satan present in this retelling of Christ’s crucifixion.  While Mel Gibson’s hyper violent film is polarizing to this day, I think that one thing that does earn universal praise is it’s very vivid portrayal of Satan.  Though Satan’s role in the story has it’s roots in biblical text, with the spirit hovering around in Jesus’ mind as he is tempted to give up his sacrificial plans, the visual representation of the character is somewhat unique.  Instead of following the traditional image of the character popular in pop culture, with the horns and goatee, Gibson instead cast a female model in the role.  There could be many different factors related to this.  One, Gibson wanted to cast against type, thinking that the audience would expect someone who obviously looked liked the Devil we all know, and instead surprise us with this evil spirit in the form of something beautiful.  Though she is beautiful, there is still something off about her, with missing eyebrows and cold stare; it’s still clear that there is menace behind the beauty.  Secondly, and this is my own interpretation, I believe that Satan appears in this form in the movie to represent a twisted perversion of the purest thing in Jesus’ life, which is the love of his mother, Mary.  Gibson seems to back up this idea at one point in the movie when we see Satan holding in one scene what looks like a child, but it turns out to be a grotesque looking demon; done as if to taunt Jesus during his suffering.  Rosalinda Celentano fills the role perfectly and gives the Devil a very unsettling portrayal here, cold and unforgiving, and yet magnetic at the same time.  Of all the evil acts that Christ suffers in this movie, none feels more potent than the sinister voice over his shoulder telling him that all his suffering is futile.

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TOM WAITS from THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)

Considerably lighter in tone than The Passion’s version of the Devil, here we have Satan imagined in a different type of persona; that of a gambler.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is notable mostly for being the film that actor Heath Ledger was in the middle of shooting before his untimely death, leaving his performance unfinished.  Director Terry Gilliam managed to finish the film with all of Ledger’s footage intact, thanks to the help of some A-List actors filling out the remaining scenes.  But, apart from the off screen dilemma with the film’s lead, the movie has one standout supporting performance from singer Tom Waits as the Devil.  His version of the Devil is much less malicious in his actions and is more interested in stirring the pot to work things in his favor.  In particular, he has an invested interest in besting the mystical Doctor Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer), and claiming the soul of his daughter.  For him, the misdeeds of mankind are all a game, and he’s solely interested in seeing more lost souls coming his way.  He strangely allows Parnassus a shot at determining his own fate, and when the Devil ultimately wins in the movie, it leaves him strangely unsatisfied, as if he actually feels bad about seeing the Doctor lose everything.  A rare case of sympathy from the devil.  Waits is an ideal choice for the part, keeping the character foreboding when he needs to be, but quirky at the same time.  With the bowler hat and ratty looking tuxedo, his costume definitely supports that gambler aspect of his character perfectly; making him the underworld’s top mafioso.  Considering Waits own fascination with the Dark One in his music (a common theme) he delivers enough credibility to the character to make him far more interesting and likable than he normally would.

Hollywood certainly has gotten their mileage out of this character over the years and he will most certainly be around for a long time still.  Horror remains a potent genre in film-making and to present the highest form of evil incarnate on screen, the Devil will have to be involved in some shape or form.  But, even beyond the Horror genre, there are still surprising ways to work the presence of the Devil into your stories.  As shown above, the Devil can be a part of fantasy (Legend), in a comedy (The Witches of Eastwick), in a religious film (The Passion), a psychological thriller (The Devil’s Advocate) and even be a part of an animated musical (Fantasia).  Whether he’s a trickster, a manipulator, or the harbinger of the world’s end, there are countless possibilities with how to use him.  I think that the Devil works best as a character in movies when the film moves away from the traditional image of the horned demon and portrays him as something different, although Tim Curry’s Darkness from Legend pulls off the traditional look to utter perfection.  Other versions like Jack Nicholson’s Daryl and Al Pacino’s John Milton are able to convey the embodiment of the Devil, without ever having to resort to the pitchfork and horns.  These along with the memorable portrayal of Satan in The Passion show that the Devil doesn’t have to look scary in order to be scary.  Just the idea that this is a being that has power and influence over us mortals is a scary enough idea alone, and that’s what gives the character such a strong presence in any big screen appearance he makes.  As far as Halloween icons go, few can generate a sense of terror the same way as the Devil does.

Evolution of Character – Wyatt Earp

wyatt earp

In my last article for this series, I highlighted Queen Elizabeth I, a real historical figure that has enjoyed many varied depictions on the big screen.  In this article, I chose to highlight yet another subject from history, but from a decidedly different era altogether. The American West has given the world many fascinating figures of legend , whether real, fictional, or a combination of both.  Larger than life characters like Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and “Buffalo” Bill Cody have all achieved immortality within folklore and later through cinematic adaptation.  But if there was one that stood out as the most prolific, it would be legendary U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp.  Born in 1848, Earp worked all across the American frontier, but once he arrived in the town of Dodge City, Kansas, he fell into the role that would eventually define him; that of a lawman.  After a semi-successful career in Dodge City (where he would meet one of his most trusted associates, John “Doc” Holliday), Earp took up the head U.S. Marshall position at a boomtown in the Arizona Territory called Tombstone, and it was here that he would become a legend.  The moment that defined his life and career came on October 26, 1881, when Earp, Holliday, and two of Earp’s brothers faced down the Clanton gang at the Tombstone O.K. Corral, which led to the most famous gunfight in U.S. history.  In the end, the cowboy gang was slaughtered and Earp’s posse was triumphant.  The incident became the basis for so many Western legends since.  Naturally, Wyatt Earp makes for an ideal Western hero, and Hollywood has revisited his story many times on the big screen.  In this article, I will take a look at how that legendary image translated to cinema and endured over the years as the genre itself had changed.

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RANDOLPH SCOTT in FRONTIER MARSHALL (1939)

Wyatt Earp’s standoff at the O.K. Corral had been recreated many times over in the silent era of film, but in the era of talkies, Hollywood didn’t get around to adapting his story until this feature.  In the role of Earp, the filmmakers cast rising star Randolph Scott, an actor who would come to define the Western genre in the years since.  Though Scott plays the role of a frontier lawman well enough, the problem is that the character he depicts in the movie shares nothing with the real Wyatt Earp other than just his name.  The movie Frontier Marshall doesn’t portray the story of Wyatt Earp so much as it appropriates it into the formulaic Western narrative that it wanted to tell.  Here, Earp is as interchangeable as any other Western hero from that time period.  The film even rewrites the famous O.K. corral scene, portraying it as a lone standoff between Earp and the outlaw cowboys.  Doc Holliday (portrayed here by Cesar Romero) is not present in that moment like he was in real life; something that would be rectified in future adaptations. Despite Hollywood playing loosely with the real life facts behind the story, Scott still leaves a serviceable impression as the legendary lawman.  In the role, you can see the makings of the genre icon that he would eventually become.  Because of that, you can excuse the fact that he also doesn’t look much like the real Earp as well, missing the trademark mustache.  Eventually, though, Hollywood would recognize that the real life Gunfight was due for an accurate portrayal.

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HENRY FONDA in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)

As the Western genre matured, so did the attempts to adapt the life of Wyatt Earp as well.  Fun fact: Wyatt Earp lived long enough to see the early cinematic adaptations of his legendary gunfight being filmed, and on one occasion, Earp visited a set where a young director by the name of John Ford was working.  Many years after that encounter, Ford would bring the story of Wyatt Earp to the big-screen in what many consider to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  For one thing, the casting of Henry Fonda couldn’t be more perfect.  The dashing leading man gives the role a dignified air, and while at times he can be a bit too stoic in the role, Fonda nevertheless delivers on making Earp a beloved hero worth rooting for.  They also got the look right, with Fonda sporting the trademark mustache for the role.  The gunfight in particular is perfectly staged; intense and suspenseful.  The buildup to the climatic moment is what really makes it a standout, building quietly without music and minimal dialogue.  It’s a mastery of direction that you would only find from the genre’s definitive director, John Ford.  In addition, the movie also finds time for the other members of Earp’s posse, with Victor Mature lending great support as Doc Holliday as well as from Ward Bond and Tim Holt as the Earp brothers.  But make no mistake, it’s Fonda that really carries this movie, making Wyatt Earp the idealized lawman; pure in his intentions and steadfast in his resolve.  The image of Earp sitting on the front porch of his office, with one leg raised up against a pillar as he looks down the street has since become one of the most iconic images of the Western genre, and it’s a moment that only a great artist like Ford could pull off.

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JOEL MCCREA in WICHITA (1955)

When the genre entered the 1950’s, the Western became a perfect showcase for the new widescreen process.  Naturally, with the wider canvas, Hollywood wanted to show off the Western frontier in a big way and they drew once again from some of the most legendary stories in the genre.  Wyatt Earp was once again chosen as an ideal subject for this new era of Westerns, but Wichita did something very different with the character, and that was to portray the early years of the man’s life instead of the most defining ones in Tombstone.  In this film, we are introduced to Earp during his time as a cattle rustler in Kansas.  As the film shows, the young Earp runs afoul of bandits and other outlaw cowboys making life hard for the people of Wichita, and through these encounters, it leads him down the road to becoming a marshal of law in the small town.  It’s an interesting look into Earp’s early years, seeing the events that would eventually lead him down the road to the man he would become.  Unfortunately the movie also has the disadvantage of not being too historically accurate.  It was in Dodge City that Earp finally became marshal; not Wichita, where he was only a deputy.  Also, Earp was in his mid twenties during his time in Wichita, so casting middle-aged Joel McCrea in the role seems a little off.  Despite this, McCrea is perfectly serviceable in the role, giving Earp a rugged sternness that works well enough.  The widescreen panoramas are also beautiful to look at, capturing the beauty of the American Prairie wonderfully.  Overall, this movie does offer up an interestingly different side to the legend of Wyatt Earp, showing his beginnings rather than just relying on showing us his most famous moment yet again.

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BURT LANCASTER in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957)

A couple years later, the legendary gunfight would also be revisited on the big screen, only this time, portrayed with a more gritty tone.  The interesting thing about this version of the story is that it gives equal attention to both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  The moving stars longtime friends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Holliday respectfully, and it’s easy to see their comraddery translate perfectly into this film.  Lancaster makes a natural choice for Earp, though they interestingly left the mustache off this time.  He gives the character a nice hard edge, making him both trustworthy, but also intimidating at the same time.  But, Kirk Douglas steals the spotlight here as the slick Holliday, and their conflicts on screen generate the best moments on screen.  The climatic titular battle is also legendary, supposedly shot over a full week just for six minutes of screen-time.  Director John Sturges illustrated his skill as a filmmaker with his spectacular recreation of this scene.  You feel the power of ever gunshot as a viewer and for the first time ever, you see the carnage of the event portrayed without diluting the impact.  Physically imposing Lancaster would stand for many years after as the standard for the character, maybe not so much in physicality, but certainly in terms of personality.  Earp would in the years ahead move away from the purer image seen in My Darling Clementine, and instead become the more tough as nails version that Lancaster portrayed him to be, and that would indeed be a good thing considering how the Western genre changed over time.

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JAMES GARNER in HOUR OF THE GUN (1967)

Years after Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, John Sturges once again returned to Wyatt Earp as a subject, only this time from a different angle.  Instead of rehashing the legendary gunfight again, Sturges chose to show what happened afterwards; portraying the later years of Earp’s life as he deals with the consequences of his actions.  This makes an interesting companion piece with Wichita, as that movie showed the origins of a legend, this movie likewise shows his deconstruction in the years after the moment that would define his life.  Hour of the Gun came at a time when the Western genre was going through a big change, as the genre was less interested in glamorizing the violence of the old West and instead was looking more introspectively into the grim realities of Western life.  In this movie, Earp’s triumphant shootout is shown to be just the beginning of a continuing nightmare, as retribution comes back and Earp must face the reality that his duty as lawman puts a bulls-eye on him at all times.  The film shows him cleaning up the remaining Clanton gang with his friend Holliday (portrayed here by Jason Robards), and the hunt proves to be even more perilous than the shootout he faced before.  Replacing Lancaster as Earp this time was TV’s Maverick himself, James Garner.  Garner gives the character of Wyatt Earp a nice vulnerability that you rarely see in other versions.  Here, Earp questions his abilities and yet never loses his resolve to serve the law, and it makes for a nice rounded portrayal.  And thankfully the mustache makes a return here.  It’s a nice look into how a person deals with the consequences of accomplishing a legendary act and how that may be harder than anyone might expect.

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KURT RUSSELL in TOMBSTONE (1993)

As Hollywood moved into the blockbuster era, the Western genre would also leave the gritty and introspective mood of the 60’s and 70’s, once again returning to the over-the-top spectacle that it once was.  Wyatt Earp’s story would be given such a treatment in this classic retelling that has since become a beloved hit among Western fans.  Let’s be clear, Tombstone is not a subtle movie by any means.  Anyone looking for a true to life portrayal of the events surrounding the legendary gunfight should look elsewhere.  Still, this larger than life approach is exactly what makes this movie so good.  Kurt Russell portrays the legendary Marshall, and it is by far my favorite version of this character.  Russell manages to balance the two sides of Earp perfectly; the charming, straight-narrowed man of the law as well as the ruthless, sometimes unhinged gunfighter.  Russell gives Earp a ferociousness little seen in other versions of the character, and that makes this portrayal especially great to watch.  I especially love the scene where Earp’s posse is ambushed at a watering hole, and Earp begins to lose his mind and take on the entire team of outlaws himself.  This moment in particular also has what is perhaps the greatest utterance of the word “NO” ever put on screen.  Russell isn’t the only great thing in the movie though, and in fact, his Earp is actually somewhat underdeveloped in relation to other characters.  The spotlight in the movie actually belongs to the scene stealing Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, making it the best version of that character we’ve ever seen.  Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot are also solid as Earp’s brothers, as is Stephen Lang as the leader of the Clanton gang.  Few other re-tellings of the legendary gunfight have as much cinematic fun with the events as this one does, and though it may be over-the-top, it’s done in a way that actually elevates the legend rather than deter from it.

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KEVIN COSTNER in WYATT EARP (1994)

The year following Tombstone, we received another movie about the legendary lawman, this time from Director Lawrence Kasdan and star Kevin Costner.  While most films about Wyatt Earp kept focus on the famous O.K. Corral gunfight and it’s participants, this movie chooses instead to tell the full breadth of Earp’s life, from his early days in Kansas to his final days in California.  It’s an ambitious film, clocking in a little over 3 hours, and it does a noble attempt of trying to give Earp’s life an epic overview.  Unfortunately, such a broad canvas also makes this film feel unfocused and a little stale at times.  There’s a reason why previous films focused on just certain events in Earp’s life, because they were the moments that revealed the most about who Wyatt Earp really was.  Portraying the full scope of the man’s life and career only diminishes these moments because they become only parts of the whole, rather than the standouts.  Still, the movie is not bad and Costner does alright as Earp, even if it is kind of one-note.  What I do praise, however, is the portrayal of the legendary gunfight.  This film presents what is probably the most historically accurate portrayal of this moment.  In reality, the gunfight lasted only 30 seconds, according to eyewitnesses.  Wyatt Earp recreates that precisely, showing the shootout as the ugly, quick-bursting killing spree that it probably was in real life; not glamorizing the moment one bit; instead showing the brutality of it.  For that attention to detail, I do commend the movie for at least seeking to be true to history.  Still, we’ve seen better in the Western genre from both Kasdan (Silverado) and Costner (Dances With Wolves, Open Range), and Wyatt Earp stands as a very flawed, but noble take on the legend.  It may have hit a note a little harder had Tombstone  not outshone it a year before, but that’s how we judge movies in the Western genre in general.  The legends tend to be more fun to watch than the real history.

It’s clear that Wyatt Earp has been a resilient figure in the Western genre over the years, and whether or not the movies represent a historically accurate portrait of the man, it’s nevertheless clear that he’s left an impact.  You can see the influence of Wyatt Earp in every heroic fictional Western lawman from Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952) to Adam Cartwright in TV’s Bonanza.  The legendary O.K. Corral gunfight has also become the inspiration for pretty much every shootout ever portrayed in cinema, even in the revisionist Spaghetti Westerns.  But, it all shows how one moment of destiny can turn any ordinary individual into a legend for all time.  Wyatt Earp may not have been the greatest lawman the West has ever known, but his story (embellished or not) has over time become the quintessential representation of everything that we love about the Westerns.  I think that when Wyatt Earp’s story is presented in it’s most idealized form, like with My Darling Clementine and Tombstone, it makes for the best Western.  Even still, Wyatt EarpGunfight at the O.K. Corral and Hour of the Gun also do a serviceable job of building on the legend as well.   Whether or not the real Wyatt Earp was like his cinematic portrayals is beside the point now.  Just like with how we look at the Founding Fathers of our country, we focus more on the legacy that men like Wyatt Earp leave behind, rather than taking a hard look at the person that they really were.  The Western genre is built around idealized heroes and Earp fit that image perfectly.  Had he not come out of that pivotal gunfight unscathed, Westerns today would look very different.

Evolution of Character – Queen Elizabeth I

queen elizabeth portrait

Whenever we’ve seen a character reappear in multiple cinematic treatments over the years, it’s usually a character out of fiction.  Fictional characters, particularly from classic literature, enjoy long histories of successful reinterpretations partly because their adaptations merely have to stay true to the character while at the same time being a little more care free with their role in the story or their place of existence.  That’s why we’ve sometimes seen Sherlock Holmes in modern day, or Robin Hood with an all animal cast, or even Romeo and Juliet as either arctic seals or garden gnomes.  But, sometimes Hollywood returns time and again to a character of a different type; that of a real historical figure.  Though not as common, we do sometimes see historical people interpreted in multiple films in many varied ways.  Albeit, the uses of a historical character in a film is more restricted than that of a fictional character, considering that the real history behind the character has to be accounted for.  But, whether they are the center of a true life story, or a background historical element in a work of pure fiction, it is interesting to see how some historical figures are portrayed in different ways on the big and small screens.  It also takes a special, larger than life figure to make it into multiple cinematic treatments and that’s why great leaders and monarchs are the ones who usually turn up in so many movies.  You can point to famous American presidents like Abraham Lincoln, or legendary commanders like Julius Caesar as historical figures who’ve turned up multiple times.  But, the most common example of reoccurring historical characters in cinema would be historical kings or queen of Merry Old England, and none more so than the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth the First.

Queen Elizabeth I is one of history’s most revered monarchs, and her reign is considered one of the most pivotal in English history.  The second daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth would rise to the throne in 1533 after the short but brutal reign of her half-sister Queen Mary, whom the Protestant rebels who opposed the Catholic monarch dubbed “Bloody Mary.”Elizabeth restored the Protestant reforms of her father as well as reconciled the religious rift in her country and rallied her people together against outside invading forces from France and Spain.  All the while she became a strong patron of the arts and a savvy stateswoman, leading England into a long period of wealth, culture and prosperity that historians now dub “The Golden Age” of English history.  But, beyond her amazing accomplishments, she is also a fascinating character and personality.  She was forward thinking in many ways that few of her male peers we’re at the time, particularly in her interest of exploration of the recently discovered New World.  Because of her, we have to this day a State called Virginia, named in her honor. In many ways, Elizabeth has made an ideal figure for classic romances, because few other woman have held as much power as her in history.  That power dynamic she wields has made her an endlessly fascinating character in many films, and as such, I’ve chosen to highlight a few of her more notable appearances on the big and small screens and see how the iconic image of the Virgin Queen has evolved over the years on film.

queen elizabeth bette davis

BETTE DAVIS in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939)

This was the most notable portrayals of Elizabeth in the early days of cinema, and the filmmakers could not have found an actress better suited for the part than Ms. Davis.  All-American Bette Davis may not have struck people today as the obvious choice to play the iconic English queen, but one only has to look at the finished product in the film and you’ll see her completely transformed.  Lusciously directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers in beautiful Technicolor, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex portrays the often tumultuous love affair between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn).  It’s an old-fashioned, but still engaging classic period drama, and Bette Davis is absolutely the crowning jewel of it all.  She masters the regal-ness of the character, but at the same time explores her humanity in a captivating way.  And the work she put into transforming herself into Elizabeth is remarkable.  She actually had the make-up department shave off her eyebrows and part of her forehead in order to match the image of Elizabeth that we have from her portraits.  Now that’s a commitment to a role that you’ll rarely find in classic Hollywood.  Interesting enough, Bette Davis would return to the role of Queen Elizabeth many years later in the Cinemascope epic The Virgin Queen (1955).  That film isn’t quite as passionate and introspective as this version, but Davis again doesn’t disappoint and the film is worth seeing just for her performance alone.  Overall, for Elizabeth to become an iconic character in the early days of cinema, all Hollywood needed was to give the role to one of their ow reigning Queens, and it was a beautiful match indeed.

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JEAN SIMMONS in YOUNG BESS (1953)

Taking an entirely different view on the life of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bess portrays the early years of Elizabeth, showing her ascension from princess to reigning monarch.  This film, however, is a little more “Hollywood” than previous versions of this story have been.  By “Hollywood,” I mean that it tacks on an entire romantic subplot that has no basis in history.  As Elizabeth grows into adulthood, she contends with a love triangle between her, the Queen Cathrine Parr(Deborah Kerr) and the dashing Sir Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger).  Suffice to say, this is purely fictional and has no basis in real history.  Also, the reign of Queen Mary is completely ignored here; Elizabeth follows her brother Edward immediately in succession.  But, despite the historical inaccuracies, the film does attempt to give Elizabeth a dignified portrayal.  Jean Simmons is fine in the role, giving young Bess a sense of the weight of the responsibilities she must hold, while at the same time giving her the innocence of someone who has yet to carry the burden of her position.  Her performance can sometimes feel a little too naive, but Simmons is not a bad actress by any means and she does do the image of the Queen a lot of honor.  Not much is known of Elizabeth’s formative years, but Jean Simmons does portray a believable idea of what the one day Queen might have been like in that time.  Also of note in this film is the casting of Charles Laughton in the role of Henry VIII; a character which he had won an Oscar for playing  nearly 20 years prior in the Alexander Korda produced film, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

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GLENDA JACKSON in ELIZABETH R miniseries (1971)

Elizabeth was a favorite figure for classic Hollywood, but of course her native country of England has also brought her story to life many times as well.  Though there have been many British films centered around the life of Elizabeth I, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive of them all would be this BBC produced miniseries for television.  Though lacking in the sumptuousness of a big screen production values, Elizabeth R more than makes up for it with it’s attention to the detail of the period and the people who inhabit it.  And at the center of it all is two time Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson.  Jackson may not be as well known to audiences today, but in the late 60’s and early 70’s, she was the “It Girl” of the time, winning numerous accolades and earning enormous respect from critics and audiences alike.  And then, she walked away from acting completely, instead choosing to pursue a life in politics, which helped her towards a long career as a Member of Parliament.  That political fervor that Glenda Jackson had in real life is well reflected in her portrayal of Elizabeth here.  Elizabeth R shows the Queen at her most commanding, effectively showing us the true might that the real Elizabeth might have wielded during her reign.  The lengthy production also gives us a complete portrait of Elizabeth’s life, both the highs and the lows.  It’s an interesting production, and Glenda Jackson gives a captivating performance.  Perhaps Jackson’s closeness to the character inspired where she would go next with her life, but if not, it’s a strong reminder of the power she had as a performer, which reflects well in the role of a Queen.

queen elizabeth cate blanchett

CATE BLANCHETT in ELIZABETH (1998) and ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007)

Here we find the marriage between real history and cinematic pageantry fully on display.  Directed by Indian born director Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth and it’s sequel attempt to portray the life of the Queen with an emphasis on it’s visuals.  These are some very beautiful movies, photographed by British cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, but at times the visuals become a little too showy and distract from the drama that’s supposed to be grabbing our attention; this is more true in the sequel than the original.  Had the central role of Elizabeth been played by a less talented actress, this movie would have easily slumped into the “style over substance” category.  Thankfully, the film has one of the best actresses of our time in the role.  Cate Blanchett fits the role of Elizabeth like a glove and gives a commanding performance that stands out among all the pageantry.  She justly was nominated for her performance in both movies, and her mastery of both the character and her place within this world are remarkable.  Physically, she looks the part as well.  With her sharp features and pale skin, it’s almost as if she’s walked right out of a portrait of the Queen itself.  She also commands our attention through every regal speech she gives, playing the queen as both regal and aloof, depending on the situation she’s in.  This was also the film that introduced the Aussie actress to the world at large, so we can be thankful for that.  Had Cate not been a part of this film, I don’t think it would have worked out as well as it did, so it just shows how important it is to get the right actress for the part. For one of the more luscious productions set around the life of Elizabeth, with a truly great performance at it’s center, this will be one to seek out.

JUDI DENCH in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Released in the same year as Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, we find a film with an entirely different take on the famed Queen.  Here we find a portrayal of Elizabeth in her latter years, slowed down by age, but no less intimidating in her command over her subjects.  The movie of course is more centered around the life of William Shakespeare (played here by Joseph Fiennes) and is a largely fictional tale about a private romance between the Bard and a noble maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow) that inspired the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  Now, some have argued that this movie unfairly robbed Saving Private Ryan of the Best Picture Oscar, and I’m not going to lie, I find myself in that camp too.  This film is delightful and entertaining, but Best Picture worthy?  I don’t think so.  What is less arguable though is the praise given to the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in this movie, brought to vivid life by the great Dame Judi Dench.  Dench appears in only seven minutes total in the film, but my God does she make the most of those seven minutes.  Her Elizabeth is a force of nature, both intimidating and alluring all at the same time; and also surprisingly funny.  I especially love a bit in the movie where she waits for the men of her court to lay down their cloaks over a puddle for her to walk over, but then she gets impatient and walks across anyway, yelling back at them “too late.”  Dench deserved her Oscar for the role, and the movie is blessed with her presence.  She perfectly portrays the image of a Queen who has the experience behind her and the knowledge of how to wield power, and she steals every scene she’s in.

queen elizabeth helen mirren

HELEN MIRREN in ELIZABETH I miniseries (2005)

Helen Mirren holds the unique distinction of having played both Queen Elizabeths in her career.  She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), and she played Elizabeth I here in this joint BBC/HBO production, directed by Tom Hopper of The King’s Speech (2010) fame.  This miniseries portrays the queen in middle age, focusing mostly on two private affairs that shaped her life during this period; those being the one’s she had with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons) and the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), who ultimately betrayed her.  What this miniseries manages to accomplish is to show the influence that Elizabeth’s private life had on her ability to govern, showing the way it built her character.  Mirren of course is more than capable of assuming the role, and perhaps more than any actress before her, she managed to convey the person that Elizabeth was, rather than just capture her image.  Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett commanded in the role before, but their performances tended to be in service to the pageantry.  Here the pageantry takes a back seat to the performance, and Helen Mirren creates a vivid portrait of a woman burdened by the responsibilities of her position and how that takes a toll on her over time.  This miniseries gives the best sense of how Elizabeth’s daily life might of been, and how the necessities of her duty as ruler often conflicted with her desires as a person, and how that conflict would sometimes lead her astray.  Naturally, one of England’s greatest modern actress could so effectively find the woman behind the icon, and Helen Mirren’s performance as Elizabeth I is one of the most natural we’ve seen.

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VANESSA REDGRAVE in ANONYMOUS (2011)

This portrayal of the famed Queen is one of the more problematic, not to mention one of the most insulting to history.  Anonymous is a portrayal of the conspiracy theory espoused by the Anti-Strattfordian movement that claims that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays, and that the true author was a nobleman by the name of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  Naturally, a tale about Shakespeare would involve Queen Elizabeth in some way (given her patronage of Shakespeare’s work during that time), and this movie makes the ludicrous claim that not only was Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) a bastard child born from Elizabeth, but that he would go on to unknowingly have an incestuous relationship with her many years later.  Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.  The film was directed by disaster movie king Roland Emmerich, and it’s about as unsubtle and factually reckless as his blockbusters like 2012 (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).  But, perhaps the film’s greatest fault is how it trashes these real historical figures in service of a bogus narrative that purely exists to indulge this insane conspiracy theory.  And worst of all, it wastes the talents of a legendary actress like Vanessa Redgrave.  Here we find Elizabeth at her most corrupt and lecherous.  This is by far the ugliest portrayal of the Queen, showing her as a creepy old woman blind to the sins of her past.  Vanessa Redgrave can do a whole lot better, and could have given Elizabeth a more dignified portrayal, even as a corrupt monarch.  Sadly, this movie gives her nothing to work with, other than to indulge the lunacy of the director’s theories, and it is by far the last place where you’ll find a fitting portrayal of the iconic Queen.

Whether she has been the subject of a true, historical retelling, or part of the background in a work of complete fiction, Elizabeth I has held an interesting place in cinematic history.  What I find interesting about all these different versions is that the role of Queen Elizabeth has belonged almost exclusively to the best actresses throughout film history.  From Bette Davis, to Glenda Jackson, to Cate Blanchett and to Helen Mirren, each one is regarded among the best in their class.  In fact, of all the actresses I highlighted, only one of them had never won an Academy Award in her lifetime (Jean Simmons).  Some of these performances stand out more than others; Bette Davis is the showiest of the bunch, while Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren are the more intimate.  And Judi Dench’s portrayal in Shakespeare in Love is in a realm all it’s own.  I also think that those interested should check out Glenda Jackson’s work in Elizabeth R; it’s a little drier than the rest, but no less fascinating.  Part of why we love the presence of Queen Elizabeth in the movies of course is because of the performers playing the part, but it’s also because Elizabeth remains a fascinating figure to this day.  Not only was she a unique player in history (a Queen who wielded enormous influence at a time when few women were allowed positions of power), but her legacy would define the period that she lived in.  All these portrayals do an acceptable job of portraying the woman behind the icon (except Anonymous, but that’s not Mrs. Redgrave’s fault).  Hopefully future portrayals continue to delve deeper into this historical tale and make the legendary Queen come alive once again.

Evolution of Character – Robin Hood

robin hood painting

Few heroes of film and literature have had the long lasting legacy that the prince of thieves has had.  Robin Hood’s origins date back to medieval times, possibly even beginning from the exploits of a real person.  Though his historical roots may be disputed today, the legend of Robin has not diminished over time.  For many, Robin Hood is the quintessential freedom fighter; a person who works against the system in order to solve an injustice.  And that distinction has made him a very commonly reinterpreted image of heroism.  Really, he represents many different things to different people.  He’s a rebel, an activist, and a noble protector.  In the world of politics, conservatives view him as a hero who stands up against big government overreach, while liberals view him as a hero who re-disperses wealth from the rich to the poor, both fitting that mold of righting injustices.  And perhaps the most interesting aspect of Robin Hood’s character is his selflessness, which is something that has helped him earn almost universal admiration.  In most versions of his story, Robin Hood is a nobleman who gives up his title and lands in order to achieve social justice outside of the law, which he views as corrupt and illegitimate.  The main story of Robin Hood is set during the post Norman invasion years of English history, where the native Saxon people were at odds with their Norman overlords.  Robin of House Locksley sees the dishonesty in the rule of Prince John, who’s using taxation as a way to oppress the Saxon people, and he uses his expertise as a knight and an archer to subvert the usurper king, and restore the throne to the more just King Richard, who is returning home from the Crusades.

It’s Robin Hood’s nobleness that defines him in his tale, but at the same time, most interpretations also build up the charming playfulness of the character as well.  There’s a reason why Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are known as the Merry Men.  He is both a crusading hero as well as a romantic one, which has endeared him to readers and audiences for centuries.  And that specific aspect is what has made him an ideal character for the silver screen.  Robin Hood has enjoyed many cinematic variations, some of which have left their mark on the character for modern times.  Even with reinterpretations, the essential aspects of the character and his story have remained mostly unchanged.  In each film, Robin steals from the wealthy and gives to the poor; he woos the beautiful Maid Marian; and he restores Richard the Lionheart to the throne bringing peace and prosperity back to the land.  Interestingly, the most common thing that changes from each different film version is Robin Hood’s ultimate nemesis.  Usually, it’s a choice from one of the story’s three central villains; the conniving Prince John, the ruthless Sir Guy of Gisbourne, or the thuggish Sheriff of Nottingham, but almost never all three in the same film.  Sometimes one of those characters is written out entirely, leaving more time to focus on one or the other.  But, what always ends up being the highlight in each movie is Robin Hood himself, and Hollywood has given us many spectacular and varied versions over the years.  Like other articles in this series, I will be looking at a few of the most notable versions of the character on film, and see how Robin Hood has evolved over the years as an iconic screen hero.

robin hood fairbanks

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS from ROBIN HOOD (1922)

Of course, we start with the man who effectively became a legend playing the character.  Douglas Fairbanks was arguably Hollywood’s first matinee idol, and the role of Robin Hood is certainly what helped to cement his image.  What Fairbanks brought so effectively to the character was the fearlessness.  In the film, Robin Hood must accomplish many death-defying feats in order to save his love Maid Marian from the diabolical Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  What is particularly special about all the spectacular heroic feats in the film is that Fairbanks did most of them himself, without a stunt double.  The early days of Hollywood allowed a bit more leeway with what actors and filmmakers could get a way with, and that suited Fairbanks just fine because he was a bit of a showoff, which comes across in his performance.  He’s gutsy, but at the same time debonair, and he brings out every aspect of the character perfectly, despite the restrictions of silent cinema.  His leaping jump from a galloping horse on a raising drawbridge, without the help of visual effects, is a particularly spectacular feat to watch in the movie.  Fairbanks also set the standard on the visual representation of the character, with the pointed cap and the neatly trimmed facial hair.  Indeed, that look would define the character throughout most interpretations in the years ahead.  It’s a movie that clearly proves that Robin Hood was tailor made for cinema, and it took an actor of Fairbanks’ caliber to pull it off.  What Robin Hood needed was the swashbuckling treatment in order to connect with modern audiences, and it came at a time when Hollywood was ever so eager to create one.  And with Fairbanks’ guidance, Robin Hood entered the twentieth century in a big way.

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ERROL FLYNN from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1939)

After the introduction of sound and color to the film medium, Hollywood again saw the opportunity to once again bring Robin Hood back to the big screen.  And the result is this now classic version, which some often cite as being perhaps the greatest screen version of the story ever.  And that’s hard to argue.  This beautifully crafted, Technicolor marvel is everything you want a Robin Hood movie to be.  It’s got adventure and romance, but also a surprising bit of political subtext.  The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, an Jewish Hungarian filmmaker who fled Nazi occupation of his homeland at the start of WWII by fleeing to America and finding work in Hollywood.  This story about suppression of people based on their ethnicity probably felt very personal to someone like him.  But, that’s not to say that this movie is just a product of it’s time; it’s actually quite timeless.  And a large part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.  He exudes charisma throughout the movie and commands every scene.  Where Fairbanks brought out the physicality of the character, Flynn brings out the humanity, displaying the character’s intelligence and open heart in a very effective way.  The movie also has him dealing with all three of his main foes, for the only time that I can think of in any version.  Of particular note is Sir Guy of Gisbourne (played perfectly by Basil Rathbone), whose final duel with Robin is an iconic scene in it’s own right.  Flynn would become the quintessential version of the character for many years, and probably still is today.  No other actor before or since has been able to embody all the nobleness and virtue of Robin Hood, which ironically Errol Flynn had very little of in real life.  I guess that makes this a truly unexpected performance as a result.

robin hood disney

BRIAN BEDFORD from DISNEY’S ROBIN HOOD (1973)

With a larger than life hero as popular as Robin Hood, you knew that Disney would eventually take their own stab at the character with an animated film.  What was surprising about their version was the way they did it.  In Disney’s Robin Hood, the cast is entirely made up of animals playing all the characters.  And remarkably, it works.  Some of the character choices are pretty obvious (Richard the Lionheart is literally a lion here, as is the villainous Prince John), but some are cleverly unexpected; Prince John’s executioners being vultures for example.  But the obvious choice of animal for the titular hero had to be a fox.  For such a cunning and deceptive hero, what else could he be?  The character is perfectly designed around both aspects of the character; embodying the persona of a fox while still maintaining the traditional image of the hero, complete with green tunic and pointy hat.  The voice, provided by British born actor Brian Bedford is also perfectly suited for the character.  He commands the same suaveness of Errol Flynn, but has a bit more modern sarcastic sense of humor.  I also like the way he hams it up whenever Robin is in disguise; whether it be a gypsy fortune teller or as a feeble beggar, it’s always funny.  This version may be quite the departure from the traditional story, but it still does a good job of presenting the character in a heroic and noble way.  As far as a Disney-fied version of the classic character, this Robin Hood proved to be a crowd favorite and it’s widely viewed as one of the more popular versions of the story for modern audiences, despite all the modern liberties taken with the story.  It’s a clear sign of just how universally effective Robin Hood is as a big screen hero.

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SEAN CONNERY from ROBIN AND MARIAN (1976)

Here we have a decidedly different take on the character than previous versions.  This particular film tells us the life of the hero after his daring exploits have already made him a legend, and thus, shows him trying to cope with his legacy into his later years.  This version of Robin Hood is really a deconstruction of the Robin Hood mythos, portraying Robin as a man torn between duty and honor.  In the movie, Robin (played by Sean Connery) is growing older and he’s seen all the good will that he has brought to the kingdom undone by more war and greed.  Richard has again abandoned his throne to fight another Crusade and Robin leaves his king to return home after he becomes disillusioned by the futility of his king’s foolish mission.  Upon returning home, Robin seeks to redeem the one thing left in his life that he feels is still within his reach, and that’s his relationship with Marian (played by Audrey Hepburn) who has become a nun in the years since he left.  The fact that this movie was made in the wake of the ending of the Vietnam War probably has something to do with this more revisionist take on the character, as society was trying to reevaluate the true makings of heroism and justice.  Robin Hood is still pure of heart here, but he begins to doubt his purpose once he’s seen all the good he has done has been for naught.  The movie is touching, particularly in the Robin and Marian scenes, but I do have to say that Connery is a bit miscast here.  The man is too strong of a persona to play this more vulnerable version of the character.  His performance is still good, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s the least effective representation of what Robin Hood is all about in the end.  But, in a future version of the story, we would indeed see Connery much better placed in the world of Robin Hood.

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KEVIN COSTNER from ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991)

For modern audiences, this is probably the version of the character that more quickly comes to mind.  This is also one of the more divisive versions of Robin Hood put to film.  Many critics balked at the casting of all-American Kevin Costner as the titular hero.  The unsubtle approach to the story and characters also made a few people turn their noses up at this version, as well as towards a few other strange film-making choices made by producer Costner and director Kevin Reynolds.  But, I do have to say that I consider this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure.  Is it a perfect interpretation of the Robin Hood story?  Hardly.  Taking away Robin Hood’s sense of restoring well-being to the unfortunate and instead making the movie a revenge tale between Robin and the man who killed his father, the Sheriff of Nottingham (a delightfully campy Alan Rickman) is definitely not the way to go to be faithful to the character.  But, Prince of Thieves works for me based on it’s own merits as a standalone story.  I enjoy the white-knuckle action scenes as well as the beautiful music by Michael Kamen.  And even though Kevin Costner’s attempts at a British accent are laughable, he at least has a commanding presence as the character.  Can’t say the same about Christian Slater’s painfully bad turn as Will Scarlett.  And Costner makes up for his shortcomings by adding charm to the character when needed.  Not to mention, he sells that cold stare when firing an arrow at his target perfectly.  I also love the addition of Morgan Freeman as a Moorish companion for Robin; something worthwhile that this version added to the mythos.  It’s not perfect, but this Robin Hood story still engages me every time I watch it.  Also it allowed Sean Connery to find his rightful place in the world of Robin Hood when he cameos at the end as King Richard himself.  Now there’s a suitable role for the former 007.

robin hood elwes

CARY ELWES from ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1993)

Made partially in direct response to the Kevin Costner version of the Robin Hood tale is this spoof movie directed by Mel Brooks.  Though Costner’s version is mocked heavily, the movie also takes a fair deal of aim at the classic Errol Flynn version as well.  As far as Brooks directed spoofs go, this one isn’t quite as strong as past efforts like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein (both 1974), or even Spaceballs (1987).  But, that’s not to say that it’s a bad parody either.  There are some jokes that fall flat (the chastity belt gag is a little weak), but others are just as good as anything that Mel Brooks has written before, particularly the subtle ones (I especially love the bit where Robin learns how each of his family members have died since he’s been away, including his pet cat and goldfish).  But, the thing that works best in the movie is the casting of Cary Elwes as Robin.  Elwes was tailor made for the character, not only looking the part with his Flynn-esque features but also by perfectly displaying the charisma of the character; having come out of playing Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (1987) probably helped.  I also like the way he  brings that out even with all the gags and puns thrown about in the film.  There’s a great line in the movie where the English born actor even gets to brag about his role as the character; “Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent,” which is a not so subtle jab at the American Costner and probably even to the Aussie Flynn.  And because of Elwes contribution, this is actually one of the better interpretations of the character we’ve seen on the big screen.  It’s funny without betraying what makes the character great in the first place.  And it also taught us the important fact that real men wear tights.

robin hood crowe

RUSSELL CROWE from ROBIN HOOD (2010)

On paper, this should have been an interesting idea, but sadly the execution left a lot to be desired.  Directed by Ridley Scott and starring his go-to star Russell Crowe, this version of Robin Hood actually deconstructs the origins of the character, showing how he became the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest.  Instead of coming from noble lineage, we see Robin rise up from being a lowly archer in King Richard’s army.  He decides to flee back to England after Richard is killed in battle, but not before assuming the identity of a dying nobleman by the name of Robert Loxley in order to gain safe passage.  Once home, he learns of the growing tensions between nobility and the peasantry, while at the same time trying to gain the trust of the Loxley family that he is now in charge of, including the Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett).  At the same time, a plot to help an invading French force is arising, conducted by the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).  If that seems like a convoluted premise, it is.  This version is too bogged down with plot details to work effectively as a Robin Hood story, and sadly what gets sacrificed in the process is character development.  Russell Crowe in particular gets nothing to do with the character.  It’s almost like Scott and Crowe are just trying to rekindle the same kind of magic that they showed in the far superior Gladiator (2000), but have since forgotten how to do it the same way.  It’s an origin story where none is needed.  We want to see Robin Hood steal from the rich to give to the poor, but this movie seems less concerned with that aspect then to showing us how Robin got his name.  It’s beautifully crafted, but a dull sit through of a story, which is decidedly uncharacteristic of a Robin Hood movie.  Mostly, this movie just proves to us the wrong way to bring Robin Hood to the big screen.

Robin Hood has always remained relevant to audiences of all generations.  Everyone knows the tale, whether they’ve seen any of his movies or not, and I guess that’s why so few of these films have actually deviated very far from the traditional plot itself.  I think that a large part of his resiliency is because of the timelessness of the character.  Though medieval in origin, Robin Hood has since become an archetypal hero.  His selfless crusading for the underdog has been a favorite character asset that we’ve seen carried over into other respected heroes in film and literature, such as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  The films based on his exploits have also left their mark on modern action and swashbuckling films over the years too.  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) in particular stands out as an iconic work of film art, and one that definitively establishes Robin Hood’s place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.  Though modern versions of the character have been shaky (particularly the tired Russell Crowe version), he’s still a character that will undoubtedly live on well into the future with more big screen adaptations, and hopefully they’ll continue to add more depth to his hero’s journey.  If there is one thing that all these different versions have shown us is that the story continues to evolve.  That’s the special thing about heroic tales in folklore; they continue to grow the more you share them and add your own special twists.  And in that respect, Robin Hood has grown more as a character on the cinematic screen than he has in many centuries before in literature, making him a truly modern hero.

Evolution of Character – The Wizard of Oz

wizard of oz portrait

Fairy tales have had a long history of success in both literature and in cinema.  And key among it’s strengths have been the larger than life adventures of magical creatures in far off places that help to transplant audiences out of reality, whether they be fairies, witches, monsters, or wizards.  Though fairy tales are popular around the globe, they have primarily come from European origins.  That was until American author L. Frank Baum added his own fantastic tale to the mix when he wrote his now iconic 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Though inspired by traditional fairy tale tropes, there’s no denying that Baum’s classic is the first distinctively American fairy tale.  Telling the tale of Dorothy Gale, a rural girl from the heart of Kansas, Oz is an unforgettable journey that has captured the imagination of readers for over a century.  It also marks a transition in the fantasy genre as it moved away from it’s European roots.  By creating a fully realized world in Oz, Baum was also introducing the concept of world-building into the fantasy narrative, which has since become a common characteristic of fantasy writing ever since.  The the multi-layered worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros all have their roots in the foundation that Baum laid out when he created the land of Oz.  But, it’s not just the amazing spectacle of the land over the rainbow that has sustained the story’s popularity.  It’s also the characters, many of whom are now icons of the genre.

For the most part, the characters have changed very little through all the many different literary iterations over the years.  Dorothy has always remained the innocent child trying to find her way home, and her companions The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion have likewise all stayed true to form.  The villainous Wicked Witch of the West has seen more varied interpretations over the years, though more often than not still firmly placed in the role of the antagonist; the popular revisionist musical Wicked being the notable exception.  But if there’s a character whose portrayals have departed more frequently from the books over the years, it would be the titular Wizard himself.  The Wizard is certainly one of L. Frank Baum’s more interesting creations.  Once thought to be a great, all powerful Wizard, he is by the end of the story revealed to be (spoilers) just an ordinary man.  And not only just any ordinary man, but an outsider like Dorothy who has found himself cast away to Oz after being caught in a tornado.  His talents as a magician helped to convince the local people that he had magic of his own, and it’s probably what helped to elevate him into power, as an alternative to the Wicked Witches of the East and West.  But, to keep up the charade, the Wizard uses the tried and true smoke and mirrors routine to make him a figure meant to be both feared and respected.  Though distinctively drawn in the original story, The Wizard is also the one character that is the most open to interpretation, which has been the case in most of his movie versions.  So, in this article, I will be looking at the many cinematic faces of magician Oscar Diggs and see how he’s evolved as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz over the years on the big screen.

Wizard of Oz 1910

HOBART BOSWORTH from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1910)

The immediate success of The Wizard of Oz at the turn of the century naturally extended out into other mediums, including the emerging art-form of cinema.  The elements of the story lend themselves perfectly to the film medium.  Even L. Frank Baum wrote and directed a couple of these himself.  This 1910 adaptation was not one of those, but it is one of the better versions of the story to come out during this period.  Like most other films made during these early years of cinema, the production is restrained by the limitations of the time, and most of the movie is made up of tableau shots that condense the story down to it’s bare bones.  It’s more of a showcase for set and costume design rather than plot and character development; much like Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902).  But, even still, Baum’s story is still recognizable in those short 13 minutes, and one of the standouts is the Wizard himself.  The film does away with the disguises that the Wizard has used before in the story, and instead presents the man just as the true magician that he is.  It’s a jovial performance from veteran vaudeville actor Hobart Bosworth, who perfectly encapsulates the top hat wearing entertainer that L. Frank Baum visualized, even if it’s perhaps a little too slap-sticky at times.  But, even for a movie made in the early days of film, it does represent a fresh start for such an iconic role.

wizard of oz 1925

CHARLES MURRAY from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925)

Now while effort was put into the 1910 version in order to stay faithful to the original novel, the same cannot be said about this 1925 version.  In this retelling, there are no witches and no magic.  Instead, Oz is a far away kingdom here on Earth that is ruled by a cruel emporer who has usurped the throne from the rightful heir, Dorothy.  You heard that right; Dorothy is a princess of Oz in this version, and she’s not even the main character.  That would be the Scarecrow, or rather a farmhand who disguises himself as a scarecrow.  The reason for this change is because the whole film was meant to be a showcase for comedian Larry Selmon, who plays the Scarecrow part.  To spotlight the actor, they reworked the story around him, even if it doesn’t resemble anything like the original.  This lessens the effectiveness of the characters and the setting overall, because it’s ignoring what made them so popular in the first place.  But most problematic is the Wizard himself.  He’s relegated to a minor henchman role.  Sure, actor Charles Murray looks the part, but he leaves such little impact on the story that it makes you wonder why the movie is still titled after him.  This is an odd interpretation of the classic story, and not surprisingly, audiences rejected it.  It’s good to see that even early fans of the story held it up to high standards and dismissed this attempt to exploit the name for other purposes.  Few other adaptations would stray far from the source novel in the years after.

wizard of oz frank morgan

FRANK MORGAN from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Now we come to what is undoubtedly the greatest cinematic interpretation of Baum’s classic, as well as the most iconic version of the titular character.  1939’s The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece in every way possible, and rightly stands as one of the greatest movies ever made.  Clearly made as response to the popularity of the animated musical adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1939), MGM Studios sought to take on another popular fairy tale and give it the grandest of treatments.  Thankfully they saw the potential in Baum’s story and the movie production does the absolute best job making the land of Oz come alive and feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  The characters are also what makes this such a beloved classic and each one is perfectly cast.  This was especially true for Frank Morgan, who almost looks like he’s leaped right off the page as the Wizard.  Not only does he do an amazing job playing the character, but he’s seen throughout the movie as various other people like the doorman of the Emerald City, as well as a traveling palm reader whom Dorothy befriends back home in Kansas.  But, it’s the Wizard that really highlights his performance, especially when he’s going over the top as the giant floating head in the throne room scenes.  Morgan’s performance is so iconic that every Wizard adaptation since has used his version as a base of inspiration.  And indeed, no other version has ever felt truer to Baum’s vision.  In this classic movie, it is indeed a treat to see the man hiding behind the curtain.

wizard of oz richard pryor

RICHARD PRYOR from THE WIZ (1978)

The enormous popularity of the MGM adaptation kept Hollywood from attempting another version of the tale for quite a while, but Motown Records saw an opportunity in the mid-70’s to take on the tale with a modern twist.  The Wiz imagines the land of Oz as an urban Wonderland full of the musical sounds of Soul and Disco.  The idea of taking the classic story and casting all the roles with African-American actors is certainly a welcome one, and that’s indeed what made it a standout when it appeared on Broadway.  When the movie adaptation happened, the producers from Motown Records reached into their stable of recording artists in order to bring star power into the film, which had some mixed results.  Some of the casting is spot on (Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow; Lena Horne as Glinda) while others are a little off (44 year old Diana Ross as the teenage Dorothy).  But one of the more natural casting choices was legendary comedian Richard Pryor as the Wizard, or Wiz to be more appropriate to this version.  Pryor brings his trademark bombastic comedy style to the role, and it’s a perfect match for the Wizard in his grandiose, giant head form.  The image of the character is also a nice modern twist on the MGM version, with the shiny chrome head feeling both original and true to Baum’s version.  But, once revealed as a fraud, Pryor also captures the timid man behind the curtain perfectly as well.  It may be a revisionist take on a beloved classic, but it’s done with a great deal of admiration for the story, and the movie especially stays true to character with regards to the iconic Wizard himself.

Wizard of Oz 1982

LORNE GREENE from THE WIZARD OF OZ anime (1982)

Just to show how far reaching the legacy of The Wizard of Oz has spread, there’s even a Japanese anime version out there.  And this one isn’t even the first one made, nor the last.  The reason I wanted to highlight this version is because of two reasons; one, it’s the most faithful anime adaptation of the story, and two it’s because it has probably the most accurate interpretation of the Wizard that’s ever been put on film.  In L. Frank Baum’s original story, the Wizard asks to meet Dorothy and her companions individually instead of all together.  Interestingly, each character sees the Wizard in a different form.  For Dorothy, the Wizard appears as a giant, green head; for the Scarecrow, as a beautiful winged angel; for the Tin Man, as a giant beastial creature; and for the Cowardly Lion, as a ball of fire.  This 1982 anime, to my knowledge, is the only time I’ve ever seen these multiple versions of the Wizard actually envisioned.  Even the MGM version strayed from the book here, choosing instead to present the Wizard in one form; the one that Dorothy sees in the books.  That helps to make this version unique out of all the different adaptations, just because it went out of it’s way to accurately represent what’s in the book.  Unfortunately, being too faithful also makes this version a little stilted and dull at times.  Actor Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame performed the English dub for the Wizard, and the voice is a good match.  I especially like the power in his voice when he plays the false versions of the Wizard.  Though not the most exciting version of the story, this is certainly an interesting take on the classic, and offers probably the best visual representation of Baum’s Wizard that we’ve seen to date.

wizard of oz jeffrey tambor

JEFFREY TAMBOR from THE MUPPETS’ WIZARD OF OZ (2005)

Here we have a version of the story built around the legacy of past versions, specifically the classic one from MGM.  On paper you would think that a version of The Wizard of Oz starring the Muppets would be a home run.  Unfortunately, this is not one of the Muppets’ stronger efforts and the whole thing is more of a cash in than anything else.  There’s little effort in trying to be true to L. Frank Baum’s original story, and instead the movie is more concerned with mimicking the movie than the book, to which it does a fairly poor job of doing.  The one exception in this version, however, is the casting of Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard.  Yes, he’s playing it over the top and completely out of character from the original, but he still brings gravitas to the role that’s missing from the rest of the film.  The Arrested Development star has a gift for making pompousness funny, and that’s what he brings to this role as the Wizard.  It’s the Frank Morgan version but without the humbleness, and that surprisingly works well here.  Truth be told, I wish this version was in a better movie.  Overall, it actually shows how well the story has aged over the years, where the archetypes of the characters are able to withstand a more cynical reinterpretation and still retain their dignity.  Tambor does his best with what he has and helps to make the Wizard a standout in an otherwise pathetic retelling of the story.

wizard of oz james franco

JAMES FRANCO from OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

Though a supporting player in the novel that bears his name, the Wizard of Oz nevertheless still has an interesting backstory, seeing as how he has traveled from afar to the land of Oz by accident, just like Dorothy.  Director Sam Raimi saw potential in this backstory and decided to delve into the Wizard’s past with this prequel to Baum’s classic tale.  Oz, The Great and Powerful tells the story of how magician Oscar Diggs came to Oz and became the Wizard and ruler of the Emerald City.  With the help of the good witch Glinda, the story shows Oscar using his tricks to outwit the evil Witches that have taken over Oz while at the same time learning a lesson about using his gifts responsibly and not to just satisfy his own needs.  While a box office hit, some audiences were not pleased with the liberties that were taken with L. Frank Baum’s classic characters; most notably the witches, and some of those complaints are justifiable.  The miscasting of Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West is especially problematic.  But there’s still a lot that I like about this movie, and chief among them is the casting of Franco as the future Wizard.  He may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I actually enjoy his oddball performance here.  He definitely captures the huckster qualities of the character perfectly, and some of his over the top performance choices are definitely enjoyable.  It’s interesting to see the world of Oz presented in a time before Dorothy, when darker forces were in control.  It’s also the one and only time we see the Wizard hold his own as the center of the story, and overall, I like what they did with the character here.  This may not be what Oz purists want to see presented on the big screen, but I think it does a serviceable job of expanding upon the world that L. Frank Baum imagined over a century ago.

Out of all the many characters who call Oz home, The Wizard is the one character that translates the best over the many different iterations of the story.  Dorothy, the Wicked Witch and the other fantastical characters are so iconic that they must be done a certain way or else they won’t work at all, but with the Wizard there really is no right or wrong way to bring him to life.  He is the most adaptable character of the story.  I think that it’s why so many found it suitable that he should get his own movie with Oz, the Great and Powerful.  The role is also easy enough to fill with any kind of actor you choose, making his many different versions so varied over the years.  It’s the only kind of role where you can have Richard Pryor play him in one version and Jeffrey Tambor in the next.  Though some standards on the character were set by the iconic version in the MGM’s classic, as was much of what we recognize as the World of Oz, there’s still a lot of new avenues that can be explored in each new version of the character.  More than anything, the many varied versions of the Wizard of Oz represent the timelessness of the story, which is a strong sign of it’s definitive place in the pantheon of great fairy tales.  Time will tell how much of an impact The Wizard of Oz will have with future generations, but over a century later, readers and audiences are still happy to follow that yellow brick road and meet that Wonderful Wizard time and time again.

Evolution of Character – Romeo & Juliet

romeo juliet painting

Love stories can be found in even the unlikeliest of genres. Oftentimes, some of the best romances are remembered from movies that aren’t even classified as romances.  Take Casablanca (1943) for example.  It has one of the most famous and passionate love stories at it’s center, and yet today it is classified more as a war drama and less of a romance.  It’s also a love story that leaves the two key players apart at the end, and it’s viewed as a noble sacrifice.  Indeed, a great love story comes about as a by product of a great story, and whether or not the characters are left happily ever after is determined by what’s best for the story and not by what the audience desires.  This often means that tragic love stories are the ones that stick with us the most.  There’s a reason why Titanic (1997) became as big of a hit as it did, and it’s not because it’s two leads got a happy ending.  Lost love leaves the biggest impact on an audience because it makes finding it all the more precious.  A character’s strength can often hinge on how well they are able to overcome loosing the one they love; either they rise above it and are grateful for their brief time together, or they succumb to their grief and become lost as well.  Perhaps the most famous of all the tragic romances came from legendary English playwright William Shakespeare when he crafted his own tragic romance titled The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

First published and performed in Elizabethan England in 1597, the tale of Romeo and Juliet has gone on to become perhaps Shakespeare’s most popular piece of work; or at least the most often re-adapted.  Depicting the doomed romance between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, the youngest children of two warring families in the fictional Italian city-state of Verona, Romeo and Juliet touches on many themes that have not only redefined the meaning of romance, but has also gone on to set the modern standard for all love stories to follow.  Romeo and Juliet’s story involved themes about prejudice, generational differences, youthful rebellion, and even sacrifice.  It’s a tale that speaks to many people who fall in love despite social expectations, whether it be someone from another race, religion, culture or sexual orientation.  Basically, Shakespeare’s story is about unbound love, and pointing an accusatory finger at those who prevent it from happening; a theme that still remains relevant today.  Because Shakespeare’s play continues to resonate with audiences, it’s only natural that there should be plenty of film adaptations to compare and contrast with one another.  Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I will be looking at some of the most notable adaptations of Shakespeare’s classic romance, and see how well they defined the characters of both Romeo and Juliet, as well as how well they stuck close to the key themes of the play.  And so with that all said, where for art thou Romeo?

romeo juliet 1936

LESLIE HOWARD AND NORMA SHEARER in ROMEO AND JULIET (1936)

There were many attempts to adapt the works of Shakespeare for the big screen ever since the inception of cinema.  But once the era of talkies came around, it was finally possible to hear the unique Shakespearean iambic pentameter on the big screen.  And the great thing about cinema is that it brought classics to the masses, allowing even the common man to experience the works of Shakespeare and others.  Romeo and Juliet was one such play that was easily adapted for the screen many times, mostly in the silent era.  However, it wasn’t until this lavish 1936 production that we finally got a major Hollywood adaptation of the play.  Starring British actor Leslie Howard (of Gone With the Wind fame) and Oscar-winning actress Norma Shearer as the titular couple, this production does it’s best to be true to the original source material.  The Shakespearean language is still there, albeit truncated to fit a cinematic run time, and the sets and costuming are all exquisitely crafted.  There’s only one problematic thing with this version of the story, and that’s the miscasting of the two leads.  The two actors are not at all convincing as Romeo and Juliet, mainly because they are far too old to play the teenage lovers.  Norma Shearer was 34 during the making of this film, and Leslie Howard was 43.  That is too much of an age difference to make their performances convincing.  Truth be told, Howard fares a little better because of his classical training in London theater, but unfortunately Shearer is too Hollywood in her acting style to rise above this.  Even still, the movie does try to capture some of the essence of Shakespeare’s play, with production values worthy of the material.

west side story tony maria

RICHARD BEYMER and NATALIE WOOD in WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

Other modest big screen adaptations came and went over the decades since Hollywood’s first attempt, but in the early sixties, the story made it’s way into our modern pop culture through a grand re-imagining.  Dispensing of the Shakespearean text and transporting the story into a modern day setting (in this case the slums of New York City) and adding musical numbers, we were given a fresh new look to the classic story.  While West Side Story may not have any of the classic Shakespearean touches, the themes and the emotion of the story remain intact.  In fact, I don’t think there has ever been a better representation of the underlying themes of the play better than this musical version.  Certainly, the themes of forbidden love and the prejudices that separate our tragic couple are presented vividly here, having the stand-ins of Tony and Maria separated by the street gang rivalries that exist within their lives.  By presenting this in a modern day context, this version of the story helps to make these themes resonate even more for the casual viewer.  The musical was a smash hit on Broadway, but it’s the movie version that really makes the story soar.  Given the grand vision of director Robert Wise and the iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins (both of whom shared the Oscar for Directing that year), West Side Story is both intimate and epic, making it one of the most unforgettable love stories ever put on screen.  Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood give very passionate performances as well as the tragic couple, and Wood’s final scene at the end is memorably heartbreaking.  All together it is a grand scale retelling of a familiar story that I think would have been given the Bard’s seal of approval.

romeo juliet 1968

LEONARD WHITING and OLIVIA HUSSEY in ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

Probably the greatest straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s original play, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s version presents the text as it is written with almost reverential treatment.  Given lavish production values and a cast full of classically trained British actors, this version is by far the closest Hollywood has actually come to making a true, unedited version of the play.  The best bit of casting though belongs to the main characters themselves, mainly because Zeffirelli actually cast teenage actors.  Albeit, the actors playing Romeo and Juliet are just a tiny bit older than they are in the text; they had to be at a legal age in order for Zeffirelli to include brief moments of nudity in his film.  But, even still, we buy the fact that these two characters are young and deeply in love.  Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are certainly the least experienced members of a veteran, stage bred cast, but they still manage to hold their own and carry the picture.  Sometimes the lack of experience on their part does show up unfortunately, particularly at the climatic death scene, but the two of them do make it up with the earnestness of their performances.  In particular, the two do manage to nail the pivotal balcony scene.  Whatever shortcomings the actors may have, they are served well by Zeffirelli’s lavish direction.  It wasn’t the director’s first adaptation of Shakespeare (he had made The Taming of the Shrew the year prior with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) nor was it his last (his 1991 adaptation of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson), but this version of Romeo and Juliet was perhaps his greatest work, and certainly the most authentic retelling the big screen has ever seen.

romeo juliet 1996

LEONARDO DICAPRIO and CLAIRE DANES in WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO+JULIET (1996)

Probably the most notorious retelling of Shakespeare’s play, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s version is a hyper-stylized take on the original text.  Luhrmann keeps the Elizabethan language intact, but he sets the story in the modern day with the warring Montague and Capulet families depicted as street gangs terrorizing the fictional beachfront city of Verona, California.  Trust me, West Side Story this is not.  While Luhrmann’s style is unique and beautiful to look at, I am unfortunately of the opinion that it’s a bad fit for the material.  All the eye candy and sporadic editing is just too distracting and takes away from some of the power of the text.  Seeing all these modern clad actors spouting Shakespearean dialogue with editing and cinematography more at home in a music video makes the whole project feel more like style over substance.  What ultimately saves this movie, however, is the cast and in particular, the two leads.  This was a turning point film for the careers of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes; he would go on to super stardom the following year with the release of Titanic, and she would go on to become a multi-Emmy winner in groundbreaking TV shows like Homeland.  Here, they deliver outstanding performances as the doomed lovers that feel more natural and assured than any version before, or really after.  Again, they are older here than in the text (both in their 20’s) but the acting is so good, it really doesn’t matter in the end.  Their performances are emotional and captivating, indicative of how talented they had become as performers.  While the movie itself is jarring, the performances help to save it in the end, delivering probably the most heartrendingly raw and intimate versions of the characters we’ve ever seen.

romeo juliet must die

JET LI and AALIYAH in ROMEO MUST DIE (2000)

Just to show the universality of awareness that Shakespeare’s play has on the culture at large, this thriller starring acrobatic and martial arts trained Chinese actor Jet Li and singer/actress Aaliyah shows how you can even implant the story into an action movie.  The story is what you would expect from a film like this; Jet Li is an undercover cop investigating the murder of his brother, and while on the job, he ends up falling for the daughter of the very mob boss he’s trying to take down, leading to a forbidden romance that leaves all of them in danger.  Now if you’re looking for an authentic retelling of Shakespeare’s play, this is not it.  It’s just a silly action thriller with a love story at it’s center.  It also has a happy ending, which is definitely not true to Shakespeare’s original intent.  But even still, it is interesting to see how pervasive the story has become, where it can even appear as the basis for an action thriller.  Certainly the filmmakers want to invoke the Shakespearean connection with a title like Romeo Must Die.  But, that’s where the connection ends.  Basically, the only link it has apart from that is the theme of forbidden love; although in this case, it is a love that prevails in the end.  Jet Li is in fine form here, especially during the well-choreographed fight scenes, and Aaliyah (who’s short-lived career was tragically cut short the following year in a plane crash) is likable as well.  In fact, the best thing you can say about the romance in this movie is that the two of them do indeed have chemistry, and you want to see them together in the end.  That’s something that most other romantic movies wished they had.  So, in the end, not a great adaptation of Shakespeare but a more than passable homage.

romeo juliet seals

ANIMATED SEALS in ROMEO & JULIET: SEALED WITH A KISS (2006)

No joke people, this is a real thing.  There is actually an animated, musical retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet, with seals and other sea creatures starring in the roles.  And if there was an adaptation that would rile up Shakespearean purists the most, it would be this one.  It does everything cliched thing that sub-par animated movies do; replacing wit with slapstick and pop-culture references and taking short-cuts in storytelling in order to pander to a younger, G-rating audience.  But, even with all these faults, the story still does keep many of the traits of the original story intact, like the iconic balcony scene (here depicted as a cliff-side overhang) and even Juliet poisoning herself in order to appeal to the warring factions to stop fighting and let her be with Romeo.  Unfortunately, the end result feels more exploitative of the material rather than respectful.  The film is actually more interesting as an example of independent film-making than as a movie itself.  It was made by former Disney animator and director Phil Nibbelink (The Great Mouse Detective, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and An American Tail: Fivel Goes West to name a few credits), who crafted the film entirely by himself in his own home studio, using Flash animation software on his computer.  With the knowledge that this movie was made by hand entirely by one person, you can’t help but be impressed with the final product.  Even though it is far from Disney quality, the final film does have a very polished look, and you can tell that Nibbelink put his heart into it.  The final result is admirable, but not a great representation of Shakespeare’s classic.  The characters of Romeo and Juliet are especially not served well, as they are merely one-dimensional caricatures.  A neat independent oddity, but no where near worthy of the legacy.

romeo juliet 2013

DOUGLAS BOOTH and HAILEE STEINFELD in ROMEO & JULIET (2013)

This marks the most recent iteration of the play, and it’s one that goes back to the basics.  Set in it’s appropriate time period and with a lavish production and elite cast behind it, this one looks on the surface like a very commendable retelling of Shakespeare’s work.  It even has a screenplay adaptation done by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.  Unfortunately, this retelling has none of the passion found in Shakespeare’s writing, nor the wit of most of Fellowes’ scripts.  Part of the problem with this production is the performances.  Everyone in this production is either over-acting or under-acting, and the latter is especially true for the titular lovers.  Douglas Booth is as vanilla a Romeo as we have ever seen, and Hailee Steinfeld shows none of the charisma here as Juliet that she showed so well in her Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010).  It’s clear that the movie is trying too hard to feel epic and grandiose, but in the end it just underwhelms Shakespeare’s text and like Baz Luhrmann’s version, favors style over substance.  It’s pretty, but bland.  Here, we get Shakespeare by way of Hollywood, and it’s clear by both the direction as well as the marketing behind this movie that the producers were trying to aim this movie version towards the Twilight fan base.  Overall, it’s a waste of good talent and a shameless exploitation of a classic story that adds nothing to the overall text and merely just exists to pander to a niche audience.

So, even though Romeo and Juliet the play has had an up and down history on the big screen, it is clear that the characters have been well served by Hollywood, as they have risen to icon status over the years and continue to influence love connections in romances to this day.  And it is amazing how even 400 years after it was first written, that it still remains a relevant story today.  As long as there are struggles between warring classes across the world, there will always be those who choose to break from their tribes and build bridges through love.   It’s an idea that probably was best brought to the screen in West Side Story, which is rightly regarded as an all time great film.  But as far as adaptations of the original text go, you’ll probably find Zeffirelli’s to be the most faithful and engaging, although the best versions of the characters themselves may actually be the ones found in Baz Luhrmann’s erratic adaptation; and that’s solely because of the strength of the actors’ performances.  But, these are only examples that stick closely to the original source itself.  You can find shades of Romeo and Juliet in almost any modern love story; in particular, the ones involving couples who come from different walks of life.  As long as forbidden love remains a relevant thing in our culture, the power behind Shakespeare’s original classic will live on.  Interestingly enough, it’s not even considered Shakespeare’s greatest work by some of the Bard’s most dedicated fans, which could go to either Hamlet  or King Lear, depending on who you talk to.  The fact that Romeo and Juliet continues to be Shakespeare’s most widely popular and most-often adapted play is really a big testament to the power of love.

Evolution of Character – Count Dracula

dracula vlad

Every year when the Halloween season comes around again, we start to spotlight and celebrate the iconic monsters that populate the traditions of the holiday.  You’ve got your zombies, your demons, your Frankenstein monsters, and your warewolves.  But the monster that is the most iconic of the bunch seems to be the vampire, which is currently seeing a resurgence (for better or worse) in pop culture.  Thanks to stories like those in the Twilight series, younger audiences in particular are now looking at vampires as not only fascinating monsters, but also as desirable role models as well; which unfortunately is a sad reduction of the real menace and attraction that vampires have had in pop culture in the past.  Vampires have made far better villains in the past than instead of being the superheros that they are in today’s young adult driven media.  And no better vampire figure made menace and evil look so good on the big screen than the great Count himself, Dracula.  Though Dracula is larger than life and among the most imaginative monsters around, he is actually based off of a real life historical figure.  Vlad Tepes III, Prince of Wallachia, ruled his kingdom in modern day Romania in the late 15th century, becoming a valuable ally for christian Western Europe in repelling Turkish invaders.  However, though he was a popular king in his time, history has instead focused more on the brutality he showed towards his enemies, much of which has defined the legend around him.  Dubbed Vlad the Impaler, due to his common practice of impaling people on spikes outside his Transylvanian stronghold, the man’s legacy became one of blood-soaked terror.  Legends soon sprang up around the man, including one’s where people believed that he drank the blood of his enemies.

Like most legends, these were exaggerated accounts, but over time they managed to catch the interest of a gothic Irish novelist named Bram Stoker, who distilled all of the legends of Vlad the Impaler and crafted them into his now legendary 1897 novel, Dracula.  Taken from the name of Prince Vlad’s ancestral house name, Draculesti, Bram Stoker crafted what would eventually become the first true literary representation of a modern vampire.  Though vampirism had been present in literature for centuries before, Stoker is the one who set much of rules and mythology behind the creatures.  The idea of vampires being immortal and able to infect others once they are bitten came from Stoker’s novel, as well as the ideas that vampires rest during daylight in coffins and cannot cast a reflection in any mirror.  Whether he planned it or not, Stoker’s novel would become the Bible to which all future depictions of vampires would follow, and over a century after the novel first premiered, it’s influence is still apparent in most if not all vampire stories today.  And the reason for this is probably because the central monster of his story, Count Dracula, is such an iconic and unforgettable creature who can still send chills down the spines of audiences both young and old.  As far as vampires go, there are none who are as frightening, or as seductive, or as commanding as the Count.  And though his character has changed little overall since Stoker’s original novel, it is interesting to see how Dracula has been adapted and re-adapted again to connect with audiences over time, while still maintaining his most essential elements.  In this article, I will be looking at some of the most notable cinematic iterations of the character, and see how well they have adapted and redefined the character over time.

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MAX SCHRECK from NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF TERROR (1922)

The first cinematic telling of the tale came from groundbreaking German expressionist director F.W. Murnau.  Though Murnau sought to adapt the original novel for his movie, he was denied the rights by Bram Stoker’s estate, since they believed that the new cinema art-form was nothing but trash and unworthy of a story like Dracula.  But Murnau was determined to get his vision of the story on the big screen and he worked through a loophole where he could make the same story as long as he changed the names of the characters and the location of the setting.  Therefore, Count Dracula became Count Orlock and the setting moved from England to Bavaria.  But make no mistake, it’s still the same story and Murnau proved exactly why the movie needed to be made in the first place.  The film is remarkably creepy and Gothic, which was quite a feat to accomplish back in the early days of cinema.  Murnau especially makes great use of the shadows to get the more horrific moments of the movie across in subtle ways.  But, what really sells this film is the intensely creepy performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock.  His performance is so perfect here that it actually led to speculation at the time that the man was an honest to goodness real vampire; something that provided the inspiration for the movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000), starring Wilem Dafoe as Schreck.  I especially love the whole vampire bat motif that the character embodies, which makes him a truly grotesque movie monster.  Though there were objections to the portrayal of Dracula on the big screen beforehand, there were none after seeing the brilliant results in Nosferatu.

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BELA LUGOSI from DRACULA (1931)

Although Murnau’s take on the character may have set a foothold in cinematic history, it was Hollywood that truly made Count Dracula an icon.  Directed by Hollywood shockmaster Tod Browning (Freaks), 1931’s Dracula brought Stoker’s famous character to life better than anyone could have expected, and that is largely thanks to the absolutely perfect casting of Bela Lugosi as the Count.  Lugosi has probably had more influence in defining the character of Dracula than anyone else, other than Bram Stoker of course.  His ability to deliver such menace in his eyes and the simple gesturing of his claw-like fingers brings so much out of the character and it helps to sell the idea of the true horror that this vampire inflicts without ever having to show it.  Bela’s appearance would also influence the character, with his floor length cape and slicked back hair.  But it was his voice that would have the most impact overall.  The movie was made in the early days of recorded sound in movies, and no one had any idea what Dracula would sound like, so it seemed natural that Bela’s deep Hungarian accent would stand out in the film; giving the character an almost melodic and seductive tone to his voice, which fit perfectly for the character.  Every depiction of Dracula since has taken some inspiration from Lugosi’s version, whether it’s the accent or the costume, which shows just how iconic his performance is.  Unfortunately, it was a character he never was able to grow out of, and his latter career found the man typecast in cheaper knockoffs of the original tale.  Still, his performance in the original is beloved today and has made Bela Lugosi a fan favorite to people all over the world.

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CHRISTOPHER LEE from HAMMER PICTURES’ DRACULA SERIES (1958-1973)

While Bela Lugosi’s take on Count Dracula may be the most iconic, famed British actor Christopher Lee’s version would become the most prolific.  Lee portrayed the Count in nine different movies over a 15 year period, as well as portraying vampires in many other films as well, helping to cement his reputation as the go-to-guy for vampire movies for a long time.  Made by the England-based Hammer film company mostly during the mid to late 60’s, these Dracula movies were more stylized and graphic than the previous Hollywood versions of the story.  Where Hollywood would imply the horror offscreen, Hammer would display it in all it’s bloody glory.  Indeed, Hammer Films brought out more of the monster in the character of Dracula and helped to cement him as one of cinemas most truly horrifying creatures.  That’s not to say that he was completely savage either.  Hammer was wise enough to cast a quality actor like Christopher Lee in the role, who manages to balance the refined and seductive elements of the character with the more horrific.  He really captures the humanity of the character well in the movies, but is also not afraid to indulge in the animalistic terror that the Count also possesses.  One of the best touches that they added to the character in these films was the way that Dracula’s eye burn red whenever he’s ready to feast on his victim.  It’s a remarkably terrifying take on the character, and this role no doubt helped to shape Lee’s reputation as a memorable heavy in horror movies; something he would bring with him in later roles like Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies and Count Dooku in Star Wars.  Not only that, but he also managed to give the character the update that he needed in a less innocent time, while still staying true to the character’s roots.

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FRANK LANGELLA from DRACULA (1979)

After the gorier versions of Dracula made by the Hammer films, this version directed by John Badham tried to bring the character back to his more Gothic, Victorian roots.  The results were well crafted, if a bit stale.  By no means a bad retelling of the original tale, this one still feels a little lacking mainly because it departs so much from what had made the character so popular over the last few decades.  Instead, this version of Bram Stoker’s tale wants to tell the Masterpiece Theater version of the story, with lush production values and refined, theatrical dialogue.  That’s not to say that they water down the character at all, and indeed the best element of the movie is still it’s central monster.  Frank Langella definitely plays up more of the seductive side of Dracula’s character, making him both charming and alluring.  But, when he does go into full vampire mode, he does manage to come off creepy and menacing.  A break-in scene where he hangs upside down like a bat outside of his victim’s window is an especially frightening moment, and he manages to pull off the dead eye stare very well in that moment.  Unfortunately, the movie is also dialogue heavy in the wrong places, and it would have served the character better to have had a lot more moments play out silently like that creepy break-in scene did.  Interestingly, this is one of the more youthful depictions of the character, showing Dracula as less of the lecherous older man that he had been in previous versions, and more like a dashing young bachelor who can more convincingly seduce his female victims, which Langella embodies very well here.  It’s a flawed retelling, but one where the character still shines through.

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KLAUS KINSKI from NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)

Departing from the Hollywood image of the Count that had become more or less standardized over the years, German director Werner Herzog decided to take the character of Dracula all the way back to his cinematic beginnings and undertake a remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.  While many people would scoff at the idea of wanting to remake a beloved classic like Nosferatu, it actually seems like the perfect project for an unpredictable and button-pushing director like Herzog.  Add to the mix a performance by the equally experimental and temperamental German actor Klaus Kinski as the titular vampire and you’ve got a remake that is worth seeing.  The end results are mixed; amazingly the movie is only half as scary as the original, which is not good given all the advancements in cinema since the original was made.  And I think that’s largely due to Herzog’s inability to make this movie stand out against it’s predecessor.  You can sense the director’s affection for the original, but by emulating it so much, his film lacks any identity in itself.  However, where the movie does excel is in Kinski’s performance as Count Orlock.  While not as creepy as Max Schreck’s version, it is still nevertheless a bizarre and engaging performance that’s well suited for the character, as well as for the notoriously oddball actor.  He embodies the character perfectly, and even manages to find some depth in the performance that wasn’t there originally in Schreck’s portrayal.  As far as remakes go, the movie could have done a lot worse, and it does still works for the most part by staying true to the depiction of it’s central vampire.  Still, if you had to choose between the two, I would still recommend the original, and only check out this version for Kinski’s performance.

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GARY OLDMAN from BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

Lugosi may have set the standard for the character, and Christopher Lee may have given the character his frightening backbone, but if I were to pick the greatest single portrayal of the character of Count Dracula, it would be this remarkable performance by Gary Oldman.  Oldman truly proves why he is one of the greatest actors of our time with this multi-layered, nuanced, and just downright terrifying portrayal of Dracula in the movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  In many ways, his performance is an amalgam of all the previous versions of the character all put into one.  His early scenes as the incredibly creepy, ashen-faced vampire contains echos of Lugosi and Lee’s versions within it, played out in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion that’s all Oldman’s own.  And then when the movie shifts to it’s London-based second half, we see Oldman embody the seductive, youthful version of the character that Frank Langella first brought to the screen.  And Gary Oldman manages to infuse all of these elements together perfectly in a remarkably soulful performance.  This is a Dracula that brings in all the familiar elements, but is brought to life in a way that we’ve never seen before, making this version feel wholly unique.  If only the movie surrounding the performance was better.  While not terrible by any means, Coppola’s movie does feel disjointed at times, especially when Dracula is not front and center.  It’s also a really bizarre movie too, with many scenes taken to such outlandish extremes, that it sometime feels exploitative (not to mention that it features Keanu Reeves embarrassingly trying to work a British accent into his performance).  Still, Gary Oldman is the absolute highlight of the movie, and elevates the piece as a whole.  It’s probably well suited that the movie is a little on the messy side, because it makes his groundbreaking work in the role stand out all the more.

dracula hotel

ADAM SANDLER from HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012)

Certainly an odd pick to include with all the others in this article, but I chose to highlight this version of the character because it illustrates the impact that the character has had in pop culture and on Gothic horror tropes in general.  This animated film focuses on a luxury resort run by monsters for monsters, with Dracula himself is the owner and caretaker.  Naturally, there are in-jokes to be had regarding the monstrous inhabitants of the titular hotel, and the filmmakers actually show off a particularly extensive knowledge of all the different monsters that they are spoofing.  Like many people have said, spoofing is the highest forms of flattery, and that’s exactly what goes on in Hotel Transylvania.  While nowhere near Disney/Pixar in quality, this film is surprisingly better than it has any right to be, especially considering that it features Adam Sandler in the role of Dracula.  The reason for this is because of the quality of it’s humor.  Hotel Transylvania does an effective job of taking many notable elements of Dracula’s persona and turning them on it’s head.  And indeed there are clever nods to past versions of the character, like Sandler laying on the thick accent that Lugosi made popular, or the glowing red eyes that Christopher Lee had introduced.  It all brings together a version of the character that can exist within a PG-rated cartoon, without feeling like an insult to previous versions.  Indeed, this movie does a better job of poking fun at Dracula movies than what Mel Brooks failed to do with his Dracula, Dead and Loving it (1995); a rare misfire for the usually reliable humorist.  Is Hotel Transylvania a great movie?  No, but it serves as a fine introduction to the character for younger audiences.

Dracula has had a long history as an icon for both cinematic and literary horror, and his legacy shows no signs of stopping.  Even this very week we are getting a new film called Dracula Untold (2014) which gives the vampire the Game of Thrones treatment by drawing upon more of the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler and infusing him with all of the famous tropes of the modern Dracula character.  What is interesting about the character today, however, is that he’s managed to become not just a defining character within his own story, but pretty much the symbol of the Halloween season itself.  Dracula has managed to outshine all other Halloween monsters to become the leader of the pack, and is usually depicted as such in many Halloween themed films; particularly the ones aimed at kids.  The fact that Dracula has become an accepted movie monster in kids entertainment just shows you how far flung his influence has been.  And the reason why Dracula has had such a deep impact in our pop culture is because of the many great cinematic incarnations he’s had.  From the creepy re-imagining of Nosferatu to the iconic portrayals by Lugosi, Lee, and Oldman, he’s a character that has deservedly “staked” his claim in our collective imaginations.  And what makes him so interesting is the fact that he embodies all the things that we fear the most; the danger of the unknown and loss of innocence.  No one else embodies the idea of vampirism better than the Count and one wishes that his creepy, seductive presence would take a hold once again over all of these recent cinematic vampire wannabes.  You know why true horror fans always gravitate towards Count Dracula in the end?  Because Dracula doesn’t sparkle.

Evolution of Character – Tarzan

Tarzan Portrait

Around the turn of the 20th century, before cinema became the dominant form of entertainment in our culture, pulp novels and comic strips was where you would find story-tellers presenting grand adventures in far off exotic places.  During this period of time, you would’ve seen a flourish of imagination and invention in print from the minds of great writers like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle; men who not only dreamed of fantastical worlds here on earth, but also out in the cosmos as well.  But, it wasn’t just these European authors who were crafting these grand adventures for readers around the world.  An American author by the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs was also becoming a popular name in adventure story-telling.  Burroughs was something  of an adventurer himself, having been raised in the American West his whole life, and many of his travels across the wilds of frontier probably had an influence on his writing later on.  When he began his career as a writer, he created two characters that would come to define his body of work and leave a legacy for years to come.  Those characters would be John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, the Ape Man.  Of course, Burroughs publications could not have come at a more opportune time, because just as the John Carter and Tarzan novels were hitting the shelves, movie cinemas were coming into existence and Burrough’s novels provided the perfect material for adaptations.  Strangely enough, it was Tarzan who would make the quick transition to cinema and not John Carter.  Carter had to wait nearly a hundred years for his first trip to the big screen; the disastrous 2012 film from Disney that now stands as one of the biggest flops in film history.  But, while Carter has faded from memory, Tarzan has remained relevant, and continues on to today.

And it’s a wonder given Tarzan’s limitations as a character.  He speaks very little and he stays more or less the same person, although he does learn more as time passes.  Tarzan’s story revolves around the common nature vs. nurture concept, where a human being is raised by apes in the jungles of Africa and grows up to become more animal than man.  What’s more, when he finally encounters other human beings, he reacts to them in ways that go beyond normal human societal interactions, mainly because he’s never learned anything about manners or human boundaries.  All the things that makes a human being function in society is absent in Tarzan, because all he knows are the rules of the jungle.  But even despite this, Burroughs also examines through the character what makes all of us human at our most instinctual levels, which mainly comes through in Tarzan’s curiosity and through his compassionate ability to love, especially when he encounters his beloved companion, Jane Porter.  Without Jane’s interactions in the story, Tarzan would have come across as a feral animalistic character, and by growing the bond between the two, we see an interesting contrast between a Tarzan who was raised in the wild and a Tarzan who has been civilized by society.  Burroughs shows us that society has constructed all humans based upon it’s own standards, but when you take all of that away, you see what really make us all the same down to our core.  We are all curious creatures and compassionate people who do what we can to survive, and it’s only societies expectations that makes us different from one another.  Now, as Tarzan has made it to the big screen, some of those concepts have translated over, thanks in small part to the guiding hand of Burroughs on some films, while others have missed the mark completely.  In this article, I will be looking at some of the notable interpretations of the character on the big screen, and see how well they have translated Burrough’s vine-swinging hero over the years.

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ELMO LINCOLN in THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN series     (1918-1927)

From it’s first publication in 1912, it didn’t take long for the Tarzan series to make it to the screen.  In 1918, audiences got their first glimpse of the famous character in action.  The role was filled by actor Elmo Lincoln, whose muscular physique probably helped him in getting the part.  Lincoln certainly has the build for the character, although his age proves a little problematic, given that he’s a bit too mature to be playing the more youthful and agile hero.  But, at the same time, the silent production is fairly limited in scope, so Lincoln’s portrayal here perhaps fits more into the design of what the filmmakers had to work with.  He does capture some of that wildness of the character, as well as some of his wide-eyed wonder of the outside world.   But at the same time, the movie’s limited narrative prevents us from ever delving deeper into the character, and I’m sure that much of the intent behind the film was just to bring Tarzan from one fight scene to another.  Still, it proved to be as popular as the novels and Elmo Lincoln would continue playing the character in four more movies, the last being The King of the Jungle (1927).  And Lincoln’s status as cinema’s first Tarzan still is significant considering how long a legacy the character has had in the movies.

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JOHNNY WEISSMULLER from TARZAN THE APE MAN Series (1932-1948)

Not long after the silent Tarzan’s did we get our first talky, as well as a new actor donning the loin cloth who would leave an indelible impact on the character for years to come.  Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer before he won the part of Tarzan, and no doubt his athletic build played a part in that casting.  The remarkable thing about his performance though is how well Weissmuller fits into the role.  Truly, Weissmuller plays the part of Tarzan so well, that it’s as if he was always meant to be the character.  He’s savage but also sweet and he exudes incredible charm in the role.  Playing perfectly off of his co-star Maureen O’Sullivan (in the role of Jane), Weissmuller brought the character fully to life and more than anything, also managed to be true to Edgar Rice Burrough’s original intent with the character; at least with the first couple films in the series.  When we usually think of the character of Tarzan today, more than likely this is the version of the character that pops into mind, and that’s a good sign of Weissmuller’s legacy as the character.  Weissmuller also added something to the character that was completely original and not from the original text at all; this being Tarzan’s famous yell.  In  addition to being a world-class swimmer, Weissmuller was also known for his ability to yodel, which he somehow managed to work into the film fo the better.  Now, because of Johnny’s contribution, we expect that trademark yell to come from the character in every outing.  Sometimes Weissmuller’s own recordings get recycled when an actor can’t pull off the yell.  Weissmuller would play the character in 12 films over 16 years, which is a feat that is still unmatched to this day.

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LEX BARKER from TARZAN Series (1949-1953)

Not to let their prized franchise go after Johnny Weissmuller called it quits in 1948, parent studio RKO looked to recast the character, and they did with rising actor and war veteran Lex Barker.  Though Lex shares a physique similar to that of Weissmuller, his performance as the character lacks the same charisma.  This is more due to the fact that the filmmakers were running out of ideas for the character on the big screen, and less so to do with Lex’s talents as an actor.  Truthfully, Lex got better as the character as the series went along, but he only ended up making 5 films in the end.  Still, it came at a time when the series was getting campier and more outlandish, putting Tarzan in situations that strayed far from the original novels.  To Lex’s credit, he did keep true to the character by making the physical action scenes intense and believable as well as displaying much of the humanity of Tarzan in the quieter moments.  The Tarzan films continued to be popular during his time, but it was short lived considering that the television era was right around the corner.  Tarzan would make the transition to the small screen as well, but Lex’s time as the character was limited to his big screen appearences.  His time as the character would also mark the last of the classic era Tarzan story-lines, which more or less stayed consistent over the years in that classical Hollywood sense.  The adaptations that followed would stray off in very different directions and would also be reflective of the eras that they were made.

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MIKE HENRY from the TARZAN Series (1966-1968)

Made after several lesser adaptations for TV and film, the next big attempt at adapting the character came in the late 60’s, with muscular action star Mike Henry in the role.  This is a considerably different kind of Tarzan, played more as a lustful strongman rather than the playful jungle crusader that Weissmuller and Barker portrayed him as.  Henry’s performance also strangely gives him a full vocabulary, which is a departure from the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” days of the character.  This is probably because of the campy style that the filmmakers were trying to go for.  Here, Tarzan’s more Superman than Ape Man, defending the jungle as it’s savior.  Unfortunately, Mike Henry’s talents as an actor are limited and he’s more or less there to fill the image of the character rather than give it any depth.  The trio of film’s that Mike Henry starred in definitely have a campy 60’s feel to them, and you can imagine many of these same kinds of story-lines playing out on a weekly TV series as well.  The production values of the movie also reflect a time where filmmakers were starting to move away from the studio system and were doing things their own way.  The best thing you can say about these 60’s Tarzan movies is that they brought the series out into the wild.  Most scenes were actually filmed out in a real jungle and not on a soundstage, which does help to make it feel more genuine.   If only that same care was given to making the character feel more authentic.

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MILES O’KEEFFE from TARZAN, THE APE MAN (1981)

Considering the 1970’s were a period of free expression and sexual awakening, it seems natural that a film centered around Tarzan would be reflective of that.  Probably the only film in this retrospective to focus solely on the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, Tarzan, The Ape Man is also by far the most sexually explicit.  What’s interesting is that this is a film told from Jane’s point of view, which gives us an interesting look into how someone from the modern world observes and reacts to a being like Tarzan.  Of course, due to the nature of this movie, Tarzan is mostly observed by Jane (Bo Derek) as an object of desire.  The film is not pornographic, but it definitely doesn’t shy away from the subject matter either.  There are plenty of scenes in this movie that are meant to titillate the audience, but strangely enough they actually work within this film.  Miles O’Keeffe does bring the character back to his more primitive roots and as a result makes the character of Tarzan more likable.  Observed through Jane’s perspective, we come to understand why she sees this strange being as someone who should be loved rather than feared.  The production of the film also backs up the erotic nature of the film, by capturing the lavishness of the jungle setting.  The film does deliver on it’s R-rated promise of a mature retelling of Burrough’s original story.  Not only that, but it also gives us a Tarzan who looks and acts the part closer than what had been done before.  If only the film captured more of what the character was about that what he represents, which in this film is more or less a sexual object.

tarzan greystoke

CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT from GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)

As blockbuster and prestige film-making began to become more prevalent in the 1980’s, many filmmakers started to look for older properties that would be worthy of an update for modern audiences.  And while Tarzan never really disappeared over the years, director Hugh Hudson saw something untapped in the character’s back-story that he thought would be worthy of adaptation.  In Greystoke, we look more into Tarzan’s origins, and how he became who he is.   Taking the cue from Burrough’s own novels, we learn that Tarzan is actually a descendant of one of England’s most affluent and influential families, and his disappearance was the result of him being the only survivor of a shipwreck off the African coast.  Long thought dead, Tarzan grew up raised by a pack of gorillas and has learned to live as one of them for all the years since.  An expedition that includes Jane Porter (Andie McDowell) finds him in the wild and they attempt to bring him back to England and civilize him so that he can claim the inheritance that he’s due; a task that proves to be more difficult than they realize.  The great thing about this film is that it’s the first really earnest attempt to capture the spirit of the original novels, rather than exploiting it for entertainment purposes.  Lambert looks the part and tries his best to capture the spirit of the character.  Unfortunately, despite it’s lavish production values, the movie does drag quite a bit, especially when the focus is off of the main character.  Still, Lambert does make Tarzan an interesting character here and the film is a gorgeous production that while not very exciting, is still the most interesting movie in the series thus far.

tarzan disney

TONY GOLDWYN from DISNEY’S TARZAN (1999)

It may seem unusual for Disney animation to take a chance on adding the King of the Jungle to their roster of characters, but when you see the way Tarzan swings effortlessly through the trees in this film, you can understand why they did it.  Indeed, Tarzan may have always been destined to be an animated character, because only in that format can you capture his true agility in his natural environment.  Disney Animation developed a whole new computer generated technique called Deep Canvas, which enabled the hand-drawn Tarzan to fly freely through CG-animated and painted backgrounds in a truly spectacular way.  But apart from the artistic achievements of the film, the movie also manages to make a memorable Tarzan as well.  Actor Tony Goldwyn does an effective job of voicing the character, being both funny and heartfelt, without ever feeling false.  He especially captures the playfulness of the character in his vocal performance, and makes Tarzan feel consistent throughout, whether he is speaking to the the human characters or to the apes.  The fact that the apes can talk back in this film is another benefit to having an animated Tarzan.  Disney’s Tarzan also pays tribute to past versions, with the famous Weissmuller yell featured prominently in this film.  Time will tell how this one stands up against other classic versions of the character, but there’s no doubt that Disney’s take on the character is certainly one of the finest.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic character has certainly left a strong impression over the years, and I’m sure that he will continue to be around for a long time to come.  The interesting thing is that Tarzan can be perfectly molded into any time period that you want to put him in.  While the classic versions, as well as the Disney and Greystoke adaptations, set their story-lines in the same Victorian era that the books were written in, there are others like the 1981 Tarzan that brings the character up to the modern day.  Likewise, a new animated film from Germany is currently playing in limited release right now and it too has also brought the character into a contemporary setting.  The reason why Tarzan seems so adaptable to different time periods is probably because of the timeless nature of his story.  Indeed, the concept of someone growing up in the wild is not too outlandish.  We’ve heard about many cases of feral children being found in the wilderness over the years, so the idea of a man raised by apes can seem logical, albeit still purely in the realm of fiction.  What I see from all of his cinematic interpretations is a heroic character that feels believable while at the same time extraordinary.  And Tarzan is certainly at his best when the movies stay true to what Edgar Rice Burrough’s intended for the character.  My hope is that many filmmakers take that idea to heart and keep the Ape Man swinging for many years to come.