Where King Lear Meets Apocalypse Now

The powerful Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is aging; everyone knows this, and his allies Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) and Lord Ayabe (Jun Tazake) are already looking to marry off their daughters to his youngest son. One day, after a nap, Hidetora has a vision and conceives a plan that he hopes will maintain the balance of power after his death; he abdicates in favour of his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao), giving him the First Castle of his realm, whilst bestowing on his second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and third son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) the Second and Third castles and the lands under their command – the idea being that this division of power would guarantee that his three sons will work together to keep the Ichimonji lands strong.

The obedient, dutiful, and flattery-prone Taro and Jiro are happy to go along with this – but third son Saburo, who is honest to the point of rudeness, unconventional, and defiant, thinks the plan is an awful idea and Hidetora has taken leave of his senses, and declares as much. Tango (Masayuki Yui), one of the attendants witnessing this, points out that a Lord is better served by those who speak their minds and tell him things he doesn’t want to hear than those who refuse to say no to him.

Hidetora is infuriated, and as one of his last acts in charge banishes both Tango and Saburo. Not only does this immediately destabilise the balance of power between his sons that Hidetora had planned, but this fracas was witnessed by both Lord Ayabe and Lord Fujimaki, who both in their own way realise the trouble and opportunity that must come from this. Lord Ayabe rejects the idea of marrying his daughter to any of the Ichimonji sons, whilst Lord Fujimaki realises that by arranging a marriage between his daughter and Saburo he can get a son-in-law with a claim to Ichimonji lands – and one who has demonstrated just the sort of combination of honesty and loyalty that appeals to him.

Meanwhile, at the First Castle, Taro’s men and Hidetora’s attendants come to blows after Taro’s wife Kaede (Mieko Harada) insists on him asserting his rights as overlord of the Ichimonji, and Hidetora finds his recollections of the terms of his abdication differ from the record offered by Taro. (Kaeda isn’t just doing this on a whim – she was born in the First Castle and raised there before Hidetora conquered it, so now she is mistress of the Castle it make sense that she resents any authority Hidetora tries to exert.) As the family bonds between father and son break down, soon enough the brothers find themselves pitted against each other, and eventually Hidetota finds himself an exile in his own lands, with only his court jester Kyoami (Peter) for company, forced to witness first-hand the utter destruction of the peace he tried to engineer as war engulfs the land.

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Opposite Poles of the Martial Arts Universe

The overlapping genres of wuxia and martial arts has broad scope, and like any sufficiently well-developed cinematic genre it has its fair share of representatives of high art and B-movie absurdity. I’ve had reviews for an example of each in the hopper for a while, and as I burn through my backlog now’s as good a time as any to unleash them.

Dragon Inn

It is 1456 by the Western calendar – the eighth year of the Jingtai Emperor’s reign. The chief eunuch, Zhao (Pai Ying), has managed to politically outmanoeuvre General Yu Qian, who is duly executed, his children sentenced to banishment in the far West of the Empire. Tsao, however, knows better than to leave them alive, and sends his agents to intercept them at Dragon Inn and assassinate them. The assassins duly head to the inn at speed, eliminate most of the staff, and take over the place.

What they don’t count on is the appearance of Xiao Shao Zi (Shih Chun), a wandering martial artist and friend of the innkeeper Wu Ning (Cho Kin) – or, for that matter, for Wu Ning, no slouch himself when it comes to combat, to come back from his business trip unexpectedly. And they really don’t expect the fiery brother-and-sister team of Chu Huei (Polly Kuan) and Chu Chi (Sit Hon), children of one of the General’s best lieutenants, to come looking for the Yu family either! Evading the assassin’s various attempts to poison, shoot, or otherwise eliminate them, Xiao, Wu, and the Chus soon end up working together to rescue the Yu family and foil Tsao’s plans.

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A Fistful of Djangos

The sloppy state of Italian intellectual property law and enforcement in the mid-20th Century enabled all sorts of cinematic shenanigans. For instance, Zombie Flesh Eaters was known as Zombi 2 in the Italian market and presented as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (whose Italian release was called Zombi), and a number of movies came out presenting themselves as Zombi 3 when it became clear that there was a hungry audience for this sort of stuff.

Another example is the Django craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the 1966 release of the Spaghetti Western Django, a swathe of Westerns came out capitalising on its popularity – often by just adding the name “Django” to their titles and changing nothing, which is awkward when the movies in question don’t include a character called Django (or even a character who resembles Franco Nero’s character in the original movie).

Some of these were dross, some are pretty good, and naturally any obscure movie craze from this period is going to sooner or later catch the attention of Quentin Tarantino and be recycled by him: thus, Django Unchained, with Jamie Foxx in the title character, came out in 2012, prompting in turn a brace of reissues of Django movies. Talking Pulp has produced some reviews of these, and here’s my take on two of them.

Django

In the first Django movie the iconic character – played this time around by Franco Nero – is introduced to us as he’s dragging a coffin through mud and filth in a miserable rainstorm, wearing the remnants of a Union uniform. He encounters and rescues María (Loredana Nusciak), a prostitute who has become caught up in a conflict between Mexican bandits and the forces of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a Confederate officer who, with the Civil War over and ol’ Dixie run down, has gone off West to fight his own private war against those he considers racially inferior.

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A Fistful of Blu-Rays

Arrow Video may be best known for their blu-ray releases of cult horror cinema, but they’ve had a fine line in Westerns over the years; here’s a couple of releases from them I’ve found particularly interesting, both from the boom of Spaghetti Westerns that followed Sergio Leone’s classic Fistful of Dollars and its sequels. These two are particularly interesting for the very different attitudes they have – one is morbidly nihilistic and melancholy, the other is intensely moral (but not without reservations).

Cemetery Without Crosses

Our story begins with Ben Caine (Benito Stefanelli), husband of Maria (Michèle Mercier), falling foul of the brutal Rogers family; they kill him and force Maria to watch, and then go and burn the ranch house that the Caines shared with Ben’s brothers.

Before the disaster, Ben and his siblings seem to have scammed the Rogers somehow; the surviving brothers make sure to split the loot between themselves and Maria. She takes her share and brings it to Manuel (Robert Hossein), who used to be a good friend to Ben and her. Manuel is a strange, haunted gunslinger who lives in a ruined ghost town and who always puts on a single black glove before he’s about to get violent. Maria commissions him to help her get revenge – which comes in a form she didn’t expect, but is more than happy to exploit if it will twist the knife in her enemies’ hearts. In the long run, a terrible confrontation is inevitable.

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Three Standalone Hammers

No clever intro this time: I’m clearing my backlog of Hammer movie reviews, here’s a review of three which don’t fit into any neat category.

The Nanny

After What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a surprise hit, Bette Davis was more than happy to spend a chunk of her late career cashing in on her newfound acclaim as a horror villain. After all, the performance she and Joan Crawford had pulled off in Baby Jane had kicked off a brief micro-genre of psychological horror movies with older women as malevolent figures – why not exploit that, when the industry was otherwise all too willing to leave aging actresses on the shelf? That’s how she ended up starring in this 1966 Seth Holt film, which ended up being Hammer’s last black and white feature.

We open with Bette’s character – referred to simply as “Nanny”, for that is the capacity in which she’s hired by her employers – enjoying a happy little walk through her local park before she enters the home of her employers, the Fane family. As soon as she steps inside, the contrast between the miserable atmosphere inside the house and the happy outdoor scene is brutally obvious.

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Blondes Have More Cave Fun?

Ever since enterprising movie producers realised that setting a movie in the prehistoric past was a good excuse to get nubile young actresses (and perhaps a buff actor or two) in skimpy fur costumes, absurdly unrealistic fantasies of cave people doing all sorts of archaeologically unlikely stuff like fighting dinosaurs have been an occasional fad in cinema. A swathe came out in the 1960s, and one of the contributors to this outburst was Hammer Studios, who produced a few movies along this line – some of which have been used to round out the numbers in Hammer DVD boxed sets or the like.

For this article I’m going to review a couple of them. Spoiler: they’re both kind of goofy. One of them, at least, is notable for being a major landmark in the career of Raquel Welch. The other one… has a model rhino.

One Million Years BC

This Hammer co-production with Seven Arts, directed by Don Chaffey, is the one everyone remembers for Raquel Welch in a doeskin bikini and the awesome stop-motion dinosaur action courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, and between their various talents they probably made this the most famous Hammer production which wasn’t a horror piece. Goodness knows that there isn’t much else of note about this.

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The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled

Infamously ripped off wholesale by Dan Brown for The Da Vinci CodeThe Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a comfortingly silly work of conspiracy theory. The book has its roots in the work of actor and Doctor Who screenwriter Henry Lincoln, who on holiday in France in 1969 came across Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, a book by Gérard de Sède discussing an enigma surrounding a small town in the Languedoc region of southern France.

Fascinated, Lincoln would go on to produce three documentary films for the BBC’s Chronicle strand discussing the mystery – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? in 1972, The Painter, the Priest and the Devil in 1974, and The Shadow of the Templars in 1979 – with these films being the first time the English-speaking world was exposed to the mystery. Each time, Lincoln would revise and deepen his proposed answer to the enigma, as he perceived yet further hidden depths to the story. Joined by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, his investigations would eventually see the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.

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