This week we witness The Ides Of March, directed by and starring George Clooney, with Ryan Gosling. If the phrase “ides of March” means anything to you, then you know that the best thing to do is beware. Anyone who has played William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will tell you so.
Built in to the title of this new film is the promise of political intrigue, deception, conspiracy, and the threat of massive downfall. Perhaps Clooney’s character will not be stabbed to death by the entire United States senate, but the familiar Shakespearean phrase is code for any number of related themes.
The practice of blessing mass entertainment with the bard’s prose confers a kind of loftiness upon it, or at least that must be the idea. A quick glance indicates that Shakespeare has provided titles for an alarming number of Star Trek episodes, just for starters. British television gave us The Darling Buds Of May (from the sonnets), and in 2011 HBO aired the popular miniseries Band Of Brothers (see Henry V). One of the most prestigious examples is Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy To Be Or Not To Be, and the remake starring Mel Brooks. These are only a few examples of the countless loans that Shakespeare has granted the world for naming contemporary fiction. Such a title is handy foreshadowing of the tale to come, unrelated as it may be in any direct way to the play or poem from which it has been drawn. Sometimes it simply makes a catchy title. The funny thing is that a work whose actual story is based on Shakespeare will generally either adopt the play’s name outright (Romeo + Juliet or Hamlet, say) or make up something completely different (Scotland, PA or Ten Things I Hate About You).
This week, lend your ears to Brett Harrison Davinger and me (Dan Fields) as we look at some of our favorite films to borrow a title from the works of Shakespeare.
The Evil That Men Do (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1984)
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones…”
— Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene ii, 75-76
Here I go making enemies of Shakespeare purists already. Even as Charles Bronson vehicles go, The Evil That Men Do is a pretty rough outing. Bronson stars as a former government assassin hired out of retirement for a particularly nasty piece of work. A mad doctor named Molloch is on the loose, advertising his expertise in the field of torture and selling his trade secrets to depraved individuals and totalitarian governments. Bronson is a pretty rough character himself, but at very worst a sociopath on the side of good. Naturally, he is the stone-cold cat for the job of eliminating Molloch.
The plot of this film is so contrived as to make an outrageous revenge story like Death Wish seem like a perfectly ordinary human drama. In order to make Bronson’s character even remotely acceptable as a hero, they have to make his antagonist uncomfortably sordid. I have never seen a torture sequence in a film that truly entertained me, which I think is a good thing, and physical cruelty is too central a theme to The Evil That Men Do for the film to earn my wholehearted endorsement. Make no mistake, you are talking to a huge Charles Bronson fan. But like Tightrope or Sudden Impact in the case of Mr. Eastwood (see below), TETMD would be near the bottom of my list of movie marathon candidates.
Forget any particular parallel to Julius Caesar in the particular case of this film, except perhaps the thin common threads of assassination and ignoble death. However, it is interesting to consider the phrase in conjunction with a career like Bronson’s. He had a long career as taciturn tough guys, which reaches further back than you might think. House Of Wax with Vincent Price might be too far back for this discussion, but remember his strong supporting turns in The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven? Consider, also, Walter Hill’s criminally underrated film Hard Times, which starred Bronson as a down-and-out street fighter making ends meet in Depression-era New Orleans. You want a good story with lots of heart and bone-dry wit, you got it. But what people will always remember about Charles Bronson is guns, guns guns! (Good night Mr. Boddicker…) He seldom if ever did real evil, but his harsh vigilante ways will forever overshadow a surprisingly well-rounded acting career. You might say that the violence Bronson did lives after him. The good intentions were interred with his bones.
The Evil That Men Do would be a great title for almost any film starring Charles Bronson, and if only 10 To Midnight or The Mechanic had been gifted with this name instead, I would have much more praise to dole out on its behalf. In 10 To Midnight, Bronson tracks a naked serial killer who preys on young women too sensible to date him. Even by that criterion, it is a more tasteful film than The Evil That Men Do.
Where Eagles Dare (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1968)
“I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch…”
— Richard III, Act 1, scene iii, 70-71
If you are looking for the thoughtful, soulful sort of Second World War meditation that Steven Spielberg has brought to this generation, then look away. Where Eagles Dare is a pulpy, twist-filled action thriller which allows the ruthless bombing of many a Nazi. This movie is much an ancestor of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as The Dirty Dozen is widely (and justly) credited with being.
A team of Allied commandos, led by Richard Burton and co-starring US Army Ranger Clint Eastwood, has the enviable task of liberating one of their top generals from German captors in an alpine castle. Those of the proper age to have been warped by hours of Wolfenstein 3D know how thrilling it can be to infiltrate a Nazi castle and blow the occupants up. Rife with anachronisms and presumably a load of escapist hogwash from a historical perspective, this movie is just plain fun from beginning to end. Imagine The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, and Thunderball spun together into a delicious serving of intrigue and mayhem.
This movie seems a long way removed from Shakespearean subtlety, except for the possible link of a famed thespian like Richard Burton. If you think about it, though, there is a great deal of spying, double-crossing, and assumption of false identity woven around the violence and adventure. Shakespeare loved deception and mistaken identity, and he seldom passed up a good swordfight. If you substitute Lugers and dynamite tripwires for foils and rapiers, the parallel is clear, right?…. right?
In addition to a fantastic pair of good guys (or so they seem), Where Eagles Dare has the distinction of having the Naziest-looking Nazi you ever saw for a primary antagonist. Major Von Hapen (Derren Nesbitt), representing the Gestapo element, is the poster boy for cold Aryan menace. Experts have said his look is all wrong and out of place for the historical context of the story, but everything about his performance is just the right speed for Burton and Eastwood versus the Reich.
The movie features some breakneck plot twists, lots of explosions, Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt as buxom double agents, and a climactic shootout aboard a precarious cable car. One would think Winston Churchill might approve of this film, not for any reasons of highbrow historical commentary, but because it’s just so damned cathartic. Makes you proud to be British… which I am not.
I am Clint Eastwood.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (dir. Jack Clayton, 1983)
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
— Macbeth, Act 4, scene i, 44-45
Jack Clayton, who directed a masterpiece of fright called The Innocents in 1961, made another famous foray into October country. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a keenly crafted look at the fearful power of a child’s imagination. The film brings this dark fantasy to life, starring master character player Jonathan Pryce as a sinister traveling carnival man named Mr. Dark. He promises to fulfill your greatest dreams, but like any deal with the devil, the price is not one worth paying.
This Disney outing has received a mixed bag of critical responses over the years, but it is quite a respectable adaptation of a work so involved in its interior monologues and exuberant love of prose, that in less skilled hands it would not make much sense at all. Will and Jim, two boys at the perfect age to enjoy the whole world around them with reverence and wonder, find themselves preyed upon by a traveling show whose aim is to steal their youth and happiness, and so enslave their souls. Yikes! Hopefully their middle-aged dad (Jason Robards) can tap his own youthful nostalgia sufficiently to save the day.
The title of this tale is pretty on the nose, but quite apt. The witches used the phrase to identify Macbeth, who at that point in the play had grown mighty corrupt. When a witch in the service of the Dark One calls you “Something Wicked,” baby, you’re wicked. Mr. Dark is a whole other kind of evil. His ambition is not simply to steal a throne or sack a kingdom. His desire is to take youth, and with it all the wonder and excitement of life. In this way it is a fantastic horror story for children. It targets what they treasure most, which is youth itself. Add to that a very physical manifestation of a carnival (most of us know how simultaneously fascinating and terrifying those can be), and you’ve got a spooky existential adventure for the whole family.
Enjoy October, folks. That’s what it’s there for.
North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
I am only mad north by northwest. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.- Hamlet, Hamlet, Act II, scene ii
Turns out the Alfred Hitchcock classic based its title on Hamlet’s quote to his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s point in making this statement was to screw with his ex-pals by letting them know that sometimes he’s lying, and sometimes he isn’t, but that he refuses to let them in on when.
Similarly, in the 1959 Cold War wrong-man classic, Hitchcock plays on concepts such as duplicity, deception, and mistaken identity. When advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is confused for George Kaplan, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy involving Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), Philip Vandamm (James Mason), and his lackey Leonard (Martin Landau). Chased across America by law enforcement officials who think him a murderer and shadowy organizations wanting to export government secrets, Thornhill must constantly outwit his wannabe captors/assassins.
Made between Vertigo and Psycho, North by Northwest is considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best films, and even today, it ranks as one of the greatest thrillers ever filmed. Featuring iconic imagery, including a crop duster assassin and a fight atop Mount Rushmore, mixed with excellent wit and memorable characters, North by Northwest set the standard for the man-on-the-run film.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (dir. Tom Stoppard, 1990)
The sight is dismal/And our affairs from England come too late/The ears are senseless that should give us hearing/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead/Where should we have our thanks?- First Ambassador, Hamlet, Act V, scene ii
Acquaintances of Danish prince Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were hired by King Claudius to spy on their friend and learn the truth behind his madness. Hamlet realizes their scheme and turns them into pawns in his game of vengeance. Later, the two attempt to travel with Hamlet to England, where they carry a letter signed by Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, requesting that the King of England execute his nephew. A few steps ahead of the fools, Hamlet rewrites the letter and places Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names as those to be killed. After escaping from the ship following a pirate attack, he returns to Denmark to continue his plans to usurp the throne and sends his two former friends to their deaths.
Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were but minor characters in the Shakespearean play, Tom Stoppard recognized their value and based a play (and later movie) on their misadventures called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The work(s) presents the events of Hamlet through the eyes of the two uniformed lackeys. They witness Hamlet’s madness, but without any knowledge or context of why he acts the way he acts, the tragedy practically turns into a comedy.
In their own story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder questions of free will, fate, individuality, and existentialism as the battle between Claudius and Hamlet rages on behind them. Along the way, they meet the theater company that performs The Murder of Gonzago, and its main Player forces them to think about the trustworthiness of reality. Throughout RAGAD, the two wonder about their significant/insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and, right up until they are hanged by their necks until dead, how much of the future is pre-written and how much choice anyone has in anything.
The movie, with a soundtrack featuring track from Pink Floyd’s Meddle, stars Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz and Tim Roth as Guildenstern.
Band of Brothers (dir. Tom Hanks, among others; 2001)
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day until the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition, and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves acursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day!, Henry V, Henry V, Act 4, scene 3
English King Henry V recites the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech to his tiny group of soldiers prior to the Battle of Agincourt. Despite being vastly outnumbered against the encroaching French army, the English soldiers’ abilities cause the superior force to surrender. Historian Stephen Ambrose adopted the phrase for his 1992 non-fiction book discussing the activities of World War II’s European-based Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turned the book into a remarkable 10-part miniseries created for HBO, also called Band of Brothers. Starring Ron Livingston, James McAvoy, Colin Hanks, Simon Pegg, and many others, Band of Brothers followed the group from basic training until the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps. With every episode including commentary from real members of the platoon (though we don’t find out who they are until the very end), the miniseries presented an honest and human view of the conflict and possibly inspired a lot of last decade’s penchant for works based on World War II.
Hanks and Spielberg later re-teamed for The Pacific, a companion piece following three soldiers who fought in the Pacific theater that aired on HBO in 2010.