Britannia Hospital

February 26, 2020

britanniahospitalI come home from the opening-day matinee of Britannia Hospital, open the paper, and am astounded by this picture of a guy in Boston who had his right hand amputated off his nerve-dead right arm and sewn on to the end of his left arm (his left hand having been lost in an accident). I immediately start flashing on some of the most absurd elements of Britannia Hospital, like the mad scientist (Graham Crowden) who sews up a human being out of a collection of body parts as a special presentation for Her Majesty’s visit to the hospital. At least it seemed absurd while I was watching the movie; now I can’t be quite so sure. And that would probably suit Lindsay Anderson and his scenarist, David Sherwin, just fine.

Anderson and Sherwin have Something to Say, and this kind of satire is nothing if not ambitious; the surprising thing is that so much of it is so madly enjoyable. Yes, the hospital exists as a great big metaphor for England today, but Anderson works the metaphor with such glee that the hospital starts to simmer with its own life, above and beyond the thematic concerns and political commentary of the filmmakers.

The events of the movie take place over one hectic day – the day the Queen is visiting the hospital to officially open the new research facility (it’s the place where the Frankensteinian experiments are underway). Just about every union servicing the hospital is striking over something or other; soon the picketers outside are joined by protesters calling for the release of the cannibalistic leader of an African nation, who is enjoying cushy private care in the private ward. The frenzy escalates when a terrorist bomb swells the ranks of t he incoming wounded. There’s also a mysterious video journalist (Malcolm McDowell) who is trying to get the scoop on the Frankenstein surgery, and winds up getting closer to the action than he expected. To top it all off, it looks like the entrance hallway isn’t going to get repainted in time for HRH ‘s visit.

A t the center of all this is the Britannia’s chief administrator, played by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter is a brilliant actor – he was the jealous suitor Captain Quin in Barry Lyndon – but his character is one of the  things in Britannia Hospital that don’t quite come together; to some extent, Anderson asks us to take for granted this man’s all-consuming love for the hospital. (Maybe the character suffers by comparison to George C. Scott’s magnificent doctor in the Paddy Chayefsky Hospital, also a pretentious but enjoyable medical madness movie.) Still, Rossiter has some great scenes, especially the one in which he silkily strokes the head of the cooks’ union into unloading the Royal non-union food off the Royal non­-union trucks. The rest of the cast is uniformly good: Crowden is the ultimate god-like surgeon, blithely sticking a half a human brain into a Cuisinart and offering the resulting goo as a pre-operation aperitif; McDowell looks young and roguish again, as he becomes part of a scientific experiment of the kind that he barely avoided in a memorably horrific sequence in Anderson’s extraordinary O Lucky Man; Mark Hamill, oddly enough, is one of McDowell’s assistants; Alan Bates and Arthur Lowe are dying patients; Joan Plowright is a union representative with an awkward curtsey for the Queen; Gordon John Sinclair of Gregory’s Girl is a cook named Gregory.

Anderson lets his hand get a bit heavy toward the end; for instance, shots of the cops knocking the protesters about are accompanied by “God Save the Queen” ­although even this has a practical reason: the band is there for the new building opening, and they’re playing loud so HRH isn’t bothered by the sound of the riot going on. The somewhat Kubrickian ending, with Britannia bidding fair to rule the brain waves, may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea; I found it easy to make the final leap, because Anderson had me going with the film from its first few scenes. One warning: If you’re downstairs at the Harvard Exit watching The Meaning of Life and getting grossed out, don’t go upstairs to Britannia Hospital expecting things to be less stomach-turning; the latter film has some pretty gross stuff, too. But – it’s lyrically gross, you know?

First published in The Informer, April 1983

A big swing from Anderson, and “a bit” heavy-handed, for sure. Still, the world needs more movies like this. 

Blue Thunder

October 12, 2012

Blue Thunder the movie is not quite as sleek and sophisticated as Blue Thunder the ultra-helicopter, but it’s a well-organized hunk of action movie, with the requisite spectacular stunts, a healthy dose of creeping paranoia, and a passel of crooked government bad guys. It’s a film consisting entirely of surfaces—shiny glass, blue metal, white skies—but they’re hard, fast surfaces, and just flashy enough to keep your attention. Passing in front of and between these cool surfaces are some good actors: Roy Scheider as an ace LAPD chopper pilot who gets to test-fly the new supercopter; Daniel Stern (the tall guy in Diner) as his green partner, who is along for the ride when Scheider starts to get wise to some very unusual idiosyncrasies of Blue Thunder; Candy Clark as Scheider’s patient woman friend; Warren Oates heading the police air division (the film is dedicated to the late actor); and Malcolm McDowell as Scheider’s irredeemably loathsome nemesis.

Director John Badham has taken great pains to make sure we know what’s going on, and he also takes care to set up a number of maneuvers that are going to become relevant in the final cat-and-mouse sequence (i.e., Scheider’s proficiency at slaloming around obstacles, and Clark’s skillfully exuberant driving). He’s aided by John Alonzo’s sharp cinematography; as a matter of fact, Blue Thunder is so thoroughly okay that almost nothing leaps out as being particularly praiseworthy.

But there is a weird aspect to it unlike anything I’ve seen in any other slam-bang action movie, and that’s the almost obsessive attention to the safety of innocent bystanders. Everybody who gets in the way of Scheider and his pursuers—and I’m talking about the faceless people on the street now, the kind that get eaten by the dozens in Japanese horror movies—is accounted for by news or police reports; as, “Two helicopters, a police car, and an office building were destroyed, but everybody’s all right.” Scheider even gets caught off his guard because he’s watching one of his attackers parachute to safety in the city streets. This is a new wrinkle in the bust-’em-ups; generally, the extras from central casting who signed on as passers-by also get to double as cannon fodder.

This more humanitarian method is being employed so that Scheider’s final mission won’t be causing a lot of innocent people’s deaths, a situation that might blur the clearly-defined fact that Scheider is the good guy, as indeed he is (earlier, one of the top brass had said that one civilian dead per ten terrorists was an acceptable ratio, but Roy doesn’t think so). I don’t mind this sort of accounting, but it is strange to see a helicopter crash full speed into a solid cement column and then watch all the crew members hop out. And it’s a different sort of summer blockbuster that you can call violent and considerate.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A mechanical summer hit, as indicated.


May 4, 2012

Sunset is a moribund movie made by a collection of people who have an abundance of talent. How does a movie like this go wrong?

The most immediate answer is that the writer-director, Blake Edwards, has run out of gas. Edwards’ Hollywood career has been marked by unusual intelligence, which he applies to his favorite forms, slapstick and farce (10, Victor/Victoria). But Edwards seems to have lost his verve. Sunset crawls along with little conviction or life.

It’s a nifty idea for a movie. The conceit is that the cowboy movie star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) would meet the real cowboy Wyatt Earp (James Garner), who’s been hired as a technical advisor for a Mix film. Then the two get involved in a murder mystery set among the golden movie people of 1920s Hollywood.

The crucial failing of the film is not that the murder plot is bad. It is, but that’s not so important. The big problem is that the relationship between Mix and Earp is utterly uninteresting. They hit if off immediately in a bland sort of way, and they remain in that mode for the entire film. There’s no development, no change, no interest.

Garner, the smooth old pro, is the most appealing element in the movie; his Earp is courtly, civilized, but takes no guff from anybody. Willis, however, is completely lost (and quite secondary to Garner). But it’s not so much his fault; the film simply gives him no character to play, so he walks around smirking and looking outrageous in his sequined cowboy suits and 20-gallon hats.

The supporting roles are played by good people who don’t have a lot to do: Mariel Hemingway is the owner of a brothel where the murder takes place; Malcolm McDowell is in nasty form as a sadistic studio head who used to be a baggy-pants clown known as the Happy Hobo; Patricia Hodge (the fine British actress from Betrayal) is his wife, Earl’s old flame; Kathleen Quinlan is a public relations person and the film’s liveliest performer.

It’s a puzzling film. One could believe that the movie was damagingly cut at some point, but even heavy cuts couldn’t excuse all of the lameness here. Unfortunately, Sunset sounds like an all-too-appropriate title for this stage in Edwards’ career.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I seem to remember some talk about a writer’s strike that may have rushed this one into production, or maybe that’s just an excuse. A complete miscalculation, anyway, this movie. And, after Blind Date, a definitive botch of what should have been a useful collaboration between actor and director.