CLICHES AND KING RAT
I once attended a pretty expensive night course at UC Irvine on the subject of screenwriting. It was taught by a novelist/screenwriter for whom I had a lot of respect. I had read 5 of his novels and was impressed. They were the things from which movies naturally flowed.
That’s why what happened in the class was such a shock. Taking off on a one-line concept of a student having to do with aviation, there came such a string of tired, hackneyed clichés it left me groggy. Just to be sarcastic, I suggested a night flight in a storm to get the only medicine that could save the heroine. The sarcasm was missed and the suggestion adopted whole heartedly.
I never attended another of those classes. I wondered who had written those books on which that instructor had put his name. The writer couldn’t have been the guy teaching that class.
But I digress.
The worst, most common cliché now, is what we once called the Mexican standoff. That’s when two or more people are pointing loaded weapons at each other waiting for someone to blink. That scene seems to be in every gun-toting movie or teleplay these days. That comes from pure laziness and lack of imagination. And it is so artificial. The Mexican standoff never occurs in real life. The second person to try to bring a gun to bear must be shot. It is unrealistic to plot it otherwise.
There is one scene in which the Mexican standoff worked to perfection. In The Longest Day, a line of paratroopers was walking alongside a low wall. Suddenly, on the other side of the wall comes about an equal number of Germans marching in the opposite direction. All have their rifles slung over their shoulders. The look of horror on all the faces as they realize the situation tells the story. Not a single rifle is unslung and pointed as the two groups march away from each other. The scene goes by in a flash. It was a great piece of movie making.
In my years in San Francisco I became an art house snob. There were 4 or 5 art houses in the city and I saw everything they put on the screen. Mostly it was French and British but Ingmar Bergman had his dark, humorless, probing way with us. It was all an escape from clichés which were epidemic in Hollywood. We thought anything foreign was better than American, not realizing that only the best foreign films were imported and the best American films were probably superior.
There was once a memorable double feature in an art house for us snobs. The first feature was Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. The second was the American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It was truly a master booking and truly snob heaven. The house was packed. We all sat in reverential silence through Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Then we slid forward in our seats to better pounce on the Hollywood interloper.
Every cliché was immediately apparent and drew laughter from my brethren and sistren. In fairness, many of the derisive laughs were well earned. There is one scene in which Charles Bronson puts his head down and fires two pistols cross-handed, blindly, bringing down two bandits. That, deservedly, got a huge laugh.
Also, in fairness, The Magnificent Seven was a pretty good movie, though no one in that audience of snob kebobs would admit it.
I measure my rite of passage into adulthood from the first time that I walked out in the middle of a boring movie. I don’t remember the name. Why should I?
On the other hand I should make up a list of movies that totally mesmerized me at first viewing. In the top ten on the list would be Red River, King Rat and A Shot in the Dark.
It has always bothered me that King Rat is so underrated. On one list of the top thousand films in history, it gets no mention. I think it’s because George Segal’s character, Corporal King wasn’t a totally likeable person. He is not the standard Hollywood hero. But he is a hero of mine. Were I in that prison camp, I guarantee you, I would have been Corporal King’s best friend. One thing I learned in life was how to survive, and everyone around Corporal King survived.
The movie misses a very important point that was in James Clavell’s novel on which it is based. In case the war turned bad for the Japanese and they started taking revenge on the prisoners, King had planned an escape route. Not just for himself, for everyone close to him. Put that in the film and you’ve got a major American hero.
The movie is totally cliché free. One never knows where it is going or how it is going to end. Winning the war, you see, will not guarantee the safety of the prisoners.
How it ends is perfectly logical in retrospect, but difficult to predict.
It is a near perfect motion picture.