Selling your artistic soul: Halston or Sparks

Kevin Brianton. Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

Halston (Netflix) looks to be an ultramodern series as it delves into the high-powered world of New York fashion. However, it has mythical echoes that link back for centuries. Roy Halston Frowick was an American fashion designer who courted fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s. His design’s brand name was Halston, and it was noted for its minimal or clean look. Halston charts his rise and fall as a celebrated designer after he rose to fame when Jackie Kennedy wore one of his hats for the JFK Presidential inauguration in 1961.

Halston is based on a biography of the life and work of the fashion designer by Stephen Gaines called Simply Halston.[1] Halston would work closely with the New York rich list and Hollywood and Broadway celebrities to further cement his reputation. In 1973, Halston sold his high-profile design company to Norton Simon Industries, and the business relationship began well when he created a successful fragrance.

The company then produced a wide range of merchandise bearing the brand name. However, Halston began to use drugs, and his work slipped over the years. Norton Simon was taken over, and the Halston division was re-sold. His new corporate masters grew tired of his erratic work habits and lack of concern for profits. He was eventually banished as a designer from the company that bore his name. Halston remained a wealthy man, but he lost control of his designs – and his name – in the process.

Halston poster (Netflix)

In one key scene in Halston, the designer decides to sign over his firm to a corporate backer. It made great financial sense, as he sold his name for a “hundred million dollars.” He could not buy it back again. Change the word “name” to “soul,” and it is clear that Halston has an old-fashioned morality tale at its core. These stories began in the seventh century when Saint Theophilus the Penitent or Theophilus of Adana took the deadly bargain to become a bishop.

These stories have re-emerged at different times through the centuries. The idea of a person choosing to sell their soul for material reward has also been written at various times by Marlowe, Goethe, Wilde and many others.[2] The same idea occasionally appeared in American cinema. Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. It can also be seen in films such as Faust (1929), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), which all had the theme of a man selling his soul for some form of reward.

A world away from the international fashion scene in New York is a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which had its cinematic release in January 2021. The documentary film focuses on Ron and Russell Mael, who formed the band Sparks. It is a different success story, as, in contrast to Halston, the Mael Brothers are unlikely ever to sell out. They approach their music with great glee and a wicked sense of humor. Their “very best of sparks” album has a mere 56 songs.

The documentary is directed by Edgar Wright, who is also an unashamed fan of the musicians. The film focuses on the two brothers who formed the Los Angeles-based band when they were young, and the musicians continued making albums and going on tours for the next 50 years. The brothers were the core of this even though their bands formed and reformed several times over the years.

Over five decades, Sparks have constantly been reinventing themselves with a stream of musical ideas. To achieve this level of success and creativity over a long period, the brothers showed a strong and unrelenting work ethic. An interviewee says the brothers worked six or seven days a week for a few years to produce music for little or no return. Even when going well, the vast majority of their work – a total of 25 albums over 50 years – had only limited success. Every so often, they produced an album or a single that had a stronger resonance in the marketplace, but it is clear that the music is their main concern.

It would be naïve to say that the brothers ignore the business side of the equation – they are not artists suffering in a garret. The brothers appear to have a successful lifestyle – but it is certainly not on the same extravagant level as Halston with his New York apartments and first-class flights to Europe. The pair concentrate on the music they have created, and the band has developed tremendous respect throughout the music industry. In comparison to Halston, the brothers show that artistic success does not need to be self-destructive. The only drug issue for the brothers appears to be coffee. According to one interviewee, they go to the same coffee shop each day as a regular break from work – and they work almost every day.

On almost every level, the two works show different approaches to fame and success. In the 21st century, people may not sell their souls, but they can lose their integrity. Ron and Russell Mael appear to be characters from a Horatio Alger novel who get to the top by hard work, perseverance and talent, while Halston is depcited as more of a self-destructive genius. Even so, the artists have some similarities as they all come from relatively humble origins and worked their way up employingtheir abilites. These works provide two takes on the American dream and what compromises you should make to succeed.

[1] Stephen Gaines, Simply Halston, Independently published, 19 May 2021.

[2] Hedges, Inez. Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. Accessed July 13, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood revisited

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University Melbourne

It is tremendous to see that the University of Kentucky Press is republishing Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.[1] First released in 2004, Robert Birchard’s book helped spur a renewed interest in Cecil B. DeMille, which had begun to grow around 1985. Cecil B. DeMille’s reputation had been trashed from the 1960s to the 1980s as a commercially crass director with savage right-wing tendencies.

Any fair-minded reader of the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood would see immediately that DeMille was far more than Charlton Heston parting the sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). The first thing that is evident is how many silent films DeMille created from 1915 to 1924. More than one critic has argued that DeMille was at his best during this time.

The second thing is just how little of his output was biblical epics. These films are his signature films, but they are hardly a major part of his career. If you count both versions of The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and Samson and Delilah, the biblical epics add up to four films. Out of 70 films in a career spanning over 41 years, these cannot be considered an accurate summing of the director’s cinema.

Birchard’s careful examination of his films reveals a more complex and nuanced career. At its beginning, DeMille often struggled for a profile, and at various times he even battled to find work. He also changed his image and focus to suit the circumstances of the time. DeMille was an adapter of Victorian theatrical plays in the 1910s and domestic comedies where couple remarry in the 1920s. He began a series of American historical epics and westerns in the 1930s. There were also one-offs such as The Cheat (1915), The Godless Girl (1929), This Day and Age (1933), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), along with film versions of operas such as Carmen (1915), and even a proto-film noir in The Whispering Chorus (1918). Films such as Madam Satan (1930), which finished with people escaping with parachutes from a masked ball aboard a zeppelin thrashing about in a storm, defy any serious attempt at a category. It is impossible to pinpoint any consistent thread in his filmmaking.

I wrote a book in which DeMille featured heavily called Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, published in 2016.[2] I contacted Robert while writing my book, and he could not have been more supportive. As my study progressed, it became clear that many of DeMille’s reputational problems came from the coverage of his actions at the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950. Unfortunately, the Directors Guild of America denied access to their records, and the transcript was difficult to find. That all changed when Joseph Mankiewicz’s family released his copy to the Margaret Herrick Library. Looking at the court transcript of the meeting revealed that most participants had been either misquoted or selectively quoted. In particular, John Ford’s contribution was savagely misrepresented. This discussion was not some minor footnote of interest to only pedantic historians. Ford’s attack on DeMille was one of the mainstays of both their reputations as well as a Hollywood legend. In that book, I demonstrated a lot of what had been written about the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950, where Cecil B. DeMille was deposed, was pure invention. I paid credit to Robert Birchard for being the first historian to detect the false history – that judgment still stands.

That conclusion was obvious from a simple reading of the document, but Birchard did more than just read the transcript. On viewing the Screen Directors Meeting transcript, Birchard then suggested that Ford had not said: “I don’t like him, but I admire him”  – a comment supposedly made to damn DeMille. What Ford had possibly said was, “I not only like him, but I admire him.” Read in context with Ford’s relationship with DeMille and the rest of speech, Birchard’s view is almost certainly correct. Birchard also noted a clear misrepresentation of Ford’s remarks.  He wrote to me: ‘I believe that the words… that read ‘I mean the little guy that creeps in and says that [the] russians stink.’  should more probably read ‘I mean the little guy who creeps in and says the rushes stink’  i.e. the producers who complain about the footage the director is turning out.  The expression ‘that the russians stink’ makes no real sense – even though it has been quoted widely.

The above example showed how a good film historian could look at an old source and uncover new information.The same approach can be seen throughout the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, representing a fine example of a film historian looking again to reveal a more nuanced picture. I am not the only historian who has a debt to Birchard, as almost every writer who has looked at DeMille since 2004 owes something to his work.

When it was published, DeMille’s reputation was rising – albeit slowly. In 1977 George Lucas directed Star Wars, a large-budget film, which had opened up a new era of epic cinema. The most successful director of the period was Steven Spielberg, director of his big-budget films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and he would later claim that one of the directors who influenced him as a young man was DeMille.[3] Big budget epics were back in favour, and DeMille’s career was being more politely considered.

It was a happy accident that put DeMille back on the front pages. In 1923, probably to save money, DeMille had ordered that the set of The Ten Commandments be dismantled and covered over by the sand. The set remained undisturbed until 1985 when it was found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan and archeologist John Parker.[4] The site’s discovery created worldwide media attention and focused on DeMille’s role as a Hollywood pioneer. It was a serious boost to DeMille’s reputation because the discoverers depicted DeMille in more positive terms. A group organiser claimed, “Without Cecil B. DeMille, (films such as) Titanic would never have happened. Because Hollywood as we know it would never have happened.” [5]

Birchard built on this momentum. Yet his work could not have emerged without the support of the de Mille family, who released his documents through the Cecil B. DeMille archive at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and gave him other support. In 2004, Kevin Brownlow released a documentary on him for American TV – with Birchard being interviewed extensively for the film. It was clear that DeMille’s star was on the rise, and Birchard’s book arrived exactly the right time. He could not have asked for better pre-publicity.

My only regret with the book is that Robert Birchard did not follow through on his original idea to write a full biography. His book is mostly confined to the production history of films, which take up a fair proportion of DeMille’s life. Still, you can see that he occasionally allowed himself to wander away from the films to look at DeMille’s life and times. I think if Birchard had wished, he could have written an exceptional biography. This book is a fine achievement, but it leaves you wanting more.

[1] Birchard, Robert S. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

[2] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. 2016.

[3] Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, directed by Kevin Brownlow, 2004.

[4]Anne Edwards, The De Milles: An American Family, Collins, London, 1988, p. 7 and

[5] The organiser is not named but they are quoted on

Cold War or old war?

Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia

Edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University

By the time  Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated for more than a decade. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. The first Cold War was a term developed in 1947 by the American writer, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman. The Cold War was the conflict between the USSR and the West from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Cold War was depicted as the clear ideological conflict between communism and liberal democracies across the world – a claim open to debate. Of course, the current state of US – Russian relations has little or nothing to do with communism. This new “Cold War” appears to have been running from 2012 to today when Russia became more aggressive, particularly in the Ukraine. The iciness of world diplomacy has widespread implications, including a renewed interest in Russians as villains in American cinema. The editor of Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia, Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, “examines the recent growth in Russia-related films as well as the effectiveness of understanding the current US-Russia political crisis; through the lens of recent Cold War films and T.V. shows.” (4)  A clear influence to many of the writers in the book is Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, which maps out the recent menace of the re-emergence of Russian hostility.[1]  The book hopes to enrich the conventional understandings of the Cold War during both the Trump and Obama administrations.

This collection of articles does not have a uniform methodological or theoretical approach. Still, the editor  Prorokova-Konrad attempts to draw the essays together with an introductory discussion about Hollywood’s previous cold war spasms in the late 1910s and 1950s. Prorokova-Konrad only makes a faint mention of silent films with anti-communist sympathies, and she dates anti-communist films as far back as Ninotchka (1939). However, anti-Soviet films have had a much longer pedigree than the late 1930s. A mention of the film A Bolshevism on Trial (1919) showed that anti-communism had a long lineage, dating back to the Russian Revolution. Some of the 1950s anti-communist films are referenced, but it is an incomplete listing. Even key films in the 1950s, such as Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952), are only mentioned in passing. If the book’s title is a “renewed obsession,” the reader might be expected to be introduced to what exactly Hollywood was revisiting more thoroughly.

Bridge of Spies is seen as part of Cold War Nostalgia. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The opening section, called “Enduring Clichés,” begins with the article: The Warm Glow of Cold War Nostalgia by Vesta Silva & Jon Wiebel. It is difficult to see how the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis could create a warm glow in any sensible person. Still, the authors argue that “the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of Cold War stories in American films and television series that highlight a nostalgic desire for a return to the more certain.” Looking at the issue through the lens of  The Bridge of Spies (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017), they examine how the Cold War has been depicted through the actions of cinematic heroes. The films promote a sense of certainty that is lacking in the present-day War on Terror and the rise of Russia. The idea of nostalgia is also present in Big Rewards for the Small Screen by Helena Goscilo, and it is the best paper of the opening section. The essay looks at how The Man from U.N.C.L.E was depicted in TV series in the 1960s and a later film version directed by Guy Ritchie in 2015. As well as mentioning some films from the early stages of the Cold War, Grocilo uses the programs as an opportunity to look at the cultural responses within their cultural settings.

Red Sparrow is referenced by many of the essays. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With any disparate collection of articles, some essays are better than others. There is a mixture of heavy-handed theoretical works, and others are free of such concerns. One of the more impressive articles is  Ian Scott’s examination of the various films that have used Berlin as its setting, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965).  It is an interesting and perceptive survey of the topic, and it is refreshing to see a writer who sees this recent crop of films as part of a tradition. The same comment can be made about The Shape of Water and the Cold War Revisited by Cyndy Hendershot. This essay is a highly observant one looking at how The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was reworked in the 21st century. Another good essay is “Your Body Belongs to the State by Dan Ward, which concentrates on the depiction of heroines in Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. Perhaps the most successful essay is Laughing at the Early Cold War by Lori Maguire, where she provides a good introduction to these films. Again, she shows that films such as Hail Caesar (2016) and Death of Stalin (2017) have many predecessors. By referencing films such as the British comedy Our Man in Havana (1959), Maguire demonstrates a sound grasp of cinema history and the long lineage of these films.

Part of long lineage of Cold War satire is Our Man in Havana. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet in presenting a case for a ‘Hollywood obsession,’ some selections are quite dubious. Many of the films are not even American – and cannot be considered part of Hollywood’s cinema – for example, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a British, French and German co-production. The Death of Stalin (2017) was a British, French and Belgium co-production, and both films are repeatedly referenced. However, it is not just the film industry. To place TV shows as part of a ‘Hollywood obsession’ is stretching the boundaries a little. One of the essays: Of Mothers and Motherlands by David LaRocca, focuses on the American TV show The Americans (2013 – 2018). The Americans was a popular program that told the story of two agents who passed as the heads of an all-American family. LaRocca provides an excellent survey of the show. Astonishingly for an American program, audiences supported the two Russian spies as they killed and attempted to destroy American democracy. It is a complex program with multi-levels showing how spies had to balance their family lives with their intelligence work.

Each of the essays has various strengths and weaknesses, but what is generally missing from the book is any discussion of the long-running diplomatic rifts between the West and Russia. This group of papers barely looks beyond the Second World War. The end of the Cold War meant that the USSR was no longer a superpower, and Soviet Communism was a spent force in world affairs. Russia imploded but was always going to reassert itself in some form as a regional power. One exception was Lori Maguire, who connected Putin’s rule back to Stalin, but there are other possible historical resonances. Putin represented another version of Russian authoritarianism that has impacted the country’s history for centuries.

Indeed, since the rise of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, tensions and conflicts between countries have ebbed and flowed. Russia has always been a player in the world and European politics. Britain and Russia wrestled for control of Afghanistan for many decades. “Cold War II” is a great title for the marketing department, and it makes for racy headlines for newspapers – but it is just not the case. The world is simply facing the same geographical dilemmas that have faced diplomats for centuries – albeit with nuclear weapons. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography certainly outlined the continuities of Russian history.[2] The essayists could have also looked further afield at books such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of Red Czar,[3] and Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, which links communism and Putin’s rule as back to the Romanovs. Of these writers, Myers is mentioned once and crudely dismissed.[4] These books highlight that authoritarian rulers or Tsars have existed throughout Russian history, and both Stalin and Putin are part of that tradition – there is no new Cold War. The essayists could even have looked back to the reign of Catherine the Great for inspiration to explain some of the depictions. Interestingly, she was also the subject of two TV series: Catherine the Great (2019) and The Great (2020) and, but these were released after the book was written. 

What is also missing is any discussion of the box office success of these films, which might indicate the acceptance or take-up rate of ideas contained in the film. Few of the films examined were highly successful, which raises the question of what impact, if any, they made. It is one thing to say the films contained these ideas, but if the films were not watched, their impact is minimal. Look for the term ‘box office,’ and it is confined to one footnote in an essay discussing representations of US – Russia foreign policy by Thomas J. Cobb as represented in the film Black Panther, which did resonate with United States audiences in a way that Red Sparrow did not. Yet, it is the less successful Red Sparrow that is the focus of several writers.

Black Panther is one ofthe few successful films discussed at any length. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The timing of the book is also a little unfortunate. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) did not make the cut for these essays due to its launch after publication. It is a highly popular TV series with an interesting depiction of the Soviet Union. The central character Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, a United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The TV show cuts against the book’s central premise that most television and film depictions of Russia are menacing. While the Soviet Union is depicted as a harsh regime, the people in it are human. The American Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but they are also courteous and dignified. While her opponent Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph. The show then depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other. If the book had been issued a little later, the success of The Queens Gambit (2020) might have made the book’s tone more optimistic. It is not the only example, as The Courier (2020) also highlighted a positive relationship between a London businessman and a Russian spy that may have helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from a few exceptions, the papers have little or no optimism about the relationship. It is both an interesting and pessimistic book.

[1] Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[2] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, London: Scribner, 2016

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

[4] Steven Lee, Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. First Vintage Books ed. 2016.

Vitagraph America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Kevin Brianton

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Andrew A. Erish is a historian who is not interested in the latest fashionable cinema or the trendiest director. Instead, his focus has always been detailed archive work of the origins of cinema. In doing so, he dismantles some of Hollywood’s most cherished legends. For example, his first book on Colonel William N. Selig was a riposte to those considered that D. W. Griffith or Cecil. B. DeMille had “invented” Hollywood, and he delivered detailed and grounded evidence to support his case.[1]

Erish has now produced a second book on similar terrain, and in this work, he wants to re-establish the reputation of Vitagraph, which he calls America’s first great studio. In his introduction, he argues that: “Unfortunately, if Vitagraph is mentioned at all in the histories, documentaries, and textbooks, it is usually in conjunction with its affiliation in the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), better known as the odious Trust. By virtue of its membership in the MPPC, Vitagraph has been mischaracterized as being the product of unimaginative, short-sighted engineers who produced a primitive form of cinema solely in the pursuit of quick profits that ceased the moment those better-known, more talented and intelligent showmen took over the industry.”[2] Erish argues that Paramount, Fox, Universal, MGM and Warner Brothers took over the American motion picture industry from Vitagraph and history was written by the victors. Not only was Vitagraph their predecessor, but its techniques would also even predate the cinematic mastery of D. W. Griffith, and its impact was immense.

To achieve the goal of re-establishing Vitagraph, Erish did what an astonishing number of film historians fail to accomplish: he sat down and watched the films. It is no small task. The studio would run until 1925 and produce about 3500 movies, and it is estimated 700 survive in some form. Then having viewed all accessible prints, increasingly available on the internet, Erish then backs his viewings up with detailed archival research. The end result is a detailed and fascinating revisionist history.

Erish is certainly not a historian who recycles information, and his treatment of secondary sources is exemplary. For example, movie memoirs are notoriously inaccurate, and many historians would have lifted material from Vitagraph’s founder Albert Smith’s memoir Two Reels and a Crank published in 1952.[3] However, Erish does not take anything for granted and sees the book as being entertaining than accurate. It is a sound decision, as Smith worked with film publicist Phil Koury to produce the work, and Koury’s books are not renowned for their accuracy. His account of his working with Cecil B. DeMille is also highly entertaining with a mine of information, but it needs to be treated carefully. [4]

Erish takes the reader into the world of early cinema when short films were shown for a few cents in shops on street corners. Vitagraph Studios was established in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, who as young men wanted to make it as entertainers, but never quite achieved great or lasting fame on the stage. The book’s opening section deals with the massive impact of Thomas Edison on the development of motion pictures. The story of the young men finding “Thomas Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Kinetoscope,” which implants a business idea, is almost straight from the novelist Horatio Alger. They certainly had Alger’s character’s thrift. As Erish points out: “One of Smith’s appointment calendars, though printed for the year 1896, has pencil notations indicating that he used it instead for 1897—an example of his thrift in the face of poverty.”[5]

Initially, filmmakers could show people getting off a hansom or getting their shoes shined. One of the first successes of the company was literally a flag-waver. Following a clash between Spanish and American troops, a film was made of a Spanish Flag being pulled down to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It lasted thirty seconds and was a smashing success. This film paved the way for more extensive and longer films. But interest in these simple films quickly faded. Instead, people began to be more and more demanding. Vitagraph was more than equal to the task. By 1907, Vitagraph was producing a film every week.

The book highlights some forgotten chapters such as Bobby Connelly. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Following its success, it would branch into other areas as time progressed, including a series of Shakespeare plays, drawing the wrath of one censor who warned about a cinematic production of Macbeth: “The stabbing in the play is not predominant. But in the picture show it is the feature. . . . You see the dagger enter and come out and see the blood flow. . . . Shakespeare is art, but . . . not [as] adapted . . . for the 5-cent style of art.”  The tension between theatre and the rising force of cinema was immediately evident. Theatre would decline in impact, and it was this 5-cent art that was going to transform the entertainment world, and Vitagraph would play a central part.

Vitagraph would become one of the pioneers of this new form of entertainment. In 1906, it developed the studio system, and its films would become more complex and artistic. In 1907, it would create The Mill Girl, which Erish sees as highly important for cinema’s developing craft, arguing:“The complex construction of The Mill Girl was successful because Albert Smith trusted the growing sophistication of the audience for which it was made. It serves as a prime example of Vitagraph developing fundamental cinematic language in the pre-Griffith era.”[6] It is a bold statement bolstering his view that Vitagraph should get greater attention in film history.

Erish has a comprehensive knowledge of the era and its films. For example, when he compares Fantasmagorie (1908), considered to be the first animated film, he argues persuasively it owes a great deal to one of Vitagraph’s early films. Erish demonstrates a strong and clear grasp of the subject derived from deep and prolonged study. In addition, almost every chapter contains ideas and original comments about the films. Some of its cinema have entered film history for various reasons, and Erish fleshes out some of their impact. For example, A Florida Enchantment (1914) is considered to be the first film depicting lesbians. A Vitagraph film Black Beauty was the first film that the future director Ingmar Bergman ever saw in Stockholm in 1924 as a little boy. He could recall the film decades later, and no doubt, it played some role in his influential career.

Larry Semon’s work for Vitagraph is highlighted in the book. Buster Keaton paid tribute to his comedic films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

By 1908 Vitagraph employed close to two hundred full-time “painters, machinists, costumers, carpenters, lab technicians, editors, and sundry other specialized workers.” It would produce hundreds of films. In 1915, Vitagraph employed 1200 people, but the various legal battles with other parties and other circumstances eventually ran against the company. The Birth of A Nation, directed by D. W Griffith, rewrote the rules of the American film industry. Like all other studios, Vitagraph worked hard to create a rival in The Battle Cry of Peace, but they could not compete with the popularity of the Griffith epic. Unlike Griffith, Vitagraph released The Cambric Mask (1919), which would not provide a favourable description of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the First World War, business in Europe fell off a cliff as Vitagraph’s staff in Paris were conscripted into the war effort. However, when the conflict concluded, the company reached into new markets across Asia, becoming an international organsation. Eventually, the studio was not competitive against the newer studios, which employed fair means and foul to impede the growth of their long-established rival. Finally, in 1925, Vitagraph was bought out. The corporate historical revisionists such as Paramount head Adolph Zukor, who had long wanted Vitagraph destroyed, started to airbrush the studio from film history.

The Battle Cry of Peace was an attempt to cover the same ground as The Birth of A Nation. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster,

Of course, not all historians have followed the official story and some have done excellent work. Erish does pay tribute to the work of Anthony Slide, who wrote a short history in 1976 and then teamed with Alan Grevinson to produce a longer version published in 1987, which Grevinson further revised in 1993.[7] Charles Musser has recognised the contribution of Vitagraph in the first volume of History of American Cinema and elsewhere.[8]  Eileen Bowser also gave the studio respectful coverage in the second volume of the series.[9] Erish cites both extensively. While their work is important, it now clear that Vitagraph has found a suitable champion. Erish has demonstrated that the studio is far more crucial in American cinema history than previously considered. What is evident on almost every page is the deep knowledge that Erish possesses about early cinema and his overwhelming enthusiasm for it. While it is a demanding and detailed read, it is a fine piece of historical research as well as a testament to a largely unsung part of American cinema.

[1] Andrew A. Erish, Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

[2] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 1.

[3] Albert Smith and Phil Koury, Two Reels and A Crank, New York: Doubleday, 1952.

[4] Phil Koury, Yes Mr DeMille, New York: Putnam, 1959.

[5] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s first Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 10.

[6] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 47.

[7] Anthony Slide and Alan Grevinson, The Big V, A History of the Vitagraph Company, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

[8] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema; v. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 253 – 254.

[9] Eileen Bowser. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Canonical remakes

The 1939 version of classic The Wizard of Oz was a remake of a 1925 silent film. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

About a decade ago, director Todd Haynes attempted to rework James Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce into a TV mini-series. Mildred Pierce had already been made into a highly successful film noir in 1945, and it is one of Joan Crawford’s best roles in her long career. A student of film, Haynes had a different visual style and emphasis to the original film. It is a serious piece of work in its own right. Mildred Pierce set a pretty high bar for those who reworked classic films, and many have been made recently. Some films In this recent trend have been highly creative and stand in their own right. Mank looked at the development of Citizen Kane (1939) and the role of Herman Mankiewicz.

While the 2020 BBC TV mini-series of Black Narcissus is firmly based on the Rumer Godden novel, the mini-series will almost invariably be compared to the 1947 film. The mini-series is the most recent production looking to reinterpret an entrenched member of the cinematic canon. The creators have aimed high; the combination of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is British directorial royalty. Black Narcissus (1947) is one of the pair’s most celebrated films. Indeed, it was ranked 44th by the British Film Institute in its top 100 films – and many would argue that position is a modest one.[1]  The team made this highly atmospheric thriller with a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between the two central characters of Sister Clodagh and Mister Dean.  It is set high in the Himlayan mountains, where Christianity is utterly foreign. It is beautifully made with the magnificent work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and deserves its accolades.

The visual style of the TV series Black Narcissus closely resembles the film, reproducing this famous matte shot of the bell tower. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The immediate impression with this reworking of the film is that the set and the cinematography are so similar. It is almost as if the creators are seeking to re-establish the look and feel of the film. It is only when the flashbacks begin, that the creators dare to vary the visual style. It is a really difficult question of how far creators should stray from the confines of the original. In one extreme example,  Pyscho (1960) was remade as a virtual shot for shot tribute. The critic Roger Ebert noted: “Curious, how similar the new version is, and how different. If you have seen Hitchcock’s film, you already know the characters, the dialogue, the camera angles, the surprises. All that is missing is the tension–the conviction that something urgent is happening on the screen at this very moment. The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”[2] The clear lesson was that if you are going to take on a canonical work, you need to have something to say, or a new approach.

Black Narcissus avoids this trap and takes its own path. The temptation to repeat the unforgettable image of Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, filled with pale psychopathic rage moving to strike at Sister Clodagh, must have been strong. The new series employs a different set of images and approaches. Some of the changes work, and some do not. Overall, it is a skillful production with some powerful features and good acting, but it cannot compete with the original at the end of the day.

Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

A film that has already established itself in the film canon has entrenched defenders, and any filmmaker must be aware they are fighting an uphill critical battle to rework it. Some remakes have been disastrous. Rebecca (1940) was a highly successful film, and it is still regarded as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films.  Rebecca has been popular with producers: it was remade into a moderately successful version by the BBC in 1979; and it was a 1997 British-German television drama directed by Jim O’Brien. It was a creditable remake, but like many TV shows, it disappeared without a trace. In 2020, a new remake of Rebecca was made, but this time the reviews were disapproving. The New York Times writer A. O. Scott was scathing about the 2020 remake for Netflix: saying it lacked an emotional centre and was more interested in clothes than in the story. [3] When you are being compared to a centrepiece of the cinematic canon, the faults of a new film or TV series are only magnified.

Rebecca has been repeatedly remade, but none have threatened the canonical status of the Hitchcock film. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

With the pressure for new content from the streaming services, it is an obvious prediction that we will see more canonical remakes. They have a ready-made profile and an audience. Those who choose – or are compelled – to remake classic films will find the odds stacked against them. Yet a remake is not always inferior. It should also be recalled that John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941) was a remake of a 1930 film. The same can also be said of Wizard of Oz (1939), originally made in a silent version. But it should also be remembered that every production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is, in a sense, a remake, and we have no qualms about seeing classic theatre being retold indefinitely.

[1] BFI 100 Top British Films, accessed at on 26 April 2021.

[2] Roger Ebert, “Pyscho,” 6 December 1998, Chicgo Sun-Times, accessed at on 25 April 2021.

[3] A. O Scott, “Rebecca’ Review: A Classic Tale, but There’s Only One Hitch,” New York Times, 21 October 2020, accessed at on 22 April 2021.

The haunted figure returning to a town: The Dry and its antecedents

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Alan Ladd in Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

It is a simple plotline where a traveller appears on the horizon and arrives at a remote town.  The wanderer may be returning to the town or arriving for the first time. At the end of the film, the traveller leaves the town having faced the past or resolved present tensions or both.  The image appears again and again in films up to the present day. It is a standard way to start many films – particularly in westerns.  While the start may be similar, the scene opens up a wealth of stories. After their work, they cannot stay and must move on. In each of these films, the central figure leaves a town that is changed by their presence. The highly regarded Australian film, The Dry (2020), is the most recent example, but it is mainly seen in American westerns.

A central example is Shane (1953), where a drifting gunfighter arrives at the homestead and tries to settle down.  Giving up his shady past, Shane works hard for a family establishing a farm. Hoping to leave a lifetime of violence, Shane must deal with his demons while protecting a town and the family from its violent enemies. While Shane begins to fit into the community, he soon realises that he cannot stay if he is to defend the community. Once Shane has defeated the town’s enemies, he must leave as the gunfighter cannot silence his torments. He leaves, saying to a young boy that idolises him: ‘Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.’[1] Shane was a highly popular and influential film, and it was itself derivative of any number of westerns, which told the story in different ways. The ideas run through many of Clint Eastwood’s westerns in High Plains Drifter (1973), where the gunfighter was pure vengeance, and of course, Pale Rider (1985), which was essentially an update of Shane.

In The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart cannot esacpe the lie of his past and must leave Shinbone.

John Ford provided a variation on the theme in The Man Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where Senator Ranson Stoddard returns to Shinbone after a long absence. Stoddard comes back to honor the memory of Tom Doniphon, who died a drunken and broken man. His return sparks the local newspaper editor’s interest, who does not accept his initial stories about the reasons for returning. After a while, Stoddard reluctantly reveals the real story behind the shooting of the loathsome Liberty Valance. The killing of the despised outlaw in self defence propelled him on to a great political career, but it was based on a lie. In telling the story, Stoddard returns some dignity to the figure of Tom Doniphon, who was a far more heroic figure than the town drunk. Stoddard has finally told the truth, perhaps looking for some dignity for his former friend and a release from the burden of living a lie. In Ford’s western universe, even when  the truth is told, it is better to ‘print the legend.’

Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The scene is not confined to westerns, and the films often had political and social messages. Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear-cut attacks on the McCarthyite era’s politics.  John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, is a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  He aimed to give a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years, and the townspeople were uneasy with his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’ 

The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno, a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said: ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[2] The film has strong political undertones. Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  Eventually, Macreedy defeats Reno, uncovering the truth of the past. The medal is given to the town to begin its healing after the ravages of Reno. Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, one of the petitioners for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and produced by Dore Schary, who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.[3]  The declaration signalled an anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls on 24 November 1947.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[4]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that they were not a communist.  This declaration meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs. Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[5]  It was clear that these events impacted the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

It seems to be a world away from the Hollywood Westerns. Yet The Dry belongs to this group of films, which have essentially the same basic plot. The individual has some tortured relationship with the town and left for various reasons – good or bad. In The Dry, Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer who returns to his hometown in rural Australia, suffering from a year-long drought. Falk is to attend his childhood friend Luke’s funeral. Luke is thought to have killed his wife and son and then committed suicide. Played by Eric Bana,  Falk does not want to return to the town, as he left under a cloud, suspected of killing his teenage sweetheart Ellie Deacon. Even though he wants to stay only a day, Falk immediately suspects that something has been missed in the investigation. Linking with the local police, Falk tries to prove that Luke was innocent and deal with the past accusations.

This investigation is conducted against the backdrop of the town’s pent-up rage spurred by the ongoing drought. Despite these obstacles, by the end of the film, Falk has resolved the town’s problems – aside from the drought – and is ready to move away. In an almost classic sequence at the end of The Dry, Falk walks away from the camera towards the horizon. Falk is almost riding off into the sunset like Shane or Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. In Bay Day at Black Rock, Macreedy takes the train, as does Ranson Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard says to his wife that he would like to return to the town in their retirement – his wife agrees wholeheartedly but realises it is a pipe dream when the conductor says: “Nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” They realise the western myth will not leave them alone. Like the others, these figures have resolved the tensions of the town and need to move on.

The nameless gunfighter becomes a force of revenge in High Plains Drifter (1973). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Shane Listing on IMDB, accessed at, accessed on 15 April 2021.

[2] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman.

[3] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Alogn with Schary, producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner opposed the declaration.

[4] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[5] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975,  700-716.

In charge: Women CEOs in American cinema

A distant ancestor of the recent women CEO films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The upcoming film Bad Blood depicting the rise and fall of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is creating strong interest. The film is based on her company’s collapse, which at one point, was worth more than $9 billion. The company’s forunes were based on flawed technology, blatant lying and sheer gall. After whistleblowers exposed it, Theranos collapsed. At one point, Holmes was the world’s youngest billionaire, and her personal and corporate disintegration was sensational news. Such a story is too enticing for Hollywood film executives.

While Bad Blood is based on a true story of corporate greed, some recent fictional creations explore the same territory. I Care A Lot (Prime) and a limited TV series, The One (Netflix), also share a theme of a strong and highly capable woman leading an organisation. Whatever the strengths of these CEOs, they are also both deeply flawed.

The movie I Care a Lot (2020) was written and directed by Johnathan Blakeson. The film stars Rosamund Pike as a court-appointed guardian who seizes older people’s assets for her own financial benefit. She identifies and targets a vulnerable or isolated older adult. With the backing of corrupt medical and nursing home officials, she locks them away from legal or family support.

Pike plays Marla Grayson, a scammer who makes a living by convincing the legal system to grant her guardianship over elders that she argues cannot take care of themselves. To do so, she ensures they cannot contact any outside support, or she targets those with little or no family support. This guardianship causes great distress to some remaining relatives. Grayson strips away their assets and milks them until they die – when they are cashed out. The business is highly immoral, but the film is a black comedy demonstrating that the clever and ruthless can exploit the most vulnerable. Marla Grayson has few redeeming features, but she is utterly fearless after she goes a step too far in imprisoning a relative of the mafia. Her fight with the mafia is the spine of the film.

While I Care A Lot is positioned in a remotely possible real-world, The One is a TV series that takes some basic scientific ideas and then stretches them to the limit of plausibility. A brilliant scientist Rebecca Webb develops a business using her DNA-based matchmaking service.  You can find ‘the one’ which is your soulmate or your one true love. Webb is a driven businesswoman who will not even flinch at murder. Webb, played by Hannah Ware, seems unstoppable with her business ready to float on the stock exchange, and billions are to be made – until a body is found in the Thames. The evidence points to Webb being the murderer of her co-founder.

One common thread in these shows is that women CEOs contain some form of deep-seated flaw. For Grayson, it is her absolute indifference to the pain and suffering she creates among the elderly and their relatives. In Webb’s case, it is her ability to lurch suddenly into violence to get what she needs. Whatever the strengths of these women in business, they are also both deeply unsound.  It raises some interesting points about the depiction of successful women – does the entertainment industry prefer women to have serious shortcomings when they are successful?

The portrayal of flawed women acting as CEOs has a long tradition in Hollywood. A distant ancestor of these films is Mildred Pierce (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred, played by Joan Crawford, is a self-made success, rising from the ranks as a waitress, then cooking meals, building up to become a successful restaurant chain owner.  Despite the success, her daughter remains ungrateful and destructive. Mildred Pierce cannot see the evil she is fostering pandering to her daughter’s every materialistic need. Her drive for money makes her blind to the consequences. In each of these depictions of successful businesswomen, there is a deep flaw embedded in their character.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Indeed, the evil CEO is almost a stock figure in American fiction. In response, in the 1950s, the ultra-conservative ideologue Ayn Rand, in her Screen Guide For Americans, specifically said that industrialists should not be smeared.

Of course, it is not always women who play nasty CEOs. A recent example is the depiction of the New York City hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, in Arbitrage (2012), who will trash business rivals, sideline his family, and destroy all he touches. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rand was partially correct as the evil corporate magnate/cattle baron/landlord is a familiar enough figure in American cinema. After her testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, Rand wrote the guide in November 1947 to eradicate communism from the screen.[1] The 12-page leaflet said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man should not be smeared; that failure and the collective should not be glorified; and that communist writers, directors, and producers should not be hired.[2] The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand bragged that the arts section of The New York Times had printed it in full; however, it was only mentioned in summary in a small article.[3] What Rand would make of the current crop of depictions of CEOs would send her spinning in the grave.

One other trait in these recent films is a downtrodden male counterpoint to the female CEO in The One and I Care A Lot. One aggrieved male seeks violent revenge on the female CEOs, and despite their success, the women can be cut down by their attacks. In I Care A Lot, the aggrieved man wears a red baseball cap like the ‘Make America Great Again’ caps worn by former President Donald Trump supporters. Trump was elected as a ‘wrecker.’ In an era where Trump supporters have stormed the Capitol building, these films reveal a savage undercurrent. The films also show an underlying male rage against female success.

[1] Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia : Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2005) 176.

[2] Ayn Rand, ‘Screen Guide For Americans, The Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals.’ (accessed January 8, 2020).

[3] Thomas F Brady, ‘Alliance Group Issues Screen Guide for Americans’, New York Times, November 16, 1947. Rand’s memory may have confused The New York Times with the anti-communist newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947, which did print it in full. 

The burden of command in the post-Second World War films

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University

John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In the immediate post-Second World War period, many films began to wrestle with command and the stresses it caused.  Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning to the United States, and films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) looked at the difficulties soldiers faced in readjusting to civilian life. Other films dealt with pressures created by military conflict across the globe. Of this group of films, the most successful was Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). It depicts a platoon’s genesis from basic training to one of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles at Iwo Jima. It was the first time that the United States had invaded Japanese territory, and they met strong resistance from the Japanese in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War. John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances.

The squad initially detests Stryker and the hard training he insists upon. He is especially despised by private Pete Conway, played by John Agar, who is college-educated. Pete is the son of Colonel Sam Conway, whom Stryker admired. Conway is part of the elite, who disdain military life, but the true heroes are the hard salt of the earth men like Stryker, who project a much tougher line against the United States’ enemies. The film discusses the shocking burden of command. Eventually, Conway understands and adopts Stryker’s techniques.

While the Pacific theatre of war was the focus of Sand of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High (1949) concentrates on the bombardment of German factories by aircrews of the US airforce. The film is set on an airbase in the English midlands, focusing on a B17 bomber group with an abysmal record. With its morale a disaster, its leader Colonel Keith Davenport is set aside for allowing discipline to erode when he became too close to its men.

Savage collapses under the stain of command in Twelve O’Clock High. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Brigadier General Frank Savage replaces him to lead the 918th bomber group. Screenwriters in 1949 appeared to employ strong, active surnames such as ‘Savage’ and ‘Stryker’ for their protagonists, who then whipped a military unit into shape. Like Stryker, Savage clamps down on discipline and deals harshly with slackers. His new order causes dissent, but eventually, they come around to his way of doing things. Savage leads the 918th on a mission over the German heartland in a version of the Black Thursday strike against Schweinfurt, a major raid against a ball-bearing plant in Germany.[1] The B-17s attack the ball-bearing plant—but a second bombing raid is required. As Savage attempts to board his aircraft to lead the restrike, he suffers a mental breakdown from the accumulated strain. Savage can lead no further, but even in his absence, the unit destroys the target and the 918th is now an elite unit, and it moves on to new leadership. After all his efforts, Savage is disposable. The film was the first to touch on the massive stress involved with command.

Submarine Command dealt with the issues of post-truamatic stress in a submarine commander. (IMDB and Paramount)

The first film to directly deal with post-traumatic stress disorder related to command was Submarine Command (1951), which took these issues to another level. The film focuses on the crushing decision by Lieutenant Commander Ken White, played by William Holden. He orders the submarine USS Tiger Shark to dive to evade an aerial attack, causing his the death of a commander and a quartermaster. White is not able to lead his troops further, as the war is finished when he resurfaces. For White, vindication comes when the Korean War is declared, and his leadership in the face of overwhelming pressure shows his decision-making wisdom. In Regeneration Through Violence, Richard Slotkin shows that the attitudes and traditions that shape American culture evolved from the social and psychological anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world to claim the land and displace the Native Americans.[2] White, Styker and Savage are all vindicated by the violence they direct at the United States’ enemies. The messages from this group of films, which were released in the early days of the Cold War, were that the United States would need to be tougher, and people like Stryker, Savage and White were needed even if they were to be killed or crushed by the demands of war.


[2] Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence : The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. 1st Ed.].. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

News of the World and The Searchers

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The iconic imagery and ideas of the Searchers can be seen in many different films and TV shows. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Even though the film was not nominated for any Academy Awards, The Searchers (1956) remains one of the cinema’s most revered movies. Directed by John Ford, the film depicts the decade-long search of Ethan Edwards for his niece, who the Comanche Indians kidnapped when she was a small girl.

The film is superbly directed, with the final scene being the most powerful. The scene is framed through the black edges of a door, and we see the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house in order to gain entrance to society. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards, played by Natalie Wood, to the porch. She is walked through the door with the Jorgensen family and to rejoin the community. Edwards steps towards the door but then moves back when a couple, Martin Pawley, who traveled with him and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway. They seem content in each other’s company, and it seems certain they would marry. Edwards then looks through the door, hesitates and eventually turns his back to the door, which swings shut – barring him from entry.

Earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. In the final scene, the wind picks up, and dust swirls around him as he walks away.  It appears that the curse has now returned to haunt him. After his heroism in returning his niece, he exiles himself from the community he longs to join. Even after repeated viewings, it carries a massive emotional punch, and this scene is rightly celebrated. Its impact can be seen in films and TV shows to the present day.

The most recent reworking was in the film News of the World (2020), based on Paulette Jiles’ novel. It is the story of a man’s efforts to return a child abducted by Indians to her original family. The parallels between the two films are obvious. Like Edwards, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a former member of the Confederate Army. Unlike Edwards, Kidd has surrendered to the Union forces and signed a loyalty oath. Edwards did not sign the loyalty oath. Kidd is also a cultured and caring man who suffers for his involvement in the war. Edwards is a borderline psychopath who delights in killing – particularly Indians.

News of the World provides a counterpoint to the Searchers. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Like Ford’s film, members of the child’s family are killed with severe violence, and the films are linked by their depiction of a ransacked home where its pioneer residents are slaughtered. Star Wars (1977) used similar imagery when Luke Skywalker returned to the house of his step-family. News of the World even duplicates a shot out of a window frame that could almost be lifted from The Searchers’ visual style. But it is a story with a revisionist view of the American west – far different from John Ford’s work.

In News of the World, the Kiowa Indians are no brute savages, and the little girl wants to remain with them. The Kiowa is the only community that shows Kidd some kindness in his efforts to return the child to her family – they give him a horse in a sand storm that saves their lives.  In contrast, the white community will slaughter almost anyone, and some are quite prepared to sell off or abuse the child.

The child in News of the World is not comfortable in the world of the white people. Her biological family is cruel and uncaring, and she has no place there. Her rightful family is the Kiowa, but they have been killed or are roaming the plains. Like the cursed Indian in The Searchers, she is between both worlds. When the child is returned to her family in News of the World, we find that she does not seamlessly return to white civilization, and another solution must be found.

Scenes from the Searchers continue to crop up in various films and TV shows. In a flashback, the newly minted police officer, Jackson Brodie in the TV series Case Histories, finds a lost child in a field of long grass and raises her above him, in an almost identical shot to John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood, after searching for her for a decade. In the same episode, but in later years, returning as a hero, Brodie approaches a house with his potential girlfriend, and he is offered entry, but he walks away. Rejecting the home, Brodie is firmly in the mould of Ethan Edwards.

A reworking of the scene also occurred in Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds (2005), the hero Tom Cruise returns his children to their natural mother, with whom he had previously separated.[1] Set against an alien invasion, the film shows Cruise  – who is a poor father – doing all he can to save his children. In bringing back his children, he had reunited the family and sent them through the door of their home. He seems content to have them return to their mother and her new partner and then begins to walk away. Unlike Ford’s version, Cruise is called back to rejoin the family unit – their arguments and disagreements appearing trivial compared to the carnage they had endured.

War of the Worlds (2005) ended with a reworking of the Searchers final scene. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Intentionally or not, all these films touch on the ancient Greek myth of Hercules. The demi-God was capable of immense feats of bravery and strength, but Hercules was also capable of destructive acts of rage against those close to him. Edwards, at one point, is hell bent on killing his niece. Such a figure can be seen throughout western literature.[2] Ford took the basic myth and refashioned it, in the simple context of a cowboy and Indians western. Film-makers continue to reinterpret the myth and employ Ford’s imagery.

[1] Among those who noted the similarity are: Devin Farci, In Defense Of Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS,  19 February 2019, accessed at on 9 March 2021.

[2] Eugene Wraith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. Columbia University Press, 1962. In another vein, Richard Rowland has looked at the destructive side of the myth in Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. Rowland asks why have artists across two millennia felt compelled to revisit this particular myth to examine violence?

On the ease of conspiracy theories: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

A new series of Netflix conveys the power of conspiracy theories.

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The recent Netflix series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is an interesting but overlong and repetitive true crime investigation about Elisa Lam’s disappearance at the infamous Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

The investigation is the starting point of a look at the Hotel Cecil, which despite its impressive façade and foyer, is the hotel of choice for those who want cheap accommodation and are not overly concerned about hygiene or the safety of life and limb.

It was a cheap hotel in the middle of one of the poorest zones in Los Angeles. Such a setting makes Lam’s disappearance all the more intriguing. We understand from interviews that the place is the site of deaths and suicides and drug deals. Elisa Lam booked a stay at the hotel and then disappeared. She did not leave the building, and no body was found.

During the investigation, a fascinating video sequence was found of the poor woman terrified out of her mind in an elevator. The footage, coupled with her disappearance, makes for the spine of the documentary. The disappearance reminded me of one of those closed room killings favoured by the crime novelist John Dickson Carr and his impossibly clever mysteries.[1]

The investigators of disappearance work along traditional lines looking for evidence of how she would go missing. Their investigation is logical and thorough, but it takes time to discover the truth.

In today’s era, where there is a mystery, there must be social media, and then there must be conspiracy theories. Without giving away too much, Elisa Lam’s disappearance is explained clearly by the end of the show. The conspiracy theories are shown to be nothing much more than wild speculation.

Perhaps the most farfetched is that Elisa Lam was an agent spreading TB – a type of biological warfare. After all, there was a TB break out at the time, and the test for TB was called the LAM-ELISA.[2] It is an astonishing coincidence, but that is all it is. The conspiracy theory’s remarkable nature is that they take a coincidence and then build their case. It has an internal logic, but nothing more. The cases bounce off each other, and they present an erratic and enticing sequence of events.

How social media users made a relatively simple set of circumstances into something tangible that many people still believe is remarkable. [3] In this case, a whole body of conspiracy theories was uncovered. One unfortunate soul, who had been at the hotel a year before, was named the killer and subjected a vicious social media hazing.

At almost every level in society, facts have become irrelevant as people seek the most convenient version of the truth. The United States is presently working through the fallout of an insurrection against the Senate. Those participating were pushed along by a stream of unfounded complaints against the election’s conduct on social media. The simple fact was that the courts rejected the claims for lack of evidence. Yet, the conspiracy theorists continue to spread their savage distortions, and a fair proportion of the population took it up. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel shows the dynamics of how all this works.

Before the social media barrage of conspiracy theories, films such as The Parallax View (1974) and Executive Action (1973) offered their take on political assassinations, arguing that a large corporate body was behind the political violence in the United States. [4] One the Hollywood 10, Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for Executive Action, which proposed that a group of right-wing politicians, businessmen, assassins and intelligence agents developed a plan to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.

In the 1970s, Executive Action, and The Parallax View harnessed some of the conspiracy theories. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

These films fed into the widely held view that a sole deranged assassin in Lee Harvey Oswald did not murder President Kennedy, and there was a broader conspiracy. These conspiracy theories do not stand scrutiny, but are widely held.[5] The theories were later reinforced by films such as JFK (1991) which a complex web of conspiracy theories weaved together. These films are joined by Flashpoint (1984), Ruby (1992), and Interview with the Assassin (2002).

Conspiracy theories centre on great stories, which is always a sound base for some fine films. What is alarming is how easy it is to create a plausible – albeit evidence-free – conspiracy theory. While not the greatest of documentaries, the TV show has shown how simple it is to construct a conspiracy theory based on little or no evidence or simple speculation. What was once laughable has now entered the political and cultural mainstream.

The political implications are serious. It shows the astonishing ease that complete and utter nonsense can be translated into a creditable belief. The commentators had no special ability in research, aside from a fascination with the subject of Elisa Lam’s disappearance. This disappearance was tragic, but the detectives reveal a perfectly logical sequence of events. Even the social media theorists admitted that their conspiracy theories were unfounded. However, there appears to be no concession to reality for those in the crowd who stormed the Capitol building.


[2] The test for the tuberculosis was her name in reverse order: LAM-ELISA, which stood for Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). 

[3] Lucy Devine, “People Are Still Convinced Elisa Lam’s Death Was Connected To TB Outbreak,” Tyla, accessed at: on 19 February 2021

[4] Art Simon, In The Parallax View, Conspiracy Goes All the Way to the Top—and Beyond, Slate, 21 July 2021, accessed at on 22 February 2021.

[5] Gerald L. Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Doubleday, 1994, provides an overview of the weaknesses of all the major conspiracy theories.