Friday, 17 August 2018

The Proud Valley (1940)


Paul Robeson first discovered the struggles of the Welsh mining communities when he met a deputation of blacklisted miners on a hunger march to London in 1926. Appalled by their hardships and touched by their resilience, Robeson's allegiance with Wales started here, culminating in 1957 when, blacklisted by McCarthy and denied the right to a passport, he performed in a transatlantic telephone exchange concert with Porthcawl's Eisteddfod from his home in the US. But it's this film that preserves that special relationship for posterity and managed to be, of all the films he made, Robeson's own personal favourite.


Written by the socialist husband and wife writing team of Herbert Marshall and Fredda Brilliant and the novelists Louis Golding and Jack Jones (who also appears in the film) The Proud Valley is based on the true story of an Afro-American miner from West Virginia who had drifted to Wales, by way of England, Looking for work. Robeson plays the hero, David Goliath, as down-on-his-luck man in a similar situation who arrives in the valleys and wins the respect of the musically orientated community there through the gift of his powerful bass baritone. Welcomed into the bosom of the Parry family, David is given board and lodging and a start down at the pit in exchange for his participation in the forthcoming Eisteddfod.


However, this harmony is shattered when a mining disaster takes not only the life of his friend and choirmaster Dick Parry (Edward 'Mr Grimsdale' Chapman) but also the livelihood of the whole community as the mine is closed down. After a year of hardship, unemployment and penury, David convinces Parry's son Emlyn (Simon Lack - the surname clearly short for lacking, as in 'he's lacking the ability to do a Welsh accent or convince at all') and some of the other miners to walk the 200+ miles from the valleys to London to confront the pit owner at his office and demand the opportunity to work once more. 



Fortunately for the men, war with Germany has just broken out and the country requires coal. The owner accepts their demands and the men return home to get the mine operational again. However, a second disaster occurs leaving them entombed within. It's left to David to sacrifice his life to save the men who accepted him as one of their own.





What's remarkable about The Proud Valley is that, in many ways, it refuses to capitalise on the screen presence of its lead. So many of Robeson's films accentuate his physique; his towering 6'3" stature or the barrel chest from which that impressive voice burst forth from. Instead, and tellingly, The Proud Valley places Robeson within the community on the cobbled streets of the Rhondda and refuses to address the differences in their appearance. In doing so, defies its audience to tell the difference. The message is clear; we are all the same, his problems are my problems, his hopes are my hopes. It is the solidarity of the workplace and of the working class community and it is best exemplified in the one scene where race rears its head; one miner voices his suspicion of this black stranger who has been given work at the pit just to secure his place on the choir and is immediately silence by Parry's rhetoric of “Aren’t we all black down that pit?” This communal message resonated with the star himself, who later said that “It’s from the miners in Wales that I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.” The only thing that separates Robeson's David from the people around him is his incredible singing voice, but even then this is(of course) a valley full of singers and it is only here that David feels he has come home, perhaps using that voice to full effect for the first time.


Directed by Penn Tennyson who was sadly killed in action just a year later, The Proud Valley was an extremely progressive movie by 1940's standards. The film refused to glamourise or sentimentalise the characters or their plight and depicts its working class characters not as the comic stereotypes that many films of the period elected to do, but instead as multi-dimensional characters who possessed heart, humour and generosity. Equally, Robeson secured one of his finest roles precisely because the film refused to conform to racial stereotypes too; David is not an 'Amos and Andy' style comic relief or a noble savage, he is a working class man first and foremost with all the admirable qualities that that implies. The colour of David's skin barely matters upon the film and, as such, Robeson is allowed to portray the kind of heroic role that was all too lacking for black actors at that time as well as having the chance, as he once said, “to depict the Negro as he really is—not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.“ It's easy to see why the film was Robeson's personal favourite, its the perfect fusion of the man's artistic and political attitudes and his belief that the message of working classes coming together, regardless of their colour or nationality, was a deeply important one.


Aside from the impact of the outbreak of war upon the storyline (coming from Ealing, it does, in its later stages at least, share similarities with many of the propaganda pictures that were to come from the studio, serving as an impeccable recruitment drive for the Bevin Boys) he film may share some similarities with Carol Reed's big screen adaptation of AJ Cronin's The Stars Look Down which was also released in 1940, but its USP remains the remarkable Robeson.


Thursday, 16 August 2018

Peterloo

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre and the official launch of the artwork of Mike Leigh's forthcoming film by one of its stars, Christine Bottomley. It has been announced too that the film will, fittingly, receive its premiere at Home in Manchester in October) and that Mike Leigh has called for the events of Peterloo to be taught in schools.



And quite right too. It appalls me that our education system is, like so much of society, is weighted in favour of the establishment and the status quo. Even here in the north west, I don't actually recall ever learning about Peterloo at school. As a result, its shameful the blank looks and confusion that the word receives. We are the generations who have been taught about our 'betters', of kings and queens, but never about the rich history of dissent or of the working classes and it needs to stop. Like the political climate itself, things need to change.

Of course it's no surprise that Peterloo hasn't been taught in schools. The truth of Peterloo is dangerous, highlighting as it does, the blame that must be laid squarely at the door of the establishment. The fact that, 199 years on, it still isn't being spoken about in schools should set alarm bells ringing: what will the generations to come learn about us almost two hundred years from now - will they be taught about Hillsborough, about the miners' strike, the Iraq war and Grenfell?

Out On Blue Six: Aretha Franklin, RIP

Another glorious star has gone out, Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, has died aged 76


And with such tragic news, let's all say a little prayer for Aretha


RIP

End Transmission


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Alan Rickman Is The Equalizer

Hitting UK cinemas this week is The Equalizer 2 the sequel to Antoine Fuqua's 2014 big screen reboot of the classic 1980s TV series that was a firm favourite show of mine. Once again, Denzel Washington stars as the former secret agent turned avenging angel, bringing his own unique brand of justice to mean streets of America.

I've discussed both my love of the original series starring the great Edward Woodward before and the near decade-long development hell the big screen spin off has endured here and here and, as you'll know (or see from those posts) my original hope for an Equalizer movie was for Ciaran Hinds  to step into Woodward's shoes. For me, it was a no brainer; Hinds had the same gravitas and had played the role of 'the cleaner' in Spielberg's Munich in such a manner that hinted at his potential for the role. Plus, we'd seen how his friend and fellow Irishman Liam Neeson had performed as an aging action man in Taken. However, Hinds clearly wasn't a big enough Hollywood name, and Sean Bean, Timothy Dalton, Russell Crowe and Neeson himself were all at one time or another touted or attached to the project before Washington was announced.

Washington's McCall is a far cry from Woodward's. There's a darkness to the character that makes his character morally ambiguous and sometimes hard to separate from the villains he goes after. This is an interesting approach, but I personally felt it was overdone in Fuqua's film (and I don't expect it to be toned down in the sequel either) I wondered then, if there was a way to marry together both this darker persona and the more quintessential characterisation from the TV series. I was reminded of a chat in the pub with mates back in the early-mid 00s when the news that Hollywood planned a remake and one friend suggested Malcolm McDowell for McCall. An interesting idea I'm sure you'd agree, but could McDowell really pull off a good guy role after so many anarchic and villainous turns. Thinking about it again this past week I immediately hit upon the idea of an alternative universe (I love alt universe film ideas) where Hollywood pursued the both original British nature of the protagonist as well as the original series concept of The Equalizer, along with the darker, more ruthless streak that Washington's cinematic offering has given us, all via an actor who had a reputation for playing bad guys but could convince as heroes too - and I came up with Alan Rickman. 

Here's some fan posters I conjured up using Rickman's likeness and the typeface of The Equalizer movies...




Can you imagine if Rickman had played The Equalizer perhaps for the first time circa 2008/09 say? How good would that have been?

Wordless Wednesday: Break the Mould, Again