Adapting E.L. Doctorow's 1975 best-selling and kaleidoscopic novel Ragtime, set in and around New York at the turn of the 20th century, must have been like catching smoke.
Cannily, Miloš Forman chose to sift through the original narrative and focus specifically on what is essentially just two strands - the real-life incident of the murder of architect Standford White (played by no less an American icon than Norman Mailer) and what subsequently became known as 'the trial of the century', and the story of black pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr and his desperate quest for justice after his new Model T Ford falls victim to the attentions of a racist clique of firemen - allowing other stories and characters from the novel such as historical figures like Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud and President Teddy Roosevelt, and fictional characters like struggling Eastern European artist Tateh and the wealthy unnamed New Rochelle family, to fall a little by the wayside or be relegated to mere window dressing.
'Younger Brother' is just one of the unnamed characters who feature as part of a springboard into subsequent storyline; which sees the arrival of a newborn black baby on the grounds of the vast house he lives in alongside his older older sibling aka 'Father' (James Olson) and his wife, 'Mother' (Mary Steenburgen) The police track down the baby's mother in the neighbourhood and 'Mother' expresses a wish to take them both in, with the woman as their maid and the child seemingly as a surrogate babe of her own. It transpires that the child's father is Coalhouse Walker (Howard E Rollins Jr) who had been away earning money as a ragtime piano player. Finding the whereabouts of his woman and child, he comes calling on the family with the intention of making their new maid an honest woman now he has enough money behind him to support them properly. Everything's all set for the wedding, when an event takes place that changes everything. A local volunteer firehouse witness Walker driving his new Model T and, enraged that a black man would own such a vehicle, they set about sabotaging it by smearing his front seat with a pile of horse manure. Incensed Coalhouse demands a justice that simply isn't forthcoming to him by the city authorities. Like Thaw before him, he loses sight of what's important to him (his family) and takes to terrorism with a gang of similarly maligned and angry black men. They murder the firemen (bar their chief, the ringleader of the stunt against him) and barricade themselves in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, whereupon they issue a set of demands to Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (the great James Cagney, coming out of a twenty year retirement for this, his last picture) and his men; they want the car restored in its original condition, and the fire chief handed over to them for their own unique brand of justice.
As the long and protracted siege plays out, 'Father' Father (James Olson) gets drawn into negotiations, little realising that 'Younger Brother' is actually part of Coalhouse's gang, in blackface disguise. Meanwhile, 'Mother' is falling for the advances of Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) a once impoverished Jewish artist who has become a pioneer in the burgeoning craft of filmmaking and whose latest star is Evelyn Nesbit.
At 155 minutes, Ragtime is a sprawling, well-intentioned but somewhat flawed epic. Where it excels is in its sense of period (a brilliant evocation of 1900s New York is brought to life in both the city and its environs itself, as well as Shepperton Studios, England - which affords us the strange opportunity of seeing EastEnders' Charlie Slater standing next to Jimmy Cagney!) and its fine performances. Howard E. Rollins, Jr. is outstanding as Coalhouse and his journey from youthful and romantic innocence to a man capable of holding New York to ransom because, as a black man, he is not given the same rights afforded to everyone else is credible and deeply tragic. It's a big gamble I imagine to have cut so much of a novel to the bone (something I imagine Robert Altman, the director originally slated for the adaptation, wouldn't have done - preferring instead to gleefully create a melting pot for the screen) but Forman's decision pays off entirely when you consider the performance he gets from Rollins and the integrity they all commit to the storyline.
Ragtime may not be perfect; it's still somewhat cluttered and the way storylines splutter and fade and don't come off as intertwined as you perhaps hope means that it lacks an overall cohesion, but nonetheless Ragtime remains - for me at least - a beautifully mounted epic that is indicative of the bold, courageous vision of the so-called 'New Hollywood' of the 1970s. I miss these kind of films; films like this, Once Upon A Time In America, The Day of the Locust, The Godfather, The Last Tycoon and yes, even Heaven's Gate. Films that said something about the origins, the society, the situations and the events that helped shape modern America. No one has dared make anything like this since Scorsese wrapped on Gangs of New York. Nowadays the only 'epic' Hollywood wants to make is one which features a load of comic book heroes and their origins story.