Well, it’s Christmas again — and, as usual, the glimpse it affords of the so-called ‘normal world’ in its end-of-year period of compulsory relaxation and celebration is an experience that leaves me feeling distinctly baffled…
For example, the other day, I was queuing in my local supermarket — and had a quick look at one of the TV guides they pile up by the checkout. Of course, it was idle curiosity on my part: I’m not interested in TV; I don’t watch TV; and I neither own nor seek to own a working TV set any more. So, I opened it at the page for ‘Christmas Eve’ — and what did I see?
I saw The Dam Busters (1955).
Yup. Nothing says ‘Peace On Earth’ quite like a film about people inventing a big new bomb and using it to kill other people; nothing says ‘Goodwill To All Men’ quite as clearly as a story from a global war that lasted six years and caused 80 million deaths. Happy Holidays, people!
As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the Second World War’s modern acceptability as a ‘feelgood’ topic for UK holiday viewing (Great Escape, anyone…?) is not entirely mysterious. As far as the average UK viewer is concerned, WW2 remains the only war in which the British Empire enjoyed the astonishing moral luxury of fighting something as evil as itself. And while there are many narcotics in the world, few of them are as potent or as addictive as a militarily buttressed sense of historical self-righteousness re-packaged as escapist entertainment.
Then there’s the point of view of the elites in whose interests this particular variety of low-cost, corporate-owned garbage gets programmed. There’s probably nothing legally broadcastable that is better in tune with the requirements of the ruling class than a set of sanctified war stories in which any number of ordinary people not only take on clearly suicidal tasks on the say-so of some ‘chain of command’, but even do it with the unquestioning conviction that everyone in their society — the entire hierarchy, from monarch and plutocrat downwards — is on the same side as them, all class interest erased in the ‘national interest’. No, really!
Thus, from the perspective of our ruling elites and the particular brand of fascism-flavoured neo-feudalism which they are currently imposing upon every unprotected population on the planet, the spectacle presented by the average Second World War movie and its modern audience is pretty well utopian. And thus it is that our population finds itself invited to enter the Christmas Holiday by way of a steaming pile of patriotic weapons porn like The Dam Busters — ethically soporific, socially instructional, and with by no means the least of its power-serving obscenities being the neat way it tapdances around the corpses of those 1000+ POWs and labour camp inmates from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Ukraine whose downstream drowning was, in reality, just about the mission’s only significant achievement.
So, if we’re not going to play along by watching muck like that, what are we going to watch? Well, it’s probably a bit late to organise this now; but I myself can think of a film made at pretty much the same time and with ‘production values’ that are, at the very least, comparable; which also is a highly conscious vehicle for a star performer, and which likewise presents a pathological view of the world — yet does so in a way that manages not to be imbecilically compliant and thoughtless. Here, for your delectation, is its actual ‘theatrical trailer’:
Yes, the film is Moby Dick (1956; dir. John Huston) — another film that contains death, destruction, and big and dangerous things shooting across water … yet which is an artistic world away from The Dam Busters.
Not least musically. Myself, I always found the music for The Dam Busters — what there is of it! — to be rather feeble stuff (and badly handled to boot). Moby Dick, on the other hand, has a colourful and strikingly energetic score by Philip Sainton (1891-1967; read about him here). It’s the only music he wrote for ‘the fillums’ (and can you blame him?); what’s also interesting is that — as you’ll deduce from the next clip, which presents the film’s title music (as well as enough of the first scene to let everyone hear one of the most famous opening lines in all literature) — the cinema trailer contains music from the actual film, not whatever collection of odd left-overs the studio happened to have within reach. (Note that in the case of the clips I’ve taken from someone’s upload of the entire movie, the YouTube people have blazed out the centre of the image as an anti-piracy measure.)
And if you enjoyed that opening, we can move on to another clip showcasing Sainton’s work. Just a few more minutes in, and ‘Ishmael’ attends a service in a New Bedford whalers’ chapel before he goes to sea. Several years ago, I was discussing this music with the late and irreplaceable Malcolm MacDonald — who said that it was the writing of this strange and haunting hymn that got Sainton the job of doing the entire score. I don’t know where he had that information from; but I have no difficulty believing it. (Given the smallness of this image, it might be worth mentioning that what we see on the way to the wonderfully inevitable and arresting image towards the end of the sequence includes a whole succession of memorial tablets to sailors killed in the hunting of the whales whose flesh and oil and bones sustain their society.)
Another clip now — from much later in the film. I’d say it contains ‘spoilers’, except that to me, the final minutes of this movie contain film-making of an almost unbearable intensity that never gets stale. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and the effect hasn’t diminished in the least.
And now the very final segment, in the only version that seems to be available online:
How’s that for a cinematic achievement? A filmic triumph? Something that still deserves to be seen by every thinking and feeling Westerner, even though it is now getting on for 60 years old? You could, as I hope I have indicated, do far worse — and, indeed, if you’ve watched any TV this Christmas, you probably have done.
Yes, here is a story from 1851 and a film from 1956, laden with adventure, dripping with history and philosophy, not without attendant metaphysics — and with no-one and nothing ever being called ‘Nigger’…
Enjoy your Holiday.
If you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.