with Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole, Simon Ward, John Mills.
Although made 15 years later, this film is actually a prelude to Cy Enfield's Zulu (Enfield cowrote and coproduced this film). A grand action picture, the film will lose a lot on a smaller screen. Zulu Dawn is set during the Zulu Wars and tells the tale of a Custer's Last Stand-type British disaster. The British arrogantly underestimate the military prowess of the Zulu and pay the consequences. The more famous actors all ride under the British flag, but the film's real stars are Hickox's epic shots of the Zulu army sweeping over the landscape. Rarely in Western films do indigenous people win victories, though this one proved temporary. After winning the Zulu war, the Zulus went home, satisfied that they had won and it was over. The British regrouped, returned, and eventually triumphed. This film closes with the Zulu victorious. The strength of the film is not, just this once, getting to watch Western imperialism fail. It is Hickox's terrific sense of storytelling and ability to stage action scenes. In action scenes, the most important thing is for the viewer to have some sense of where everybody is and the geographical map against which the scene is unfolding (two concrete definitions of this are Peckinpah's opening and closing scenes in The Wild Bunch). The excitement of this film is partially in unexpected, complex military maneuvers, which the director conveys effortlessly. Theater of Blood is the Hickox I was most familiar with before seeing Zulu Dawn. Last year, Tarantino brought Sitting Target, a 1972 thriller directed by Hickox that was just as fluid and exciting. This year, he brought Brannigan -- John Wayne directed by Hickox. I was out of town, so I missed it, but it's one of the next ones on my video list.--Louis Black
D: Sam Peckinpah (1972)
with Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker.
Peckinpah's elegiac ode to the disappearing West is probably the most neglected of his major films (which definitely include Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and more controversially include Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- I would include The Getaway, but I know a lot of Peckinpah enthusiasts consider it an unhealthy diversion). Rodeo hero Steve McQueen, soul-weary and aching in every joint, returns home for a rodeo. The family is there and his past is there, but everything is changing. I first saw this film at a New Hampshire drive-in on a crystal clear but cold summer night. Peckinpah's passion for the West as a symbol of freedom and his understanding of all the inherent contradictions drive this beautifully shot and acted film. Around that time, Esquire ran an article about what a violence meister Sam Peckinpah was. Looking at his films, they, of course, forgot his great pulp Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (the performance of the song "Butterfly Mornings" during the film has always been a stumbling block to my appreciation) and Bonner. Certainly Peckinpah could be bloody, but when he wasn't, they didn't pay any attention and blamed it on him. At its heart this is a great rodeo film that looks at not just the action in the ring but also the meaning and impact of the rodeo. Wearily, McQueen carries the film, but the love story of his parents, Ida Lupino and Robert Preston, is the film's most unexpected delight. There is a sequence here where the old family home is demolished; it is as lavishly beautiful and heart-wrenching as any Peckinpah sequence. Mansions haven't been as lovingly depicted as this old home. Peckinpah doesn't see a shack being torn down, he sees the end of a way of life.--Louis Black
Menace II Society
D: Allen and Albert Hughes (1993)
with Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Charles S. Dutton, Bill Duke, Samuel L. Jackson.
It's on you like gangbusters, no pun intended. In the opening scene, Caine (Turner) and O-Dog (Tate), two young, black teenagers from South Central Los Angeles, wander into a convenience store to buy a couple beers and end up gunning down the Vietnamese couple that run the store after the cashier makes an innocent remark about O-Dog's mother. So goes Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers' disturbing and brutal film about life in the American ghetto today. The story centers around Caine, a recent high school graduate, who suddenly realizes he must make a crucial decision concerning his future. Should he stay in L.A. and play the odds of the streets or move out of the urban hell and start over in Atlanta? Every aspect of street life is explored in this film: the senselessness of murder, the constant annoyance of spiritual reform, the plague of drugs on the community. Menace II Society leaves no question unasked and refuses to provide a hopeful conclusion. Despite rave reviews from critics and audiences all over the nation, this film was rather neglected. Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton's critically acclaimed "epic" about life in the ghetto, came out two years earlier and received more press and recognition. But after seeing Menace II Society, Singleton's effort seems contrived and unrealistic, a Hollywood slant on ghetto existence. The Hughes Brothers went on to direct Dead Presidents and recently finished the unreleased documentary American Pimp, but their first effort is their best work to date. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, who went on to shoot Dead Presidents with the two young directors, gives the film a colorful, frightening glow, an up-close and personal look at the streets. Menace II Society is not only a haunting, violent story but also one that compels us to confront the lives in our society that we wish to ignore. --Eli Kooris