Issue 180 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Mary's monster

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Dir: Kenneth Branagh

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Forget the Hammer House of Horror--this version of Frankenstein returns to the spirit of Mary Shelley's novel. It is a beautifully made film, full of blood and guts special effects which are quite exciting, like the moment when the monster is 'born'. The acting and dialogue are hammy and over the top but, despite all this, Branagh's interpretation of Frankenstein has real problems.

The hero of the film is none other than Kenneth Branagh, playing the idealistic and obsessive Frankenstein. The film shows how the death of his beloved mother in childbirth affected him. Mary Shelley's own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her, and her own children were stillborn or died young. This shaped how she saw the horrors of creating life and the connections between birth and death.

The young Frankenstein rages against the necessity of death, of the loss of loved ones, and throws himself into the search for eternal life. He challenges the authorities who stifle scientific discoveries, but he becomes a man obsessed, a man who believes that he can singlehandedly conquer nature and 'God'.

The original novel was written at the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the question of how far people could go in controlling nature was widely debated.

Branagh's film echoes this interpretation. The story is partly reduced to a lesson in not meddling with nature.

In this film the most important relationship is the love story between Frankenstein and Elizabeth. Their relationship takes centre stage at the expense of the relationship which was central to the novel--that between Frankenstein and the monster. This is a problem because the monster, played by Robert De Niro, is a lot more interesting than the love affair (and Robert De Niro is a lot more interesting than Kenneth Branagh).

The monster represents the poor and oppressed, the working class then being drawn into cities, being brutalised by modern industry. He is not created evil, as he was in the 1930s versions of the novel where the monster is given a criminal brain. He is made evil by the cruel way he is treated. This is the heart of Mary Shelley's novel--if the oppressed are treated badly they will rebel, burn, loot and murder so society had better be nicer to them.

Mary's monster could read Paradise Lost or could be driven to murdering children. This aspect is not really explored in the film. Robert De Niro doesn't get a chance to really develop the monster's role in the film, although he does manage to inject some real pathos. Also, every time the 'mob' appear they are invariably bloodthirsty idiots, which is a bit irritating.

This is an interesting try at going back to the novel, and has its exciting moments. But Branagh has interpreted the story as more of a love story than a story about rebellion and oppression. This means it ends up a bit predictable and limited, and not half as exciting as it could have been.
Judy Cox

How the west was wrecked

Dir: Walter Hill

The real Geronimo
The real Geronimo

The Apache leader Geronimo was pursued in 1886 by a quarter of the American army. In its attempt to expand westward the army fought to subdue and conquer native American territory. This film of Goyahkla--or Geronimo as he was renamed by the Mexicans because of his bravery--tells of the heroic resistance of the great Apache chief and his people who faced an army that was determined to crush all resistance.

The US government pursued a brutal and successful policy of forcing native Americans onto reservations. As Gene Hackman's character General George Cook explained, 'We want them to learn to be farmers'. But they were expected to farm on lands that suffered from lack of water and poor soil, a way of life that was totally alien to the freedom to roam and hunt buffalo.

The Chiricahuan Apaches of the desertlands of Southern Arizona resisted the expansion of the American state. By 1876 the US government was forced to contain the Apaches within the San Carlos reservations. Geronimo fought against such captivity and led a group to Mexico. For ten years, until his final surrender in 1886, he kept the American army on the run.

Far too many films that claim to depict the plight of the native Americans descend into cliches. This tradition of film making--epitomised in the western, where cowboys struggle to cultivate a piece of land while fighting painted and frenzied 'hostiles'--has even influenced Kevin Kostner's Dances with Wolves. Geronimo, however, is a film of unprecedented power and force. It doesn't shrink from the violence of the Apaches as they are forced to fight for their very survival.

General George Cook has been given the unenviable task of bringing Geronimo in. He is a principled man who is eventually forced to resign after failing to convince Geronimo to surrender and is replaced by General Nelson Miles who has his own, more ruthless, methods of fighting native Americans.

Robert Duvall is superb as Al Sieber, the chief scout for the American army whose simple analysis of the situation, 'it's either us or them', contains a powerful irony when he defends an Apache scout against bounty hunters (who were paid a few pesetas by the Mexican government for each Apache 'scalp'). Wes Studi, himself a native American, gives a fine performance as Geronimo and depicts the very human rage of a people that America tried to cage. It was this human fury that had to be stopped.

Against the crimson canyons of Utah, captured magnificently by director Walter Hill, the narrative of a young officer, Davis (played by Matt Damon) takes us through his experience of the 'Geronimo Campaign' (as the American army called it) and his emergence from naivety that culminates in his resignation from the army as he awakes to the reality of the US govenment reneging on their promises to the Apaches.

What emerges in this film is a real sense of the spirit of native American resistance. When Geronimo confronts an Apache, working as a scout for the army tracking other Apaches, he calls out,'Where is your heart?' The final insult to those who crossed sides and aided the army in their hunt for the Apaches comes as General Miles orders that all Apache scouts turn over their arms. They too are forced into years of captivity with Geronimo and the few other remaining Apaches.

Much of the dialogue is based upon the true accounts of the Geronimo campaign--including Geronimo's biography. His tales of resistance so worried the US government that only following prolonged appeals from Geronimo did they allow him to give his own account after 27 years in captivity. This film documents the relentless and brutal attack on the Apaches who were the last to resist.
Leo Zeilig

Madness with a meaning

L' Enfer
Dir: Claude Chabrol

In the late 1950s Claude Chabrol was one of the founders of the 'New Wave' in French cinema. His films have been cool, cynical studies of individuals and relationships that cut through conventional perceptions of social life, highlighting the grotesque and uncovering the violence lurking beneath the surface.

L'Enfer(Hell) is a study of pathological jealousy. Two newly weds embark on an apparently idyllic marriage. Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) and Paul (François Cluzet) own a small hotel in the French countryside, sharing responsibility for running it and for bringing up their young son. But the dream of married bliss turns sour. At first, Nelly is flattered by Paul's petty jealousies, seeing them as evidence of his love. Soon, however, he becomes convinced that she is having an affair and is obsessively jealous of every man that comes near her. Tormented by his paranoid jealousy, Paul is propelled into a vortex of suspicion, self destruction and violence.

Chabrol has constructed a paradoxical tale whose twists are at times reminiscent of Hitchcock. With great visual flair, he reveals the possessiveness of relationships in our society, each partner seeing the other as a commodity they own. He conveys forcefully the feeling of madness, from both the point of view of the sufferer and of those at the receiving end. Nelly's youth and sexuality are portrayed in such a way as to make his jealousy at times credible.

However, at other times the narrative lacks credibility. Given the clear descent into madness, one cannot understand why no one refers Paul for psychiatric treatment. The film lacks depth. Chabrol makes no attempt to explore madness as a phenomenon woven into the very fabric of our society, rooted in its most cherished institutions such as the family.
Sabby Sagall


Cracking up or cracking down

Mon, 9pm ITV

Police psychology?
Police psychology?

The first series of Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as the Manchester police psychologist, held your attention but was slightly disturbing. Coltrane's character Fitz is much more intelligent and liberal than the police he works with. But all his insights into society and its victims tend to lead to the same conclusion as black bags over people's heads and false confessions. In one story an innocent man is sent to prison because of Fitz's work.

Those already slightly uncomfortable at the series will have felt their unease grow with the real life acquittal of Colin Stagg. He was charged with a particularly horrific murder after police psychologists invented a suspect profile, fitted Stagg to that profile without any firm evidence linking him with the crime and then used a police woman to entrap him by encouraging him to indulge in violent sexual fantasies.

Watching the opening story in the new series only tends to reinforce this unease. A young factory worker cracks up following his father's death. He has an argument with an Asian shopkeeper over 4p. We are supposed to believe that he goes home, shaves his head, returns dressed in combat gear brandishing a bayonet, argues with the shopkeeper that he is a 'robbing Paki bastard', and then stabs him to death.

In the course of the argument he claims that he is a socialist and trade unionist who has been on marches against racism but is fed up with the way he is treated. When he commits his second murder--of an academic psychologist without Fitz's insight--he again expresses his frustration that only a handful of people went to his dad's funeral because he was an 'ordinary white working class bloke'. Right at the end the murderer, Albie, says that he looked to the Labour party but they were only interested in gays and blacks.

What are we to make of all this? The police assume the 'profile' will be unskilled working class, unemployed, connected with a group like the BNP. Fitz thinks differently--and the audience know that he is right because they have seen the murderer, Albie, working in the factory and confessing to some left wing politics in the past. So we have to look deeper.

The answer, it turns out, is that he witnessed the Hillsborough football disaster. Now, it's perfectly understandable how that event could completely traumatise anyone. But why should it turn them from being a socialist into a racial killer, any more than it would turn Michael Portillo into an SWP member?

There seems to be a pernicious message here: we are all racists. Indeed, Fitz says as much to the Asian shopkeeper's daughter. Even the most decent, law abiding, left wing person can be sent over the edge, and then their residual racism comes out. The horror of the modern world can make murderous bigots of us all.

And here Fitz comes in. The police are portrayed sympathetically, as decent honest people who don't have the intelligence or insight to spot the real criminals. Fitz is not decent or honest. He is also a compulsive drinker and gambler in a miserable marriage who cannot face up to the mess in his life. But his weaknesses give him an insight into all the other misfits. He is often sympathetic to their plight, but in the end, when Fitz has cracked their story, they are handed over to the police.

The programme attempts to deal with contemporary real life issues, but only has one law and order solution to them.

Cracker has been described as a brilliant postmodern character, portraying the exact opposite of a typical hero. But that is hardly new in detective stories: look at the characters of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The stories are well scripted and acted, but at their core is a reactionary thesis which no radical psychology can completely hide: the thin blue line--not perfect but the best we have got--is the only protection of 'civilisation'.
Lindsey German


Every picture tells a story

The Russian Century
Brian Moynahan
Chatto and Windus f30

Democracy in action: soldiers' soviet in Petrograd 1917
Democracy in action: soldiers' soviet in Petrograd 1917

Illustrated histories are fascinating documents. The pictures tell a story with an economy and clarity which words may lack. Indeed, the impact of certain images helps to define our response to many of this century's major events. However, in a period so thoroughly chronicled by photographers Russia has preserved its anonymity. The visual record, particularly in Russia's revolutionary phase, seems disappointingly sparse.

It is the great virtue of The Russian Century that it has lifted the veil a little and revealed some amazing sights from Russia's past. These are not the fanciful images of Stalin's myth factory, but the frank and sometimes brutal images of a country in turmoil.

The first part of the book is best, where the photos tap into the vigour and enthusiasm of Russia's revolutionary currents. Mutinous soldiers race around Petrograd in commandeered vehicles, flags flying, bayonets fixed. Trotsky addresses a mass demonstration from a podium improvised out of park benches. The soldiers' section of the Petrograd soviet sits in packed session, each face radiating determination and courage. These dynamic pictures capture the optimism generated by such great events. Viewed together with the haunting images from earlier in the book, which portray workers' lives under Tsarism, we gain valuable insights into the process which transforms repression into revolt.

The pity is that such remarkable pictures illustrate such an awful text. The author is a right wing journalist and a mediocre historian. This qualifies him to, at best, describe events but not to understand them. He is reduced to merely recycling various tired cliches about Russia.

Moynahan's violent anti-socialism creates a glaring contradiction in the early part of the book where the accumulated weight of photographic evidence paints a very different picture from the version of events presented by the author.

There is no sense here of Russia as part of a global system, of a revolutionary regime being strangled by its isolation and succumbing to the logic of a world capitalist system. There are many good books on Russian history and the October Revolution but this isn't one of them. It is to be hoped that as the photographic archives in Russia open up a better illustrated history will be forthcoming than this wasted opportunity.
Ian Goodyer

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