After weathering mixed reviews and relatively tepid domestic earnings ($72 million) earlier this year, the science fiction adventure epic John Carter was written off as a box office calamity of Waterworld-sized proportions.
John Carter’s box office “failure” has been blamed mostly on ineffective marketing, notably a movie trailer which neglected to establish a connection with Burroughs or make viewers aware of the film’s historic background and seminal influence – a problem that might have been avoided if Disney had run with this inspired fan trailer instead.
But the movie’s unabashed heroic romanticism began resonating with review-proof fans worldwide (where it has earned $200+ million) and reviving the flick’s financial pulse. Now JC is set to release on DVD this week, and will likely do brisk business. Perhaps it will also introduce more fans to John Carter’s creator, one of the most prolific, imaginative novelists of the 20th century – or any century, for that matter: Edgar Rice Burroughs.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars, the book upon which John Carter is largely based. Burroughs, or ERB, is more familiar to many as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, one of the most recognizable and enduring figures in pop culture history. Born in 1875 in the wake of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, ERB has been called by many the father of American science fiction. His 60+ novels, ripping tales of high adventure set everywhere from the earth’s core to the African veldt to the jungles of Venus, served as inspiration for countless writers and scientists from Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury to Carl Sagan and Jane Goodall.
ERB’s work – novels like The Land that Time Forgot, The Moon Maid, Pirates of Venus, At the Earth’s Core, Beyond Thirty, and The Warlord of Mars – gave life to the pulp fiction genre; my boyhood friend and fellow fan Stephan Allsup points out, for example, that without Tarzan and John Carter, there probably would have been no Conan the Barbarian or Doc Savage. Tarzan was also the pioneer of the comic book superhero; his comic strip was introduced in 1929, tying with Buck Rogers as the first “serious” adventure strip (prior to that, comics were largely limited to funnies like the Katzenjammer Kids). It served as inspiration for The Phantom and later, Superman and Batman.
Famed (and infamous) director Roman Polanski has announced that his next film project will be D, a political thriller based on the real-life tale of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jew wrongly imprisoned for spying at the turn of the century. What drew him to the topic? Its theme of antisemitism? Perversely, it is about a persecuted minority – just not the one you might think.
The creative force behind such films as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist among many others, Polanski pled guilty to raping an underage girl in 1977, then fled the United States for the protection of France’s non-extradition law. There his filmmaking career has thrived and he has lived the high life of a revered artist. The list of awards and honors bestowed upon him and his films is towering; he is even the recipient of France’s highest civilian honor, the Legion d’Honneur, alongside such notables as Gen. George Patton, Victor Hugo, and, coincidentally, Dreyfus himself.
Polanski and his apologists consider his fugitive status to be nothing more than petty persecution on the part of Puritanical Americans who don’t understand that a great artist should be above the law. So when Polanski was in Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival in 2009 and was put temporarily under chateau arrest at the behest of the U.S., French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand gave vent to melodramatic outrage:
To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying. There’s an America we love and an America that scares us, and it’s that latter America that has just shown us its face.
(Mitterand should be comforted to know that back here in scary America, Polanski is still supported by Hollywood sophisticates who rush to the defense of a sex offender but who would be absolutely horrified, as Mitterand might put it, to find themselves in the same zip code with a Republican.)
AMC’s new series Hell on Wheels, a western about the making of the transcontinental railroad, began Sunday night. But it’s unlikely to be a celebration of Manifest Destiny, a concept the filmmakers and cast apparently view with horror. Check out this oddly downbeat promo video, in which they fall all over themselves condemning the railroad for bringing civilization westward:
The series is an “anti-western,” according to its executive producer, Joe Gayton. “Hell on Wheels is dragging the urban blight in the industry of the East across the West, and changing it forever. It’s kind of the beginning of the end of the West as they knew it.” Another executive producer, David von Ancken, indicates the landscape behind him and describes the show as “the battle of man, scarring nature, versus this, the beauty of nature.” It’s “the story of the train cutting through nineteenth-century America and bringing ‘civilization.’” He actually gestures the air quotes around “civilization,” to make sure you know he takes the politically correct and fashionably ironic view of the concept.
Yet another executive producer, Gayton’s brother Tony, says in a different promo video that they’re trying to convey “the brutality of imposing civilization,” and lumps Christianity in with “prostitution, whiskey-houses, and gambling” as plagues the railroad spread to what must surely have been an edenic Native American landscape. Producer Jeremy Gold exactly echoes these phrases about urban blight and the brutality of imposing civilization “where it maybe doesn’t belong” – clearly these are agreed-upon talking points that the filmmakers desperately want to hammer home.
In all fairness, the series itself may prove to be evenhanded. But the producers and actors here seem to have bought into the naïve, multiculturalist proposition that civilization is destruction and savagery, and the primitive world is harmony and peace; that Civilized Man is corrupt and greedy, but the Noble Savage is, well, noble; and that American history can be reduced to the story of the European ravaging and exploitation of non-European peoples. Here’s hoping that Hell on Wheels will avoid derailing on these clichés and find something uplifting and grand along the journey.
This could be very bad news for Bond fans. Word is that the tentatively titled Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, will be taking a disappointing direction with auteur director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) at the helm.
Fans like myself have already endured a serious delay of the film’s release due to MGM’s precarious financial position. Then news of the ingenious casting of Bond antagonists Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem, who have played two of the most chilling villains in recent years (in Red Dragon and No Country for Old Men, respectively), whetted our appetites even further.
But now rumors are that Mendes is axing most of the grand action sequences which are of course a staple of the long-lived movie franchise, and instead is aiming for Oscar-worthy, “characterful performances” and the kind of “emotional depth” which star Daniel Craig has longed to bring to the iconic role.
Have audiences worldwide been clamoring for this? For “characterful,” “emotional depth”? Except for the Roger Moore films, which I boycotted while mourning Sean Connery’s Bond retirement, I’ve been a rabid fan since Dr. No, and I think I speak for the others when I say we don’t care a whit for Oscar legitimacy. What Bond fans want, and what separates the franchise from the moodier Bourne competition snapping at its heels, is breathtaking, cartoonish fun. If Mendes et al don’t grasp this, or don’t care, then I predict that not only will this be a box office bomb (by Bond standards), but Oscar gold will elude it as well.