In every film by Hayao Miyazaki up to THE WIND RISES, there was something at stake. The hero (or, more often, the heroine) was involved in a life-or-death struggle (NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, CASTLE IN THE SKY, PRINCESS MONONOKE) or faced some coming-of-age challenge that was of immense importance to their maturation (MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, SPIRITED AWAY). There were hints of love stories in some of these films, but romance was never a priority.
In THE WIND RISES, Miyazaki’s latest film and his purported final directorial effort, the protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi, a young engineer who lives, breathes, and sleeps airplanes and, after college graduation, goes to work for Mitsubishi Industries and, not surprisingly, gets the opportunity to design a plane of his own. Since it’s the 1930s and Japan is already waging war on China (something barely hinted at in the film), it’s no surprise that Jiro’s plane will be a weapon of war. So, what’s the challenge in THE WIND RISES? What’s at stake for Mr. Horikoshi? He’s given the assignment and he follows through on it. Does the fact that it’s going to be used as a weapon of war represent a moral dilemma for him? Not much of one, it turns out. There is some tentative questioning, but he still plunges into the assignment with relentless zeal even though he knows full well what the end result will be. Which begs the question of why we, the audience, should care. Or why viewers in America, a country that lost men to those planes, shouldn’t be outraged.
I’ve been researching TV shows filmed in color in the 1950s and determining how many examples of such shows I have in my collection and how many are available on DVD and it’s basically amounted to the discovery of a whole new world. For a long time, the only 1950s shows I’d actually seen in color had been what I’d finally seen after I got a color TV set for the first time in 1978. These were “Adventures of Superman,” with George Reeves, and “Bonanza.” Of the Bonanza episodes I saw back then, I’m really only sure of one that was from the first season (1959-60), “Enter Mark Twain,” which guest-starred Howard Duff as a reporter named Samuel Clemens recently arrived in Virginia City and which aired in 1959. It’s quite possible that I saw some color episodes of “The Lone Ranger” back then, although I may be confusing that memory with the color “Lone Ranger” spin-off movies that were produced in the 1950s that used to run on local TV from time to time.
There are shows I watched on TV as a child and have seen repeatedly in the years since, through reruns and/or home video (e.g. “The Twilight Zone,” “Adventures of Superman”). There are shows I watched on TV as a child but haven’t seen since and don’t know how well they hold up (“Peter Gunn,” “Sea Hunt,” “Yancy Derringer”). There are shows that were on when I was a child but didn’t see at all until I was an adult and now consider among my favorites (“Bonanza,” “The Untouchables”). There are shows I saw as a child and have only recently rewatched for the first time in over five decades that have held up very well (“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive”). Finally, there are shows that were on in my childhood that I never saw at all, some I’ve heard of (“Adventures in Paradise,” “Richard Diamond, Private Detective”) and some I’ve discovered only by poring through the IMDB credits of actors I’m interested in. For instance, when I did the piece on Lisa Lu in the “Day of the Dragon” episode of “Bonanza” (January 8, 2013), I discovered among her TV credits in the 1950s and early ’60s such unfamiliar shows as “Tightrope,” “Dante,” “Cimarron City,” “Hong Kong,” “Checkmate,” and “Coronado 9.” I’m curious to see them all.
Steve McQueen, Lee Van Cleef in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”
Run Run Shaw, Chinese movie mogul, in a picture from the early 1970s
This past Tuesday, January 7, 2014, Sir Run Run Shaw died in Hong Kong at the age of 106. Shaw was a mogul who built a movie empire in Asia, with the Shaw Bros. movie production and distribution company, based in Hong Kong, as its centerpiece. The company was Hong Kong’s biggest movie studio, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, when it shifted its focus from movies to television, creating numerous popular series under the company name, TVB, the dominant television network in Hong Kong, with distribution throughout Asia. Shaw patterned his movie studio in the style of the old Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. and MGM. His counterparts in Hollywood were men like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Harry Cohn. He had numerous stars and production personnel under contract, an array of soundstages with lavish sets for interior scenes, and sprawling backlots filled with standing sets for the numerous historical dramas and adventures the studio made. Many of the top directors of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and ’70s worked at Shaw Bros., including Chang Cheh, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Li Han-hsiang and Lau Kar Leung.
George Reeves would have turned 100 today, January 5, 2014. He’s most famous, of course, for playing Superman on the TV series, “Adventures of Superman,” which ran original shows from 1952 to 1958, for a total of 104 half-hour episodes, half of which were in black-and-white and half of which were filmed in color. These shows ran in syndication for decades afterward and are showing somewhere in the world right now as I write this. I watched the show on TV as a child and was a devoted fan. When I learned to read, I began reading Superman comics also, but my first exposure to the character was via the TV show. Reeves died on June 16, 1959, after the show had finished its sixth season. My siblings and I had begun watching the show well before then. I don’t remember hearing reports of Reeves’ death at the time, which came not long before my sixth birthday. At some point a neighbor girl from the apartment next door told me that the actor who played Superman thought he was really Superman and died when he jumped off a building thinking he could fly. I’m not sure when I learned the official story—that he’d gone upstairs during a party at his home and shot himself in the head. In recent decades, that account has been disputed by investigators who believe he was murdered. I read a book about it once that argued the latter point, but I have to confess I need more information before I can find this theory convincing.
When I was a child, my first exposure to the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “The Sound of Music,” was the original Broadway cast album featuring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel in the lead roles of Maria Rainer and Captain Von Trapp. I later read the play. I didn’t see the 1965 movie version with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer until I was in high school, some four years after it had originally been released. I was somewhat skeptical at the time. Maybe I just happened to be in a demographic that deemed it unfashionable. Years later, in the early ’90s, I’m guessing, I saw a double bill of THE SOUND OF MUSIC with an earlier, similarly-themed Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, THE KING AND I (1956), at the Cinema Village in Manhattan. What struck me then was how claustrophobic the more stagebound KING AND I was, while THE SOUND OF MUSIC was “opened up” to allow panoramic Austrian landscapes into the story. Until this month, I hadn’t seen it, or any other version of the musical, since.
Last year on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, TCM ran AIR FORCE (1943) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), neither of which I’d seen in a long time, so I watched them both and found them just as compelling, as both history and drama, as ever. Two days ago, on December 7th, the 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I wanted to take a break from my normal fare of Japanese films and anime to watch something Pearl Harbor-related. TCM ran both AIR FORCE and ETERNITY again and I had a DVD of TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) beckoning. But then I remembered that I had a DVD of Otto Preminger’s IN HARM’S WAY (1965) on the shelf, a film I’d never seen in its entirety in one sitting. So that’s what I chose. (Interestingly, earlier this week I watched the last hour of BATTLESHIP, the notorious 2012 flop about an alien invasion, and the resolution requires a trip by its Navy heroes to Pearl Harbor where they take over the U.S.S. Missouri and its crew of aged war vets for use in battling the aliens.)