Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Return of the Nelwyn

I said at one point I planned on getting really drunk and trying to enjoy 1988's Willow. This was after I'd watched my recently purchased DVD and found me as an adult detested this movie I adored when I was a kid. Well, last night I didn't get drunk but I did watch the newer Blu-Ray release, its transfer supervised by George Lucas a year after he'd sold Lucasfilm. And I enjoyed it, which was a relief. Maybe my expectations were lower this time. The film still has a lot of flaws but I'm pleased to say I can see its virtues again.

I was really into this movie as a kid. I think mainly it was part of a general hunger for a mediaeval fantasy film, the kind which studios were trying and generally failing to get off the ground in the 80s--the Conan movies, Krull, Sword and the Sorcerer, Excalibur, Ladyhawke, Legend, films of varying levels of quality but almost uniform poor performance at the box office. I guess they kept trying because of the success of Star Wars, which is essentially a fantasy film, so it seems natural a George Lucas fantasy film was greenlit as late as 1988, despite the poor box office performance of his more recent fantasy films, Labyrinth and Howard the Duck.

I wonder how much of the film was directed by George Lucas and not its credited director, Ron Howard. By his own admission, Lucas tends to take more creative control than producers traditionally do, which is something his friend, Steven Spielberg, was also known for in the 80s. I have the sense the two were modelling their careers on David O. Selznik, the producer from the 30s and 40s who was known for taking a very active hand in films he produced, resulting in a series of films by different directors that bear characteristics of his style. Willow has the Kurosawa style wipes that Lucas made part of the distinctive Star Wars visual style and the first credit that pops up on screen at the end of Willow when the music crescendos, the usual place for the director's credit, is second unit director Micky Moore who worked on the first three Indiana Jones films (credited as Michael Moore until the documentary filmmaker became more famous). This may have been Howard's way of quietly pointing out his reduced role as director.

It's strange that Sorsha (Joanna Whalley) is such a weak character, then, considering how strident Princess Leia was. A lot of that was Carrie Fisher's verve, but in terms of writing, Leia always had a very clear story and motivation. Sorsha is defined entirely by other characters. When her mother orders her to track down and kill babies, she does without complaint. When Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) falls in love with her, she falls in love with him and stops killing babies. She doesn't even try to command the forces attacking Tir Asleen after she defects, it's like she changes shirts in the middle of a football game and everyone just shrugs and goes with it. She's a complete leaf in the wind.

She watches Madmartigan fighting and is really, really impressed and then suddenly finds he's at her mercy . . . so of course she has to change sides. Aside from the fact that this contributes to her reduction as a character, this reflects one of the things I really like about the movie, which is its structure, particularly when it comes to Madmartigan.

The thing that made me want to watch the movie again was hearing a few days ago that Kevin Smith had named his dog Madmartigan. It's such a Kevin Smith thing to do, name a dog after a bad ass character from a movie that everyone's dimly aware of but doesn't get a lot of mainstream attention. I remember as a kid, every time I watched the movie I'd wait with great anticipation for Madmartigan to get his hands on a sword. Then when he does, I'd revel in what great swordplay he engages in. Except, it's not that great. Every time he uses a sword, it's actually a pretty brief shot, usually some kind of spin and a stab, he has nothing on Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. The great thing is how the movie makes you think he's a great swordsman.

We meet him well into the film, locked in a crow's cage on some gods forsaken crossroads. Already he's bragging about what a great swordsman he is and he's frustrated by his predicament. Val Kilmer is handsome and has charisma, overcoming even the film's unfortunate tendency to have everyone call Willow "Peck" all the time to be intriguing. He's dangerous but also kind of likeable and one genuinely wonders what's going to happen once he's let out. When he is, he still doesn't have a sword. He leaves the film a while and we catch up with him again later when he's pretending to be a woman in a stupidly broad comedy routine. This quickly escalates into an exciting chase scene, all through which he still doesn't get a sword. The film teases you with it again and again before he finally gets that sword in Sorsha's tent--maybe it's meant to be a metaphor about discovering his manhood when he falls for a woman--and then he bursts out with it. He was frustrated because he didn't have a sword either and because he was a hero we identified with at this point it added to our frustration, too. So him just having a sword and looking at least halfway cool with it is surprisingly cathartic. It reminds me of Toshiro Mifune in The Hidden Fortress who's introduced as a great warrior but he doesn't get his hands on a weapon until halfway through the film.

Of course, even before he's hit by the love powder there are signs that he likes Sorsha. He's overcome by her beauty when he first sees her and then his petty antagonism with her after she captures him only makes him seem like he likes her more. The film is filled with mythological allusions--the baby in the river like Moses, the sorceress turning the heroes into pigs like Circe in The Odyssey--the love potion works like in Wagner's take on Tristan und Isolde, it doesn't really make two people love each other who don't but breaks down the barriers of society to express a repressed, pre-existing affection. Well, for Madmartigan, anyway, Sorsha just goes with the flow.

Obviously the film owes a lot to The Hobbit with Willow (Warwick Davis) being essentially a Hobbit from Hobbiton only in this film he's called a Nelwyn. Like in The Hobbit, Willow's not a teenager or kid but someone who's already settled down, in this case with a wife and kids. It makes for a nice moment when he feels the braid of hair his wife gave him while he's staring at the walls of the enemy fortress. It's a moment that gives you a sense of how far he's come and how much bigger this world seems than the world he grew up in. And Warwick Davis gives a very nice performance.

In the villains, one sees more parallels to Star Wars with the skull helmeted General Kael (Pat Roach) obviously standing in for Darth Vader--functioning much as Vader did in the first film, before we knew much about his broader connexions to the universe--and Jean Marsh as the evil Queen Bavmorda. Her character is even more simplistic than Grand Moff Tarkin or Emperor Palpatine--or Maleficent, for that matter, motivated entirely by a general, vague hatred and ruthless self-preservation. It's interesting seeing how her relationship with Sorsha could have been something like the one between Vader and Luke but it completely lacks depth. Still, Jean Marsh is very good and her performance almost compensates.

Twitter Sonnet #902

A sociably turned blink belongs in ice.
A scarlet frame affords the teeth some glam.
Descending scales of plight alarm the price.
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The wool dimensions shore the blotted wrath.
Through steam a face returns the warmest grin.
Reflecting glass led safely down the path.
A field of turning light led dreamers in.
The late syringe appealed to cloaks beneath.
With flying colours cancelled cores collude.
Cathedrals bombed in heads cannot bequeath.
A bearded skull cannot the ears exclude.
A paisley blouse enigma laughs from high.
Computers take a match to cloudless sky.

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