Appellate Judge Erick Harper loved this collection of classic Hollywood adaptations of classic works of literature.
Our reviews of The Three Musketeers (1966) (published September 20th, 2006), The Three Musketeers (2011) (Blu-ray) (published March 13th, 2012), and The Three Musketeers / The Four Musketeers (published June 1st, 2010) are also available.
Great Books…Great Films!
People have been adapting material from one literary form for presentation in another for centuries. Epic poems became the basis for plays and novels, folktales have inspired short stories and novellas; you get the idea. Adapting literature for the screen has always been a difficult task, however. For your enjoyment, the court submits a collection of films from Warner Bros. that get the tricky business of adaptation mostly right.
Facts of the Case
Based on the novel by Herman Melville, this film tells the bleak story of Billy Budd (Terence Stamp, Modesty Blaise, Superman II, The Limey), a merchant seaman pressed into the Royal Navy aboard the frigate HMS Avenger. Billy's completely honest, open, unguarded nature makes him a beloved shipmate on the lower decks, but quickly draws the ire of the sadistic Claggart (Robert Ryan, The Iceman Cometh, Hour of the Gun), the ship's Master at Arms, the man responsible for carrying out routine punishments such as floggings. Claggart's twisted, evil nature cannot abide Billy's goodness and purity of heart, and sets out to destroy him. Caught between the two men in a conflict of conscience versus duty is the ship's decent but indecisive Captain Vere, played by the film's director/producer Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile).
Captain Horatio Hornblower
Showing the sunnier side of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars is this film, an adaptation culled from a number of C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels. Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird, Gentleman's Agreeement, Moby Dick (1956)) stars as the dashing British captain, bringing his wits and cunning to the fight against the hated Bonaparte. Of course, one of the perils he must face is Lady Barbara Wellesley (Virginia Mayo, Always Leave Them Laughing, The Best Years of Our Lives), sister to Lord Wellington.
Gustave Flaubert's self-serving antiheroine comes to life in the form of Jennifer Jones (Portrait of Jennie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Towering Inferno). Emma Bovary, raised on popular novels and their overly romanticized view of the world, wants glamour, beauty, society, and wealth. In order to get it she almost pathologically misuses the people around her, attempting to satiate her pathological narcissism through extramarital affairs and profligate spending on luxuries she and her well-meaning but dull husband (Van Heflin, Shane, Airport) can ill afford. The results are predictably tragic. James Mason (Lolita (1962), Julius Caesar (1953)) also appears in a framing device as Flaubert himself during his 1857 indecency trial stemming from the publication of the novel.
The Three Musketeers
Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain, Anchors Aweigh, An American in Paris) makes a non-musical but still delightful appearance as D'Artagnan, the young protagonist of Alexandre Dumas's most famous work. He shows his mettle with the Musketeers, fights for the King (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz) against the villainous forces of Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Diary of a Madman), and is smitten with the beautiful Constance Bonacieux (June Allyson, My Man Godfrey, Little Women (1949)).
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
While on a fishing holiday in a small, unknown European country, Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman, The Talk of the Town, Lost Horizon, Random Harvest) discovers that he is the dead spit of the country's King, Rudolf V (Colman again), his distant cousin. When a night of family bonding over several bottles of wine—including one drugged by the King's nefarious brother (Raymond Massey, Things to Come)—leaves the King incapacitated and unable to attend his coronation the next day, Rassendyll finds himself in the middle of a massive charade to prevent the throne's falling into the wrong hands. As a complicated plot of attempted murder and successful kidnapping unwinds, Rassendyll is helped by loyal aides played by David Niven (The Pink Panther, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)) and C. Aubrey Smith (And Then There Were None, The White Cliffs of Dover), and thwarted by an ambitious, mercenary duke played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Gunga Din, Sinbad the Sailor). He also finds love, in the form of the King's fiance, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll, My Favorite Blonde, Safari).
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
In 1952, MGM decided to remake The Prisoner of Zenda with the same script and different actors, so: While on a fishing holiday in a small, unknown European country, Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll (Stewart Granger, King Solomon's Mines, Scaramouche, North to Alaska) discovers that he is the dead spit of the country's King, Rudolf V (Granger again), his distant cousin. When a night of family bonding over several bottles of wine—including one drugged by the King's nefarious brother (Robert Douglas, Ivanhoe)—leaves the King incapacitated and unable to attend his coronation the next day, Rassendyll finds himself in the middle of a massive charade to prevent the throne's falling into the wrong hands. As a complicated plot of attempted murder and successful kidnapping unwinds, Rassendyll is helped by loyal aides played by Robert Coote (A Man Could Get Killed) and Louis Calhern (Julius Caesar (1953), Annie Get Your Gun), and thwarted by an ambitious, mercenary duke played by James Mason. He also finds love, in the form of the King's fiance, Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr, The Night of the Iguana, From Here to Eternity).
Warner Brothers has done an outstanding job on the transfers of all six of these fine films. Almost without exception, they simply look fantastic. To be sure, there are occasional faults and blemishes, but these are clearly source defects. There is the occasional shot in Billy Budd that was apparently overexposed, and it would have been nice to correct that, but I get the feeling that Warners would have fixed it if they could. The same goes for the compositing problems in Captain Horatio Hornblower, where the cliffs surrounding a French port are clearly visible through the blue of Gregory Peck's uniform coat. Of all the films included, the prize for best transfer has to be shared between The Three Musketeers and the 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda. Upon first viewing the Musketeers transfer, my jaw literally dropped. This film is almost 50 years old, and yet watching it is like looking out the window and seeing Gene Kelly swordfighting on my lawn. It's that pristine, lifelike, and simply gorgeous. Granger's version of Zenda is similarly impressive. The odd man—or woman, as the case may be—out would have to be poor Madame Bovary, which suffered from more nicks and scratches than the others. However, even the problems with that transfer were trifling. Shadows and fine details in all films were excellent.
Audio for all films is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. They are hardly impressive by the standards of modern releases, but they are notable for their clarity and lack of his and distortion. There is some hiss under the audio on some of the films—I noticed a trace of it during Captain Horatio Hornblower—but it is minimal and non-intrusive. Technically, these discs are a nice job all around.
Extra features are here in great plenty as well. Warner Brothers has made a habit of including their "Warner Night at the Movies" package on many of their classic titles—a full bill of newsreel, short subject, cartoon, trailers, and so forth. The special features on these discs are not quite the full "Night at the Movies" package, but are presented in much the same vein. Each film is presented alongside a short and a cartoon appropriate to the year in which the film was made. The shorts are not in as good condition as the feature presentations, but are sometimes even more instructive about the times in which they were made. An example would be the "My Country 'Tis of Thee" short on the Hornblower disc, which is uncomfortably, almost comically old-fashioned in its views of U.S. history. For most of the films, appropriate promotional materials are included as well—usually a trailer, but sometimes radio spots or audio adaptations as well. The lone exception to this pattern is Billy Budd, which includes probably the most pleasantly surprising special feature of all: a commentary track featuring Terence Stamp and Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh facilitates the conversation (which is never scene specific at any point), acting as a thoughtful, thorough interviewer in getting Stamp to tell his memories of the making of the film. The inclusion of this track for this film is appropriate as it is clearly the darkest, most serious film in the collection.
As for the films themselves, each has its own merits irrespective of the disc quality or the literary source material. The Three Musketeers and the two versions of The Prisoner of Zenda are good old-fashioned adventure films, with liberal doses of sword-swinging action and palace intrigue. Gene Kelly in his outing as D'Artagnan breaks from the musical mode that most people associate him with, presenting instead an earnest, eager, passionate young hero. (He also uncannily prefigures the look of Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride. of the two versions of Zenda, I preferred Colman's dry, witty take on the protagonist to Granger's; I also thoroughly enjoyed his battles of wits and steel with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
The two nautical films (a particular interest of mine) in this package could not be more different from each other, despite their setting in the same service at roughly the same time period. Captain Horatio Hornblower is a rousing bit of adventurous historical fiction, with a bold, dashing captain making a name for himself through bravery and cunning. There are nits to pick here to be sure, such as the mispronunciation of "lieutenant" (in this time and place it should be pronounced "leftenant"), and the use of the term "port" for the left-hand side of the ship (the older term "larboard" would still have been in use). The bigger issue is the romantic storyline and Hornblower's discomfort around women, evidenced by a weird throat-clearing noise which Peck is forced to make; these seem contrived and hokey. Also, certain elements of Hornblower's marital and romantic life have been cleaned up in the transition from the page to the screen, ostensibly so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of a 1950s audience. In any case, C.S. Forester himself wrote the screenplay, so there's no one to blame but the author himself. About the only real shame about this movie is that it was not made a year or two later—its gorgeous Technicolor photography and the overall feel of the film would have benefited greatly had it been shot in the widescreen ratios that had not yet been invented in 1951.
The other nautical film, Billy Budd, is really deserving of the kind of deeper analysis that time will not permit at present. With its heavy psychology, hints of suppressed homosexual tension, conflicts of conscience, and explicit Christ metaphor, it is truly the heavy hitter of this bunch. It is also the only film shot in widescreen, and is presented here in an anamorphic transfer. I will probably receive hate mail calling me a Philistine for saying this, but with the use of the widescreen frame and its beautiful ocean locations, I almost—ALMOST—wished this film had been shot in color. Black and white is an appropriate stylistic choice given the gravity of its themes, however.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
How does one quibble with a collection of films like this? In all honesty, I found Madame Bovary to be completely uninteresting in spite of Vincente Minelli's superb direction and great performances from Jones and Heflin. Watching the manipulative, conniving Emma Bovary bounce from one self-inflicted wound to the next grew tiresome after a very short while. It is probably the one film out of the bunch that I never would have watched had it not been a part of this set.
These are good films and good DVDs all around. The filmmakers took respected material from the printed page and made respectable movies out of it; Warners has similarly taken their work and created a more than respectable DVD package.
Not Guilty! Who says movies can't be fun and intelligent at the same time?
We stand adjourned.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)
Perp Profile, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)
• Pete Smith Specialty Short: Penny Wisdom
Scales of Justice, The Three Musketeers
Perp Profile, The Three Musketeers
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Three Musketeers
• FitzPatrick Traveltalk Short: Looking at London
Scales of Justice, Madame Bovary (1949)
Perp Profile, Madame Bovary (1949)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Madame Bovary (1949)
• Pete Smith Specialty Short: Those Good Old Days
Scales of Justice, Captain Horatio Hornblower
Perp Profile, Captain Horatio Hornblower
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Captain Horatio Hornblower
• Short Film: My Country 'Tis of Thee
Scales of Justice, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952)
Perp Profile, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952)
• FitzPatrick Traveltalk Short: Land of the Taj Mahal
Scales of Justice, Billy Budd (1961)
Perp Profile, Billy Budd (1961)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Billy Budd (1961)
• Commentary Track with Terence Stamp and Steven Soderbergh
Review content copyright © 2007 Erick Harper; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.