Thursday, July 21, 2005

Land of the Dead, the Prequel (Brigham Young, 1940)

It's hard to believe that there won't be a scientology-bankrolled project soon about the life of L. Ron Hubbard, between the vanity project Battlefield Earth and the sci-fi slasher flick financed out of pocket by Mel Gibson, Passion of the Christ, precedents have been set. Scientologists have all the great chips on their shoulders to be convinced they're an oppressed minority, not the least of which is behavior that invites ostracism ("I'm SOOOO in love DON'T KNOW THE HISTORY of psychology, and I DO!!!") I can only imagine what it's going to look like, and ponder if anyone will have the money or guts to make the alternate story about L. Ron's life that's based on the factual record and not the Scientology version.

The Great American Religious Genre is not the sword-and-sandal epic (I'm ready for my wide shot, Mr. DeMille), it's not the intimate psychological portrait (Last Temptation, etc.), the crappy pseudo-artsy fake-Euro-film (The Greatest Story Ever Told or Interiors et alia), or even the indy metaphor (Bad Lieutenant) for suffering and redemption (Rocky II, since he rises to fight again). It's the zombie movie. Let's face it, a story about a guy dying, then rising from the dead to walk the earth again after his followers feast on his flesh and blood is not new. What fascinates me is that Christians making movies about themselves don't get the fact that the whole Four Gospels version of the Jesus Story (which got into print better than St. Thomas, hence the latter is "apocrypha" now, because it was so damn theatrical) is all about the tale of a zombie. A good zombie, who returned to remind us we're all, in fact, the walking dead, it's just a matter of time before we pass over. Sounds like Land of the Dead to me.

In any event, I don't have to look ahead to figure out what the L. Ron Hubbard story will look like on the screen, I have but to look back on Brigham Young, an old-school oater beautifully-photographed in black and white in the great ranges of the west, competently acted, and scripted out of some weird parallel universe. The director, Henry Hathaway, is maybe best known today for True Grit, the flick that brought The Duke Oscar's sweet oatbag at long last, and to me for the talky re-make (1949) of Down to the Sea in Ships and the rather sublime 5 Card Stud. No proseletyzing angel he. The movie's a straight western in one sense, the pioneers struggling to make it against the odds, with regular white people substituting for the evil Indians for once. (See, they're just out to get the Mormons' lands, which is why they keep getting moved from state to state before finally deciding to go to Mexico. We end the film well before the Federalistas show up to kick them off and make them have only one wife; separatism is so inconvenient in one's history when you want to go mainstream later.)

Brigham Young starts out with a delicious piece of casting, with Vincent Price in the first 20 minutes handsomely filling up the screen as Joseph Smith. We skip the part where Joe finds the tablets in the woods that only he has ever seen or can translate, that describe the history of White People in America and the lost tribes of Israel ending up out west and all the other alternate-universe anthropology that girds the Mormon decalogue/travelogue. We know he's going to become the master of the macabre, but at the time he was thought to be a handsome leading man and would soon briefly be a noir star. It's enough to give you shivers when he's lynched that maybe he, too, will rise from his grave and come back to bite America on the ass.

But the title character is, of course, the real entree. He is played with admirable ambiguity, given the straight-faced script, by the estimable Dean Jagger, who won his oscar as a bureaucratic land-bound chief of staff to Gregory Peck's fightin' air general in Twelve O'Clock High. Jagger's interpretation of Young is wonderful if you assume (which neither the script, nor the numerous "latter day saints" commenting on this film in the IMDB entry, don't) Young was a crazed megalomaniac who had delusions God spoke to him and told him things like 'take your people across a frozen river in the middle of a storm' or 'This, the middle of the most god-awful desert in the west, next to a lake saltier than the ocean, Is The Place', etc. You look at him believing he's always right, as the Tyrone Power character does, maybe you can see why the cult of personality is so telling. It's the gift of acting. Why does luscious Linda Darnell, playing a non-believer who's hitched along for the ride with the Mormon tide, suddenly convert after showing so much pluck and skepticism? One suspects it was the fever brought on by the starvation, or something carried by the seagulls. What I find particularly charming is the way polygamy is dealt with: it's just a cute twist to the usual boy-and-girl romance. Why, suppose I marry you -- what's to stop you from also marrying another girl? Jealousy ensues! Ha ha ha! that the great Mary Astor as Brigham Young's apparently only wife, looking more like Mrs. Lincoln? John Carradine as the bearded, wide-eyed disciple, reeking of a whiff of John Brown (now there's a great piece of biopic casting that never was), and explaining to Tyrone Power the logic of polygamy as the path to taking over the whole country? Yes! Yes yes!!

Speaking of the walking dead, it's conveniently forgotten by the present-day wannabes that Young was a utopian communist -- the early Mormons held everything in common except one another's wives. Odd to see this portrayed so clearly in the movie, except when we remember that this was also the year of the release of Grapes of Wrath, another Internationale-hummin' Western road flick inconveniently contemporaneous to its release date. I find a lot of wide-eyed belief and anti-establishment anger in both films, and it's a pity they don't seem to be screening the latter at BYU conclaves much these days.

Speaking of the seagulls scenes: there are two delicious bits of horror film tucked into this sequence at the end. The first is the plague of locusts, which in fine biblical rhyming threaten to wipe out Salt Lake City's crops and send the Mormons back to kingdom come a little ahead of schedule. There's what I swear is a quote from Corot's "Gleaners", followed by great gruesome close-ups of the feasting insects, which I'm sure informed the post-War atomic monster films. This is followed closely by the seagulls coming to save the day, just as Jagger/Young is about to spill the beans he's a charlatan -- great subtextual acting done by Jagger here to get that sense out without having it spelled out in the script -- that is really creepy. This is supposed to be the big miracle that caps off the movie, but it looks like nothing so much as The Birds in black and white with only one species of bird. It seems very likely to me somehow that Hitch saw this film, coming off the heals of Rebecca, and he must've said, "Damn, I should do a horror movie as good as this one! Complete with flesh-eating ghouls and animals gone amok!"

You will have a chance to see this movie, I assure you. It runs with suspicious frequency on the Fox-owned FMC cable channel, in lovingly-restored prints as sharp as a Christian Coalition talking points memo. It sets me to dreaming what happens when the Scientologists really do take over Hollywood and become the bete-noir of the right, like the Jews and the Secular Humanists before them. Then we'll really see some fireworks between Utah and LA, probably flying right over Las Vegas.

No comments: