REWATCHING: Strange Cargo (1940) and Papillon (1973)

by James Wallace Harris, 3/9/21

Movies often appear to teach us about history, unfortunately, we tend to remember their lies rather than their facts. Why do we prefer movie history over scholarly history? Why do we love glamourize characterizations of real people with fudged biographies? Yet, don’t we also relish that statement “Based on a true story” when the film starts rolling? Are believable lies more entertaining than historical facts? The easy answer is most moviegoers couldn’t care less about real history, they just want to react emotionally to a good story.

Until today, my only source of knowledge about the penal colonies in French Guiana came from fiction. In popular culture the French penal system in Guiana is remembered as Devil’s Island, but from Wikipedia I learned the penal colony of Cayenne was based on three islands off French Guiana and three locations on the mainland. The actual Devil’s Island only held about a dozen prisoners at any time, and maybe no more than 50 over its history according to one source. The Wikipedia entry was far more fascinating than anything I learned from watching any of the films about Devil’s Island I’ve seen.

The evolution of the French prison system would take many books to explain why France created the horrors of its Gulag in the New World. These terrors are painted with impressionistic cliches in movies because what moviegoers want is the thrills of prison escapes. The actual history of injustice is of little interest to mass audiences. Whereas the reasons why an enlightened nation would kill tens of thousands of its citizens with brutal torture should interest us far more than why a few men make an exciting escape.

My knowledge, like most people’s comes from a handful of books and movies. The most famous of which is the 1973 film Papillon based on the 1969 autobiography of Henri Charrière of the same title. Charrière claimed his book was 75% true, but researchers over the years have found more and more evidence to suggest it was mostly fiction, if not all. However, just the merest whiffs of the fading myths from Devil’s Island is enough to inspire writers and screenwriters, while they ignore volumes of meaty history. Aren’t we accepting the smell of the cooking over the meal?

I first watched Papillon as a movie rental in the late 1970s or early 1980s on VHS tape on a TV with a 25″ screen. I was in my late twenties. I regretted then not having caught it at the movies when it came out in 1973 because it was cinematically beautiful. It was also tremendously exciting. I liked both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman performances. I had also loved Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), one of the most exciting movies of my childhood. With both films I read the book based on them immediately after seeing the movie. Both films were about escaping prison. At the time I wondered if Steve McQueen had been typecast as a great escape artist. Papillon, like The Great Escape, impressed me by what the men endured in prison, and the efforts they made to escape. Looking back I realized that in the sixties when watching The Great Escape I wanted to escape my childhood, and fifteen years later when I saw Papillon I wanted to escape my job.

When I watched Papillon this week I wasn’t really interested in the Steve McQueen character at all, but sympathized with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). At 69 I realize there are no escapes from life, but it must be endured to the end. The final scenes with Dega working his gardens and tending his pigs on Devil’s Island was something I could completely understand and relate. I do admit that visually the recreations of the prisons and Devil’s Island in Papillon look very much like the photos I’ve seen of the real places. The film and film locations are stunningly beautiful, and feel historical.

This time while watching Papillon I wondered about why the prison existed, why the cruelty, why the extreme inhumanity? How could they keep men in solitary for five years. How could any human survive that? I wanted to know the reality and history of this penal system. This time I knew the film was a caricature sketch based on a complex lie Henri Charrière sold the world based on his hyper realistic life experiences. Movies goers were only getting a few parts per billion of the real facts.

The first time I watched Strange Cargo (1940) was probably in the 1990s on Turner Classic Movies. It made an odd impression on me, but then Strange Cargo was an odd film for its time, an MGM’s take spirituality. The story is about Verne (Clark Gable) who escapes from the French penal system in Guiana with Julie (Joan Crawford), Moll (Albert Dekker) and other hardened criminals along with a strange Christlike figure named Cambreau (Ian Hunter). Cambreau is both mystical and supernatural.

These escapees weren’t on Devil’s Island, but one of the larger prison islands that had a civilian population – which is how a woman is included in party. Like in Papillon, the goal is to acquire a boat via bribery and make for the mainland. Both stories involve treacherous travel through a jungle and then an arduous sea voyage with minor characters dying along the way. In Strange Cargo, Cambreau helps each character who dies with a spiritual awakening. Both Verne and Julie resist Cambreau powers until they very end of the story by being hard independent individuals.

The first time I watch Strange Cargo I was more caught up with the escape story, and felt the mystical side of the tale to be a bit sappy. I was happily married, and worked in a university library. I liked my job and the people I worked with, but still I felt trapped by having to put in my 9-to-5 hours. Again, the theme of escape was the overriding motif that moved the story along.

Decades later, retired and freed from my sentence of work, I am much closer to death, and the mystical angle of Strange Cargo was far more appealing to me this time, even though I’m an atheist. And this time around I was far more sympathetic to M’sieu Pig (Peter Lorre), a pathetic creature so desperate for Julie to love him. Pig is a snitch, small and ugly, completely loathsome to Julie no matter how nice or helpful he is to her. Pig is the only character that Cambreau can’t help.

Strange Cargo doesn’t try to us teach history, and I think it’s a more successful because of it. Yet, Strange Cargo does preach another kind of truth, which I don’t believe, yet admired. Some of the greatest spiritual works of history have come from souls enduring prison and finding enlightenment. Strange Cargo is almost surreal in its black and white beauty.

Papillon gives us a story of survival, but Strange Cargo is about transcendence. Both are classic inspirations for stories, but like I said, when I was young I wanted escape, but at this end of my life I’m more interested in transcendence. As an atheist, I believe transcendence is only found on this side of death, and I could read that in Strange Cargo better than Papillon even though it was simplistic and heavy handed. However, this time I thought the spiritual thread of Strange Cargo was artistic, and moving.

Further Reading:


REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

It’s funny, but we rely on our memories for everything, but studying the functionality of our memory system shows they’re completely unreliable. When I started this rewatching project I intended to explore how I was a different person from the first time I saw a movie and who I am now when I just rewatched a film. I figured by comparing my current experience to my memories I could unearth the differences between myself then and now.

Rewatching The Birds has caused a lot of confusion. I only have vague memories of seeing the movie the first time, and I am not even sure when that first time was. Before I started writing this essay I assumed it was in the 1960s, and it may well have been. I thought that because my memory of seeing The Birds the first time are memories of talking about the horrifying bits with my friends at school. All of us were excited by the bird attacks, and none of us talked about the actors or the story.

The Birds came out in 1963. I was in the sixth grade during the first half of the year, and the seventh grade for the second half. However, I also thought I saw it on TV first, but The Birds didn’t have it’s U.S. television premiere until 1968. By then I was in high school and working five nights a week at a grocery store, so I don’t believe it was then. During 1962-1963 we lived on base at Homestead Air Force Base, and I often went to the base theater, even by myself. It was just fifteen cents for kids. I even remember seeing adult films like Town Without Pity (1961), The War Lover (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The first two I saw by myself and actually liked them (sex and B-17s), but the third I saw with my mom and sister and was bored (politics). So it’s possible I saw The Birds there. I do know in the 6th and 7th grades it became common to stand around with buddies on the playground and discuss the movies and TV shows we had seen the night or weekend before.

One reason why my memory of The Birds is iffy is because up until very recently I never really liked Alfred Hitchcock films. I liked his TV show back in the 1950s, but the tension and intrigued he developed in his films didn’t appeal to the younger me. My friends and I were thought the bird attacks and their creepy gatherings were uber-cool, but that’s my only lasting impression. When I rewatched The Birds the other night, all the attack scenes felt very familiar, and all the scenes of characters relating to each other didn’t.

This time I was amazed by how gorgeous the cinematography looked. I also spent a lot of time amused by Melanie (Tippi Hedren) having to wear the same light green suit for most of the flick (she didn’t bring a change of clothes when she went to Bodega Bay and ended up staying the weekend, a weekend from hell). This time around I was caught up in the interplay between Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie, between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), between Melanie and Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and between Melanie and Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie had a weird personality, almost off putting, but as she adjusted to each person she met becoming a better person for it. All that personality meshing was something that was invisible to me as a kid.

When I talked to my old buddy Connell about this movie today, he said he spent a lot of time as a kid studying people trying to figure them out. He was mystified by other people’s behaviors and struggled to understand the world by understanding why people did what they did. I don’t remember doing that at all. I was very self centered and mainly concerned with what amused me, and what I wanted. I was closer in age to Veronica Cartwright when I saw the film and probably would have reacted to the bird attacks pretty much like her character did in the movie. She was mostly frightened but did stay focused on her new pet lovebirds. I was mostly frightened of the world around me but ignored unpleasantness by staying focused on pleasures and desires.

In 2021 The Birds was an impressive film. A few weeks ago I watched Vertigo and I’m changing my mind about Hitchcock. I plan to rewatch Rear Window soon. This time around I didn’t find the birds particularly interesting, instead I admired the sets, costumes, cinematography, but most of all the characters. All aspects I ignored as a kid.

The main problem I had with the film this time was with the birds themselves, they had no motive or justification for doing what they did. Hitchcock said later that the birds represented nature turning against us, but even that seems too vague. In Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, “The Birds,” her isolated English village eventually learns the birds were attacking everywhere. I wished Hitchcock had featured that in his version of the story. It would have satisfied my science fictional sense of things.

I now feel like I’m a whole person, although if I live to be ninety, I might disavow that when watching The Birds again. I believe the first time I saw The Birds I was a very incomplete person, even though I smuggly felt like a little knowitall.

When do we become a whole person? I’ve always assumed I was unformed and only vaguely a person before age four and five, which is when my memories start filling in. But I also felt I ran on instinct rather than awareness until about age twelve or thirteen when I started thinking about things. I was probably eleven when I first say The Birds.

I saw a lot of movies from age five to twelve, mostly those made in the 1930s and 1940s, with some 1950s B-features. During the 1950s and 1960s, old movies ran on television during the afternoon after school, on the weekends, and at night after primetime. Becky, my younger sister, and I loved to stay up and watch all-night movies during summer vacations. I think my mom let us because we’d sleep till noon and stay out of her hair, and then play outside until it got dark. Like I said, I started going to the movies on my own when I was ten and in the fifth and sixth grade. The base theater played several a week, it was cheap, and only a bike ride away. I’ve seen thousands of film, and I wonder now just how much they shaped my personality, and my evolving personality judged them.

I know all those old 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s movies imprinted on me, especially the ones most suited for kids, like the Tarzan movies, westerns, and science fiction. But I also loved old 1930s black and white flicks from MGM and Warner Brothers. Maybe those movies from simpler times worked well with my simple mind. Many of my friends my age tell me they can’t watch old movies. Hell, I know a lot of people who think old movies means those from the 1980s and 1990s. I love films all the way back to the 1890s.

Even though I admired The Birds this time, it wasn’t really aimed at who I am at this stage of life. Nor did I particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed watching myself watch it, which is why I’m writing about the experience. Most movies and television shows seemed aimed at a young audience. There’s a fair amount of content suitable for middle-aged folks, but I don’t find much storytelling for young geezers like myself in their last third of life. I can pretend to be a kid again, or remember adult issues from middle life while enjoying movies aimed at those audiences, but they’re starting to get harder to watch, even tedious.

It’s much harder to find shows that I love. Three that come to mind are Black Sails, Belgravia, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Strangely, all deal with history. Links are to my reviews. I find it odd now that I never wrote about my enchantment with Mrs. Maisel. I’m not sure if there are any overlapping aspects to these show that reveal why they appeal to my late sixties mind. A few months ago I wrote about three film comedies that grabbed my attention (Genevieve, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Bachelor in Paradise). Beside trying to understand who I was when I was younger by the films I watch, I realize I’m also trying to figure out who I am now by what I like to watch.

Cognitively I can analyze what I must have been like as a kid. I was poorly educated. I was sensitive to the suffering of others but I was burdened by prejudices. I feel I spent most of my K-12 and college years deprogramming my original upbringing. At eleven, I hadn’t started watching the news or reading newspapers, so my worldview was based on fiction I saw on television, at the movies, or read in books. Most of that fiction was not very sophisticated. I believe The Birds was a sophisticated horror film that was over my head in 1963.

The Birds is now considered a cinematic masterpiece, and I might have agreed with that during my middle years if I had seen it again then, but now it’s mostly an artistic curiosity, appealing for what it teaches me about time and my changing personality. My favorite character was Annie, who had to watch Mitch, the guy she loved, fall for Melanie. My feelings for her were so much stronger than my feelings for a story about creepy birds.


p.s. Sorry to be pounding out so many posts so quickly, but I’ve been laid up with a bad leg and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write when I felt like sitting at a computer again.

REWATCHING: The Graduate (1967)

James Wallace Harris, 3/3/21

I’ve heard older folks often say, “I’m the same person I was at 19 on the inside.” My wife has a family story about an uncle in his eighties who said, “I feel just like I did at 19, but something is terribly wrong with my body.” I’ve always taken it for granted I’ve been the same person my whole life, but is that true? The other night while watching The Graduate, a film I hadn’t seen since I was sixteen back in 1967, I began to doubt that. The movie was exactly the same, but who I was at sixteen and who I am at sixty-nine are two different people.

I’ve decided to watch and review a series of films I’ve seen before to help me remember who I was at different times in my life. We all experience the illusion that we’re the center of the universe and find it hard to empathize with all the people around us. We forget they see reality from an entirely different perspective, one where we aren’t the center, but they are.

There is a word, “sonder” in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that I find most useful right now, so much so I believe I should quote it’s definition here:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Most folks at a certain age have the revelation of sonder, where they realize the human beings around them live in their own fully realized universe that doesn’t include us. Our own lives are so complicated that we struggle to imagine the complications that others endure. It helps to stop and contemplate what people around you are feeling, seeing, thinking, and all the background details that went into developing their unique perspective. Watching The Graduate I sondered my younger self. I also sondered that every character in the film should have a fully developed backstory if their characterization was to be realistic.

Here’s the thing, who I was at sixteen was a different Jim Harris, or a subset of who I am at sixty-nine, because those intervening fifty-three years changed me drastically. However, the characters Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) should be exactly the same. Because I reacted to them differently at sixteen and sixty-nine reveals I’m different. Partly, that’s due to how I sondered those characters at sixteen and sixty-nine. We can never know what it’s like to be another person because telepathy doesn’t exist. Our best effort is to always extrapolate and speculate on what other people are like from our own experiences, which may never be equal to what others experience.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I saw The Graduate back in 1967 when I was in the eleventh grade. Debbie Hall, a cute dark-haired girl who was my chemistry lab partner, had told me all about the movie with such excitement that I felt I had to go see it. And I wanted to impress her. I attended Coral Gables High School, but I wasn’t like most of the students there who were from rich families like the Braddocks and Robinsons. We lived in a poorer section of Coconut Grove, before it became chic. I went to the school library and read about The Graduate in Time Magazine. The article treated the film as some kind of phenomenon. That really made me want to see it. The buzz was the The Graduate was the first movie aimed at the Baby Boomer generation

Even though I was sixteen and could drive, and worked at a grocery store making my own money, I didn’t have a car yet. This was a particularly poor time for my family, and we only had one old car, a beat up old clunker from the previous decade. I was embarrassed to be seen in that old car. I told my dad I had to see The Graduate for school and he drove me over to the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and dropped me off at a theater there. I was glad then he didn’t want to come in. I was also embarrassed to be seen with my dad too. But now I wish he had because I’ve spend most of my life since he died when I was eighteen trying to figure out who he was. But dad drove off to go to the Grove VFW Club to drink.

Over a half-century later I watched The Graduate again, this time on a 65 inch 4K TV that I couldn’t have imagined back in 1967 even though science fiction was all I read. In the 21st century, the experience of watching The Graduate was much different from when I first saw it as a high school kid in the 20th century.

Back then I thought Benjamin Braddock’s parents (William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson) were pushy, smothering, meddling, and oppressive – the bad guys of the show who wanted to convert Benjamin into a sellout robot. This time, I saw them as good natured folks who wanted their son to get on with his life and make something of himself. Young people today probably won’t understand this, but a common phrase from back in the 1960s was “The Generation Gap.” We told ourselves never trust anyone over thirty, and we felt the older generations wanted us to conform to their way of thinking. We feared that as much as they feared communism. To my generation, our parents kept trying to get us to sleep with a pod (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the reference.)

Benjamin was like my snooty Coral Gables High School classmates who lorded their fancy clothes and new cars over my poor attire and carless condition. One of the reasons I liked Debbie Hall so much is because she defended me from Bruce, a rich kid who sat behind us in chemistry. Bruce berated me for not wearing the right clothes. Obviously, he was trying to impress Debbie and I was a zero in his universe. But I liked how Debbie was aware of the class distinctions and put him down. Bruce had obviously already fallen asleep with a pod in his room.

Benjamin, a recent college graduate, was right on the cusp of becoming adultified. That was why he was so surly and angry. Being seduced by Mrs. Robinson meant more than just getting laid. At the time I had only been on a handful of dates and had been too shy to even try to kiss a girl, so sex with any female, even an older mom thrilled me to the bone.

But that’s the thing I realized at sixty-nine about myself at sixteen. I didn’t try to sonder Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson, or Elaine in that Coral Gables theater over a half-century ago. I didn’t try to imagine their backstories or perspectives on reality.

In 1967 The Graduate was tremendously exciting, but my younger self was only unconsciously reacting to various elements in the movie. The sex excited him. The beautiful Katharine Ross excited him. The red Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider excited him. The Simon and Garfunkel songs excited him. The abundance of jokes made him happy. And I left the theater pumped with a sense of rebellion. Even though Benjamin didn’t have long hair, The Graduate felt like it was counter-culture anthem, giving the finger to the over thirty generations.

In 2021 I saw The Graduate as a very different person. The whole time I was watching the movie I kept trying to sonder the characters, but all I could extrapolate was insane contradictions. Good fiction is due to writers creating fully realized characters that are believable. It’s as if they sondered real people and used enough details from their lives to let the audience also imagine being those fictional people.

In 2021 I could see that Benjamin and Elaine were from well-to-do families that had controlled their lives. That both of them had little experience thinking for themselves and as new adults were confused by what they should do. However, beyond that, there were few clues about them in which to speculate.

There is nothing about Mrs. Robinson that makes sense. There is no reason to believe she’d want to have sex with Benjamin. Both dads were little more than comic pawns in the plot. And once Elaine knows that Benjamin has been sleeping with her mom, there’s little reason to believe she’d want to have anything to do with him. Even without knowing Benjamin had been humping her mom, I never saw any reason for Elaine to be attracted to Ben. And when Benjamin tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine and then admits that Elaine knows nothing of his plans and that she hates him, we know Benjamin is a clueless unrealistic fool. As an adult viewer, The Graduate falls apart. I now see it as a series of unrelated gags that don’t make a coherent whole.

Except for the ending. After Benjamin and Elaine find their seat on the back of the bus and we look into their eyes for many moments, I saw something I don’t remember seeing at sixteen. In their eyes we could hear them think: “What the fuck have I done! What am I supposed to do now?” It’s obvious why I didn’t see that doubt in their expressions in 1967 when I was sixteen – I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe there was an escape from growing up.

In 2021, at age sixty-nine, seeing that last scene, I suddenly sonder the writers of The Graduate. They wanted a hit movie, to capitalize on the Baby Boomer generation, but they knew their revolutionary rhetoric was just to make a buck, so they gave us wink-wink at the end, saying, you can rebel against the status quo kid, but you’re ain’t going to get away with it.

We didn’t, did we?


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