Current Events

Grandest of All

“Man is destroying the forests, poisoning the oceans, poisoning the very air we breathe. The oceans, the forests, the races of animals, [and] mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven at its roots, and the tree will wither and die. The stars will go out, and heaven will be destroyed.

These words weren’t written yesterday or a year ago. They were uttered in 1958 by a character in a film based on the novel The Roots of Heaven written in 1956 by French author Romain Gary about a character named Morel who Robin Hood-like goes on a crusade with a band of not-so-merry men to stop the killing of elephants in Africa.

Moviemakers John Huston and Darryl Zanuck both fell in love with the novel and Huston bought the film rights only to be trumped by Zanuck, who at the time held Huston’s contract and so they became a production team to bring the story to the big screen.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you very much about the movie The Roots of Heaven except to say it’s a Cinemascope gem that’s turned up in 2012 on Blu-ray, according to Greenbriar’s John McElwee, although my viewing was on the Fox Movie Channel. The picture was critically panned on release, lost a fortune, and was looked upon with disdain by Huston, who directed it. “Even as I made the picture I knew it wasn’t going to be any good,” said Huston. “You kid yourself, try to buoy yourself up, but eventually you just have to face it.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The band of elephant protectors on location in Africa, including, L to R, Peer Qvist (Friedrich von Ledebur), Morel (Leslie Howard), the Baron (Olivier Hussenot), Forsythe (Errol Flynn), and Minna (Juliette Greco).

The book and film are both populated with people scarred by World War II: Morel, the former German prison camp inmate who goes mad and sees visions of elephants; Minna, the French girl forced into prostitution in a German “doll house” and then “liberated” (her term for repeatedly raped) by Russians, Brits, Americans, and Frenchmen; Forsythe, the British officer-turned-traitor for the Nazis to save his own hide; Waitari, the African nationalist out to exploit Morel; Abe Fields, the ingenuous American photojournalist who had stormed the beaches of Anzio and Normandy and now braves gun battles to follow Morel’s exploits; Peer Qvist, the aged naturalist who utters the statement heading this column (beautifully done by Austrian actor Friedrich von Ledebur); and many others.

Trevor Howard as Morel is an odd choice but the casting against type works and he’s very good. It was to be William Holden’s role, but Paramount wouldn’t let him do it. Errol Flynn agreed to let John Huston direct him and when Flynn arrived on the set, according to Huston, “It was the first meeting since that bloody night long ago at Selznick’s house.” [For more on this 1945 encounter, see my three-part series of earlier columns.]

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Juliette Greco. Be still, my heart.

Flynn is his late-career drunken self in The Roots of Heaven but looks at some points sharp as a tack as an actor (for him) and dies a heroic death in a running gun battle with elephant hunters. Eddie Albert plays the hell out of the photojournalist, and Herbert Lom is a standard stereotypical bad guy. Paul Lukas is Saint-Denis, who is a major character in the book and much less so in the movie, but Lukas is always so smooth and world weary that he wins you over. Orson Welles shows up to play Orson Welles playing an American TV journalist with a nasal Amurrican accent. French nightclub singer Juliette Greco does in The Roots of Heaven what she always does to me—she makes me think impure boy-thoughts. She made Zanuck think them too; he insisted on having an affair with her, and since he had the power to give her top billing in this and other big Fox pictures, she didn’t say no. Huston said in his memoirs that Juliette treated DZ badly, though, and made fun of him behind his back.

The five-month African location shoot has become the stuff of legend. Cast and crew called off a record 960 days with heatstroke, malaria, dehydration, animal bites, and everything else you can imagine. Huston made it through and so did Flynn, who kept up his strict hydration regimen of a bottle of vodka a day, but they were the only two to remain upright despite days that reached 130 degrees and nights that settled in at a mere 100.

I don’t mean to bury the lead here; the headline for me is elephants. As Trevor Howard’s Morel says with such sweet sadness at one point of the hunters rampant in Africa killing his elephants, “They aim at the soft spot between the eye and the ear, just because they’re big, free, and beautiful.” Morel fought for the elephants back then, and I weep for the elephants now because they are so grand, so intelligent, and the jeopardy they faced in 1956 when Gary wrote his novel was nothing compared to their near-extinction today. Huston’s The Roots of Heaven features great thundering Cinemascope herds of majestic elephants in their native habitat, crushing everything in their path. Huston called Gary’s The Roots of Heaven “a prophetic book, anticipating the concerns of today’s environmentalists.” Which is what brought me to my recent viewing–the Greenpeace nature of Morel’s mission and the correctness of a cause that rings true today louder and clearer than ever. Full disclosure: I have never cared for hunters and hunting. It was never “sport” and only could be “sport” if the prey were armed and proficient in weaponry to make it a fair fight.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Greco as Minna emerges from the river after a bath. Flynn as Forsythe touches her ankle, as in, “Let’s do it.” She doesn’t even consider the idea, which is richly ironic since Errol Flynn was probably the most prolific lover of the 20th century (if combining on- and off-screen exploits). He was now, officially, a character actor.

Hearing Morel’s impassioned speeches for the elephants made me look up the African Wildlife Foundation, with its mission to save our grandest creatures. I have just today set up a monthly donation to help with their work—the AWF is accredited by the Better Business Bureau and states that 88 percent of donation amounts go to programs and only 3 percent to administration. Romain Gary through a 61-year-old novel and Trevor Howard through an authentic and heartfelt performance inspired me to help the noble elephant; now maybe I can inspire you to take the same small step in helping these innocent creatures that yet manage to inhabit our planet gone mad.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Well worth saving.

FLASH: AMERICA IS AT WAR.

It’s difficult to imagine a moment like that, when those words are heard. Wait, no it isn’t, not if you lived through 9/11 and the chaos, fires, and heartbreak of that day and the days that followed. But December 1941 was a more innocent time. We got our news from daily papers and radio, without benefit of TV or the internet. By 2001 we had been desensitized by all sorts of horrors over the decades brought into our homes mostly courtesy of television, but in the run-up to the holidays 1941, no one could conceive of a sneak attack by another nation on an American naval base where young men and women were stumbling out of their bunks in the utter quiet of a Hawaiian Sunday morning and wiping the sleep out of their eyes, guard down.

Pearl Harbor? Where the heck is that? We have a naval base way out there? There was so much we didn’t know that day and struggled to find out. It all unfolded so painfully slowly. First a bulletin after 2 in the afternoon on the East Coast, and phones ringing off the hook in D.C. Families told families until the news had rippled across the nation. All gathered around living room radio sets and stayed there through the evening to pick up shards of information that came through not in today’s explosion of information and misinformation but as facts crawling in one at a time, in single file.

We know now, from the hindsight of 75 years, what happened 75 years ago this morning. Hours of hell on earth. Bombs, exploding ships, blood in the water, death. We know how and why the Japanese attacked, the damage they inflicted, and the gross miscalculation of picking a fight with a “sleeping giant” and filling it with a “terrible resolve.” But on the evening of December 7, 1941, nobody in the United States enjoyed any sort of historical context. Instead, all wondered what would happen next because the Japanese hadn’t just attacked Pearl; they had swept across the South Pacific in a multi-pronged invasion that most believed would bring landing craft to Washington or Oregon or California. Air raids were feared and blackouts went into effect at once.

As ships burned at Pearl Harbor, America entered a new reality, just as we did on September 11, 2001, when buildings burned. Everyone knew nothing would be the same again and they were right. The world was plunging into a blackness that would claim tens of millions of lives. Parents would no longer sleep at night because they worried their children would be sent off to fight. Austerity became a way of life as everything of value was rationed for the common goal of defending liberty.

I’m not a big fan of war because it so rarely settles anything and only causes other problems. But 75 years ago today the United States entered a just war against terrible foes. After tremendous sacrifice over nearly four years, good defeated evil. I’m pausing this morning to think about the thousands of innocent kids who woke up at peace on the ships of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and ended the day as battle-tested warriors. And I’m especially remembering the 2,300 who fell in that attack, many of them entombed on the U.S.S. Arizona. Theirs are the first names on the honor rolls of World War II and I say to each one: Thank you. We will never forget.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

In 1962, a memorial was built over the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, where hundreds of American sailors and Marines remain entombed. Arizona crewmen who survived the battle of Pearl Harbor are given the option by the National Park Service of being interred there after death.

The Force Awakens (the dead)

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Star Wars style C one sheet from 1977, back when they were just a bunch of kids putting on a show.

Poor Sir Alec Guinness. I mean, here’s a serious thespian, a Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire, an Oscar winner as Best Actor for Bridge on the River Kwai, nominated for The Lavender Hill Mob, key in Lawrence of Arabia—some of the great pictures in history. And in 1976 here he is on a movie set with one tall man in a dog suit, and another tall man in black armor and a cape, a perilously thin man in a gold ensemble, and a “robot” that looks like a garbage can on wheels. The human actors he’s working with don’t impress him. The blonde kid’s voice cracks; the dark-haired kid mumbles his dialogue; the girl with the bad hair is the best of the bunch, and only because she’s the daughter of Debbie Reynolds so she has at least something of a pedigree. This writer-director masterminding the nonsense, well, he seems to have no idea how to make motion pictures at all.

I have thought about the Guinness-eye view of the making of Star Wars many times over the past 38-odd years. Sir Alec must have thought, I’ll take my paycheck, cash it fast, this thing will bomb, and I’ll move on with my career and never speak of it again.

Then OMG what happened next. We all know what happened next. We are feeling the ripples through the earth, through popular culture, through time itself to this very day, Force Day 2015, yet another round of flak ballyhooing the upcoming next installment of Star Wars. Poor Sir Alec! He wouldn’t flee Star Wars, as he must have imagined. He would be forced onto all fours to be saddled with it. He would be—No, please, it’s an honor I DO NOT DESERVE—nominated for an Academy Award for it. He would be forced to take their money and appear in sequels of it. It will go down as the pinnacle of his career so that when you go to imdb.com and type in Alec Guinness, the thumbnail description reads, “Actor, Star Wars.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Vader: “Once I was the pupil. Now I am the master.”
Kenobi: “Only a master of eee-vil, Darth.”
Guinness: (I can’t believe I just said that.)

I’m thinking about all this today because it is Force Day, and my mental exercise is to look at all the highly polished commercial ballyhoo in our stores and on our TVs about The Force Awakens and contrast it to those innocent first weeks of spring 1977 when Star Wars caught the world’s eye for being clean, all-American grade-school fun. It was a charming, loud, mindless two hours at the movies, exceedingly stupid if you thought about it, but why think about it? Just sit back and enjoy. George Lucas set out to make a tribute to Universal serials, to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers—that’s all he ever intended, and now look what it’s become. It is now a—and I say this with disdain—Disney franchise. To me, the first one was the most enjoyable, although the second one, The Empire Strikes Back, was better in the sense that it was Star Wars Grows Up and in adolescence became a little darker. Not too much; a little. The third one was too stupid to enjoy and that second round where Lucas tried to make a story that hooked up across generations.

Just, ouch.

I can watch the original anytime and recite the dialogue with the characters. I can watch the second one if I’m in the right mood and have two hours to kill. But that’s it as far as the franchise and I are concerned. I have reached a point in life where I find myself going with great relief, “Well, I never have to do that again.” For example, “I never have to go to Kennywood again,” Kennywood being an amusement park here in Pittsburgh. I grew up loving Kennywood and counting the days until I could go with my cousin, but then it stopped being fun, and about 10 years ago after a work picnic there, I decreed I would never do it again. Just like I never have to endure Star Wars sequels again. Age can be empowering.

Or, in Sir Alec Guinness’s case, age can be imprisoning because roles for actors aren’t so easy to come by, and you take what you can get because it’s a living, and for Sir Alec in 1976 that meant signing on the dotted line for this horrible, loud puppet show that made no sense as undertaken by amateurs.

I can only think that the ripples of Star Wars are even felt wherever Sir Alec is now, and he is touching his suddenly headachy temple like he did when the Death Star blew up Alderaan, and saying in that caramel British voice, “Dear God, not again.”

A Gallant Blade

How can we go on without Christopher Lee? I mean, seriously, HOW?? What a comforting, menacing, horrific presence in our lives, our entire lives, no matter when, dear reader, you were born. Sir Christopher Lee was here before you, towering taller, employing that baritone, tasting the blood of virgins, and wielding a sword deemed inferior only by unkind scriptwriters.

His Frankenstein was a grotesque rethinking of what had been done by Karloff.

His Mummy was precursor to the modern version seen in Brendan Fraser’s pictures.

His Dracula was a ruthless killer minus the charisma of other title vampires. If you were a damsel, you’d succumb, but there was never any indication you’d enjoy it one tiny little bit.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Here’s a Dracula not for the faint of heart.

Dabblers in classic cinema might remember Lee going all the way back to Captain Horatio Hornblower in 1952, when he played a Spanish ship’s captain out-dueled by Gregory Peck’s title character. He did lots of television in the 1950s, including four stints on The Errol Flynn Theatre. In one of these episodes, Lee fought a screen duel with Flynn and complained later the host was so careless with the blade that he nearly severed Lee’s little finger. “I have the scar to prove it,” Lee grumbled.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

His Mummy woke up really horny (and tall for an Egyptian), but with complexion problems.

I take umbrage at obit writers who last week said Lee was an unknown when he landed Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The hell he was! He was already an accomplished workingman’s actor; his Frankie was a soulful victim stitched together by a madman. Hammer would use Lee in an astonishing variety of vehicles for the next 20 years, not only as Count Dracula but also as as Kharis, a linebacker-style Mummy; as Rasputin the maddest of Russian monks; as fiendish harem-building Fu Manchu; and as an assortment of cops, professors, pirates, and mayhem-makers.

For me, Sir Christopher will always be Count Rochefort, the one-eyed nemesis of D’Artagnan in the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers and its sequels, The Four Musketeers and Return of the Musketeers. You’re not supposed to root for the bad guy but I couldn’t help it. At one point all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu says, “Do you fear me, Rochefort?” To which our anti-hero says, “I … fear you, Eminence.” And can’t resist adding, “I also hate you.” And the Cardinal respected him for saying it!

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

As Rochefort, he could match a musketeer’s blade while also serving as implied lover to Milady de Winter.

Lee was already 50+ when he enacted Rochefort but still superbly athletic well beyond what one would expect of a gangly man of six-foot-four. His whole adult life he had been a classic fencer and, like Basil Rathbone, more accomplished at it than the heroes who would defeat him onscreen. For both men this source of intense frustration would be a common theme: I was a better pure athlete and fencer than Errol Flynn/Gregory Peck/ Michael York but the damn script had me losing every time!

Lee never wanted for work. He eased from Hammer B’s to three-nippled Scaramanga in the James Bond picture The Man with the Golden Gun when that franchise was still huge. Then he returned to dozens of B-level film, TV, and audio roles for the next 30 years until his rebirth in not one but two of the greatest blockbuster cinema series of all time, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. I loved seeing Lee literally mop the floor with goody-two-shoes Gandalf just as I delighted in his slicing and dicing of Jedi Knights in two Star Wars pictures. It’s just a shame his role as Count Dooku was so half-baked, but then wasn’t half-baking the norm with Star Wars from day one? And isn’t that why poor Alec Guinness recoiled in horror every day on a set cluttered with dog people, robots, and swords with no blades? Gentlemen, we did not do it this way making Lawrence of Arabia!

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

So here he is, 50+ dueling in the heat of Spain with one eye tied behind his back. If you never thought of it, that messes with your depth perception big-time, like when, oh, swords come ear-high.

In bidding adieu to this magnificent performer, I remind you of a sense of humor that moved him to title his memoir Tall, Dark and Gruesome, and one that very late in life inspired participation in such head-bangin’ songs as The Bloody Verdict of Verden and re-envisioned standards like Silent Night with searing riffs as presented in Christopher Lee: A Heavy Metal Christmas. His final blaze of glory was a different sort of yuletide greeting, Jingle Hell, which he confessed was “naughty,” and did so with a sheepish smile. You will be the one smiling even as you reach for earplugs because this guy knew how to have fun while retaining every ounce of formidable British dignity.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

To heck with sabers, light or otherwise. I’ll just fry you up like bacon.

The loss of Christopher Lee is really all about me and my problem with the very natural state-of-being called death. I explored its mysteries at length in Fireball trying to figure things out, but I can’t say I’ve gotten anywhere yet. All I know at this point is that Christopher Lee is gone from this world, and I don’t know what to do without him.

Crazy Town

I have learned the hard way to rely on primary sources. Taking for granted the accuracy of secondary sources or information that has passed hand to hand over the course of time leads to mistakes. If you have never noticed, humans like to take information and spin it for their own purposes.

I’m not breaking new ground when I report that, this week, we heard about the 18-month-old girl who was rescued from a riverbed in Utah when her mother’s vehicle went off the road at night and landed upside down under a bridge, blocked from view of the road above. The story made national news: infant rescued after being suspended upside down in her car seat for 14 hours, inches from icy rushing waters with mother dead in driver’s seat. It’s some story; this was a miracle rescue. The cops and paramedics who removed the girl from the vehicle and rushed her to the hospital are heroes.

Then the story takes a turn toward crazy town, as reported by the four cops who arrived on the scene after a fisherman spotted the vehicle. Those cops, all of them eyewitnesses who had not sought the limelight, none with a vested interest to write a book and cash in on the rescue, all of them professionals going about their job, stated right after the event that they heard a woman’s voice calling for help from inside the car. They said the voice was “there but not there.” It was audible enough that one of the cops reports that another answered by calling into the vehicle, “We’re trying. We’re trying our best to get in there.”

“I was thinkin’ I was hearing things,” said Spanish Fork (Utah) Officer Tyler Beddoes to ABC News, “and when I talked to the other officers, we all heard the same thing. You know, a voice saying, ‘Help us,’ ‘help me.’”

The four of them managed to push the vehicle onto its side (all were later treated for hypothermia) and then discovered that the woman who seemed to be calling for help had been deceased for many hours—but her daughter was alive.

I’ve experienced some strange things in my own life that I generally don’t like to talk about because straying away from the tangible can earn a historian the label of kook. There was one during the writing of Fireball–very strange indeed. But sometimes the facts themselves tell the story, like the time I was working on Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone and intended to do a “ha-ha” sidebar about Errol Flynn’s Mulholland Farm supposedly being haunted. I had experienced an odd moment at Mulholland Farm that I attributed to an overactive imagination. Then, in the course of interviewing people who had lived in or visited the home, more than two dozen from different generations, different walks of life, and vastly divergent spiritual/religious perspectives were willing to go on the record documenting eyewitness encounters with something in the house over a 27-year period. Suddenly, my overactive imagination wasn’t so overactive after all. In the end, the facetious sidebar became a serious chapter in the book.

You can tell me you know for sure that when we die, we will go to heaven or hell. You can tell me you know for sure that when we die, there’s nothing at all. But in truth, nobody knows, and we’ll all get to find out the same way. In the meantime, there are things out there that we, the living, can’t explain. It’s possible that the rushing water of that river sounded like a woman crying for help. Or the metal roof of the overturned vehicle scraping against rock and producing a sound similar to a woman’s voice. Or is it possible there was an additional hero in this rescue? The first responders were tremendous as can be seen in unedited video shot at the scene. Was the most heroic of all Lynn Jennifer Groesbeck, a 25-year-old woman who reached out past all hope, past her own lifespan, to save the life of her child in peril?