Are We Not Men?

Rivaled only by Tod Browning’s “Freaks” as the most perverse and extreme of the early 30s cycle of horror films, Erle C. Kenton’s 1932 “Island of Lost Souls” has been mysteriously absent from home video — at least, in a licensed version — since a Laserdisc release sometime in the last century. The new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection (also available as a standard DVD) suggests why — there are no decent elements on this title, the negative having disappeared generations ago, leaving Universal (the current rights-holder) with only an incomplete fine grain. Criterion’s technical wizards have filled out that source with another 35-millimeter print and filled in missing frames from 16-millimeter collectors’ copies, and gone over the whole with a digital vacuum cleaner to remove dust spots and scratches, and if the results still aren’t optimal, the film looks dramatically better than it has in generations.

Banned outright in Britain for its implications of rape, sadism and bestiality (it was finally allowed to be shown in the late 1950s with an adults-only certification), “Island of Lost Souls” anticipates the body horror developed in the 1970s by George Romero, David Cronenberg and Italian maestri like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato — movies in which human beings are disturbingly portrayed as meat puppets, with all kinds of unpleasant things going on inside. But the film also functions as a brutal parody of the South Seas romances that had been beguiling audiences since the mid 1920s (Paramount released “Lost Souls” just a few months after Murnau’s “Tabu”), suggesting that the return to nature might have its dark side as well. My New York Times review is here.

184 comments to Are We Not Men?

  • Brad Stevens

    “Re: HIGH NOON. When someone (Brad) says: “absolute nonsense” and someone else (Alex) says “Straighforward and totally uncontrovertial” I have to wonder what’s going on.”

    When in doubt, always trust the person who spells correctly. :-)

  • Tony Williams

    Brad, I take your point about the “intentional fallacy” and the problem that emerges when one person makes a comment. But when director, screenwriter, and star all agree from the very beginning of their collaboration that the film is about something, then we must realize that a very strong argument is being made, respect the argument, and evaluate the film in a very critical and scrupulous manner.. During the era of the Viet Nam War, treatment of the conflict appeared allegorically in many genres (western, biker movie, science fiction, porno movie etc) as the soon-to-be-reprinted 1994 MacFarland Encyclopedia VIETNAM WAR FILMS, edited by Jean-Jacques Malo, that covers over 600 films from many different countries. What irritated me was Blake’s constant inability to do the relevant research before he makes such a statement. As well as the film, a body of critical material exists that is easily available and ought to be consulted if only to avoid sweeping statements along the lines of “the Western is only about genocide” something I had to deal with uttered by a graduate student several years ago who had neither seen the films nor read the necessary literature.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    X, what’s called McCarthyism actually started before the war and McCarthy, in 1938, when Senator J. Parnell Thomas announced that the Federal Theater Project and the W.P.A (Works Progress Administration) were hotbeds of communism — which resulted in lengthy hearings chaired by Martin Dies. All this ugly nonsense was put on the back burner because of the war, but for obvious reasons, it all came back on just after the war.

  • “what’s called McCarthyism actually started before the war and McCarthy, in 1938,”

    I knew about that Jean-Pierre, but in that phase the Dies Committee as it was called at the time didn’t have the clout it was granted when the Cold War got underway. Of course, it had a precedent in the Fish and McCormick Committees. The McCarthy phase was much more rabid and was reminiscent of the post WWI red scare.

    By the way, this is all bound to come up here again when Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover movie is released.

  • Barry Putterman

    “Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!!” – Porter Hall as the studio head in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

  • Blake Lucas

    For the record, I don’t deny a Vietnamese subtext as one subtext in ULZANA’S RAID, but only meant to distinguish the film from LITTLE BIG MAN in that here one can take the story on its own terms and its Indians as Indians, where as in LITTLE BIG MAN, all characters, and not only the Indians, are such caricatures that one cannot–and therefore it becomes possible to see the Indians simply as portraying a “text” and not a “subtext” and not to respond to them as Indians but simply to be aware of contemporary realities the same way as one might be in watching, say, ALICE’S RESTAURANT. I may not have expressed this perfectly–sorry if I didn’t. I was trying to cover a lot of ground this morning with that post and there is plenty more to say.

    I may be wrong but I kind of have a feeling Tony was looking for a way to attack me. If that is so, Tony, I’m sorry you still feel that way about it. I do not want to fight with you. I only want to say this once, so will not say it again.

    Don’t forget that I am one who read your own Robert Aldrich book cover to cover including your own account of ULZANA’S RAID. I found considerable merit in your book, and know from reading it that politics and ideology are priorities for you in your readings of films by Aldrich and others, and do respect your position in that regard.

    Subtextual reading in relation to events current to the film is always important, but it’s not the only thing that is and my main point was that in any period in any era, I want to respond to Indians as Indians and will value films in which they are treated with some grace and maturity. I’ll add that I interviewed Walter Hill and Larry Gross following a screening of GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND, the only other post-classical historically set Indian Western besides ULZANA’S RAID that I really love. They both said that ULZANA’S RAID was their model for their script and film, for its balance and intelligence. This was years (1993), after Viet Nam, a subject they never mentioned. They were very interested in the historical realities around the Geronimo story.

    I’m happier that my post seemed to stimulate some further thoughtful comments from many here on what I consider an important subject that deserves it.

  • Gregg Rickman

    The following was composed before Blake just posted: Most of us here respect Robin Wood – early, late, or both. In one of his late essays he summons up the spirit of F. R. Leavis to advocate for a criticism that is “Both/and” rather than “either/or.” As some have already suggested, certain films can be BOTH about Native Americans AND about African-Americans, or Vietnamese. I haven’t seen ULZANA’S RAID in too many years to comment on it specifically, but even if designed to suggest certain aspects of Vietnam, it wouldn’t work on that level without also working as a film about, well, Ulzana.

    I see that Blake anticipated me.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Surely, somewhere a film historian has done a statistical analysis of early Westerns, tabulating their attitudes towards Native Americans.”

    Given that none of us can quite agree whether NORTHWEST PASSAGE is pro or anti Indian, such a statistical analysis would be impossible to compile. My impression is that there is a small body of films which are overtly pro-Indian, an equally small body of films which are overtly anti-Indian, and that the great mass of works in the genre occupy various points between these two extremes.

  • Brad Stevens

    I think it’s worth noting that most of the films we have been labelling ‘pro-Indian’ are so only to the extent that they present the Indians as equal to the white characters. This really isn’t too impressive when you consider that the background to these films is an act of genocide. What would we think of a film about the Holocaust which presented the Jews as being equal to the Nazis?! In this sense, the only genuinely pro-Indian films have been made outside both America and the traditional narrative format: Jean-Luc Godard’s VENT D’EST and Marco Ferreri’s TOUCHEZ PAS A LA FEMME BLANCHE.

  • This is a fascinating thread. In her book on native Americans in Hollywood movies Making the White Man’s Indian Angela Aleiss discovers a regularity in the appearance of key Indian Westerns: Broken Arrow (1950), Little Big Man (1970), and Dances With Wolves (1990). One might have expected the next key Indian Western to be have been released in 2010! She detects a duality regarding Native Americans: the wild barbarian, and the noble savage. Also in the movies there have been cycles of noble Indians and savage monsters, but in her opinion the main trend has been towards balanced and positive images. Positive Indian figures have been typical to A Westerns, negative figures to B westerns (stock characters in run-of-the-mill films) (but even in John Ford’s Stagecoach… !). The positive images started in 1894, when Edison filmed The Sioux Ghost Dance. At the time, James Fenimore Cooper’s noble Indian characters were well-known (and later prominently filmed), Hiawatha and Pocahontas were a part of popular imagination, and Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel character Ramona, as well, later to inspire an international popular hit song. In early cinema Indians were portrayed with sympathy, as victims of the greed and cruelty of the whites. Buffalo Bill produced films such as The Indian Wars, and in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill Joel McCrea gets to say that “they are all friends of mine”. Cecil B. De Mille’s first film was the pro-Indian The Squaw Man, a foundation stone of Hollywood. D.W. Griffith directed 30 Indian films, 22 of which were positive to the Indians, and in the others, too, Indians were usually provoked by the crimes of the Whites. Thomas H. Ince hired an Oglala Sioux tribe and produced 80 Indian Westerns. Zane Grey, whose body of work was avidly filmed, was pro-Indian. As a Finnish kid playing cowboys and Indians I never saw the Indian as the bad guy, maybe inspired by James Fenimore Cooper and Zane Grey more than movies and tv. It would be interesting to learn more about the prohibition of the image in native American culture. Taking one’s picture takes one’s soul. Might it be that Indians actually preferred fake performers to take their place in movies? Will Rogers and Anthony Quinn did not count as full Indians.

  • Alex

    jean-pierre coursodon,

    I think Brad Stevens was being facetious about Cooper as McCarthy, using the association as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that Foreman wrote a McCarthy allegory. (Neither Zinnemann nor Foreman would have conceivably have contributed to a McCarthy-like hero.)

    Perhaps we were speaking past each other, Brad S. rejecting the idea of HN as an allegory about McCarthy, me affirming the idea of HN as a looser allegory of political integrity embedded in the HUAC/McCarthy era.

  • Alex

    Brad Stevens,

    I think “When in doubt, always trust the person who spells correctly” perfectly illustrates what philosophers sometimes refer to as “Hokum’s razor.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Actually Brad, I would think quite highly of a film that considered the Jews as the equals to the Nazis. It would seem to me to be the best way to point out the Nazis mistake in thinking and acting otherwise. Indeed, films that you cite (without specifically targeting the Godard and the Ferrari, which I would have to revisit in this context) seem more concerned with proving the superior sensibility of Europe vis a vis the U.S. rather than any genuine concern with Native Americans.

    On the other hand, I’m in total agreement with you regarding an objective analysis of a subjective topic via statistics.

  • Junko Yasutani

    Not mentioned yet is Western is unique genre to America.

    Horror movie genre is receiving contribution for many country, especially from Germany during formative period. Recent Japanese horror movie is now making contribution to horror movie genre.

    I know there is foreign Western from GDR and Italy, and earlier German Western. (I cannot think of FDR Western, but probably there was Western from FDR. But Western was invented in America.)

    To Japanese viewer like me, landscape is making American Western unique. Reading many posts here, landscape and Native American is strongly connected. Absence or presence of Native American is part of transformation of landscape by settler. Western is showing vast and different landscape of America. When I see Western I am impressed by American landscape that I cannot describe in English so well. More than presence or absence of Native American landscape is structuring Western to me.

  • Joe Dante

    For those seriously interested in McCarthyism, HUAC and their effect on Hollywood filmmaking, may I recommend two enlightening current books that really put the subject in perspective:

    Jim Hoberman’s ARMY OF PHANTOMS
    http://www.amazon.com/Army-Phantoms-American-Movies-Making/dp/1595580050/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320596795&sr=1-3&tag=wp-amazon-associate-20

    Steven Ross’s HOLLYWOOD LEFT AND RIGHT

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_24?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=hollywood+left+and+right+how+movie+stars+shaped+american+politics&sprefix=Hollywood+Left+and+Right&tag=wp-amazon-associate-20

  • Ian Johnston

    Junko, Westerns were made in both West and East Germany (your FDR [Federal Republic of Germany] and and GDR [German Democratic Republic] respectively, I think), both drawing on the tradition of pre-War Karl May adaptations. I believe more were made in West Germany; perhaps someone here has seen the three Robert Siodmak directed in the sixties?

  • Tony Williams

    Blake, I’m not responsible for whatever paranoid feelings you mention in the text above (which I’ve been unable to paste) but I wish to state for the record that your McGill articles on Nicholas Ray are still being used in my classes. My irritation stems from the fact that you do not do the relevant research before you issue sweeping statements.

    On the Vietnam issue, SOLDIER BLUE is also a western in that allegorical frame and perhaps should enter into this fascinating discussion.

    Yes, films can operate as basic manifest level texts dealing with familiar generic issues such as “Indians”. But there are also other sub-textual levels that place the film within a particular historical period involving additional cultural resonances adding to the basic level in a much richer dimension.

    Also, for the record, Andrew Britton hated LITTLE BIG MAN for what he regarded as a demeaning treatment of the Native Americans. But more work needs to be done on these allegorical Westerns, of which Malo’s VIETNAM WAR FILMS is a start. It is a shame that most of these once available films on VHS have gone into DVD limbo.

    I have not seen the DEFA Western ULZANA but have three subtitled Gojo Mitic (sic?) westerns at home. These films are definitely anti-Manifest Destiny which is not surprising concerning the country that produced them but need to be more widely known and sub -titled for wider distribution. Unfortunately, it all comes down to money as one German company distributing East German Westerns has tolf me.This is also true of the Dean Reed/GM Western BLUTSBRUDER, an extract of which was shown on the 1985 60 MINUTES interview with Reed and anticipates DANCES WITH WOLVES as well as providing a much more radical interpretation than Costner was able to do.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Right on schedule, Seminole is on Encore Western tomorrow at 1:20 PM ET/PT

  • Junko –

    Tomu Uchida’s 1958 Mori to Mizuumi no Matsuri (The Outsiders) seems to be very much modeled on contemporary American westerns (Anthony Mann?) — albeit with Ainu in place of North American Indians. In this, the landscape (and its transformation) is similarly important. This is probably a fairly unique example from Japan, however.

  • Peter Henne

    I agree that knowing about the subjugation of Indians makes one a more informed viewer and opens up a deeper encounter with Westerns. This is why I backtracked from saying that submitting Westerns to tests of historical realism isn’t relevant. That was too high-handed, which I said in my 11-4, 8:38pm post. Part of the moral bite of Westerns, especially the ones with Indians, comes from the facts of this sorrowful history. It seems to me that a director or studio which does not reckon with this legacy is at best making a narrower film, or else failing to meet a necessary condition for the task at hand.

    Except for a handful of famous films, I don’t know much about Westerns prior to the late ’30s. But since it’s been pointed out here that not every director has played fairly with the broad facts about Indians suffering at the hands of whites, it follows that this part of history is not (or at least, hasn’t always been) ingrained in genre conventions.

    I agree with much in Blake’s posts, especially his distaste for coarse symbolism used to score a moral point. But I’m left with a lingering question over categorizing. I wonder, Blake, if you are saying there are actually two genres, Indian Westerns and non-Indian Westerns? The way you word your 11-5, 1:20pm post suggests this to me. That would seem like an odd result to me since the two kinds otherwise have so much in common, comprising a list too long and obvious to name. Also, if these are two distinct genres, then why would one make a structuring absence for the other? I’m still convinced that “cowboys and Indians” make the salient Western and open-vista, non-Indian etc. Westerns are a sub-genre within it.

    Brad, Along with Barry, I don’t quite follow why equal portrayal isn’t sufficient for you? Barry spoke exactly the reply I had lined up, that rigorous equality would devastatingly give the lie to Nazism. I wonder if you could talk further about why you think that isn’t enough?

  • Brad Stevens

    “Brad, Along with Barry, I don’t quite follow why equal portrayal isn’t sufficient for you? Barry spoke exactly the reply I had lined up, that rigorous equality would devastatingly give the lie to Nazism. I wonder if you could talk further about why you think that isn’t enough?”

    I don’t really accept that rigorous equality would give the lie to Nazism. Concentration camp guards who butchered Jews weren’t on the same moral level as the people they killed, and I find the idea that they were rather bizarre. Of course, history is written by the winners: if Germany had won WWII, we would undoubtedly have had a genre of films in which the handful of remaining Jews decide to bury the hatchet, forget about all that genocide stuff, and make peace with the nobel Nazi soldiers who had murdered their families (while upholding an honorable military tradition).

  • Peter Henne

    Thanks for your reply, Brad. I think that the concentration camp guards and imprisoned Jews were on the same moral level, meaning that all of them had the same moral rights and obligations. The Jews were butchered by their fellow human beings.

    I don’t know if history is always written by the winners, and there are plenty of divergent and competing accounts of historical periods, episodes etc. written by credible academics nowadays. This is something I know about because I come across a lot of academic history books in my work. Also, I don’t think a clear winner emerges in each and every conflict, either.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brad, possibly I didn’t give the response that Peter concurs with or possibly his using different words only makes it seem so. There was no implication that the actions of the Jews and the Nazis should viewed equally. but rather than they shared an equal humanity, which to my mind asks the deepest questions about why it was that the Nazis went so far wrong.

  • Larry Kart

    About the crucial cannibalism episode in “Northwest Passage,” surely the point there (and the theme of much of the film — see the passage I quoted from Donald Phelps about the near breakdown of Tracy’s Major Rogers — is that savage murderous contact on the part of the Rangers with (so to speak) the “savages” potentially drives Rogers’ men mad. No — one doesn’t get to hear about this from the perspective of the Iroquois, but could the movie be more uncompromising about what violent contact with “the other” potentially does to the ostensibly civilized settlers? That the Rangers’ mission is militarily necessary from the settlers’ point of view no longer seems to matter much if at all at all to the gaunt, dazed band of surviving Rangers at the film’s end, IIRC. It’s not just that they’ve been through a lot physically; I beleive that we’re meant to think that they have emotionally/metaphorically ingested “the other” (with who knows what consequences) just as their executed comrade ingested “the other” literally.

  • Blake Lucas

    Peter, re yours of 3:33, I don’t think there are two genres of Western and was simplifying somewhat with the “Indian Westerns and all other Westerns” to make a point–the first group explicitly deal as main subject with Indian/white conflict and the dispossession of Indians, from any perspective but in the 50s explicitly or implicitly sympathetic to Indians virtually always (and I’d say always in any Western of any merit), while the second group may or may not have Indians present, and may have them as a crucial element within the whole, but it isn’t the main element and the most compelling concerns of those films are elsewhere. I tried to fill out the picture here by trying to cite examples of all these different types of films across the spectrum of the two types. Sometimes, it can be very complex–for example THE SEARCHERS and THE LAST HUNT in 1956 are both Indian Westerns, could readily be identified within that first type, but they are also of the second group because of the revenge theme in the first and redemption theme in both, the spiritual themes that the genre is always thrusting toward so strongly animating both of those films. The “structuring absence” idea is a good one for a film where Indians are completely absent, as with the example given of THE TALL T, and wanted to acknowledge that.

    There’s so much more to this whole subject. It can’t be reduced to a few lines, nor to anyone’s post. I don’t for a moment pretend I did more than scratch the surface and in those instances one always simplifies somewhat to make the main point, so I just tried to cover it as well as I could within that.

    I appreciated some things said about my first post and what Gregg Rickman said later on too. I personally responded very much to Jean-Pierre’s “Why must something always stand for something else” or whatever that line he said was. To anyone who said something complimentary about my post, thank you.

  • Peter Henne

    Barry, I did not mean to appropriate your words to mine and sorry if I came off that way.

    Blake, That makes sense! And even if it is true that the posts here only scratch the surface, yours and others that are knowledgeable let us know something about how wide that surface is. If I may add, reading three titles in the same breath, BAND OF ANGELS, IMITATION OF LIFE and SERGAENT RUTLEDGE, in your citation of late ’50s/early ’60s films dealing with race relations, reminded me of the great artistry required to explore social themes with sensitivity and depth. Thanks for putting those in the same sentence.

  • Barry Putterman

    Peter, there is nothing to be sorry about. It was just that Brad was responding to what I was suggesting in a different way than I had meant it, and I couldn’t tell whether that was because of the way that I put it or the way you put it or what.

    I suppose that this is at least in part is because, as Blake eludes, we are all trying to compress too much into a very small space.

  • Brad Stevens

    “About the crucial cannibalism episode in “Northwest Passage,” surely the point there (and the theme of much of the film — see the passage I quoted from Donald Phelps about the near breakdown of Tracy’s Major Rogers — is that savage murderous contact on the part of the Rangers with (so to speak) the “savages” potentially drives Rogers’ men mad.”

    Except that we don’t actually see these savages doing anything…well, savage.

  • Brad Stevens

    “I don’t know if history is always written by the winners, and there are plenty of divergent and competing accounts of historical periods, episodes etc. written by credible academics nowadays. This is something I know about because I come across a lot of academic history books in my work. Also, I don’t think a clear winner emerges in each and every conflict, either.”

    Yes, but then again, there’s a reason we don’t have a genre of nostalgically sentimental films with titles such as YOUNG MR HITLER, SHE WORE AN IRON CROSS and HOW THE REICH WAS WON.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘there’s a reason we don’t have a genre of nostalgically sentimental films with titles such as YOUNG MR HITLER, SHE WORE AN IRON CROSS and HOW THE REICH WAS WON.’

    That is true Brad, but in Japan there is right wing that has tried to make movie like that. UNMEI NO TOKI about Tojo Hideki is bad movie, part of propaganda effort to excuse Japanese fascist leaders from responsibility for war. I hate these kind of movie.

    About question of subtext, I agree with Blake that it is not necessary to know subtext to appreciate movie. I do not know if Western viewer of ROSHOMON knows that it is also about post war Japanese situation, but Western viewer can appreciate without knowing.

  • Robert Regan

    I am surprised that there has been no mention here of Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon, a fine film that I only discovered recently, and which has caused me to reassess Mulligan. It is a rich, highly visual, and extremely well-acted “Indian Western” that has strong thematic connections to The Searchers, Ulzana’s Raid, and Comanche Station. Kent Jones’ Film Comment article on the film is excellent.

  • Barry Putterman

    I should think that no matter where or when a film is set, it would have a basic connection to the time and place in which it was made. Most of us here probably aren’t aware of the specific connections that ROSHOMON has to post war Japan. And if the film didn’t engage us on the immediate level of its surface dynamics, we wouldn’t care enough to find out. Which we do regarding ROSHOMON and most of the westerns which have been mentioned.

  • Larry Kart

    Me:

    “About the crucial cannibalism episode in “Northwest Passage,” surely the point there (and the theme of much of the film — see the passage I quoted from Donald Phelps about the near breakdown of Tracy’s Major Rogers — is that savage murderous contact on the part of the Rangers with (so to speak) the “savages” potentially drives Rogers’ men mad.”

    Brad Stevens:

    “Except that we don’t actually see these savages doing anything…well, savage.”

    Well, first, they’re the opposing side in a mutual un-declared war; and second, albeit offscreen, they have (for one) killed or will go on to kill (don’t recall where in the chronology of the movie that episode stands) all the occupants of the outpost/fort that Rogers and his Rangers are headed for. I’m not saying that the Iroquois are savage per se, which is why I put the word “savages” in quotes, or that their killing everyone in that outpost is a uniquely dark deed that justifies (in some cosmic sense) ghastly retribution. Rather, I’m saying that the movie is in part about the effects that the particular combat to the death with “the other” that it depicts has on the souls and psyches of the settlers serving in the Rangers and, by extension, on the settlers as a whole.

    If you want “Northwest Passage” to be brought before the International Court of Justice at the Hague, feel free. But the movie (despite the views of Kenneth Roberts) seems to me to be far from a thoughtless celebration of the settlers’ manifest destiny.

  • Oliver_C

    Belatedly, but — Northwest Passage has been announced as a Warner Archive DVD.