Monday, 27 April 2009

The modern Bank Holiday movie: ‘move along please, nothing to see here’

Oh the agony of choice! When faced these days with the dozens of viewing options on movie channels, online or on the walls of rental shops I start to experience a throbbing tension around the temples, a mild blurring of vision and a distinct inability to make up my mind what to watch.

The condition is always at its worst around Christmas, Easter and bank holidays. I think I know why. Back in the 1970s, in the days of three-TV-channels-and-that’s-yer-lot, I felt, somewhat ironically, spoiled. Boxing Days were a seamless watch of chocolate factories and mad, mad, mad, mad worlds and great escapes and airport 75s. Bank Holiday Mondays promised Sinbad and Argonauts and lands that time forgot. I’d sit there, soaking it all up, my face growing as hot and red with excitement as those of the cast of The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. This was my movie nursery; I suckled at the teet of Irwin Allen, played soldiers with Lee Marvin and learned to ride a bicycle with Newman and Redford.

All I had to do to gain this education was turn the television on. The relative lack of choice meant I was forced to watch only quality movies. I have genuine pity for today’s youngsters, able as they are to tap into hours and hours, days and days, of indistinguishable pre-digested movies with all the character and depth of baby food/shit, falling off the end of the Hollywood turd factory’s conveyor belt, onto a small screen and into their small heads.

However, let’s discuss that word quality. I wouldn’t want to suggest that all of the films that ticked my boxes as a lad were uniformly quality productions. They certainly weren’t. I’ve seen most of them again in adult life and on more than one occasion the total lack of quality, when the readings of grown-up critique are taken, is painfully evident. I’ve even gathered friends together for screenings of some of them, only to suffer from audible toe-curling when the non-toxic-crayoned memories of youth viewing are embarrassingly laid bare.

I think I’ve learned my lesson though. When the urge to blurt out ‘you really must see Monte Carlo Or Bust’ to a co-worker comes over me I tend to bite me lip nowadays (although I do reckon the whole 1960s Edwardian-Jallopy-Racing sub-genre deserves another look) and pull back from opening out what would probably be a very one-sided discussion about Bank Holiday movies on TV. With one exception.

I must have been about six the first time I saw 633 Squadron. Released in 1964, it depicts the exploits of a fictional RAF Mosquito squadron as it attempts to destroy a German V-2 rocket fuel plant secreted at the end of a Norwegian fjord. When you’re six you don’t question the fact that the very Mediterranean-looking George Chakiris is meant to be Norwegian. You don’t quarrel with the logic that led the Germans to conveniently build their fuel plant directly below an enormous precipice just big enough to crush it if the bombs were dropped on the right spot. And you certainly don’t mind that the effects team sourced plane models from their nearest Airfix retail outlet.

Somehow at that tender age you get caught up in the whole brio of the picture, and at the end you feel almost like you’re sat there next to Cliff Robertson and Angus Lennie in the cockpit, not stopping to question the lousy back projection behind you, not worrying about being cropped as a result of some lamentable 70s pan-and-scan. That’s your thumb on the release button as the kite heroically disgorges its payload onto the craggy Norwegian rock (played by a craggy Scottish rock filmed at Glen Coe).

Several years passed. The Ron Goodwin theme tune with its ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-daaar-daaar-daaar’ six/three time signature provided the soundtrack in my head for many a stiff-armed sortie in the back garden as I dive-bombed my tortoises with assorted pieces of Lego.*
Then I went to the pictures to see Star Wars and that was when it got interesting.

The main reason why I still extol the virtues of 633 Squadron to this day is because I came out of the cinema that warm afternoon in June 1977 telling everyone that George Lucas had, almost shot for shot, ripped off 633’s ending for his assault on the Death Star. See, I was a movie bore even at the age of 11. Nevertheless whenever Star Wars comes into the conversation I still question the originality of its denouement and point people to 633 Squadron for proof.

So if you’re stuck for something to watch over either of the upcoming Bank Holiday Mondays you could do worse than seek out this flawed masterpiece, with its acting and sets chiselled from the same piece of balsa wood and its plot and planes suspended from the same nylon threads.

Jez Conolly

* No tortoises were injured in the writing of this piece.

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