Monday, April 11, 2011

The Wind and the Lion (1975)


          After making a name for himself by writing a number of imaginative films and then proving his directorial skills with the gangster flick Dillinger (1973), manly-man auteur John Milius swung for the fences with The Wind and the Lion, a grandiose adventure story in the David Lean tradition. Despite containing many powerful big-canvas visuals and exploring the collision between global tensions and personal agendas, the movie is undercut by, of all things, a sloppy script. Milius has always excelled at creating audacious scenes and memorable characters, but left unchecked, his stories get so ambitious that they lose focus. That’s certainly the case in The Wind and the Lion, which uses as its very loose inspiration a mostly forgotten historical incident.
          In 1904 Morocco, outlaw Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (Sean Connery) kidnaps American Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen) and her two children. Although ostensibly seeking ransom for his hostages, the sly Raisuli actually wants to trigger an international crisis in order to topple Morroco’s government, which is controlled by various European factions. Meanwhile, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) is campaigning for re-election, so he sends troops to rescue Eden, even though Roosevelt’s Secretary of State (John Huston) argues against getting involved. As if that wasn’t enough material, the picture also depicts the dangerous dithering of Morroco’s head of state (Marc Zuber); the pragmatic negotiations of an American diplomat (Geoffrey Lewis); and the valiant soldiering of a U.S. Marine captain (Steve Kanaly). To say that the story gets muddled is an understatement.
          Nearly every individual scene in The Wind and the Lion is of some interest, but taken together, they feel like disconnected episodes. The stuff with Roosevelt and his operatives is comical because Milius portrays Roosevelt as a blowhard more preoccupied with his hobbies than his job. The military material with Kanaly’s character is a rousing throwback to the stylized action films of the Douglas Fairbanks era. And the main story is a mess: Connery is absurdly miscast as a North African, and Bergen barely has any role to play. As such, their scenes ring false, especially when viewers are expected to believe they’ve bonded. So as either an international romance or an ambitious study of complex geopolitical issues, The Wind and the Lion is more windy than lionhearted.
          But as a beautifully filmed action movie, however, it’s quite effective. The scenes of Raisuli and his minions fighting on horseback are thrilling, particularly the mid-movie showstopper during which Raisuli single-handedly rescues Eden from a gang of thugs. The movie’s finale is even more spectacular, with two different battles taking place simultaneously as scimitars flail against Gatling guns. Moreover, even the dodgiest sections of this movie have considerable appeal: Bergen looks fantastic, Connery is regal, Kanaly is contagiously exuberant, and Keith is thoroughly amusing. One wishes these elements hung together more effectively, but there’s a lot to enjoy in The Wind and the Lion nonetheless.

The Wind and the Lion: FUNKY

1 comment:

Baby M said...

I would argue this is the greatest adventure film of all time. Brian Keith absolutely nails Theodore Roosevelt's larger than life personality; Sean Connery is so good at being a desert bandit that you don't care about the Scottish accent. The story has only a vague relationship to the real-life 1904 Morocco Crisis it purports to be retelling--the Pedicaris in "Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" was a man, for one thing--but the period details are a history nerd's delight (Krag-Jorgensen rifles, the gorgeous matte painting of the armored cruiser Brooklyn, and so forth), the action scenes are first-rate, and the film-long snark duel between Raisuli and Mrs. Pedicaris is delightful.