Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Why I Like The Movie Of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003)

I was reading last month that the movie, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003), ended Sean Connery's movie acting career.  The fact that he was 73 at the time and commanded a fee of US$17 million (equivalent to £10.9 million at current exchange rates) per movie, may be other feasible explanations.  A multi-millionaire tax exile, Connery is known to have strong views on who he works.  Certainly, director Stephen Norrington and Connery did no get along well in making this movie.  Norrington also retired from movies following the release of this one.  The movie took US$179 million (£115 million) across the world. Added to this has been a further US$48 million (£30 million) from video and DVD rentals and sales.  Yet, you read it was a 'flop'.  I think this is, partly, because it garnered poor reviews from the media, though I would have anticipated that even before it was released. 

I have been reading how actors found 'The Matrix' difficult to understand even though school children I know have no difficulty with the concept of people being downloaded into computer systems.  We know from the example of the 'Fatherland' (1994) movie how audiences dislike movies which mess around with history.  They are often not certain of what really happened, so feel uneasy when this is subverted.  'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is both a counter-factual and a steampunk movie.  Outside Japan, steampunk is not familiar to the general movie-watching public, so this movie was always going to face difficulties in being accepted.  In turn, however, it was also going to battle with finding support among a 'cult' audience, partly because they always expect very close adherence to the original novel/graphic novel in any movie adaptation.  Similar problems were encountered producing the 'Watchmen' movie (2009) based on Alan Moore/Patrick Wilson's graphic novel (1986/7) of the same name.  Like 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (1999-2009) graphic novels, 'Watchmen' was authored by Moore and had counter-factual elements.

Alan Moore always distances himself from any movies made of the graphic novels he has authored.  Moore responded as equally negatively to the 'V for Vendetta' (2006) movie.  Kevin O'Neill, the illustrator of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' graphic novels, argued that 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' movie failed because it was too far from the original source material.  Moore and O'Neill seem ignorant of the fact that no movie can be like a novel.  Directors are very constrained by the expectations of their audiences, as channelled through producers and movie-making companies, and, as noted above, the expectation especially in the USA is for movies which are eye-catching but do not seriously challenge the audience intellectually. 

Things which can be explored in a graphic novel, especially with illustrations as detailed as Moore/O'Neill's work, would be very bitty and messy in a movie.  Authors seem to believe that their ideas will work in any media, but this is unlikely to be the case and they have to yield to a whole different set of constraints: to expect anything else is very naive.  Novels of any kind can conjure up entire universes and refer easily in passing to many background elements that it can be very difficult to introduce into a movie without seriously disrupting it, or at best, slowing the pace of the movie to an extent which loses audience.  This has been recognised at least since '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) if not longer. It seems that many authors, even of graphic novels which have a 'cinematic' aspect to them, do not really comprehend, not only the 'language of film' but also what limits there are to its 'vocabulary' and 'grammar' when people are trying to make money out the movies they produce.

It does seem that Moore has great difficulty with the whole movie industry.  He was angered by the case brought by Larry Cohen and Martin Poll against 20th Century Fox who had made 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'.  Cohen and Poll argued that the movie had plagiarised their work called 'Cast of Characters' which they had offered to Fox in the mid-1990s.  The case was settled out of court.  Moore felt he personally was being challenged by Cohen and Poll and wanted a court case to exonerate himself of plagiarism.  He missed the entire point.  First, the case was not brought against him, even though his graphic novel came after their proposal.  Second, Hollywood finds difficulty in really engaging with good stories; see my posting:  Consequently as they have often done with other good styles/characters they scrabbled around for a plotline to hang that setting/characters on.  Hence, they used that of Cohen and Poll, which, featuring some of the same characters as Moore's work, would have seemed ideal.  Again, this is more about the state of how the US movie industry and its prime audience (Americans) sees the right way to make a (financially) successful movie.

Of course, Cohen, Poll, Moore and O'Neill, had all raided a lot of other people's work, who in fact, seem to get no attribution anywhere.  The graphic novel of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' features, amongst others, characters such as Allan Quatermain based on the Allan Quatermain of the novels of H. Rider Haggard (published 1885-1927), Wilhelmina 'Mina' Harker from Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897); Captain Nemo from 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' (1870) and 'The Mysterious Island' (1894) by Jules Verne; Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde from 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1886) by Robert Louis Stephenson and Dr. Hawley Griffin from 'The Invisible Man' by H.G. Wells (1897). 

The graphic novels of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' make a point of taking characters from numerous Victorian and 20th century novels and yet, Moore/O'Neill seem to feel that the characters have become theirs rather than being the property of the original authors. O'Neill laughably complained that he did not recognise the characters as portrayed in the movie script; I wonder if Verne, Stoker, Stephenson, Haggard, et al, would recognise their characters at all in Moore/O'Neill's work?  Even the title of the graphic novel was borrowed from 'The League of Gentlemen' (1960 movie; from 1958 novel of the same name by John Boland). This preciousness about the graphic novels helped damp cult following of the movie.

A particular criticism of the movie is that characterisation is shallow.  This is again a laughable complaint.  Movies are far shorter than people think and lack time to fill in characters, especially as in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' in which there are so many lead characters.  In the movie, in addition to the characters listed above, there is also Dorian Gray who is pictured in the graphic novel, but is not a character.  Gray comes from 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (1890) by Oscar Wilde. 

To appeal to the US audience and to have a character who is younger, Tom Sawyer is also featured; he appeared in four novels by Mark Twain published 1876-96.  Sawyer in the movie is shown as being 18, though if in 'Tom Sawyer, Detective' (1896) set in 1896 and showing Sawyer as 17, then by 1899 when 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is set he should be at least 20.  The League's opponent in the original graphic novel was Fu Manchu, but such stereotypical, dated portrayals of Chinese would have gone down poorly in the 21st century.  Consequently, in the movie, he is replaced by Professor James Moriarty from a number of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though he also referred to early on in the movie as 'M' a reference to James Bond's boss.  His use of the disguise of the 'Phantom', described by Quatermain as 'operatic', references the phantom of the opera in Gaston Leroux's 'Le Fantôme de l'Opéra' (1909-10).

The movie, then, has to sketch in eight major characters with Rodney Skinner replacing Dr. Hawley Griffin as an invisible man after Fox were unable to secure the rights to Wells's character.  Of course, there is a benefit that many of the audience would know these characters from other movies and the various novels.  Some will know them from the graphic novels (I have read all of these), though despite O'Neill's complaints against the movie, their characters are not particularly well developed in those stories either (graphic novels, like movies, lack the space novels have to develop characters, except over sustained editions). 

I think the movie presents a very exotic bunch of characters and in the limited space shows not only their personalities and some of their difficulties with their particular traits, but also the tensions between them. In an action movie with such a large ensemble I would not expect there to be time for much more; compare it to 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960) which similarly has seven heroes and one opponent to detail. Quatermain (who in the original novels died in 1885) is weary of his adventuring life and is patronising to Harker as a young woman. Jekyll fears being controlled by the beast of Hyde and this generates friction especially with Nemo, though the respect between the two grows. Nemo is shown as a worshipper of Kali and is described as a pirate, reflecting his anti-hero standing in the novels.  Despite being an Indian (a Hindu but dressing more like a Sikh), he is accepted by the white characters in a way that may have been unlikely in genuine 1899, though given that all the characters can be seen as 'outsiders' they may have muddled along.  Gray is a hedonistic snob who has had an intimate encounter with Harker, but whilst out for himself, seems also vulnerable given that Moriarty holds his painting.  Skinner is the one looked down upon and suspected, reflecting the real class divisions of the time; he is a burglar anyway, but he seems to be along for the adventure. 

The character with least substance in the movie is Sawyer who seems to be an insensitive American, rather arrogant towards European ways and foolishly being brash about Quatermain's personal losses and over-confident in believing he can seduce Harker; hardly a positive character.  He also wastes bullets in the way Americans are renowned for doing in numerous novels and movies.  This was always going to be a challenge for this movie in the USA: it is full of middle-aged European characters.

I like the movie because it quickly gives us a variety of characters that are different from the usual run of heroes and I think everyone has their favourite.  It is nice to see a movie without too many of the stereotypes of Hollywood action movies, though Connery comes close in his portrayal to many of his other roles.  The fist fight in his club in Kenya at the start of the movie reminds very much of his fist fight when his character goes to prison in 'Family Business' (1989) and his fight in a bar using just one of his thumbs in 'The Presidio' (1988).  Mr. Hyde appears very similarly running across Parisian rooftops as he does in 'Van Helsing' (2004) even down to the bloated upper body.  However, in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' he is captured (as in the graphic novel) rather than killed as he is by Van Helsing. 

In the movie there is ambivalence (in contrast to the graphic novel) as to whether the League is genuine or simply been created by Moriarty.  In the novel it is real and has been subverted by him so he can get his hands on cavorite (the material used in 'The First Men in the Moon' (1901) by H.G. Wells to propel Dr. Cavor's spaceship to the Moon) stolen by Fu Manchu. In the movie it is to get elements of the various members of the league to sell to the rapidly arming powers of Europe.  This fear, that individuals were seeking to profiteer from the clear steps towards war of the 1890s-1910s by fostering these developments, featured in novels of the time, such as 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915).

The world portrayed in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' both the movie and graphic novels, is not our world.  It is a steampunk world, i.e. with anachronistic and fantastical machinery present.  However, the portrayal of cities of the movie is even more distinct.  In the shots of London in July 1899 only horse-drawn vehicles are shown, but, in fact, the car, though rare, had appeared; by 1911 there were 240,000 cars in the UK.  Of course, none of them would have looked like the 1930s-style limousine (especially one with a hard roof rather than one of canvas or leather) used by Captain Nemo, but he would not have had to introduce intelligent people like the rest of the league to the word 'automobile' which had been in use in US newspapers since 1897.

The streets of East London where Dorian Gray lives and, especially, those of Venice shown later, are fantastical versions of these locations.  Venice from the air resembles the city in our world, but its size as a whole and the width of the roads running through it are both far larger than in our world.  You certainly could not raise a submarine in any of the canals and in reality the city has only one enclosed bridge crossing the canals, the famous Bridge of Sighs.  Leonardo Da Vinci produced maps of Imola and the Chiana Valley, but his plan of the foundations of Venice is a fictional McGuffin for the movie.  Thus, despite the huge hangar of Zeppelins in Berlin, we see a world where there are greater advances in technology (throughout history, given Da Vinci's work shown) but which have been kept by the privileged.

Like many steampunk stories, the technology that Moriarty and Nemo use, has simply been brought back in time by twenty-thirty years.  The tank used to attack the Bank of England is very characteristic of those used on the Western Front by the British from 1915 onwards, though it is manned by soldiers dressed in the uniforms adopted by the Germans in the middle of the First World War (when the spikes were no longer put on the helmets).  The uniforms of the men guarding the bank are typical of British soldiers on the Western Front during the war, notably the particular style of helmets.  Interestingly the Metropolitan police officers outside, wear the capes of Parisian police rather than the longer British style.  The radio signal that Nemo follows to track Moriarty to the Amur river on the border between Russia and China, had been public demonstrated in the mid-1890s and transatlantic signals were demonstrated in 1902, though with some possibly successful attempts preceding this, thus this technology is not too advanced.  The 'Nautilus' itself is probably larger even than a modern day submarine, but the missile it fires locking on to a radio signal, even just a couple of kilometres across Venice was not seen in our world until anti-ship missiles introduced by the Germans in 1943. 

We see flamethrowers used by Moriarty's men.  Flamethrowers date back to the 7th century CE but in their modern form were first demonstrated to the German army in 1901, so not out of step with the movie.  We also see assault rifles used by Moriarty's men in the movie.  The Italian Army had been experimenting with them as early as 1890; the Russian Army issued assault rifles in 1915 and through the First World War the French Army developed what can be seen as assault rifles in large numbers.  So, again, this is not an unfeasible development.  Nemo's crew have even more advanced weapons, using silver engraved versions of the British sten gun submachine gun produced from 1941 onwards in our world, though, of course, never as elegantly as the weapons Nemo's men have.  His own pistol is something unique that I cannot identify having an actual parallel.  The Winchester rifle used by Tom Sawyer is presumably an 1894 version as from 1895 onwards they were produced with magazines rather than rounds being held in a tube under the barrel; these were sold in a variety of calibres and 7 million of these rifles had been sold by 2006.  Quatermain's 'Matilda' is a so-called double rifle.  These guns are custom made and hand-fitted.  It may be a Holland & Holland, 'express' rifle firing often hollow or explosive tipped rounds; typically of .450 calibre aimed at stopping big game animals.  Such guns, with the two triggers as shown in the movie, had been around right through the Victorian period.

Though no submarine was the size of the 'Nautilus', they had been used during the American Civil War of 1862-5 and the first British submarine was launched in 1901, so the concept would not have been alien.  One interesting thing about the 'Nautilus' is that it uses solar power to charge its batteries for undersea travel.  In both world wars submarines tended to travel on the surface of the water as much as they could as they were reliant on batteries charged off diesel engines when underwater.  This is something which critics of the movie 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) miss.  (It is interesting that if you search on Google 'submarine controversy' comes up as one of the commonly selected options).  Yes, the submarine in that movie does not look precisely right, but certainly Indiana Jones could have remained on board as it went across the Mediterranean.  Remember that movie is set in 1936 and the world war has not started, so there would be no need for the submarine to submerge. 

Submarines in the First World War typically had a naval gun on deck and often this would be their prime weapon rather than torpedoes.  It is only people who have grown up in the age of nuclear-powered submarines who expect them to be submerged for more than a minority of the time.  To some extent, Nemo in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlement' falls into this trap of aiming to submerge when he has no need.  Of course, he might be about to enter the fictional undersea tunnel beneath the Suez Canal which allowed him, in the novels, to by-pass Africa when heading towards Asia.

The climax of the movie occurs close to the Amur river at a base that resembles some Russian palace but is filled with an extensive industrial plant.  This is very much in the ilk of the evil mastermind's lair in many movies and novels, which, of course blows up at the end.  Fortunately the 'Nautilus' is vast enough to take away all the scientists and families and other workers from the base, once Moriarty has been killed.

'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is an action movie, but one that I feel rises above many of its kind.  Its range of characters and its steampunk setting make it stand out.  It could never have been a close portrayal of the graphic novel, and yet it avoids being an entirely Hollywood version either.  Possibly this is due to its primarily non-American cast and portrayal of events, settings and behaviour that do not form part of current US consciousness.   In the time it has, I believe, it lays out a far more interesting range of characters and, in many ways, those who come out best from it are those who would not do so in a mainstream Hollywood movie.  Mina Harker is shown as a scientist, eschewing male attention and patronising attitudes.  She is a vampire and fights as effectively, if not more so, than her male counterparts.  Captain Nemo is probably the first Hindu hero I can think of in mainstream movie from the USA, bar perhaps those in 'A Passage to India' (1984) and the biopic 'Gandhi' (1982) and the recent, 'The Last Airbender' (2010), featuring many Asian actors though set on a fantasy planet.  He is gracious, innovative and a good fighter, also a conciliator.  As a consequence of these traits, it is a movie that I return to on DVD and enjoy.  I accept that given my taste for steampunk it would attract me more than the average movie watcher, but I certainly do not feel it should be remembered simply as the movie which seemingly ended Sean Connery and Stephen Norrington's movie careers.  Even if it is, they should feel no shame about being involved with it.

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