Friday, January 17, 2020

The Hamlet Project: Richard Burton (1964)



Richard Burton’s Hamlet stands out amongst the “Hamlet” films as it is a filmed play – it was created during Burton’s 1964 run on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud. As such, it’s unique since it allows the audience to see the work as Shakespeare intended, on a stage, and with a great actor in command.

The film ran for a week in theaters and made an astonishing $6 million in that limited time. It survives because Burton kept a copy for himself when others were destroyed. It is not a conventional film, though it has different camera angles, close-ups, full stage views, but preserves the immediacy and intimacy of the stage. As the film opens, one can hear the crowd chatting before the curtain rises at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Some of them may be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. or President Johnson. The Beatles are in the midst of their first U.S. tour. And Burton is at the height of his fame, age 39, still basking in the aftermath of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor during the making of “Cleopatra.”Gielgud said Burton struggled not so much with the role as the suffocating nature of his fame as part of "Liz and Dick."

The play ran for 137 performances, and could have gone much longer except that Burton tired of it. The staging was reportedly the result of a bargain between Burton and Peter O’Toole, conceived during the filming of “Becket.” Burton appeared as the prince under the direction of Gielgud, but the play was staged in modern dress because of Burton's distaste for tights. The idea was to depict a “rehearsal” of the play, though the actors reportedly went through several variations before arriving at their “costumes.” Burton plays Hamlet in casual black. Gielgud “appears” as the ghost of King Hamlet, though only in a shadow projected against the wall, with a recording of his voice. There is very little staging, few props, a theater largely of the mind. 

It was the last time Burton tackled the role. He had previously played it to great acclaim in the UK, even for Winston Churchill at the Old Vic. Burton later said he could hear the old man's rumble from the seats, reciting the words with him syllable for syllable. "And I could not shake him off … in ‘To be or not to be’ he was with me to the death.” That was the same run where Gielgud supposedly came to Burton's dressing room to take him to dinner, but there were so many visitors that he begged off. "Shall I go ahead," Gielgud asked, "or wait until you're better - I mean, ready?" It was a story Burton loved to recount, a measure of respect for the actor. Unfortuntely, his turn as the ghost is our only filmed performance of Gielgud in the play. 

The film can only preserve so much. Cast member Alfred Drake, who played Claudius, said that Burton had a theory that Hamlet “could be played a hundred ways, and he tested every one of them. Within one scene, you might get Heathcliff, Sir Toby Belch, and Peck’s Bad Boy.” Knowing this, we must be aware that we are only getting this particular performance recorded. Yet Burton, showing what he could do on a stage, is playing to wake up the people in the cheap seats.

Acting on the stage is obviously different than film. To begin with, there's the presentation of the whole body. The stage actor has to be conscious of the face that the audience can take in the sight of their entire body - because of this, their body language becomes part of the performance in a way that does not always happen in film. The film of Burton's "Hamlet" makes this clear in several ways.

At the appearance of the ghost, he hunches over in fear. As the ghost describes his murder, Burton’s Hamlet clutches his ear as if to take out his father’s poison. He crosses himself repeating the ghost’s parting words, “Adieu, adieu.” At the moment he realizes what he must do – “Oh, cursed spite!” – his voice breaks in recognition of his inadequacy. Still, his presence in the play has some of the same problems as Olivier's – he is too old to convincingly play a student, his face too world-weary and weathered. When his knowing anger appears at the coming of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it’s hard to imagine him pausing in carrying out his father’s revenge.

Burton’s greatest gift as an actor was his incomparable voice, and he uses it to great effect throughout the play. "My whole concentration was on trying to remember the prose which is much more difficult than remembering the verse," he said. "I could recall the monologues with no trouble." 

But his performance threatens at times to overwhelm the rest of the cast. When Robert Milli’s Horatio says the ghost “harrows me with fear and wonder,” he hardly seems convincing. While Burton luxuriates in the rhythms of the language, some of the cast seem uneasy with the verses. Their movements, in the early going, seem stiff and reserved. Of course, the point of the play is not “realism,” but performance. It’s heightened reality, manic reality, “a fiction, in a dream of passion.” Gielgud later said his only help for Burton was to "show him how the more relaxed scenes were played so he wouldn't have to tear himself to shreds in scenes..."


The difference in cast members becomes more evident with the entrance of Polonius, played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Hume Cronyn. He ambles about the stage in business suit, leaning on his cane, flicking down his reading glasses, and spouting nostrums with self-satisfaction. His scenes questioning the would-be madman Hamlet (How say you by that?) ring all the comedy out of the lines. Cronyn isn’t treating Shakespeare as a holy text – he’s an actor embodying a role, not singing a song.

But there are times when Burton is. As Hamlet degenerates into his feigned madness, he struts and frets about the stage, slurs his words, holds his pauses, dances about in his own pleasure, and blows through the soliloquies occasionally at a speed that does not speak of reflection. This was particularly true of his “To be or not to be,” which seemed to come and go with hardly a ripple. Some of this is normal for a play, as an actor has to pace himself and hit the right moments, conserving energy. Perhaps this night, there were different areas where he wanted to hit the high notes.

I was particularly annoyed early in the play with Claudius, played by Alfred Drake. His presence seemed barely there to me, and his performance hardly rose at all to meet Burton through the first part of the play. But this was clearly his strategy, because he came to absolute life in his confession scene, and the character emerged in all three dimensions in a few seconds. Suddenly he wasn’t reciting Shakespeare with a cliched gravity but was a genuinely guilty, grieving man, confronted with the result of his crime. One can quibble with this direction though. Anyone with a knowledge of “Hamlet” knows what Claudius is up to from his first appearance. He’s of course, hiding in plain sight. Playing him as a man hiding his crime within the ceremony of office is one way to put a fresh face on the part. But I still felt Drake played it a little too nondescript in the beginning. His performance going forward until the end, though, redeemed some of the colorlessness of the early acts.

 And Burton kept finding ways to bring out the humanity in Hamlet as the play continued. His tearful scene with Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) showed the prince’s love for his mother with only a hint of the Freudian patina that mars so many mid-20th century productions. He puckishly kisses Claudius on the cheek as he leaves for England. And for me, his best scene was “How all occasions,” as his performance brought out all the shading and implications of the speech as a companion piece with “To be or not to be.” His Hamlet is now resolved, and ready to meet his fate. 

This reminds me of what Peter Ackroyd wrote of "Hamlet," that it is not necessarily a play where Hamlet declares who he is, but rather, who he is becoming. Burton's later speeches occasionally show flashes that Hamlet has emotionally moved from where he was at the play's beginning.

There was one interesting bit of staging in the final scene. Claudius retreats to the throne as Hamlet rushes at him with the poisoned cup. Claudius gasps and dies with his body sprawled on the throne. Hamlet, in his last lines, casts Claudius’ remains to the floor, points at his enemy, laughs in victory, and dies on his feet, slumping into Horatio’s arms. Horatio then places Hamlet's body on the throne, at last, just as Fortinbras enters to seize the kingdom, the unhappy rule of the turbulent prince ending before it could even begin.

And because of the film, we see an exhausted Burton, spent from his three-hour performance, noticeably heaving for breath on the throne when he’s supposed to be dead. The camera proves a more pitiless observer than the bored patron dragged to the theater by his wife for an evening on the town. 


Previously: Toshiro Mifune

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


Friday, December 28, 2018

The grinning ghosts of "They Shall Not Grow Old"


What stays with me after watching "They Shall Not Grow Old" - Peter Jackson's World War I documentary - are the smiles on the faces of the soldiers as they look into cameras.

Plenty has been written about Jackson's film, which takes the old Imperial War Museum silent footage of the Western Front trenches, with all their cracks, jumps and jerky movements, and transforms them into clear, smooth, color images in 3-D that appear living and vital. The film, in limited release, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.


I think we often forget that the men who fought in the trenches did not know that another World War would follow scarcely 20 years after the close of the first. Unlike the Second, which was extensively recorded on film and occasionally in color, World War I doesn't leave us with film of blitzkriegs and Stuka dive bombers, Pearl Harbor or the devastation of Hiroshima. What we know of it resembles impressions of the wars of antiquity. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Schlieffen Plan, Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, the Russian Revolution - all of these monstrous events play out largely in books and our imagination. And they survive there, through the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the prose of Erich Maria Remarque, among others.

Jackson's film begins rather ordinarily. The pre-war and military training footage is clear but in black and white and at the regular frame speeds we expect of that time. It is the kind of film you would expect in a museum. We are clearly watching the past, distant, even cold, in spite of hearing the voices of World War veterans remembering these times, recorded when the men were in their 60s and 70s. When the scene shifts to the battlefield, though, the images suddenly grow sharper, gain color, and the depth of 3D. And we are suddenly transported.

What "They Shall Not Grow Old" gives us are faces - the faces of ordinary British and German soldiers sacrificed on the fields of Belgium and France. At various times in Jackson's film, he zeroes in on the faces of soldiers recorded for the cameras. There are various scenes of soldiers, in the off hours, at work, at play, horsing around for the camera. They seem fascinated by it. The camera pans over men on a march, in a trench, at a table, in a huddle, or hunched against a wall before an offensive, and their eyes all gravitate to the lens. For some, their faces appear in a locked fascination. For others, they seem determined to model courage, or appear as an individual. Others are instantly taken with the desire to perform. One man's eyes bulge before an engagement. Another wounded man's hands shake violently. One man maintains a stone face while playing a bottle as a guitar. Computer refinements makes the faces appear as contemporary and alive as if the footage was shot hours before. We have to be reminded that many of these faces did not survive the end of the day's filming.

In our time of Snapchat, the photobomb, the selfie and the surreptitious filming that surrounds us, we have to be reminded of a time when a person might go their whole lives without seeing a bulky motion picture camera. They might not even know how such a thing might appear. But the film informs and deforms the past. We don't know these men's names. The voices we hear are not young men, but old. They are survivors, so there is a disconnect between the immediacy of the image and the reality of what is being seen. The voices have traveled a long way from the desperation of the trenches, when tens of thousands of men perished over yards of ground. They survive, at the moment they recount their stories, sometimes by the barest of luck and the inscrutable will of God. They have had many meals since their time on the front. Consider the words of Remarque's narrator in "All Quiet on the Western Front:"

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”

We are looking into the faces and hearing the memories of recognizably ordinary men. As in any war, they are called upon to do extraordinary things, mixed up with the maddeningly pedestrian, the absurd, the ghastly. The film reminds us of their daily routine of bland and appalling food, the muck of the trench, the fetid and festering surroundings, verminous pests run wild, rats grown obese on bloated corpses sinking into mud, accompanied by the din of machine guns and the thrum of distant artillery. But these men are mostly poor, judging by their appalling teeth, unevenly educated, bred to toil, nurtured in the idea of Imperial rightness and might, determined to see through their fates because they've been called by King and Country. Or at least, that's what the voices tell us.

 But I kept looking into those faces, looking out over a century, out into the auditorium where we munched on popcorn and checked our iPhones. The faces, restored to color, revived by the manipulation of the image. Was I being deceived into seeing something sweet and sentimental about the past? "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" asked Owen in "Anthem for Doomed Youth." 

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs. - 

Many millions more have perished since the guns fell silent in November 1918. Humanity is much larger, more connected and disconnected. I sometimes sense the indifferent arrogance of the pre-war, post-Victorian West in the world now, and I shudder. One sometimes hears that education and the inculcation of human rights consciousness has made the world more humane. Just a momentary study of the sweep of history does little to inspire confidence that this is true. Hang around a while, says a darker, inner voice. Give our truer natures time, and we will again be busy.


But "They Shall Never Grow Old" succeeds by reminding us that there is more to the story than the carnage we associate with the trench. These were not cattle, though circumstances and a relentless accumulation of horror made they feel so. The faces of the soldiers we see are not actors trying to illuminate a time through gesture and expression, but the actual human beings who were chosen to enact an ancient rite that we seem unable to grow out of it, a ritual where even the best of our instincts survives alongside the worst of our sins. Those enduring, ghostly faces awaken, to our astonished eyes, and reach back with their doomed, determined eyes.

What would they think of us? What would they think of the civilization they fought for? I don't ask this question as an indictment. Instead, I ask it as one asks oneself, after the parents are long dead. "What would they think of what I've become? What do I owe them? What does all of this mean?"


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Stan Lee RIP

The death of Stan Lee on Monday has no doubt inspired much reflection from those who grew up on his many tales to astonish. The Marvel Age of Comics created, before a string of billion-dollar grossing movies, many volumes of half-baked analysis. I have no wish to add to that. What follows are a few lines of tribute to Stan the Man's contributions to storytelling. 

It is something of a mystery as to why, after more than 10 years of trying, almost every corner of the Marvel Universe has made the trip to the big screen successfully, except the one title that started the whole thing – The Fantastic Four. The quartet gave birth to two mostly unsatisfying outings (giving us the first appearance of Chris Evans in colorful tights) and another attempt that largely arrived stillborn (despite the presence of Michael B. Jordan). Evidently, playing the Human Torch is a kind of training wheels for bigger things. 

But the Fantastic Four provided the Big Bang for the Marvel Age. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, for more than 100 issues, created the architecture for much of what we see in the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and beyond. The coming Captain Marvel film will feature the Skrulls, the alien race who bedeviled the FF in its first year of existence. The four made the first trip to Wakanda to meet Black Panther. It was Johnny Storm who rediscovered Captain America (though this was later a hoax, it was an effective trial balloon that led to the character’s resurrection with the Avengers.) Doctor Doom, a disfigured figure of nobility and intellect wrapped in armor and robes, can be seen as the prototype for Darth Vader.

The FF met the Inhumans, traveled to the Negative Zone, and hobnobbed with all the various characters of Marvel’s other magazines. Month after month, through the sixties, the Fantastic Four was the laboratory for Marvel's demolition and recreation of how comic books were conceived, produced and celebrated in popular culture. 

But long before Thanos – there was Galactus.

Perhaps the ultimate FF adventure – and an example of Stan Lee’s abilities as a storyteller – is the 1966 three-issue arc of Fantastic Four 48-50: The Galactus Trilogy.

This story has been told elsewhere. Lee and Kirby created their stories through a routine: a consultation/brainstorming about the plotline of a particular issue, Kirby drawing the pages and Lee later filling in the dialogue. For the 50th issue of Fantastic Four, the two wanted something besides the usual rogue of the month. The idea was to create a demigod who would be beyond the calculus of good and evil, something different than a costumed goon bent on world domination. Kirby later said he drew his inspiration from the Bible. What came was Galactus, a giant being who roamed the cosmos in search of planets from which he could consume the energy needed to sustain his life. His quest is neverending, and he leaves husks of planets behind in his wake. The fate of every life on earth hangs in the balance.(I've often wondered where in the Bible that inspiration came from. Daniel's vision of "The Ancient of Days?" The Angel of Death? One look at Galactus' world destruction machines and you might be reminded of Ezekiel's vision of the wheels.)

To accentuate the adventure, Kirby created a nearly naked shining figure on a surfboard, whom Lee dubbed the Silver Surfer. The Surfer, Kirby explained, because he was the herald of Galactus, was himself a being of immense cosmic power who sought out the planets his master would destroy.

Reading the three issues more than 50 years later, we are reminded of how much the medium has shifted since. Lee and Kirby had been part of comic books since virtually the beginning of the industry, and had seen it morph from a subversive child entertainment into the childish material of the 1950s. The panic that comics contributed to social ills - which inspired the Comics Code Authority - mandated neutered stories and spawned banal plotlines. Heroes fought villains in convoluted storylines where little was at stake, lives were only obliquely threatened, and those threats were easily dispatched. War comics. Romance comics. Monster comics. Western comics. The plots were interchangeable, sometimes engaging, but mostly forgettable. The medium would have died if Lois Lane never strayed from her monthly mission to prove Clark Kent's secret identity, or Xom, the space creature, succeeded in devouring the Earth. "We knew we were writing for kids," Lee remembered. "Or so we thought." To achieve an end run around this, the Marvel storylines focused, not on the external conflicts, but the internal ones that power brings to our heroes.

Most early Marvel superheroes owe their abilities to radiation in one form or another, given that the Marvel Universe came into being during the Cold War. Atomic power served the same kind of storytelling function that magic had for centuries. Space, because of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, was a fertile playground for the imagination. We assumed it was where we were going to spend the future. 

On the page, Lee abided by the rules of the comic book genre. No one ever speaks in the comics. They shout! They declaim! The exclamation points give the prose its power, as does Lee’s penchant for alliteration. Our superheroes may speak in pedestrian rhythms, but the cosmic figures talk with Shakespearean intonations.

The dynamics of the Fantastic Four began with the first issue. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, is the elastic leader, a brilliant scientist in love with Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, who merely wants to be by his side. Her brother, Johnny Storm, is the Human Torch, a young man as fiery as his superpowers. But the heart and soul of the FF is Ben Grimm, the Thing, a rock-like bruiser and tortured soul, the outsider who gave the series both comic relief and pathos.

For the coming of Galactus, the action begins deep in space and gradually grows closer to the earth. Our heroes are alerted to the planet destroyer’s approach by The Watcher, himself a giant bald, grandiloquent figure pledged to not interfere in the affairs of the human race. But this time, he breaks his vow, knowing that Galactus will destroy the earth if allowed to.

The Watcher: Heed my words, pillager of the planets! This tiny speck of matter upon which we stand contains intelligent life! You must not destroy it!
Galactus: Of what import are brief, nameless lives...to Galactus?..It is not my intention to injure any living being! But...I must replenish my energy! If petty creatures are wiped out when I drain a planet, it is regrettable...but unavoidable!

The story is full of the kind of action, suspense and invention that one came to expect from Lee and Kirby. The Surfer arrives and summons Galactus, but the Thing “clobbers” the Surfer, rocketing him across New York until the being lands unconscious at the apartment of Alicia Masters, Ben Grimm’s blind girlfriend. It is from her that the Surfer realizes the human race is worth saving.

Though Galactus drives most of the story's action, it is the Surfer who imbues it with its gravitas. The Surfer is, as Alicia puts it, a figure of nobility who immediately bewitches her, and us. He combines the mystic pull of space with the spiritual mythology of surfing - riding a wave in search of some zenlike moment of absolute peace, a connection with energy, fate and nature. The fact that he can be made into a defender of the human race gives the final act of the story its punch. For when the Surfer decides to oppose Galactus, he holds off the devourer until Johnny Storm can return from the other side of the universe with the Ultimate Nullifier, a device which can destroy not only Galactus, but vast stretches of the universe. And so, Galactus decides to spare the earth, for now. But in doing so, he exiles the Surfer to the earth, denying him the ability to return to his home, leaving him a permanent outsider on a planet he will never understand, even though he has saved it.

One legacy of the Lee-Kirby is the endless speculation as to who is responsible for what idea, which characters, what storylines. It is the comic book version of the Paul vs. John calculus that infects Beatle scholarship. Kirby, for all of his invention and the power of his images, was never quite as successful without Stan Lee, while Lee created Spiderman, Dr. Strange, Thor and others apart from Kirby. Controversy followed him in those collaborations as well. To celebrate his work is not to rob Steve Ditko, Larry Leiber or even Kirby of their essential roles in the creations.

But Stan Lee largely outlived those controversies, and lived long enough to see those comic stories transition to worldwide celebration in the movies. He made no bones about the somewhat pedestrian origins of his ideas, as did Kirby. Sure, great literature gave some inspiration, but so did old radio shows, the movies, and even other comic books. By the time the Marvel Age rolled around, the two of them had already been at it for almost 20 years and could sometimes no longer remember which schtick came from which quarter.  

But it’s possible now, as a tribute, to look in awe at the ambition of those stories, the wit they used to tell them, and the style that they created. Comic books began as kid entertainments, and now they largely survive as sometimes pretentious, sometimes inspired ways of telling stories. The Marvel stories, no matter how far they ventured out into the unknown, were always about having fun, and Lee never forgot that.

He created the narrative voice that piloted those adventures, giving the reader a fearless, funny, and unforgettable guide. The stories were not one-offs but a continuous narrative, building on itself, much like the television shows we binge-watch today. Panels sometimes contained wisecracking footnotes referencing earlier adventures. The voice veered between knowing and cajoling, a guide who nudged the action along without stopping it, the voice in the mind's theater who only wanted you to enjoy the spectacle as much as possible. And if necessary, to deliver a lesson. When the first appearance of Spiderman closes, Peter Parker walks away in guilt, knowing the robber he could have caught earlier is the same one who murdered his Uncle Ben. It is Lee's narrator who delivers the verdict:

"And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come -- great responsibility!"

It is Lee, as narrator in Fantastic Four 48, who tells us during a transition that shifts us from one distant galaxy to Planet Earth in one panel, that we are able to make the sudden leap “through the magic of our limitless imaginations.” 

It’s a magic he was happy to share. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Why do we keep going back to Jurassic Park?


There is a heartbreaking image halfway through “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” that surprised me, and I think it speaks to the larger reasons why the Jurassic movies keep being made for willing audiences despite the fact that they are getting less and less original.

A volcano is erupting on Isla Nubar, the Pacific island where the dinosaurs of Jurassic World remain after decades, threatening the lives of the creatures. A team is dispatched to save the dinosaurs, presumably to move them to a new sanctuary. In a thrilling action set-piece, the volcano eruption causes a dinosaur stampede with our heroes in the middle of it, as stampedes are likely to happen in these movies. In the nick of time, the heroes and their rescue animals scurry onto a waiting ship. But the camera lingers on a lone Brachiosaurus, swallowed up by a cloud of ash, looking plaintively at the camera, beyond rescue.

It’s an image that calls to mind the central mystery behind the existence of dinosaurs since humans began discovering their remains over the last two centuries – just as surely as they once walked the planet, they no longer do. The idea that we didn’t know about them for so long seems to frustrate something inside us, as well as fascinate. It’s an idea stated in Stephen L. Brusatte’s recent, excellent book, “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World”

“We humans now wear the crown that once belonged to the dinosaurs. We are confident of our place in nature, even as our actions are rapidly changing the planet around us….If it could happen to the dinosaurs, could it also happen to us?”

“Jurassic World” is the fifth film in a series spawned more than 30 years ago by Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park.” I recently went back to the book, its sequel, and watched all of the films, not sure what I was looking for. 


Crichton’s original novel is well-known, but perhaps not as much as the Spielberg film based on it. The novel fits squarely into Crichton’s oeuvre of techno-thrillers with hints of science fiction, where mankind experiments with elemental forces and learns, to his dismay, how little he knows.

“Park” begins, not with the idea of an amusement park for the superrich stocked with dinosaurs, but with a short prologue about the dangers of then-emerging biotechnology. Crichton introduces what, at that time, would have been a revolutionary idea – biotechnology, dealing with the science of life itself, has the potential to do more for humanity than atomic power and computers, he says. But as so many times with Crichton, he gives this as a warning. Biotechnology may have been unlocked through the cold, rational, patient work of scientists, but it has commercial implications far removed from those of science or even basic ethics, he is saying. “There are no detached observers,” he writes. “Everybody has a stake.”

He puts most of these concerns in the mouth of Dr. Ian Malcolm, a scientific voice arguing that nature is even larger than we can imagine, not one system by itself but part of several among even larger systems. That is why he responds to the park with horror, understanding that there is something, in a scientific sense, unholy about what John Hammond has attempted. Crichton makes the decision to have Malcolm die of his injuries in the novel, making us wonder if the author fears a death of sanity among the scientific community. (He resurrects Malcolm in the following book, probably because of Spielberg’s decision to leave him alive in the film.) In an extended dialogue, Malcolm compares scientific discovery, and the race to be the first, as a kind of rape. Instead of observation, there is always the temptation to act. When Ellie Sattler asks if he means the destruction of the planet, Malcolm says that’s “the last thing I would worry about.”

When it came time to make the film “Jurassic Park,” Steven Spielberg had the perfect property with which to show everything he had learned in his first 25 years of movie making. In a sense, the creation of the movie “Jurassic Park” is about moving pictures. The aim is to depict dinosaurs and humans interacting, something that never happened in history. It’s an idea that he sums up in an image later in the movie – words projected on the face of a raptor. More importantly, we must have the dinosaurs chase and threaten our human characters. To accomplish this, Spielberg and the visual effects team employed computer generated image technology in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The first hour of the movie sets this up. 


We enter knowing the concept. We expect to see dinosaurs. Twenty years before, Spielberg directed “Jaws,” forced by a malfunctioning mechanical shark to withhold sight of the animal from the audience for long periods of time. He can now show dinosaurs in detail, and yet he still uses the same technique as before to draw in the audience. Our first sight is waving tree branches, like something out of the original “King Kong.” He has begun a strategy of conceal and reveal. Consider that in 1993, there was still some suspense as to whether he could pull it off.

The next scenes introduce our characters – Grant, Sadler, Hammond, Malcolm with the lawyer. We are introduced to a relationship between Grant and Sadler – they never kiss – and, by the unexplained presence of a child at an archeological dig, the idea that they may be planning the next step. (There was no relationship in the novel.)

Richard Attenborough is cast as Hammond, which is an interesting decision. The genial businessman who we first meet in the novel later morphs into an embittered man blaming everyone else when the park’s obvious problems destroy his dreams. By casting the smiling character actor/director in the film, Hammond becomes a grandfatherly, Walt Disney-esque figure, and thus, more ominous. We may feel some sympathy for this man at the same time we see how he has perverted science in the name of commerce.

The great reveal comes not as an attack however, but on a hill with a herd of Brachiosaurs, straining to eat from trees. It looks – it feels – lifelike. And non-threatening.  The stately music of John Williams gives us the appropriate awe before nature.

Then we are reintroduced to the concept, how the park was created,  and Malcolm is there to remind us of the problems, as he was in the novel, though in a more limited basis. Next comes the egg hatching for another moment of awe, and the idea that “life finds a way.”

Muldoon, the great white hunter, is there to illustrate how dangerous the creatures are. There is a storm coming, and then the last, expected magic ingredient – kids. Hammond’s grandchildren are there because…well, children love dinosaurs.

Even still, Spielberg does a curious thing. He frustrates us, making us like the child carried to the zoo who can’t see the lion lounging out in the sun. There are no dinosaurs that we can see. But that will change, at the moment when everything converges to make the last half of the movie an almost continuous chase. He knows the thing we want to see is the Tyrannosaurus Rex, so even here, he hesitates, giving us the impact tremors, the bobbing water in the cup holder of the SUV. The electrified fence is there to create its own kind of suspense.

Without meaning to, Spielberg and Crichton created several archtypes that keep reappearing throughout the “Jurassic” series: The noble male scientist. The resourceful female. The underhanded technician. The hunter. The exploiter. The well-meaning but doomed capitalist. Spielberg also created several scenes and situations the series has returned to again and again. A contemplative pause before nature’s awesome power and grandeur. The humans running in the middle of a dinosaur stampede. Our heroes threatened by one menace which is in turn neutralized by a larger, heretofore unseen threat.

The end of “Jurassic Park” leaves us with a problem, as it did its markers. The dinosaurs are still alive on the island. Don’t we want to go back? But how do we keep from telling virtually the same story, over and over? It’s a problem they haven’t yet overcome.

To satisfy his fans, Crichton gave us “The Lost World,” and reading it, you sense that he wrote it trying to tailor the story to what he expected Spielberg would want. He brings back Malcolm, again contrives to have children on the island, and invents a rival biotech company interested in the technology that created the dinosaurs. There is an indication, at the book’s close, that the dinosaurs days are numbered.

Again, there are the ominous warnings:

“Scientists pretended that history didn’t matter, because the errors of the past were now corrected by modern discoveries. But of course their forebears had believed exactly the same thing in the past, too. They had been wrong then. And they were wrong now.”

Spielberg, though, was satisfied to take only a few elements of Crichton’s book in order to satisfy the audience’s supposed second wish for a Jurassic movie – having a dinosaur chase people not on Isla Nubar, but in urban and suburban America. 

 The first hour of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” played better than I remembered. That’s largely due to the good cast and Spielberg concentrating on the human interactions. We see Pete Posteltwaite in the role of the hunter, this time, only slightly sinister and able to walk out alive in the end. Arliss Howard is the obligatory evil capitalist exploiter of the dinosaurs. From the moment Jeff Goldblum’s daughter shows up, you know she’ll wind up on the island somehow.

A formula is already taking shape, even though it has been somewhat tweaked. Information is withheld to get the hero back on the island, because no sane person would want to go back. Those who are going for the first time are ignorant of the danger or arrogantly assume they can handle it. Still, must we always encounter the T-Rex in a rainstorm?

I remember thinking when the movie came out that the entire reason to have “The Lost World” was to have the shot of the T-Rex drinking from a swimming pool. That’s perhaps why the last third of the movie seems to come off the rails, as though all the story has led up to this, and there isn’t much here besides a procession of visual jokes reminiscent of Spielberg’s “1941”– Japanese people running from a dinosaur, meant to remind us of Godzilla. The dinosaur dashing past the customs sign prohibiting animals past this point. A child waking up parents because of a monster. Spielberg also dispenses with Crichton’s ending – the dinosaurs will survive, so we can again return.

A few words here about "Jurassic Park III:" In its stripped down story, it reminded me of the way sequels used to play out – with less money, fewer stars, a smaller story, a smaller set. The cast is again excellent, with Sam Neill brought back for most of the action, joined by William H. Macy and Tea Leoni. But the action is again all too familiar. Its main selling point seems to be – Pteranadons! The timely rescue of the U.S. military replaces the by-now expected resolution with one as old as the movies themselves. 


“Jurassic World,” released 14 years later, understood that even though we don’t think a park with dinosaurs can succeed, we want it to. We want to see it, just as much as want it to fail catastrophically.

We are reintroduced to a few familiar faces, like B.D. Wong. We are impressed with Bryce Dallas Howard’s moxie and beauty, and charmed by Chris Pratt’s goofy raptor trainer. The Great White Hunter is also an exploiter in Vincent D’Onofrio’s Hoskins, who wants to find a military application for the dinosaurs. When our child protagonists stumble onto the old Jurassic Park visitor center from the first movie, we are supposed to feel the appropriate nostalgia before the awe of previous box office glories.

Of course, we haven’t left well enough alone. In a nod to Crichton’s original inspiration, the park’s creators have engineered their own ultimate predator, Indominus Rex, in an attempt to one-up nature and create even more thrills. But because Indominus is man-made, it is ultimately defeated by a tagteam of the T Rex and the Mosasaurus – again one threat neutralized by a larger one. “Fallen Kingdom” has gotten better at rendering dinosaurs, and gives us a roomful of capitalists bidding on them. Marx would have loved the sight of primeval animals slaughtering a room of high-rollers, mixing ideology and evolution.

Despite its scientific trappings, the Jurassic series has always been about sheer entertainment. Its concept was meant to thrill, though I wonder how many times it can thrill given the safe ground its makers continue to inhabit.

I’m reminded of the sight of John Hammond in the first movie, hovering over melting ice cream, fearful for the lives of his grandchildren. He has spared no expense to bring his dreams alive, and they have hatched a nightmare:

“You know the first attraction that I ever built when I came down from Scotland was a flea circus – Petticoat Lane. Really quite wonderful. We had a wee trapeze, and a merry-go…carousel. And a see-saw. They all moved- motorized of course. But people would say they could see the fleas… But this place…I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion, something that was real, something they could see and touch…an aim not devoid of merit.”

The dinosaurs, like our doomed Brachiosaur swallowed in ash, offer an echo from a past we never had a chance to forget. They didn’t leave books or buildings, just their bones.

They remind us of deep time – oceans of centuries where we did not walk the earth and would not for longer than we can comprehend. They remind us of our mortality – in that they are no longer here. They remind us of our stature – you are small, little man, and weak, and you too will die. And will there be anything left of you when it is all over? We power your cars and your cities. What power will anyone find in what ultimately remains of you?

The end of “Fallen Kingdom” promises yet another adventure, now that dinosaurs have been loosed upon the world. Yet, I have the suspicion that future Jurassic Worlds will till the same ground, resurrecting the same fossils, like pumping tired oil wells. 


But not all fossils are best left underground. 2017 saw the publication of an unearthed Crichton novel, “Dragon Teeth,” which gives us dinosaurs (of a sort) in a western. The novel, which the late author wrote in the 70s, tells the story of a young Yale man caught between the real-life fossil hunters Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. The two are looking for bones in the west in 1876, which gives Crichton a chance to construct a lovely, fun, rollicking adventure. Crichton again gives us vain scientists, racing to make the discovery, but our hero, William Johnson, merely went West to win a bet. He cares nothing about the unseen giant beasts of the dim past, even though he is present at a moment of their rediscovery.

“You and I are the first men in recorded history to glimpse these teeth. They will change everything we think we know about these animals, and much as I hesitate to say such a thing, man becomes smaller when we realize what remarkable beasts went before us.”

There is something wonderful about the scene, late in the book, when Johnson finds himself the guardian of these million-year-old bones, even though he cares little for them and barely understands their importance. One feels the stubborn insistence of man, that he matters because he exists – now. 

Whatever may happen to the species in the future, his existence is of paramount importance. The dinosaurs had their shot, as Malcolm would say later. 

Why not make the most of today? 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.