Going down an eighties wormhole

Walter Hill, Sly Stallone and when a film-maker is past his prime.

Walter Hill has a new film out this week. This is good news. The movie itself is not — it’s a flippant and only intermittently fun action movie called Bullet to the Head, which is notable largely for the agonizing spectacle of Sylvester Stallone battling his own immovable facial muscles, clamped mouth and trash-compactor diction to deliver intelligibly the simplest line of dialogue.  “It’s easy to get sentimental about things,” Stallone says at one point. Maybe so, but it’s not easy saying a word like “sentimental” without moving your lips, as Stallone demonstrates. Honestly, it’s like amateur ventriloquists’ night. Anyone for a gottle o’ geer?

Nevertheless, I wrung a few rich drops of enjoyment from the picture. Perhaps this was made possible by my undying respect for Hill, whose 1970s and 1980s work has earned him a lifetime’s worth of credit. Or it could be down to the fact that there were many films like Bullet to the Head made in the 1980s, and I went to see them all, so the movie became a bit of a time-travel expedition for me. There is nothing to distinguish it from that era except for a few modern gadgets and references to the internet. Certainly the screeching blues-rock score and the guns-are-fun attitude seem to have been cryogenically frozen from the Mullet Age. And not just guns. While the title demands the destruction of assorted skulls belonging to minor cast members, the film could just as happily be called Axe to the Foot or Flick-knife to the Neck. But I was a little disappointed to find that parts of it aren’t very well directed. One particular shot, seen through the eyes of a dead man, makes no sense. The dead can’t see anything. You can’t go around giving them point-of-view shots.

The film pairs Stallone, as a bounty hunter named Jimmy Bobo, with a straitlaced cop (Sung Kang) on a revenge mission in a clammy New Orleans (locations include a tattoo parlour, a bathhouse and a succession of sticky, neon-lit bars). There’s a juicy cameo from Christian Slater as a minor-league villain who is called upon to shout entire chunks of plot information (“This goes way up!”) and to call Stallone a “dumbbell”. (Please, somebody, put Christian Slater in more films: he’s still really good.) And I liked the casting of Jason Momoa as Stallone’s main adversary, the one with whom he goes head-to-head, or rather axe-to-axe, during the violent climax. Momoa recently played the title role in Conan the Barbarian, the reboot of the 1982 sword-and-sandals adventure which starred Stallone’s old box-office nemesis Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, in a way, Stallone fights (and—not really a spoiler, this—brutally vanquishes) a Schwarzenegger proxy. He’s doing what therapists warn us about: he’s restaging endlessly the battles of his past, hoping for a brighter outcome. Do stop me if I’m disappearing into a 1980s wormhole here.

Hill’s most notable credit over the last decade was his Emmy-winning work on the abrasive HBO series Deadwood. The last film he actually directed (a 2002 prison boxing thriller called Undisputed) went straight to video in the UK. The one before that, Supernova, didn’t even have his name on it, having passed through an array of other filmmakers during its troubled history (Francis Ford Coppola, Geoffrey Wright and Jack Sholder were all reported to have directed or re-cut parts of it). Before that? Before that, he was really something.

His films are pared to the bone—none more so than The Driver, the 1978 thriller that marked his first significant success. (If you’ve seen the Ryan Gosling movie Drive, you’ve basically seen The Driver 90210.) Until its release, Hill had a pile of genre screenplays to his credit, all of which displayed the same stripped-down approach that he would elevate to an art form once he got comfortable in the director’s chair. Among his produced work at that time was The Getaway (1973), an unsparing crime picture directed by one of his heroes and spiritual cousins, Sam Peckinpah, and The Drowning Pool (1975), a downbeat Paul Newman vehicle that threw audiences in at the deep end. In the same year, Hill directed Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter) from his own script, casting Charles Bronson as a bareknuckle boxer. But it was The Driver that provided the purest distillation yet of Hill’s modus operandi.

You need only peruse the character names to get the gist. Ryan O’Neal is The Driver. Bruce Dern is The Detective. Isabelle Adjani is The Player. Ronee Blakley is The Connection. Walter Hill is Frugal With Information. The viewers are Left To Figure Things Out For Themselves.

Dispensing with the back story, subtext and motivation so beloved of other filmmakers creates an existentialist environment in Hill’s work and allows him to cut to the chase—literally so in the case of The Driver, much of which takes place on four wheels. As the title character, a taciturn getaway driver, Ryan O’Neal doesn’t get to deliver a monologue about how he chose a life of crime because his daddy didn’t love him. He just sits at the wheel, cool as a cucumber, hot as mustard. For a man who spends his life in constant, hair-raising motion, he’s curiously still and serene.

It should be remembered that Hill is capable of cracking a wry smile when the mood takes him. He may have been a big influence on the work of Michael Mann, but Mann can’t conjure the authentic smell of pulp like Hill does in The Driver and later movies like Streets of Fire (1984) and Johnny Handsome (1989). And I’ll eat my MOT the day Mann does anything as funny as the sequence in which The Driver takes the car of his potential employers for a spin in an underground car park. “How do we know you’re good?” they make the mistake of asking him. “Get in,” he shoots back. Within seconds, the wheels are spinning into a blur and the car is slaloming around the concrete pillars: forwards, backwards, sideways, turning on a dime. The Driver strategically demolishes the vehicle, losing a light here, a door there. At the end of this bravura demonstration, the car is a shadow of its former self, but The Driver doesn’t have a hair out of place.  

Hill went on to co-write the screenplay of Alien (1979), and was instrumental in getting Ridley Scott to direct that movie. His own movies became steadily more daring. There was The Warriors (1979), a visually delicious succès de scandale about New York’s gang culture; his accomplished western, The Long Riders (1980); the Deliverance-like thriller Southern Comfort (1981); a box-office smash in the shape of 48HRS (1982), which marked Eddie Murphy’s spectacular film debut; and the garish, visionary rock’n’roll adventure of Streets of Fire.

But The Driver remains unrivalled as Hill’s signature movie—and, next to low-rent fare like Bullet to the Head, it’s likely to retain that position. In a culture where every blockbuster is nudging three hours, and rewrites and script polishes overburden a movie with unnecessary incident, it’s fat-free film-making. In one scene, The Detective observes that the sports pages are the best part of a newspaper because they report only “winners, losers, how it happened, score". In that line is the essence of Walter Hill.

"Bullet to the Head" is released on Friday

 

Walter Hill at the premiere of "Bullets to the Head" (credit: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster