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The only reason Sgt. Markoff, the sadistic sergeant played by Brian Donlevy in 1939's Beau Geste, isn't considered one of the top 50 villains of all time by the American Film Institute is because not enough people have seen the movie. With a cruelty that almost dips into the cartoonishly evil, Markoff treats his own regiment with as much dignity as the faceless, inevitable Arab enemy in William A. Wellman's military drama, making R. Lee Ermy's Full Metal Jacket psycho look like a meek softie. The often-produced war story, filmed in 1926, 1939 and 1966 (and once spoofed — see 1977's The Last Remake of Beau Geste), centers on three brothers (Gary Cooper being one) who join the French Foreign Legion to cover up for one sibling's theft of a priceless family jewel. The film plods more than Wellman's finest works, but there's plenty here to enjoy. Some superb action tableaux — such as the unforgettable opening, which finds an officer arriving at a fort festooned with meticulously arranged corpses, and a shocking scene of a military sounder shot in mid-bugle — belie the otherwise cardboard nature of the studio milieu. —John Thomason
The Seventh Seal
Popular wisdom alert: 8-1/2 is far from Federico Fellini's best film, Vertigo can't equal at least a handful of Alfred Hitchcock's finest pictures, and The Seventh Seal is nowhere near the top of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre. But, somehow, after decades of reductive university courses, parodies that have led to these films' acknowledgement in the mainstream pop culture and simply word-of-mouth from the chattering class of elite cineastes, these films have come to define the auteurs behind them.
As someone who's been left cold and unaffected by The Seventh Seal every time I've seen it, I find some solace in the fact it hasn't aged as well as those other All-Time Top 10 staples; in fact, in the latest installment of Sight and Sound's once-in-a-decade survey of film critics, it ranked 35th. But you'll be hard-pressed to find any genuine criticism of the film, aside from the occasional firebrand like Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader. Ironically, for a movie that is all about questioning the existence of God, slamming The Seventh Seal is tantamount to blasphemy. Despite a whispered reputation as the quintessential example of impenetrable, laborious art cinema, the case for the film's masterpiece status was closed a long time ago.
Looking at the film again in Criterion's exceptional new two-disc reissue, not much has changed — if anything, the film looks more passé (though I don't agree with some that Bergman himself is a passé artist, as the earth-shattering vibrancy of Scenes from a Marriage and the awesome poetry of Winter Light and Persona still attest to). It's a bit funnier than I remembered, but it's still a plodding and meandering series of scenes weighed down by ponderous portent. Aside from the cinematography — Bergman's peerless framing stuns throughout — it's not much of an enjoyable experience.
The extras, on the other hand, make this collection worth a look. The choice supplement is an elegant documentary called Bergman Island, shot three years before the director's death. In it, Bergman discusses his life and work on the secluded Faro Islands, where he spent his last days. The first part resembles, funnily enough, an episode of MTV's Cribs, with Bergman showing off his antiquated abode. In talks with filmmaker Marie Nyrerod, he's as candid as he has ever been, with personal reflections and anecdotes that reveal much about cinematic world. (For instance, he was locked in a morgue as a child, leading to an early flirtation with death; later he tells Nyrerod "Not a day in my life has gone by when I haven't thought of death.")
Woody Allen offers his take on Bergman in a short tribute recorded for Turner Classic Movies in 1998. Allen focuses mostly on Bergman's most underdiscussed attribute — his masterful ability to entertain. The rest of the bonus features are handled by Peter Cowie, probably the world's pre-eminent Bergman scholar. We get his commentary from the original Criterion release, plus a newly recorded afterword and a half-hour video montage he narrates titled Bergman 101. Cowie is a brilliant mind, but he's also a bore to listen to, adding uncomfortable, Shatneresque pauses to an already somnambulistic public-radio voice.
After this generous heaping of thoughtful interviews and analysis, I know a lot more about The Seventh Seal than I did before. But I still don't like the film very much, and, unlike some people out there, I'm not afraid to shout it to the rafters. —John Thomason