Kes (1969)

Kes – 1969

Director – Ken Loach

Starring – David Bradley, Brian Glover, and Freddie Fletcher

Coal mining town? Check.  Dismal future? Check.  Bleak story and pale washed-out color palette? Check. Yup, we have ourselves a film from straight out of England from the 60’s.  Filled with angry young men doomed to continually revisit the heartbreak and disappointment that is their legacy, films like these made up their own film movement in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s.  Where other movements like the French New Wave, and Italian Neo-Realism seemed to relish the joy and spontaneity that could be present in everyday life, this typically English set of films seemed steeped in the grimy misery that surrounded the working classes of hard scrabble England.  These films primarily deal with young men, raging and rebelling against a system that invariably gets the better of them.  While that may seem an overly grim assessment of the this genre, it’s not meant to take away from the fact that these films often illustrate that in such hard-times also exist small moments of beauty and freedom.

Kes, a film about a troubled young boy, bullied at home and at school, finds solace and acceptance in the act of raising and training a raptor (bird), and manages to illustrate this struggle for freedom and happiness quite effectively.  Juxtaposing the cramped, dirty, and oppressive imagery of the institutions that keep our main character, Billy, tied down, with imagery of him caring for, reading about, and training his falcon offer us a glimpse at the type of freedom Billy aspires to.

Far be it from me to chastise a film for being slow and depressing, but Kes in particular works very hard to crush and beat the anticipation and hope of something better right out of you.  Each character, Billy, Jude (or Jud if you believe IMDB), and their mother, as well as everyone at the school seem stuck in their routines.  Day in and day out, they aspire for nothing greater than to head to the pub for a pint, and beyond that perhaps a good snog to escape their realities.  There is no higher or greater goal for anyone to pursue.  The jobs are closer to punishments than careers, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe winning a marginal amount of money gambling, or a few jokes with friends after work.

Billy is no exception.  He trudges through school, endures teachers and bullies alike (although it can be hard to tell the difference), and often times suffers the same fate at home.  His brother Jude constantly berates him, and his ineffectual mother spends the majority of her time trying to catch a marry-able man.  He is lost, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, completely alone.  Once Billy finds the falcon, Kes (of the movie’s title), suddenly a whole new world opens up for him.  He devotes his time and energy on something that gives back more reliably than something as short-sighted and temporary as gambling..  For a brief time, this animal brings Billy as close as he’s ever been to flying.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

However, as in all films of this sort, there is inevitably the point at which this new-found happiness is shattered, and we get to watch our main character crash back into the dreary life from which he came.  Often times, it is due to some strife or conflict from a parallel story-line that comes back around from earlier in the film.  In this instance it’s his contentious relationship with his older brother, Jude (it’s unclear whether or not they are actually brothers, but for all intents and purposes he is).  The film starts with them fighting, and hurling insults at the other, and it ends similarly.   Jude is determined, not to help his little brother find a way out, but to ensure that he is as unlikely to escape this life as Jude himself is.

(***End Spoilers***)

Movies out of England all seem to have a bit of melancholy to them, even Harry Potter was a boy forced to live under the stairs and be treated like a second class citizen.  From this time-frame in particular, they seem to be downright oppressive.  Kes is no exception to the rule, rather, it’s more proof of it.  The color scheme of the film is dishwater browns and grays,  and the camera work is mostly fixed position zooming and panning, tracking with our characters through these earthy, sparse environments.  I’m not sure if the lack of color, or stillness of the frame was intentional in this film or based out of necessity, but whether it was or wasn’t, it was exceedingly effective, tempering any expectation that Billy would be successful in his spiritual exodus, with the reality of his eventual conformity.

Definitely, a tear-jerker towards the end, Kes is a prime example of the “Angry Young Men” (dubbed so by the folks at the Filmspotting podcast) movement of English film, and the remarkable depression of an entire class of working people.  While it is not an easy watch, it does resonate with the viewer at an emotional level.  While none of the imagery has stuck with me in particular, the themes and tone of the film have been rattling around in my brain since I saw it.  It’s a tough watch, though, so be prepared.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Goddamn it, Kes!  You made me cry over a bird!” – Ashley


Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again – 1939

Director – George Marshall

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Brian Donlevy

From the early 30’s on through the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the United States needed someone to look up to, someone to stand strong against adversity, and live up to the wholesome ideals of a bygone era (often regardless of what age they were living in), the world looked to Jimmy Stewart.  Perennially playing roles of such strong moral character, and unwaivering goodness, Stewart seemed to me to be a ham-fisted actor.  Someone lacking the subtlety to play a real person, instead only able to embody a general sense of good and right.

While his career is one filled with good guy roles, and white hats, I may have misjudged Jimmy Stewart the actor.  In Destry Rides Again, Stewart arrives in a lawless town controlled by local muscle and kept in line through temptation and booze (temptation in the form of gambling and Frenchy, a saucy burlesque performer played by Marlene Dietrich).  It becomes obvious, even in my previous sentence, that he is going to at least attempt to clean things up, and save the cow-like townsfolk from their own vices.  He plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., son of the town’s last good sheriff Destry, Sr. 

From there you can just about guess where the story is going to go, Destry arrives, proves himself in corruptible, and is challenged until the very end by the town’s strongman, Kent, played by Brian Donlevy.  Now comes the point where the predictable stuff ends…  Oh, sure, Stewart is still a good guy, and he has right on his side, and he never gives up, but he does it in a subtle believable way.  He doesn’t preach and condemn the actions of anyone.  He simply leads through example, shedding the light of day on the depravity to which the townsfolk had grown accustomed.  Rather than being smug and arrogant, he was likable and most importantly, a natural.

The other huge surprise comes in the form of the character Frenchy.  From the very start of the movie Marlene Dietrich plays her as conniving, opportunistic, and self-serving.  She clearly moves from town to town taking what she can and moving along when things dry up.  Stewart’s Destry presents a huge obstacle to her character’s continued success, and as such it is only natural that she would, at least initially, dislike him.  As the movie plays out, these two characters could easily go one of two ways.  There can either be a confrontation in which one of them loses everything, or one or both of the characters will change and there will be a romance.

I won’t mention here what actually does happen, but rest assured, the movie didn’t let me down.  Each of the characters was true to themselves and the only natural conclusion that could have happened did. 

So, despite being composed of some ingredients that I was less than excited about, Destry Rides Again, surprised me and became far more than the sum of it’s parts.  Not necessarily the best movie, nor one that deserves to definitely be on this list, but far better than I anticipated it to being when I started it.  I understand why it is that generations of American’s looked to Jimmy Stewart when they needed a hero, I don’t know that the film industry has anyone like him today, possibly Tom Hanks, and we may never have anyone like him again.