South America in Recent British Cinema (1988)

[Inter-Arts 7 (1988)]

Views of South America
in Recent British Cinema

Moonraker, dir. Lewis Gilbert (UK, 1979) – starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale and Richard Kiel.

The Emerald Forest, dir. John Boorman (UK, 1985) – starring Charley Boorman, Powers Boothe and Meg Foster.

The Mission, dir. Roland Joffé (UK, 1986) – starring Jeremy Irons, Robert de Niro and Ray McAnally.

A Handful of Dust, dir. Charles Sturridge (UK, 1988) – starring James Wilby, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Rupert Graves and Alec Guinness.

[Charles Sturridge, dir.: A Handful of Dust (1988)]

The scene with which Charles Sturridge’s latest film A Handful of Dust begins is interesting for a number of reasons, two of which seem immediately germane to the subject of this article. The first is the fact that it does not occur at all in the novel by Evelyn Waugh on which the screenplay is based. (And, parenthetically, one may further remark that Sturridge himself has said that he put it in partly because he could not bear to open another 1930’s period film with yet another panoramic shot of a country house; and partly because it seemed the best way to introduce the theme of South American savagery asserted throughout by the use of pan-pipes in the music, and, towards the end, by artful intercutting between the ‘jungle’ of society and the rain-forests of Brazil).

The second reason is the content of the scene itself. It starts with a long panning shot of jungle. glimpsed through prevailing mist, and then focuses on a small pool shielded by rocks in front of a waterfall. The hero, Tony Last (James Wilby) is then seen diving – with considerable skill –into the midst of this pool. As he comes to the surface we see him register the presence, sitting on the rocks, of a young woman clad in white. ‘A hallucination’, we confidently deduce, bearing in mind the setting and the fact that all she is wearing is a frilly dressing-gown. Their subsequent conversation hears out this impression, conducted as it is on a level of considerable intimacy, yet with no reference to the context in which they find themselves. ‘Are you in love?’ he asks her. ‘I think so,’ she replies.

This scene might be seen as containing in embryo all the essential elements of British (as opposed to American, Latin American, or even European) cinematic views of South America. For a start, it is sensuously appealing to a very striking degree – it effectively screens out the oppressive heat and insects which accompany such scenes in reality (unlike, say, Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God) – and the vision of the young woman (subsequently to be revealed as Brenda, Tony Last’s estranged wife) introduces a mystical rather than a threatening mood. It also plays a structural role in the film which might be summed up as ‘the Old World tried against the standards of the New’ – and in this case the counterpointing is very exactly accomplished: Hetton, Tony’s country estate, is a compendium of natural beauty, complete with foxes and forelock-tugging peasantry, but all this serves as a screen rather than an expression of the real forces (lust, snobbery and avarice) that animate society. In South America, on the other hand, things appear as they are – nature is beautiful still, but dangerous rather than comforting (Tony’s companion is drowned by a waterfall like the one in the first scene); the foxes and other animals have become mechanical mice, designed to placate the natives, but succeeding only in scaring them away; while the peasantry have become the cowed peons (or ‘children’ – literally) of Mr Todd (Alec Guinness), the old Dickensian despot of the jungle.

In effect, then, the conventional props of ‘Latin America’ – jungle, floppy sombreros, downtrodden natives – are here used as an integral part of the theme, instead of being a mere backdrop as in so many Hollywood films (even the otherwise excellent Romancing the Stone (U.S.A., 1984)). The reality of South America may still remain beyond the film-maker’s grasp, but this relatively sensitive employment of the clichés associated with it reminds us that as a literary conceit, a collection of idees reçues, ‘South America’ has a long and illustrious history in European thought.

Confining ourselves to the portion of the tradi¬tion relevant to film, it might be as well at this stage to attempt to distinguish between the various strands of cinema mentioned above –British, American, European, and Latin-American. Latin-American cinema can be seen to be both independent from, and a deliberate rejection of what might be lumped together as ‘Western’ images of South America. The independence is shown by the strongly regional concerns voiced by each national film-industry – the corruption and despair of modern urban life in Brazilian productions like Pixote (1981) and Hour of the Star (1985); the radical preoccupations of Cuban-funded films such as Alsino and the Condor (Nicaragua, 1982) or Tupac Amaru (Peru, 1985); even the attempts at interface with the ‘Boom’ in Spanish-American fiction: Eréndira (Mexico, 1983), Time to Die (Colombia, 1985), and Kiss of the Spider Woman (Brazil/U.S.A., 1985), based, respectively, on works by Gabriel García Márquez and Manuel Puig. The rejection lies principally in a refusal to echo European film¬makers’ desire to see South America as a sort of exemplary landscape – a country of the soul, in which each landscape feature becomes significant. In this respect, one is perhaps correct in adopting the reversed paternalistic (or ‘infantilistic’) attitude that European views of a culture are invariably imperialist distortion, while indigenous attitudes embody a deeper and richer response.

Having said this, though, there is undoubtedly much interest in seeing precisely now the west does view (and distort) South America in its film-making, especially if some consistency and continuity can be teased out of it. And, for better or worse, that is the subject of this article. Politically suspect many of these films may be, but the naiveté of some of their social attitudes is not matched by the subtlety of their inner myths. The exemplary modern film in this respect is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God (West Germany, 1972). Ostensibly the story of a group of Conquistadors who go astray while looking for ‘El Dorado’, and instead succeed in conquering an endless expanse of swamp and hostile jungle, it is in fact a prolonged meditation on the futility of human existence – complete with examples of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ at its most absurd (a group of starving men drifting on a raft are content to watch their loutish Emperor claim the land that looms up on either side: ‘Every day we drift my realm becomes larger. Already it is bigger than France and Spain together’). This film has been very influential in inspiring directors to attempt similar ‘mythologising’ of South America – but the comparative lack of success of its successor Fitzcarraldo (West Germany, 1982), as well as the immense logistic difficulties associated with its production, imply that this fatalistic, almost saga-like reading of South America may be too much of a purgatory for film-makers, let alone their imaginary protagonists. The ‘Continental’ school continues to use Latin America as a setting however: Herzog returned there briefly for Cobra Verde (West Germany, 1987) recently – and we have also had the spectacle of Francesco Rosi’s big-budget adaptation of García Márquez’s laconic Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Italy/France/Colombia, 1987).

Differentiating this class of film from the efforts of British film-makers is more for convenience than real taxonomic need (though there are, to be sure, distinctions to be drawn – the British films seem more concerned with the aesthetic frisson to be derived from landscape than with existential imperatives), but this is not the case with American films about the region. If we take out those specifically concerned with Mexico (extensions of the Western), we are left with a few clear categories which hardly match at all the post-Aguirre perceptions of European directors. There are, for example:

  1. Political Films – these tend, of course, to be about the United States involvement in Central America, and consist of a series of variations on the ‘ugly American’ theme. Examples include: Missing (1982), Costa-Gavras’ film about right-wing oppression in Chile; Under Fire (1983), a rather naive film about the Nicaraguan revolution; El Norte (1983), a rather more ‘human’ view of the region; and, the exemplary film in this grouping, Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), a really horrifying picture of the ambiguities of war-journalism in an unreported war.

  2. Exploitative Comedies – drawing on the Hollywood ‘Latin-American craze’ of the 1940’s (which spawned such works as Flying Down to Rio (1933), Gilda (1946), Road to Rio (1947), and the films of Carmen Miranda and Yma Sumac), one might mention: Bananas (1971), an example of the sort of film that Woody Allen thankfully no longer makes; Blame it on Rio (1984), where Michael Caine is seduced by the attractions of Carnival; and Romancing the Stone (1984), where the clichés of romantic comedy are subjected to as amusing an analysis as is possible without transgressing the rules of the genre (this last film is also remarkable for its recognition of the formulaic nature of most cinematic references to Latin-American manners and mores – as is instanced by the scene in which Kathleen Turner wakes up on a bus surrounded by fat peasant women nursing pigs in their arms.)

  3. Literary Adaptations – these, depending on how faithful they are to the book in question, also constitute a sort of tradition: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Under the Volcano (1984) are both exclusively concerned with Mexico, and therefore outside our scope – but The Honorary Consul (1984) is set in Argentina, while The Mosquito Coast (1986) attempts to do a sort of Aguirre for Honduras (but succeeds only in turning into a black comic Swiss Family Robinson.)

Aside from accidental ‘sports’ such as Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) (an attempt to impose drug-culture aesthetics on Peru) or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Rambo-like Predator, these three categories comprise most of the recent American films about South America, and confirm what one originally suspected – that ‘South America’ has a more particular significance for inhabitants of the Old World than the United States.

[Lewis Gilbert, dir.: Moonraker (1979)]

To return, then, to our ‘British’ tradition of films about South America – the first, Moonraker, can be used almost as a ground-zero level against which to measure thematic subtleties. The James Bond films have always been noted for their more-or-less amiable exploitation of women and natives (often simultaneously), and the scenes from Rio’s Carnival in this film are no exception. What is notable is how tired and uninventive they are. One has only to compare the efforts of the Moonraker team with the fresh and vivid view of Copacabana beach in Hector Babenco’s Pixote to realise that the former is the sort of film that requires falsity in order to function. The basic postulates of the plot (an evil genius who intends to breed a new, genetically perfect race in Outer Space – while destroying the rest of mankind) are so absurd that they cannot afford to compete even with the modest attractions of well-filmed jungle or seaside. Just a few moments of honest or insightful camera-work or acting, and the whole edifice would collapse in ruins. Luckily Broccoli and his production crew are equal to the challenge – managing to concoct such memorable absurdities as a set of Guatemalan temples in the middle of the Amazon rain-forest, and even a complete ‘secret headquarters’ in the Andes (how these got to the coast of Brazil it is hard to know) staffed by men in ponchos and karate-chopping monks. The temples prove to be the evil Hugo Drax’s hideout – but the sole justification for seeing this film as being in any sort of tradition is the fact that Bond is lured inside them by a mysterious Rima-like female, who immediately abandons him to be eaten by a giant snake.

‘Mysterious women’ are, to be sure, perhaps the most prevalent of all Romantic archetypes –from Rider Haggard’s She to the Sphinx of Gustave Moreau – but anyone who is at all familiar with the iconography of South America in English literature will realise that bird-women and snake-women are, to say the least, recurrent features. Rima, in W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, is the most obvious example, seconded by the saintly women of Conrad and Masefield – and (on the snake side) the witches in Hudson’s ‘Pelino Viera’s Confession’ and The Purple Land. Brenda Last, then, can be seen to be in a long line of heroines – as can Cherie Lunghi as the fatal, divisive woman in The Mission, or even the Indian girl Kachiri in The Emerald Forest.

[John Boorman, dir.: The Emerald Forest (1985)]

After Moonraker had set the precedent, the next British film to go on location in Brazil was John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest. Since Boorman has published his own diary of the shooting, we can note the immense amounts of preparation and care that went into this attempt at a ‘moving human story’. Not only did Boorman visit a tribal Shaman and spend days being initiated into the mysteries, but he also devoted an unprecedentedly long time to rehearsing and co-ordinating his native extras. Unfortunately, the fact that he had been let into the country so easily mainly because of the huge local success of Excalibur, his retelling of the Arthurian legend, proved prophetic of the whole enterprise. Just as Excalibur travestied the works of Malory and Chrestien, so did The Emerald Forest fail to portray South America convincingly. The black make-up for the ‘evil’ tribe. and white make-up for the ‘Invisible People’, his principal protagonists, looked as arbitrary as it in fact was. The attempts at tribal dancing looked as if they had strayed out of a John Ford Western, and the hackneyed nature of the plot (a child, stolen from his parents in infancy, returns to them only to discover that his world is no longer theirs) was not redeemed by any finesse in the handling. Nor was the (immensely difficult) loca¬tion shooting particularly impressive. Nothing in the film reached the supreme depths of Boorman’s earlier film The Heretic, culminating with the scene in which Richard Burton wanders around an African town, uttering the word ‘Bazuzu’ to everyone he meets – but Tomme’s trance-state, in which he flies above the forest as an eagle, runs it close.

Technically, The Emerald Forest was an immense improvement on its predecessor – admittedly, one could probably say the same of Walt Disney's The Three Caballeros (USA, 1945)) - but it fell sadly short of German films like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. The same could hardly be said of the next film in our series, however. Roland Joffé’s The Mission was both visually superb and thematically astute (a return to the days of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago for Robert Bolt – out of the doldrums of Ryan’s Daughter and Lady Caroline Lamb). The first shot, of a crucified Jesuit falling over the Iguaçu falls, rivals even the opening of Aguirre, the endless caravan winding down the Andes) as a visual icon. The plot is, it is true, somewhat simplistic – as are the binary oppositions between the path of peace and that of vio¬lence, as exemplified by the saintly Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and the reformed slave-trader Mendoza (Robert de Niro) – but this very simplicity achieves some remarkable effects; things which ought to jar and yet somehow do not. The scene where Mendoza, who has dragged his armour and weapons in a bundle to the top of the falls in penance for killing his brother, has the burden cut from him by the Indians he formerly enslaved is, one must admit, somewhat of a production number – but when de Niro starts to weep, and the music swells, even the most jaded member of the audience is tempted to follow suit. Similarly with the portrayals of Arcadian innocence in the Jesuit Missions. No doubt this is really a myth, but it is not one which was invented for this film – being, rather, the accepted picture of ‘paradise in Paraguay’ handed down from the eighteenth century. A more jaundiced or realistic view (including the scenes of drunkenness and debauchery among the Indians originally included by Bolt) might have salved a few consciences, but it would not, it seems to me, have resulted in a better film.

The Mission depends for its success on absolutes – on one-sided sponsorship of nature and natives against ‘civilisation’ – and on the vision of love, and music, and water as three clarities opposed by the hatred, war and bloodshed of the settlers. As Jeremy Irons comments of an Indian myth describing blackness as the result of laziness when called on to act by God: ‘I wonder which Spaniard told them that’.

And so we come full circle back to A Handful of Dust. Like Moonraker, and unlike the other two films, it is only partially set in South America –though the momentousness of that portion of the film is perhaps more striking than the corresponding section of the book, thanks in part to the opening scene. Comparing the two films, however, makes it clear that progress has been made. The Mission established a soft-focus photography which seems best to suit the ‘British’ view of South America as a stage where moral problems are reduced to their raw elements. The Emerald Forest made it clear that, contrary to popular belief, beautiful landscapes cannot make your film for you. The farrago of second-hand images which characterised Moonraker, then, seems to be a thing of the past – and we can look forward to more films which use South America as a symbol meaningful in itself; a place of rivers, mountains and trees. (One possible example already is the ending of Bellman and True (UK, 1987), which presents the hero and his son’s Ronnie Biggs-style escape to Rio as a continuous moving frieze, full of rioting dolphins and whales, culminating in a Brazilian black Madonna, with the voice of the boy saying ‘Great here, i’n’t it?’).

[Richard Loncraine, dir.: Bellman and True (1987)]


Inter-Arts: A Quarterly Journal of Cultural Connections 7 (1988): 14-16.
[Available at: Versions of South America (16/4/09)].

[2970 wds]

[Inter-Arts 7 (1988)]

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