At the beginning of the last century the movies taught that the church stood as a bedrock sanctuary, hallowed by institutional age and inhabited predominantly by a kindly old character actor priests and sweet old biddy nuns, preaching trust in The Lord with a capital T. Cults are usually scattered by the end of a film with the organization and its members in a severe state of disrepair. Their mindlessness and group unity make them great villains, creatively sadistic and born to be dispatched creatively.
In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we enjoy probably one of the earliest screen examples of the Christian church’s existential vulnerability, parting ways with the old image of immutable sanctity. The 1947 British film Black Narcissus is a visual tour de force from postwar golden age craftsmen under the bold vision of directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Filmed entirely not on location at the legendary Pinewood Studios, the story adapts a popular women’s novel about a young nun (Deborah Kerr) charged with keeping a new mission in an old harem built from stone on the high mountains of the British Indian Himalayas. Things gradually fall apart in glorious Technicolor as the sultry advances of British actors in Indian makeup like Jean Simmons, one actual Indian (the ubiquitous Sabu) and the only white imperialist in town (David Farrar) prove to be too much. The nuns are seduced into madness, or maybe it’s just the lack of oxygen up there.
Try as Kerr might, she still finds herself having flashbacks to her life before getting to a nunnery – which were removed from the US version of the film at the lobby of the Catholic Legion of Decency upon release, in addition to a pivotal scene of Kathleen Byron’s symbolic defection from the flock. Where most contemporary dramas about nuns would begin, social mores then excised. In a meta-real life happy ending, actual British audiences first saw the film end with the image of Kerr peaceably leaving the Indian countryside mere months after the British withdrew from India in shame the very same year.
Cobra is an epochal achievement in dumb 80s action movies, meeting every quota for witless one liners, fascist politics, homoeroticism and of course a healthy body count. Sylvester Stallone’s villainous, mysterious cultists the Night Slashers (led by, um, “The Night Slasher” Brian Thompson have maybe the least backstory of the few action films in which the cannon fodder are homicidal cultists who wave axes over their heads like it’s the middle ages while the music, fashion and occasionally incoherent editing of their film heralds the onset of the late 80s. So important to Stallone was the story of one renegade cop defying liberal bureaucratic cowardliness to have an awesome car chase on the freeway with the Night Slashers that the whole Night Slashers scenario was originally meant for Beverly Hills Cop had Stallone accepted the film and not Eddie Murphy.
When Brian Thompson threatens Marion “Cobra” Cobretti and Bridgette Neilson in the flames and steam factory at the end of the film Stallone acts as he informed the zombielike cultist hostage taker in the introductory action sequence: he is “the cure” and his criminal are “a disease.” Could there be a more concise metaphor for mortal enmity toward spiritual hucksters? This and Stallone’s recent positing of hapless naive Christian missionaries needing to be saved by an irreligious Rambo in Rambo show a disinterest by the auteur in organized religion uncommon to his otherwise conservative world view, not to the degree of antitheism but agnosticism at best. Witness also his malleable recitation of Hebrew prayers at Mickey’s funeral in Rocky III.
Rambo: First Blood Part II director George P. Cosmatos gives the mindless action plenty of zip and the impenetrable psyche of Stallone provides the madness. You can take the man from his b-movie roots of porn and Death Race 2000 but you can’t keep him from Golan-Globus even when he could have done any film he wanted in the wake of Rocky IV and Rambo in 1985. For one brief Reagan moment, Stallone’s fantasies reflected the zeitgest of contemporary political life, namely boxing the Soviet Union to a pulp and single handedly rescuing every American POW in Vietnam.
Cobra attempted to clean up the streets at home, and in peaking past the break point of absurdity by having the streets overrun by a combination of the Illuminati and the biker rapists of Mad Max, Stallone discredited himself and was kept from being elected philosopher-god-king of America.
NEXT WEEK: DEAD MAN (1995, JIM JARMUSCH) & THE NET (1995, IRWIN WINKLER)