by Raju Peddada
(Swans - March 23, 2009) In the grim gray days following my father's passing, I languidly dredged up remote corners of my memory for some special moments with him. I drifted one afternoon, apathetically enduring a dull headache and playing mnemonic games with myself. When we were young, one of the things my father did religiously was to take us to the movies. And take he did, to the best ones. As I think more about those times, it clarifies the reality and forces acceptance of a bitter antipodean fact, that memory of the past bliss always becomes the anguish of present.
India is the land of fervid movie fans, despite all the monomaniacal spurious Hindi films. Besides the entertainment, irascible thousands poured into the huge theaters on the weekends to escape the searing tropical sun of the summers. Inside these chilled theaters, everybody escaped emotionally and physically, for at least three hours. The most popular shows times were the weekend matinees. Just like anything else, what we loved as children we hated or grew out of as adults, and what we didn't like as youngsters we grew to like as adults. We all experience this in various ways, and in almost everyone's life there are things that we love or hate, not because they were good or bad on their own merit, but simply because of the happenings, connections, and personal experiences intertwined with them. I call it the "Empirical Attachments." I remember the first movie I took my daughter to, A River Runs Through It, and the delectable memory of being introduced to Gummy Bears, which later became my addiction; the movie I saw with my wife and mother, Gladiator, where, right in the middle of an intense battle scene, my pregnant wife pipes up with: "I have a craving for McDonald's breakfast"; or the book 1776 by David McCullough, which I was reading in isolation room 429, where my father was battling for his independence from a terminal disease. I also recall the first book I read after my father's death, which he had picked for me to read. Oddly, like an Edgar Allan Poe mystery, my father's pick of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for me was anomalous and portentous of an impending Black Swan event for us, in which my father would be the protagonist. It was like getting a lugubrious script of what was to take place, from the hand of fate, only to read it and realize it after it was all over.
The years 1968-69 were watershed years for everybody and for me too, in more ways than one. It was in '68 that we took the train to my maternal grandparents' village in south India. I still clearly remember the Sportsweek cover that showcased a freshly minted Wimbledon Champ, Billie Jean King, on a train station platform and which my admonishing mother purchased for me. Twenty-one years later, I and others were taking base-line volley lessons from her at the Midtown Tennis Club on Fullerton Avenue in Chicago ...pardon me for the digression. It was during this vacation, when, on one ineffable pre-dawn fireside chat with my grandmother, she said "planets are like gods, unattainable for the humans, unless we have done some good in life." I remember the bright three-quarters moon she pointed to while speaking to me sliding behind the huge charcoal cloud, silver-lining it. It was as if the sentient moon hid in embarrassment for what was being said and what was going to take place the following July 20th. It was also the year I excelled in sports by becoming the best athlete in my age group. Although too young to know, the same year some great films were released, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey; Shame, by Ingmar Bergman; Rosemary's Baby, by Roman Polanski; and Oliver!, which won the Best Picture Oscar in '68. But the best movie for me, that year and for many years thereafter, was Where Eagles Dare. It became the epigraph for my movie memories.
After moving to New Delhi in 1966, the regularity of seeing my father back from work by 6:30 every evening was something new and exciting. This routine was new to us, as early in his career we boys never got to see him. He was mostly stationed out of town, actually in the jungles of Assam, in northeast India, as a wireless engineer in charge of setting up and effecting communications for large international pipeline contractors that were laying an oil pipeline for Shell Oil. We lived in the nearby cities and encumbered our uncle (my father's younger brother), while father worked at the site, away from us, in thick jungles. Our mother was taxed by this arrangement, as she shuttled between him and us on Jeeps or the doorless helicopters provided by the company. Regardless of where we were, he made time to take us to the movies. He especially loved British and Hollywood "mission" war films. Mission movies are essentially movies for men. Films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, and the critically acclaimed Saving Private Ryan. I also look forward to another mission movie, if it ever gets made, based on Patrick O'Donnell's The Brenner Assignment, which was a true mission in WWII. All of the English films arrived late to India -- in some cases they came one or two years after their official release date. So was the case with Where Eagles Dare. It was released in '68, but we saw it in the late summer of '69.
This is not a movie review, but a reminiscence of an event. Where Eagles Dare, even with its glaring flaws, happens to be one of my personal favorites for the reasons elicited above. Despite being a film purist, this movie somehow grew on me over the years, not only for being the repository of some Technicolor memories with my father, but for being an exhilarating film for a boy on that summer day. Recently, I put the movie on with my sons next to me, and moments later, upon ingesting the fabulous score and seeing the titles come up, my eyes glazed over the screen and dissolved in liquid memory to that unforgettable summer day forty years ago, when my father took us to see this film at the Odeon.
1969 was the year of demarcation -- paroxysmal events that unfolded changed our quiescent lives, even though we had lived far away in India. It was the year when the Beatles played their last roof-top concert at their Apple Records studio, the moon landing ushered in a new era of hauteur in America, and a month later, Jimmy Hendricks rocked Woodstock and the American landscape. We saw all of this on our black and white television, still a novelty in India. It was also the year when the Internet was born (despite Al Gore's claim), Coppola and Lucas birthed Zoetrope, the rock-and-roll paradigm shifted with the release of the Led Zeppelin I album, and Rupert Murdoch was doing what he is doing today, buying a newspaper. The 1969 event of the year for me, a pre-teen kid, was going to the movie Where Eagles Dare with my parents and brother.
It was a scorching Saturday when my father came home early from the office and had us pile into his Fiat 1100 for a movie. We drove from our south suburbs into the New Delhi downtown known as "The Connaught Place," built by the English, an upscale circular shopping arcade ringed by Doric columns with shops underneath. This ocular arcade was anchored by three huge theaters called the Plaza, the Regal, and the Odeon and was centered by a large fountain. We arrived at the Odeon on time, and for that matter, my father was a very punctual man, despite this insouciant cultural attitude towards honoring punctuality. There was a huge jostling crowd waiting, mingled with impetuous scalpers hawking the movie tickets for a premium. The scene outside the theater was another theater, a bedlam with altercations, street vendors shouting, men gawking at effulgent and frippery women, and preferential treatment for the porcine and haughty influence wielders and brokers. We parked far and made it into the theater just in time to see the trailers.
We transformed from spiffy to slovenly by the time we were seated by the theater ushers. Once seated, the cold blast from the air conditioners in the balcony suffused our wet backs with a chill a few minutes after we settled. I was ecstatic for it being a war movie, and especially if it was a mission war film. We were seated a little towards the lower left on the balcony. Towards my left was father, and to my right were my brother and mother. I was nervous with anxious excitement when the lion roar of MGM abruptly filled the giant screen. The musical score was spot on with the titles and matched perfectly for the genre. The well-composed and scintillating music leavened the action and suspense. The scene of a tri-motor plane coming at me in sync with a march drumbeat and passing overhead at low altitude with the engines' roar dissolving into an orchestral score was nothing short of breathtaking for the audience. This hooked us immediately; the plane flew into the cold powdery yonder of the Alpine range as a backdrop for the titles.
The beginning of the film was so atmospherically charged and cold that I had moved to the edge of my seat and could see the declivity of the theater. I remember distinctly my father's glance at me while I immured myself into the movie moving forward. He impulsively reached for my hand and squeezed it; I was embarrassed to be an open book, and pulled my hand away, but I never forgot this and never will. A little incident like that, not quotidian by any means, that took place when I was barely a teenager, stayed with me for forty years, as if it happened yesterday. He saw my joy and also saw how I was into it, and was glad to be with us. That little episode of a fatherly stroke spoke volumes about him, who was always reticent to emote. Years later, whenever I saw the movie again, I reminisced about it, and sometimes with father next to us. This year will be the fortieth anniversary of seeing this film with my father and mother. With his elephant memory, I am sure he would have remembered it.
I had lived all my years there in dripping heat and humidity, and seeing a film shot entirely in powdery locales was a covetous dream. I yearned to obviate that heat from my life and experience the cold. It was this movie and the acculturation years later that provided the impetus for my migration to the coldest big city in North America. Don't misunderstand me folks, this film barely surfaces above the waters of mediocrity with its flaws, but has flashes of genius that can be enjoyed in the percussive course of the film. When we first saw this movie, we could not understand the intrigue and the machining of Alistair MacLean's screenplay -- it was far too complicated for us. Later as adults, despite the defects, we enjoyed every nuance of the movie with certitude: The imperious and punctilious tone of Richard Burton, the crisp terse dialogue in British accent, the action without any special effects, and the word-to-scene, the scene-to-scene, and the metaphor-to-scene splices were simply liquid; it was a celluloid osmosis. The first scene after the titles, when Burton and the crew get ready to parachute out of the plane, Burton glances at the blinking red light that then transitions to another blinking red light at the operation headquarters where their mission briefing took place..."Our man was brought down here...near a town called Werfen," a wonderful briefing even for the audience, about what was to unfold. In the first quarter of the movie, by the mountain ridge in the alpine woods, looking through to the castle called Schloss Adler, Clint Eastwood intimidated by the objective asks Richard Burton, "I don't even know why the hell I am here!" Burton coolly retorts, "You're here because..." Suddenly both of them are drowned by the din of a low flying helicopter (actually, an American Bell helicopter that came into production after the war and also ferried my mother back and forth to our father) bringing a general from Berlin into the castle "here." The camera transitions from Burton's word "here" to the castle scene, without an abrupt transition, and without revealing the plot -- it was pure cinematic magic. Another prior scene was when Burton checks the white, canvas-covered wireless set for connection with HQ, while at their alpine hideout, and says "might be the storm...we'll try tomorrow" and proceeds to move the wireless set into the camera lens as the white back of the set dissolves into a snowy alpine valley with men wading through knee-deep snow the next morning or "tomorrow." The bonus to all the action was the improvised dialogue and virtuosic Burton creativity that added to the movie's gritty and serrated quality. I think Richard Burton was shortchanged by the Oscars for his body of work.
Despite all its warts and internal flaws, the cadence and syntax of this movie -- the locations, screenplay, cinematography, acting, edits, and direction -- melded into an entertainment that remains unparalleled for me. Moreover, the outdoor locations in the film provide in the least, a visual restoration and rejuvenation that comes from being in nature, and that sensual pleasure of entrapment in the present. It is hard for me to see this film critically because of its high emotional watermark. However, the best criticism, as well as accolades, always sprang forth from my sons' body language. These loquacious, hyperkinetic boys, a four-year-old and a six-year-old, sat quietly and watched the movie in its entirety...these same rascals, I vouch, cannot sit through an eighty-five minute tornado of a cartoon without getting percussive and bouncing off the walls. I didn't have to squeeze their hands like my father did that summer day. They were on my lap.
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