Friday, 1 January 2010

The Saga of Anatahan (1953)

Well, Happy New Year to all! My right arm is still not healed, so typing is a slow process, but I was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms from lack of blogging. (I briefly considered packing it in -- but no such luck!) For the first time in five years I missed out giving my recommendations for British TV viewing over the holiday period, but frankly the possibilities were far from scintillating with the "big" movies being those blockbusters which most of us have already viewed either at the cinema on release or on DVD. Nonetheless I managed to keep my daily average up with an assortment of re-views, a dire selection of Hallmarky Xmas flicks, and the latest selections on satellite. However rather than another dreary compendium review, I will tell you about the above oddity which has now been deleted from my 'must-see' list and which I dragged myself to the National Film Theatre to view, but which was well worth the effort.

Shown as part of the Josef von Sternberg season, I have been trying to trace this one for years. Contrary to rumour, it is not his last film as a director -- that dubious honour is held by 1957's "Jet Pilot" with big Duke Wayne, but it is certainly his last idiosyncratic contribution to cinema history. Like so many out-of-fashion directors, he was unable to get any decent offers from Hollywood and traveled to Japan where he wrote, photgraphed, directed and provided the voice-over narration for this small slice of Japanese history. The story concerns the survivors of a ship sunk during 1944 who wash up on the eponymous island near the Mariana Trench. There they find a man and a woman -- the only survivors of a previous settlement -- who are not actually husband and wife; she becomes the 'queen bee' sexual magnet for the party over the next seven years. It seems that even when word of the war's end reaches this isolated community, the group decides that this is some sort of enemy trick and refuse to accept a different mindset.

What makes this film so unusual is that the whole story was shot over one year in a disused aircraft hanger tricked out to look like a jungle environment that never was and peopled with a non-professional cast. The characters speak Japanese, but there are no subtitles; we are asked to follow the story by von Sternberg's narration where he assumes the role of one of the characters without the viewer having any idea whatsoever which one. His version of the events which unfold before us is full of high-blown rhetoric and drama, which we might have followed more readily had we been allowed to understand the frequent dialogue. Still one is sucked into the unusual lifestyle as the men try to forget their problems with home-brewed cocoanut booze and drunken carousing. It is only when sexual desire raises its ugly head that we begin to understand the occasional murders among their diminishing number. Keiko is as destructive a force as was Dietrich in the director's 1930's classics.

Von Sternberg counted this movie amongst his favourites. After years of modifying his creativity to the demands of an all-powerful studio, he probably relished this final opportunity to create a world which is 100% his own vision. His may have been the final control here, but without the resources of the studio system for casting, professional set decoration, lighting, and sound, the film does not reach the artistic heights that he (and we) would have really liked.

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