Should a hero be a Brando or a Martin Freeman?

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

Superhero or Everyman?

I woke up this morning wondering what to blog about and I decided the best post would be about the subject of my pondering at the moment; what makes a good hero?

Everyone (well, in the West anyway) will know who Marlon Brando is, possibly the greatest and certainly one of the greatest actors of all time. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in the recent Hobbit films.

I am as big a fan of Bilbo as anybody and nobody can deny Bilbo is the hero of The Hobbit. What is more, he is an ‘everyman.’ What that means is that everyone can identify with his situation because he is just a normal guy. Brando, on the other hand, rarely plays normal guys; from The Wild One to Superman and Apocalypse Now, nearly all his characters are superhuman or out-and-out rebels; men on the edge of society.

Here are my reviews of two of his films that I watched recently. After you have read these, I will ask the question again:

Marlon Brando in The Young Lions

I have been trying to view this 1958 film since my father watched it and recommended it, about ten years ago. He is not a huge fan of Brando and not one to recommend films very often so my interest was piqued. The film proved hard to find; a trip to Virgin and HMV in Oxford Street(at the time) produced nothing and not been able to stream it on-demand since. I tend to watch films when I am in the mood; one day a film might be just what I want, the next day what I definitely don’t want so ordering it from Amazon just wasn’t gonna work for me. A friend finally got it for me and so I was set.

The film starts promisingly enough with Brando, as Christian, a young German ski-instructor, wooing the delicious Hope Lange. But then we are ‘treated’ to nearly half an hour of very mundane acting by Dean Martin (only recently out of his partnership with Jerry Lewis) and a struggling Montgomery Clift. I have seen Clift acting well but for the first hour in this film, he is wooden or overwrought by turns. His tone is so misjudged, I found it hard to watch and Martin is of course not an actor of even Clift’s calibre.

I was beginning to lose hope that we would see Brando on form but he finally reappeared, now as an SS officer in Paris. He meets a friend who sets him up on a blind date with a French girl, whose husband has been killed by the Nazis. “Okay; fireworks! ” I hear you say and you’d be right, She throws the wine Brando just bought her in his face and Christian, with his oft-employed stoic look, listens to her rant without comment for what must be a couple of minutes of screen gold.

Of course he is so tolerant and charming that she has to forgive him in the end and they strike a flame together. Christian has to arrest a Jewish boy but reacts by refusing to make any more arrests and risks a firing squad when ge confronts his commanding officer.

“Ah this is the Brando we love!” I thought. “A rebel within the SS! What a gem!”

His commanding officer takes pity on Christian’s humanity and sends him on an errand to deliver a silk nightie to his own wife, back in Berlin. Brando is happy to get some leave and thus meets the gorgeous and Deitrich-like May Britt. With half-lidded eyes she tells him he can sleep on the couch and help himself to as much schnapps as he can hold while she beds a general.

Christian takes up her offer and later beds her but he doesn’t like her and nor does she care for him.

The strange relationship tension between Christian and his commander weaves a thread right through the film to near the end when Christian has to deliver another gift to Britt’s character in a ruined Berlin. This time, he can’t even find pity for her and takes out his pent up rage about the pointless war on her.

Of course Martin and Clift have parts which run parallel to Brando’s but while theirs is the simple story of all-american-boys making good in the war, albeit a Jewish underdog in the case of Clift, these only serve to highlight just how unusual and complex Brando’s part is. No doubt he worked hard to accentuate this but he hardly needed to; his acting alone lifts the film far beyond what it might otherwise be. He looks the part as the blonde-haired SS uber-soldier but of course he has a weakness in the eyes of his superiors – he is human.

The final scenes play out in, and around a liberated concentration camp. The film is poignant for the inclusion of Clift’s Jew liberating such a horror and Brando delivers a final scene that tops even that (as you would expect) and I am not giving it away.

All in all, well worth a watch if you like a war movie with a little Brando to spice it up! Oh and watch out for a very early performance from Lee van Cleef as a drill sergeant.

The Brave

I watched this 1997 film simply because it is one of the few Brando movies I haven’t seen and it was available on Youtube. I didn’t expect too much from this, the only full-length Johnny Depp directed film to date, although it also has Johnny Depp in the lead role and a cameo from Brando so I expected to at least be competent.

I quickly realised that this film was so obscure and unloved by Hollywood that I could watch it free not because it was bad but because of the subject matter. It’s certainly not an uplifting movie and no doubt the distributors and marketing people had their heads in their hands on this one!

Depp plays a Mexican Indian who is struggling to support his small family on a reserve that essentially survives by recycling stuff from the municipal dump of white people. In and out of jail all his life, he is offered the chance to ‘star’ in a snuff movie for Brando’s McCarthy. He takes the job, knowing it will pay to rehouse his family and educate his children but later regrets it.

The scenes in the rubbish dump are harrowing; Depp’s family sleeping in a tiny caravan, surrounded by waste and his trips further and further up river to find clean water, which he collects in plastic pales hung from a yoke over his back, turned my stomach.

His life is so bad, you can almost understand why he takes up the snuff movie offer… almost … but not quite. When he visits McCarthy in a downtown warehouse he sees the iron torture chair he will be strapped into for the first time. I could barely watch from this point on. Depp underplays his role, playing the stoic American Indian brave trapped in a sick world by uttering very few words, instead using facial expressions silence to communicate his feelings of entrapment.

Brando is incredible! He rolls himself into the warehouse in a wheelchair, while playing a sad blues tune on a harmonica (for real; Brando was a highly accomplished musician, drummer and dancer) and proceeds to take apart the whole concept of death, to the point that he makes it almost sound like a higher-calling. Of course Depp’s character isn’t fooled but he takes the cash and McCarthy tells him to come back in a week.

“Why would you trust me to come back?” Depp asks him (I am paraphrasing here)

“I have a feeling for people; a sensitivity. A man, such as yourself, a man of spirit, is a man of honour.”

This movie is well-worth watching if you care at all about the struggle of some communities to overcome prejudice and inequality. It is heart-breaking to watch what one man has to contemplate in order to provide for his family. I am not very tolerant of pain myself and McCarthy’s answer; “It depends on how much you can take,” when Depp’s character asks him how much he will get, really made me squirm. I simply cannot put this film out of my mind. Of course if you are a person who likes to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, don’t watch this film. But don’t ever look behind you again.

That’s the reviews over. Now back to the question. I am thinking about my next book and it often helps me to think of a Hollywood actor when planning the main character’s role. Here I have got a bit stuck; I see a plot with an old-time Hollywood actor called William Holden. I guess in some ways you could say he is like Martin Freeman in that you probably wouldn’t pick say he was a flamboyant character or would stand out in a crowd.

The trouble is, I worry that such a book would not have a wide enough appeal because the character is not larger-than-life. I get the feeling big epic themes need big epic characters and I wonder if a Brando/Pacino/Russell Crowe type character would work better.

Which type of character do you like best? Let me know by commenting below or @Lazlo_F or on Facebook.

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