Help, help, here come the bears


(c) Regency Enterprises / 20th Century Fox


The other night I finally got around to watching The Revenant, which won Oscars at the recent 88th Academy Awards for its leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  But I must confess that I didn’t watch it because of the fact that it won a slew of Oscars, or for that matter a slew of Golden Globes and BAFTAs too.  Nor did I watch it for its spectacular filming locations in Canada and Argentina, nor for its majestic musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, nor for the large amounts of technical talent and effort that, generally, went into its making.


No, I watched The Revenant because I wanted to see a grizzly bear tear a new asshole in the star of Titanic (1998).


Mind you, when the much-anticipated scene arrived and serious bear-abuse was inflicted on the man who’d helped the soppiest film in history break box-office records around the world, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected.  Probably this was because I felt upset about the bear.  Because it transpired that the bear – who ends up in an even worse condition that DiCaprio does, i.e. dead – carried out the attack for a noble reason.  DiCaprio had stumbled across its cubs and the bear was trying to protect its offspring.


The bear’s protective instincts tie in nicely with one of The Revenant’s main themes, which is parenthood.  DiCaprio’s character, 1820s frontiersman and trapper Hugh Glass, has a son (Forrest Goodluck) who’s treated with contempt by the white men around them because his mother was a Native American; and the father is constantly defending the son against their belligerence.  Meanwhile, the chief of the Arikara tribe (Duane Howard), whose braves decimate the party of trappers DiCaprio is guiding through the wilderness in a gruelling battle at the film’s start, is on the warpath because some white men have abducted his daughter (Nelaw Nakehk’o); and he’s desperately trying to find her.


After the mauling he gets from the bear, DiCaprio is betrayed by a couple of the trappers he’s been escorting.  Abandoning him out in the woods, crippled but still alive, is actually the least of the crimes they commit against him.  But the hard-as-nails DiCaprio refuses to die.  He scrabbles out of the grave they’ve dumped him in and he crawls, then staggers and finally limps across countless miles of hostile countryside, determined to catch up with his betrayers and get revenge.


The main person he wants revenge on is a thuggish troublemaker played by Tom Hardy, who speaks with a mumbling drawl that rates about 6 out of 10 on the Tom Hardy Mumbling Scale.  (10 on that scale is represented by Hardy’s performance in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.)  Hardy’s character has already survived a partial scalping by some native tribesmen that’s left his head, and hair, looking like that of Annabelle Lwin in Bow Wow Wow when they had a hit with Go Wild in the Country.


Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs the action sequences with aplomb but he’s equally interested in the imagery of the beautiful but dangerous landscapes that DiCaprio has to traverse — icy peaks, snowy plains, primordial forests, vertiginous cliffs, frothing rivers and howling storms — landscapes that are populated by elk, bison and packs of ravening wolves.  Nature with its endless cycles of birth, life and death, Iñárritu seems to say, is utterly indifferent to the affairs of mankind, however grand those affairs may be.  DiCaprio might get his revenge or might not, but at the end of the day the snow will still fall, the wind will still blow and the wolves will still prey.  This makes The Revenant reminiscent of the films of director Terence Malick, such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), which display a similar preoccupation with the perpetual motions of nature.  In fact, The Revenant is like a Terence Malick movie with a very big injection of testosterone.


Actually, I think Malick has the upper hand on Iñárritu when it comes to conveying the chaos of the battles between settlers and natives in newly colonised North America.  A battle depicted in The New World, which is set two centuries before the time of The Revenant, is disorganised, confusing and episodic.  It stops and starts again and is almost like a mass-brawl of drunkards in a late-night pub.  Iñárritu’s battle sequence at the start of The Revenant is terrifyingly haphazard – death can claim anyone, from any angle, at any moment – but the fighters are a bit too efficient.  Every musket-ball and whizzing arrow seems to find a target, i.e. in some screaming victim’s flesh.  Considering the primitiveness of the weapons involved, I imagine the reality would have been more shambolic.  (And later there’s an unlikely scene where DiCaprio, being chased by Arikara warriors and riding his horse pell-mell towards a cliff, manages to swing around and blast his nearest pursuer off his saddle with a dodgy old musket.)


The bear-attack scene is more convincing.  DiCaprio gets savaged but manages to play dead, and eventually the bear loses interest in him.  Then, as he crawls towards his fallen gun, the big grizzly beast comes roaring back to give him a second mauling.  DiCaprio’s helplessness and the bear’s treatment of him, which is like a sadistic and attention-deficient kid playing with a ragdoll, make the scene ring true.


I’ve never read the book on which The Revenant was partly based, the 2002 novel by Michael Punke.  But I imagine Iñárritu was inspired too by Jack London’s short stories about prospectors and trappers in the Yukon and by Cormac McCarthy’s ‘revisionist’ western novel of 1985, the mayhem-filled Blood Meridian.  Though The Revenant, despite all the cruelty it depicts, is pretty upbeat compared to Blood Meridian.  Apart from Tom Hardy’s character, the half-dozen main characters in The Revenant have at least a glimmer of goodness in them.  In Blood Meridian, everyone is as rotten as Hardy.


Finally, a word about DiCaprio winning an Oscar for this.  He’s done good work with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (2006’s The Departed), Quentin Tarantino (2012’s Django Unchained) and Christopher Nolan (2010’s Inception, which also starred Hardy), so I’d assumed an Oscar was coming his way sooner or later.  However, it seems a bit odd to give him an Oscar for The Revenant because his role here doesn’t involve much (verbal) acting.  As Hugh Glass, DiCaprio spends his time reacting with grunts, grimaces and howls of pain to being clawed, mangled, stabbed, starved, frozen and buried alive; to having to cauterise his wounds with gunpowder, eat raw fish and dodge lots of arrows; to plunging off cliffs, getting swept away by rapids and being entombed in heavy falls of snow.  His dialogue is hardly Shakespearean.  Mainly it consists of exclamations like GAAAAAAH! and UUUUURGH! and AAAAARGH!


Then again…   Has there ever been an Oscar award that wasn’t bitterly contested by film fans?  I suppose not.


Horror westerns


(c) Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment


Currently on release in UK cinemas is Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler and starring Kurt Russell.  This film is unusual because it’s a mash-up of two genres that in the past have been rarely combined.  On one hand, like last year’s Slow West and The Hateful Eight, it’s a western movie.  On the other hand, Bone Tomahawk is a horror movie too – and a pretty gruelling one, according to the reviews of it I’ve read.


When you think about it, you’d expect more cinematic overlap between westerns and horror movies.  The 19th-century American frontier was a violent place and from time to time some horrifying things happened there – at least, that’s the impression I get when I read something like Cormac McCarthy’s no-atrocity-spared western novel Blood Meridian (1985).  And America was developing its own gothic-horror tradition at the time, although this was happening in the east of the country – Washington Irving was born in New York, Edgar Allan Poe in Boston and Nathaniel Hawthorne in New Hampshire – rather than in its west.  Meanwhile, Native American folklore was rich in monstrous creatures, such as the skin-walkers, wendigo and mannegishi of, respectively, Navajo, Algonquian and Cree legend; which could easily be subjects for horror films.


I suspect one reason why there hasn’t been much overlap is because the earliest cinematic attempts to blend the genres were so ham-fisted.  In particular, I’m thinking of a pair of cheapies that pitted legendary wild-west outlaws against legendary old-world monsters, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jessie James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.  Both were directed by William Beaudine in 1966 and were about as good as their titles suggested.  No doubt their rubbish-ness hobbled the western / horror crossover before it got properly going.


But since the 1970s there have been some worthy westerns that work too as horror films.  As an aficionado of both genres, I’ll present here a few of those hybrids that I especially like – movies with spurs and Stetsons, cacti and cowpokes, that’ll send a chill down your spine.


(c) Universal Pictures


Actually, you could argue that 1971’s The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and was directed by Eastwood’s frequent collaborator Don Siegel, is neither a western nor a horror film.  It’s set in the American Civil War, not in the wild west; and it isn’t a film that tries to scare you as such – it’s more of a brooding gothic melodrama.  Nonetheless, it reminds me a little of Misery (1987), Stephen King’s famous horror novel about obsession, captivity and torture.


The Beguiled starts with Eastwood’s character, an injured Yankee soldier, ending up on the grounds of a boarding school in Louisiana.  The southern belles in the school – staff and pupils are all female – decide to hand him over to the Confederates, though not before he’s recovered a bit and is less likely to die in the Confederates’ grim prison-camp.  However, sneaky Clint soon starts flirting with, wooing and manipulating the ladies around him: a middle-aged headmistress with an incest-related secret from her youth (Geraldine Page), her gawky and virginal second-in-command (Elizabeth Hartmann), a loyal black maid (Mae Mercer), the regulation school hussy (Jo Ann Harris) and the eccentric twelve-year-old who first discovered him in the nearby forest (Pamelyn Ferdin).


But things backfire on him.  By meddling with the repressed emotions of his rescuers / captors, he triggers a series of unpleasant consequences.  Getting one of his legs amputated by the womenfolk in an amateur surgical operation is just the start of it.


A wonderfully atmospheric film, The Beguiled makes you respect Eastwood for refusing to play it safe with his macho and immensely-popular-at-the-time persona.  Instead of portraying another heroic he-man, he essays a character who’s a scheming, duplicitous twat; one who gets his come-uppance from the people he least expects it from, the women he assumes he can control.


(c) The Malpaso Company / Universal Pictures


But The Beguiled isn’t the only western where Clint defies genre expectations.  Three years later he directed and starred in High Plains Drifter, a movie that combines the 1952 western classic High Noon with a ghost story.  This time he plays a supernatural reincarnation of a dead sheriff, a phantom somehow made flesh again, who rides into the town where years earlier his original self had been abandoned by the cowardly townspeople and murdered by a trio of psychopathic outlaws.  Now the outlaws are due to be released from prison and will likely attack the town again; and the local citizens, having grown no braver in the interim, unwittingly hire the ghost of their old sheriff as their new sheriff in the hope that he’ll protect them.  Of course, the vengeful spirit does no such thing.  Instead, he heaps humiliation upon them by insisting that they do some very strange things to prepare for the oncoming showdown – covering their town in red paint, for instance, or making a dwarf their new town-mayor.  And then, just as the villains are approaching, he clears off…


Credulity is stretched (even by ghost-story standards) by the fact that Eastwood gets re-hired as sheriff without the townspeople recognising him as the same man whom, earlier, they’d allowed to get killed.  But to some extent the film gets around this problem by having flashbacks showing the sheriff’s murder, where’s he’s not played by Eastwood but by his stunt double Buddy Van Horn.  (Van Horn later became a filmmaker himself and directed Eastwood in movies like 1980’s Any Which Way You Can and 1988’s The Dead Pool.)  Thus, the murdered sheriff looks like ghostly Clint but isn’t quite the same.


High Plains Drifter is a film that I saw on TV as a kid and found very disconcerting because it wasn’t what I’d expected.  Not only is Eastwood an anti-hero rather than a hero, but he’s also a ghost.  On the other hand, of course, after seeing the film I could never forget it and I now rate it highly.  And Clint certainly seemed to like it because he used a slightly less supernatural, slightly more mainstream version of its story in his 1985 movie Pale Rider.


(c) United Artists


Another film I remember finding baffling when, as a juvenile, I first saw it on TV was 1977’s The White Buffalo.  It was produced by the prolific mogul Dino De Laurentiis, who probably intended it as a western-flavoured cash-in on a movie that was doing rather well at the time, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).  Though its story, about an aging Wild Bill Hickok obsessed with a giant albino buffalo that’s murderously stalking the American frontier, is obviously indebted to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick too.


On its release The White Buffalo flopped and got critically panned, and it certainly has its problems.  For one thing, the monster buffalo – designed by special effects man Carlos Rambaldi, who’d previously worked on De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong – isn’t very convincing.  Shots of it charging towards the camera with its humped back going up and down as rhythmically as a toy drinking-bird look absurd.  And the script contains some silly things.  It’s nice that Hickok, played by Charles Bronson, gets to bond with an Indian brave, played by Will Sampson, who’s tracking the buffalo too and who turns out to be no less a Native American personage than Crazy Horse.  But when Bill and Crazy communicate, they insist on making heavy use of sign language even while they speak perfectly good English to one another.  It’s as if each thought the other was deaf and felt obliged to use sign language and lip-reading to get his meaning across.


But The White Buffalo has some good points.  The scenes showing the icy frontier wastes with the big, beastly behemoth of a buffalo braying and bellowing just off-screen, are undeniably spooky – like all monsters in all horror films, this one is far creepier when we can’t see it and have to use our imaginations to picture it in its full ghastliness.  And it has a great supporting cast of veterans from old western movies and TV shows, including Stuart Whitman, Clint Walker and Slim Pickens.  There’s even a cameo from John Carradine, who was associated with both westerns and horror films and had, in fact, played the bloodsucking title character in 1966’s Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.


Charles Bronson, though, is as inexpressive, morose and gruff as ever.  Indeed, the movie’s climax is basically the Gruffalo versus the Buffalo.


(c) F/M Entertainment / De Laurentiis Entertainment Group


I usually don’t count movies set in the modern-day American west as westerns, even if they do contain Stetsons, horses and tumbleweeds.  However, I’ll make an exception for Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark because it has at least one character, a former Confederate soldier called Jesse, who dates back to wild-west times.  You see, Jesse and his gang are vampires, roaming the dusty prairies and preying on unsuspecting cowboys; and, barring accidents and sunlight, they’re immortal.


Near Dark is beautifully shot by Bigelow and has a wonderful cast.  Among those playing the vampires are Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, all of whom had recently served under Sigourney Weaver in 1986’s Aliens (directed by James Cameron, with whom Bigelow was married for two years).  Alas, it didn’t do much as the box office, probably because it was released at the same time as another movie about a vampire gang, Joel Schumacher’s much more tongue-in-cheek and populist The Lost Boys.  (Not that I’m dissing The Lost Boys – I love it too.)


However, Near Dark has proved influential over the years.  The scene where the vampires slaughter the staff and patrons of an isolated bar-diner was so powerful that Oliver Stone basically copied it for the opening scene of his Natural Born Killers seven years later.  And the scene where the vampires, besieged in a motel, duck the shafts of sunlight that increasingly sear across their darkened room as bullets punch holes in its walls was borrowed too, by Robert Rodriguez, for 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn.


(c) Heyday Films / 20th Century Fox


Finally, a mention for 1999’s Ravenous, an American-British-Czech co-production that showcased a lot of British talent – director Antonia Bird, actor Robert Carlyle and composer Michael Nyman and musician Damon Albarn, the latter two providing the film’s unsettling banjo, horn and drum music.  Equally a horror film, western and ultra-black comedy, Ravenous has Guy Pearce playing a veteran of the 1840s Mexican-American War who’s re-assigned to a remote military fort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  One winter’s night, a near-frozen Carlyle staggers into the fort with a horrible tale to tell.  He was a member of a wagon train making its way through the mountains that got marooned in the snow.  The pioneers took refuge in a cave and once their food ran out, the more ruthless among them started to eat their weaker companions.  Taking Carlyle at his word, the soldiers head off to find the cave and put an end to the cannibalistic madness.  What they find when they get there, though, isn’t what they’d expected.


The first half of Ravenous is brilliantly unnerving, but once Pearce and company arrive at the cave the film becomes increasingly comedic – probably because director Bird has nowhere else to take the horror.  Indeed, as Carlyle tries to introduce Pearce to the pleasures of eating human flesh, it turns into a satire about the Ubermensch of Nietzschean philosophy and the dog-eat-dog nature of American capitalism – both of which would gain prominence after the simpler values of the old American west were dead and gone.


McIlvanney’s loyalties


(c) Hodder and Stoughton


“Life’s a spendthrift mother.  Once she has given what she has, it’s ungrateful to complain that she didn’t have the foresight to take out an insurance policy on your behalf.   You just say thanks.”


The above line probably isn’t one you’d expect to find in a detective novel.  But it comes from Strange Loyalties, published in 1991, which was the third and final book by Scottish writer William McIlvanney to have as its hero Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw.  A few weeks ago I got around to reading it.


Laidlaw is tough enough to hold his own among the hard men, low-life and riff-raff he encounters during his police-work in the mean streets of Glasgow, but he’s also an intellectual and philosophical soul and by the time of Strange Loyalties he’s more philosophical than ever.  This is partly because he’s now in his middle years; and partly because he’s seen Scotland and the old industrialised, working-class character that once defined much of it transformed – not for the better – by the economic policies of the Thatcher government of the 1980s.


Strange Loyalties begins with Laidlaw setting out to solve another case, though this time it’s a personal matter rather than one of police-work.  Back in his Ayrshire hometown of Graithnock, his brother Scott has recently died in a road accident, a senseless accident that hints at suicide.  Taking it upon himself to investigate on a non-official basis, Laidlaw wonders, “Where did the accident begin…?  In the middle of the road?  At the kerb-side?  In the pub before he went out?  In the fact that he drank too much?”  But while he digs into his brother’s past, he comes across another death that needs investigating.  Not far from where his brother lived and died, Laidlaw hears about an ex-miner called Dan Scoular, who’s been killed in a supposed hit-and-run accident.


Although McIlvanney wrote two previous Laidlaw novels, 1977’s Laidlaw and 1983’s The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties is actually more of a sequel to his 1986 novel The Big Man – which, despite being populated with gangsters, is regarded as one of his ‘mainstream’ and ‘literary’ works.  The Big Man tells the story of how Dan Scoular, after losing his job in the local colliery, reluctantly agrees to take part in an illegal bare-knuckle fight being organised by two Glaswegian gangsters.  The gangster he’s fighting on behalf of, Matt Mason, is offering a large sum of money that would help him and his family make ends meet.  Inevitably, after going against his better instincts and accepting Mason’s proposal, Scoular finds out there are more complicated and nastier things going on behind the scenes.  At The Big Man’s end, Scoular betrays Mason and returns to his home town, not knowing if or when the gangster will seek revenge against him.  Unfortunately for Scoular, that revenge has been exacted by the start of Strange Loyalties.


Though Laidlaw never had a chance to meet and know Scoular, he feels a bond with him and undertakes the job of pinning his murder on the villainous Mason.


Meanwhile, he also has to unravel the mystery surrounding his brother Scott.  Though Scott was involved with some of the people who knew Scoular – shortly before his death, for instance, he was seen arguing with Frankie White, the local petty criminal who unwisely set Scoular up with Mason in the first place – he doesn’t seem to have been killed at Mason’s bidding.  Laidlaw rummages in the affairs of his brother’s widow and of a well-to-do local businessman who’s taken a shine to her since Scott’s death.  However, Laidlaw gradually realises that the answer lies further back in the past.  Scott was an amateur painter and a piece of art he’s left behind suggests that the seeds of his destruction were sown while he was a young, idealistic undergraduate.  Inexorably, the novel moves towards a denouement where Laidlaw learns that his brother wasn’t just a victim.  He was responsible for bad things too and then had to live with the guilt of them.


The theme of guilt runs though Strange Loyalties like colouring running through a stick of rock.  However, the book’s also pervaded by a melancholy about things changing and things being lost.  Laidlaw empathises with the late Dan Scoular because he was a decent, old-fashioned working man who was screwed by the economic changes – in his case the destruction of Britain’s coal industry – of the 1980s.  And Laidlaw is instinctively suspicious of the flash character with whom his former sister-in-law has taken up – a symbol of a new society where approval is bestowed not on those virtuous in character but on those with the most money in their pockets.  “Why,” he ponders, “do the best of us go to waste while the worst of us flourish?”


In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Laidlaw catches up with the slippery Frankie White when he returns to the area to visit his dying mother.  Old Mrs White has no knowledge of her son’s criminal activities and believes him to be decent; and Frankie begs Laidlaw to pretend to be his friend and say good things about him at her bedside, so that she’ll pass away feeling some pride in him.  Laidlaw recognises Mrs White as being of an older generation of working-class women who toiled in hard circumstances, sacrificed everything for their families and never complained; and out of respect for her he plays along with Frankie’s deception.


Laidlaw’s yearning for simpler and more virtuous times and his distrust of materialistic modernity come to a head late in the novel when he returns to Glasgow and has to deal with his girlfriend.  She’s a patient and good-hearted person but her line-of-work – running a fancy, upmarket, yuppie-orientated restaurant – can’t help but irritate him.  And when Laidlaw appears, slightly the worse for drink, at a party being held there for some of the city’s movers and shakers, the results are painful.


Strange Loyalties isn’t perfect.  There are a couple of errors – for example, a Polish man who arrived in Scotland during World War II is described as a ‘prisoner of war’, but since the Poles fought against the Nazis the Scots surely wouldn’t have treated him as a P.O.W. – that ought to have been sorted at the editing stage.  And where the Dan Scoular and Scott Laidlaw plotlines overlap, I feel there are a few threads left hanging that could’ve been tidied up.  But nonetheless it’s an excellent book.  I hate people who snobbishly differentiate between ‘literary’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction, but Strange Loyalties skilfully blends both.  It’s succeeds whatever way you look at it, either as a literary story with a bit of police-work in it; or as a detective story with some literary ambitions, which it more than meets.


Incidentally, it would’ve been great to see Laidlaw reappear in a fourth novel.  But that, alas, will never be because McIlvanney died in December of last year.  Still, Strange Loyalties at least gives his tough but contemplative detective a fine send-off


(c) BBC


Re-rock the Casbah



While I was in Algiers in 2014, I wrote about feeling a bit disappointed by the city’s Casbah.  “Situated on the heights above the northern section of the city’s seafront,” I said on this blog, “the old part of the city has clearly suffered its share of knocks over the years – thanks to architectural changes wrought by the French during the colonial era and to general neglect and decay…  I read in a tourist brochure that the area now has UNESCO World Heritage status, but there’s a lot of repairs and maintenance to be done if it’s to become as impressive as, say, the medinas in Tunis or Tripoli.  Then again, maybe I just walked through the wrong part of it.”


A few months ago, I was back in Algiers and this time I had the opportunity, with a couple of other visitors, to go through the Casbah in the company of a proper guide – i.e. somebody who’d grown up in and actually knew the place.  I was really glad I did this.  My previous, aimless wanderings in the Algiers Casbah hadn’t done it justice and I’d missed a lot of fascinating stuff.



We started our tour at the top of the hill where the Casbah is located.  At the very top is a fortress and its outer wall – which presumably enclosed the district of the Casbah itself at one point, qasba meaning ‘citadel’ or ‘fortress’ in Arabic – is currently undergoing restoration work.  The restoration’s progress is delineated by a jagged line running down the stonework.  On one side of the line, the wall is clean, smooth and smart-looking.  On its other side the wall’s stone slabs are stained, pitted and occasionally bearded with vegetation.



It was also on the hilltop that we passed a wall mural showing the ‘Jardin d’Été au Palais d’Ey’.  Under its bottom right-hand corner was a little cavity inhabited by a grey mother-cat and kitten.  These weren’t the only cats we’d see in the neighbourhood.



Descending into the residential part of the Casbah, we found the narrow, winding hillside alleyways wonderfully atmospheric.  On either side, the upper storeys of the buildings are wider than their lower ones, with the result that the further up you look, the narrower the gaps between the alley-sides become.  Sometimes they’re reduced to mere cracks.  And sometimes the gaps are straddled by thick wooden beams whose function, it almost seems, is to hold those claustrophobically-close facades apart.



Overhead are tangles of snaking cables and wires.  Sections of alleyway are also roofed over and here the cables sprout vertically-hanging flexes that end in light-bulbs.  Smarter areas have ornate, box-shaped lamps suspended from curls of metal shaped like question marks.  Meanwhile, the higher parts of the alleyways contain the ‘wall furniture’ typical of Algiers, such as air-conditioning-unit extractor fans and TV satellite dishes.



One feature that impressed me was the number of gorgeously crafted, painted and decorated doors and doorways I saw.  The doors bear crescents, stars, flowers and five-figured markings representing the Hand of Fatima, that venerable talisman used by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.  Arched, painted door-frames are moulded into the surrounding stonework while grilled openings in the upper doors allow the denizens inside to check who’s on their doorsteps before allowing them in.



Down here too are occasional murals; and not infrequent scrawls of graffiti.  And yes, we spied more cats – at one point, a whole doorstep of them.



Our guide deserved credit for not just taking us through the Casbah’s better-maintained areas.  He led us into a few rundown ones too, to highlight its ongoing problems (UNESCO World Heritage Site or not).  The edges, ledges and window-frames of the scruffier buildings bristle with weeds and creepers.  At street level, you encounter heavy timber trusses propping up walls and facades that are seemingly in danger of collapse.



And there are big, unsightly gaps along the narrow Casbah streets where buildings used to stand.  When you look around the perimeter walls of these pieces of waste ground, you see in them the imprints of arched recesses and alcoves – and you realise these were once internal walls, of handsome rooms.  In places, the street-side gaps have been plugged with hillocks of rubbish and debris.



Most poignantly, nearly everywhere that we went in the Casbah, it seemed that old local guys would amble over and engage our guide in conversation; and every one of them complained that Algiers’ ravaged – though, in parts, still very charming – Casbah is a shadow of the bustling, thriving place it used to be.



I ain’t gettin’ on no plane


(c) Universal Pictures


During my impressionable youth in the 1970s, if I’d been about to take a flight and I’d seen the American character actor George Kennedy lurking on board the airplane, or around the departure gate, or for that matter anywhere in or near the airport, I would have refused to fly.  In fact, I’d have spouted the catch-phrase of Mr T in The A-Team: “I ain’t gettin’ on no plane!”


You see, George Kennedy – who sadly passed away two days ago – was somebody you associated with disaster.  He made a career for himself during the 1970s appearing in movies where airplanes fall, or come close to falling, out of the sky: Airport (1970), based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey, and its sequels Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977) and Airport ’80: The Concorde (1979).  He’d also turned up in an older movie, 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix, which I’d seen on TV.  No wonder the plane in that movie crashed in the first five minutes.


Come to think of it, if George was around, you weren’t necessarily safe even if you were standing on terra firma; for he’d also been in the rumbly 1974 disaster movie Earthquake.  I saw Earthquake at my local cinema when I was a kid and the movie’s thrilling (for the time) special effects and thunderous Sensurround soundtrack ensured that its prestigious cast – Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold and Richard Roundtree – were dwarfed by the visual and auditory mayhem.  But Kennedy, burly and six feet, four inches tall, was larger than life.  He might have played one of Earthquake’s least complicated characters, but he was the only cast-member I remembered afterwards.


Kennedy joined the US military during World War II, served with them for 16 years and eventually reached the rank of captain.  Then in the late 1950s he was assigned as army technical advisor to the legendary CBS situation comedy The Phil Silvers Show, or as we still call it in the UK, Bilko.  I doubt very much if Kennedy’s military employers approved of how the show – in which Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko character runs US Army post Fort Baxter as a giant gambling den – depicted the soldiering life, but Kennedy seemed to get on well with Silvers.  It was Silvers, in fact, who encouraged Technical Advisor Captain Kennedy to try acting and got him in front of the show’s cameras in a few episodes playing a military policeman.


(c) 20th Century Fox


After leaving the army, Kennedy got into movies, starting with an uncredited appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus (1960).  And during the ensuing decade he appeared in a series of films that are supremely entertaining because of their ensemble casts of craggy leading men and sweaty character actors.  As I said earlier, he was in The Flight of the Phoenix – with James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krὔger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Christian Marquand and Dan Duryea.  As far as I know, after Kennedy’s demise, German actor Krὔger is the only member of Phoenix’s cast still alive.


He was also in Stuart Rosenberg’s allegoric prison drama Cool Hand Luke (1967) in which he played second fiddle to Paul Newman, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and appeared alongside Strother Martin, Clifton James, J.D. Cannon, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Anthony Zerbe, Joe Don Baker and Wayne Rogers.  By a melancholy coincidence, Rogers, better known as Trapper John in the TV version of M*A*S*H*, died just two months ago.


And he was in Robert Aldrich’s famous war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a truly testosterone-charged cast that included Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine (again), Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, Ralph Meeker, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas and Robert Ryan.  21 years after The Dirty Dozen, when Joe Dante made his toys-coming-to-life fantasy movie Small Soldiers, he hired Kennedy, Borgnine, Brown and Walker to provide the voices for a batch of ultra-violent military action-figures called the Commando Elite.


(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer


Kennedy was also one of that almost-vanished breed, a western-movie actor.  Equally capable of playing a dependable sheriff or a scumbag outlaw, he appeared in such cowboy epics as Lonely are the Brave (1962), Shenandoah (1965), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Bandolero! (1968), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) and Cahill US Marshall (1973).  Between them, old western hands Andrew V. McLaglen and Burt Kennedy directed half-a-dozen of those films; and in two of them – Katie Elder and Cahill – he starred alongside the greatest cowboy star of all, John Wayne.


By the 1980s, after the disaster-movie boom had passed, Kennedy’s career dipped and he appeared in some desperate clunkers.  There was, for example, Alvin Rakoff’s seabound horror movie Death Ship (1980); John Derek’s sex romp Bolero (1984), which starred Derek’s bosomly wife Bo, had the notorious Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus as its executive producers and unsurprisingly won six Golden Raspberry Awards; Ray Spruce’s tatty horror anthology Creepshow 2 (1987), based on three lesser short stories by Stephen King; and the forgotten action movie Hired to Kill (1990), directed by Nico Mastorakis and Peter Rader and co-starring a definitely seen-better-days Oliver Reed as the villain.


At least Kennedy got regular employment in The Naked Gun movies (1988, 1991 and 1994), masterminded by Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who’d previously had a big hit in 1980 with their anarchic spoof of the Airport films, Airplane!  Actually, the Zuckers and Abrahams had wanted to cast Kennedy in Airplane!  However, Kennedy had politely declined, aware that by appearing in a piss-take of the Airport series he might jeopardise his chances of being employed in future instalments of it.


The Naked Gun trilogy, in fact, is probably how Kennedy is best-known to younger film audiences; and I was annoyed that the BBC news website announced his passing the other day with the headline, GEORGE KENNEDY, STAR OF THE NAKED GUN, DIES…  So much for that Oscar for Cool Hand Luke.


Kennedy left us at the age of 91, which was a very respectable innings.  However, I enjoyed his hulking and reliable, if sometimes disaster-prone, presence in many a movie; and I’m sad to see him go.


(c) 20th Century Fox


Out with the old, in with the corporate new



Over Christmas and New Year I was back in Peebles, my hometown in Scotland.  I was pleased to see that two of the town’s landmark buildings that in recent years had been derelict – and had become depressingly rundown – now have new occupants and are looking spruce again.  Well, I was sort of pleased.  It’s great that both buildings are up and running again, but I have mixed feelings about the new businesses operating in them.


Firstly, someone has at last done something with the corner house at the junction of Northgate and the High Street.  For more than a century this building was home to the outfitters Veitch’s, which according to my well-thumbed copy of History of Peebles 1850–1990 was “started in 1884 by Robert Veitch and his wife, Helen Binnie Peden” and run by four generations of the same family after that.  Although the store finally closed in 2007, its distinctive logo – originally designed, it’s said, on the back of an envelope by a mate of its second-generation proprietor, Robert Bishop Veitch, while the pair of them were serving in the trenches of World War I – still hangs proudly between the building’s first and second floors on its High Street and Northgate sides.  But during the last eight years it’s been dispiriting to see the old place empty and getting progressively scruffier.


In recent weeks the ground floor of the building has been bustling again because it now contains a coffee shop.  This isn’t any old coffee shop, however.  It’s one of the 3080 outlets run by the world’s second-largest coffee-house chain, Costa.



It’s highly debatable whether Peebles needs another venue selling coffee.  A while back, I heard that when you counted all the coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, hotels and pubs in the town where you could buy a cup of the stuff, the total number was somewhere in the forties.  And the arrival of a giant chain like Costa hardly bodes well for the fortunes of the smaller, privately owned cafés.  Plus, as Peebles has been bragging lately about it having the highest proportion of independent retailers of any town in Scotland, it seems a bit disingenuous to suddenly welcome in a big corporate player onto its high street.  What next?  McDonalds, Subway and KFC?


Then again, the existing coffee shops all seem to close down at the end of the afternoon.  Come five o’clock or five-thirty, if you fancy a caffeine fix, you have to enter a pub or hotel – not quite the right environment for doing other coffee-shop things like reading a book, using a laptop or munching a chocolate-chip cookie.  The new Costa, open until seven most evenings, will at least fill that gap in the market.


Incidentally, Costa’s arrival in the town was unfortunately timed.  Just as it was bringing Veitch’s corner house back to life, three other premises closed down nearby – two shops on the corner facing it and a charity shop on its other side.  So the derelict Veitch’s building is no longer an eyesore; but the junction of the High Street and Northgate is still an eyesore, alas.


Furthermore, its opening coincided with the publication of a survey by the campaign group Action on Sugar, which identified the unhealthiest drinks on sale in Britain’s coffee chains.  Costa wasn’t the worst offender – Starbucks had that (dis)honour – but its chai latte was still slammed for containing the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar.  So if you’re a Peebles man / woman who fancies trying the new local Costa but doesn’t want to develop type 2 diabetes, give that chai latte a wide berth.


Meanwhile, a minute’s walk along the Northgate, the Cross Keys Hotel – a former coaching inn that dates back to the 17th century – has been doing business again for the past year.  This follows a long period of closure during which the building became alarmingly dilapidated.  The pub chain JD Wetherspoon acquired it in 2013 and spent three million pounds on its refurbishment.



Oldsters like me will remember the hotel’s big L-shaped ground-floor room as having pool tables at one end, a bar-counter near the central corner and a space at the other end where bands and singers (including the Enid, Budgie, the Groundhogs and the late, legendary John Martyn) performed at weekends.  Now the whole room is a seating-and-eating area.  To get served, you go to a counter that’s located in what had previously been the King’s Orchard Restaurant next door – the wall between them has been removed.  I’ve written about the Cross Keys and the coming of JD Wetherspoon before, here:


Like most people who enjoy pubs and who enjoy having an alcoholic beverage or two (or ten), I have conflicting emotions about JD Wetherspoon.  On one hand, I appreciate the fact that, big chain though it is, it sells a variety of real ales and ciders that you often don’t find in the brewery-owned pubs.  Its prices are affordable and its new Peebles operation deserves credit for maintaining the Cross Keys as a hotel – there are seven rooms available upstairs – when they could easily just have turned the building into a giant pub.


On the other hand, I don’t like JD Wetherspoon’s business-ὔberalles mentality, which has its bar-staff serving at all times and not yakking to the customers, so that its bar areas are banter-free zones and its pubs generally are devoid of atmosphere.  Then again, this policy will probably ensure that Peebles’ traditional pubs, like the Crown, Trust, Green Tree, Neidpath and Central, won’t haemorrhage too many customers to it.  Their regular clientele go to them more for the craic than for the bevy (though I’m sure they all like the bevy too).  And craic is something they won’t get at the new corporate hostelry on the Northgate.  In fact, I suspect the existing pub that will suffer most is the one that’s closest in style to JD Wetherspoon already, the big Belhaven-owned County Inn on the High Street.


I’m still also sore at JD Wetherspoon for taking over the old HMV Picture House on Lothian Road in Edinburgh, thus depriving the centre of that city of its only medium-sized live music venue.  What are they doing with that place by the way?  They closed it down at the end of 2013 and it still hasn’t reopened, as a pub or as anything else.


Anyway, I can’t say the new, corporate Cross Keys is much cop as a pub – a pub as I’d define one, at least.  My problem with it is that, most times I’ve been in, lots of families have been eating pub-meals and their noisy little kids have been using the floor as a playground or athletics track or wrestling ring.


Not the sort of place I’d pop into for a quiet, meditative pint, in other words.  And I doubt if the ghost of John Martyn would approve, either.