Volume 16, Number 26 | Nov. 25 - Dec. 1, 2003


Koch on Film

The Far Side of the World (-)

The reviews of this film have been of the highest order. I am not a contrarian always looking to take the opposite view from that of the majority. I simply like to tell the truth as I see it, even if it makes me a minority of one, which I believe this review will do.
A.O. Scott of The New York Times described the flick as “this stupendously entertaining movie.” Sir, by your leave, it is not. It is occasionally stirring, but not very often and certainly not to great heights. It is meticulous in its depiction of what takes place onboard the HMS Surprise, a British fighting ship. The number of ropes required to hoist its many sails into action will surprise you. Those sails paint a pretty picture as do the film’s opening scene of the sailors sleeping in their swinging hammocks and the ship’s stop at the Galapagos Islands of Darwinian fame.
But the film lacks character definition, notwithstanding an attempt to create two formidable minds. Commander of the ship, Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is a high-minded, decent leader in the Lord Nelson mold who is the epitome of British valor. Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) is an intellectual, the ship’s surgeon and a collector of fauna and flora.
In his Times review, Scott makes much of Aubrey’s speech before battle. Ridiculous. He exhorts his men before battle with, “Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly?” And, “Do you want your children to grow up singing the ‘Marseillaise’?” Really pedestrian stuff and doesn’t hold a candle to King Henry V’s address to his soldiers at the battle of Agincourt also against the French when he exhorted and thrilled them with:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” That’s stunning and lyrical.
The final hand-to-hand battle is murky. I much preferred Charles Laughton as the villain Captain William Bligh and Clark Gable as the decent Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” to this attempted but failed epic. We now know that Captain Bligh was, in fact, the real hero. Christian was a mutineer, and most of his crew was hunted down and rightfully hung. I await the revisionist movie revealing that true story.
The good news in “Master & Commander” is that the French are beaten at sea by Capt. Aubrey, and while not depicted in this film, everyone knows that Napoleon is defeated on land at Waterloo.

Bus 174 (+)

This is a truly unusual documentary filmed in Rio de Janeiro.
A young man, Sandro do Nascimento, attempts a robbery on a crowded bus and eventually takes the passengers hostage. The hostage situation and subsequent police action were televised live, and those tapes are included in this film. It is fascinating to hear the taped television dialogue with Sandro, the hostages, the cops and others. At times I felt as though I were on the street and the incidents were unfolding live before me.
We learn that at the age of eight, Sandro witnessed his mother’s murder. He left home and has been living on the streets ever since. Thousands of young male and female Brazilians, mostly blacks or of mixed race, were living on the streets of Rio and other large cities. I don’t know the current numbers.
The conduct of the police during this ordeal is particularly interesting. Sandro stated that he had killed one hostage and would kill others. The police were given instructions to take him alive, and they never took advantage of the many opportunities that presented themselves to shoot him on the bus even when he shot at hostages and threatened to kill them. When he exits the bus with a female hostage, an officer tries to shoot him. Although he is perhaps only two feet away, he misses and unintentionally shoots the hostage.
Sandro is subdued by the cops and needlessly killed by them in the police car while a mob gathers demanding that he be lynched. All of this is recorded on tape. The film is in Portuguese with excellent English subtitles.
Not long ago in the capital city of Brazil, the police didn’t simply round up youngsters on the streets. They rounded them up and shot them. I have no idea what is happening today. I do know that Brazil, and the City of Sao Paulo, are fascinating. The architecture is more beautiful than New York’s, the women are sensationally good looking, and the food is exceptional. But when I was in Rio as a private citizen about five years ago, I was told that if I walked on the beach, I should be accompanied by a bodyguard which my hosts assigned to me.

- Ed Koch


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