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DIRECTOR'S CHOICE: THE WIND AND THE LION

March 2017 | Alexander Wells

Part of the Director's Choice Series, looking at great films by lesser know directors and lesser known films by great directors. Alexander Wells kicks off with The Wind and the Lion.

THE WIND AND THE LION, directed by John Milius is an old-fashioned romantic drama, based very loosely on a true story, that was an anachronism even upon release in 1975. However this story of western powers meddling in less developed parts of the world still resonates today. It's also a great example of where a director has taken the aesthetic of a great film, namely LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and combined it with a number of other elements to create a more accessible and commercial product, but with heart. Like George Lucas, John Milius takes elements from John Ford's westerns and the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and creates films that still have a personal stamp. It's also one of the best films from Sean Connery's fat-hairy post-Bond wilderness period, making a nice bookend with John Huston's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING from the same year and Richard Lester's ROBIN AND MARIAN from 1976.   

About John Milius

Self avowed Zen anarchist, surfer, gun enthusiast and ultra-conservative-Republican John Milius studied film at the University of Southern California, School of Cinema-Television, with George Lucas and GREASE (1978) director Randall Kleiser among others.

He started  out started out as a screenwriter, and his first work appeared at American International Pictures. Moving forward he did an uncredited rewrite on 1971's DIRTY HARRY, wrote its 1973 sequel MAGNUM FORCE and also the original screenplay for APOCALYPSE NOW. At the time,  the idea was to shoot it in Vietnam - while the war was still on.   Later, his script for Sidney Pollock's 1972 Robert Redford vehicle JEREMIAH JOHNSON sold for a then-record sum.

His first film as director was DILLINGER (1973), about 1930s bank robber and folk hero John Dillinger, a story revisited in Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES in 2009 . He went on to make BIG WEDNESDAY (1978)  a highly personal surfing movie that failed to find an audience upon initial release, but he later found success with Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1982 breakthrough,  CONAN THE BARBARIAN. He followed this up with 1984's RED DAWN, a controversial what-if where the Soviets overrun America. Since the end of the 1980s he mostly returned to screenwriting.

If you are interested in John Milius, and let's face it, you are, a documentary, MILIUS, was released in 2013.

About THE WIND AND THE LION

THE WIND AND THE LION is not Milius' most popular film, or his most personal, but this highly enjoyable desert adventure manages to include derring-do, intrigue, romance and even a little satire in its two -hour run-time, and  contains many themes and scenarios that he would re-use and return to in later films- and is a lesson in how to tell a story well.  

Mrs Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen) and her two children are kidnapped by Berber tribal leader Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (Sean Connery), known as the Raisuli,  in order to bring international attention to an ongoing power struggle in North Africa. The Raisuli's young nephew is  Sultan, and  various European nations are trying to exploit the situation including the French and the Germans. In America, President Theodore Roosevelt  (Brian Keith) seeks re-election while bending his will towards freeing the captives,  while simultaneously trying to prevent the European powers from getting what they want,  before he can himself.

Milius would go on to make a TV miniseries about Theodore Roosevelt, ROUGH RIDERS in 1997.

Making THE WIND AND THE LION

While set in North Africa, the film was shot entirely on location in Spain - standing in for Morocco - with the country's arid and rugged south eastern corner providing an excellent substitute for the desert, while various other locations stood in for the cities and strongholds portrayed. Indeed an area north of Madrid stood in so well for Yellowstone National Park that when President Gerald Ford saw the film, he commented to Milius that he knew that particular place well from when he was a park ranger. Milius was too polite to correct him.

Many other locations were previously seen in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. In fact the Aqaba set from David Lean's epic was still standing and gets re-used here for the straight-out-of-THE WILD BUNCH (1969) finale.

While the bulk of the narrative is focused on the development of a deep and entirely chaste love between Mrs Pedecaris and Raisuli -they are barely on first name terms even at the film's end-  it is the child's eye view that is key to its success. Throughout the film, the subjective  view of  children and younger people, including President Roosevelt's daughter Alice, Mrs Pedecaris'  daughter Jennifer and particularly her son William. It plays an important part in creating the mood, and telling the story. This is high adventure and power politics as seen through the eyes of youth. Indeed with much of the narrative being highly subjective, older audience members may begin to question how accurate these perceptions are- which is part of the appeal.

The film begins with Berber horsemen bursting through the boundary of the house in Tangiers where the Pedecaris family are staying - impressionistically violating the domestic safety the children are used to and throwing them into a dangerous but exciting new world. In these early scenes the Raisuli is far more threatening.

William begins to look up to the taciturn Raisuli, particularly after he single-handedly rescues them from bandits less-principled than himself after an escape attempt. This sequence on a beach is particularly well shot by British cinematographer  British cinematographer Billy Williams. Across the whole film his work really captures the arid beauty, but  also the desolation and threat ever -present in the desert landscape.  

By the film's end the audience, and William's journey reaches its end in a short but highly effective moment during the aforementioned finale, where he sees the Raisuli for the last time. The U.S Marines who were on hand as part of the international force at the handover of the Pedecaris family have been persuaded to help free the Raisuli, after he is double-crossed and captured with help from the Germans.  As the battle reaches its conclusion, William witnesses the Raisuli un-horse and defeat the German commander in single combat, and then magnanimously spare him with a smile. As he is preparing to leave the battleground, the Raisuli spots that the boy is holding a pump action shotgun, and as he rides past he leans out of the saddle in slow motion to take the weapon from William's willing hands.

This is the emotional  finale of William's desert adventure - everything the Raisuli has done has taken on a final mythic quality as he passes through the gateway, out of his life and into memory.

In retrospect

Being not particularly revolutionary, and made at a time when such films were more-or-less out of fashion, it is not as well known as it should be.  It is a fine film, ambitiously mounted executed - take note of the sequence where the U.S Marines take the Bashar's palace.

Milius coaxed a fantastic performance from Sean Connery, which makes it hard to believe how "sour and dour" he apparently was on the set. The script seems to catches the cadences of the Arabic language, and Connery gives it his all, with his disdain for modern weapons that "fire promiscuously" being a particularly amusing line. Indeed this being a Milius film, small arms are at the forefront - and Candice Bergen proves herself to be rather effective with a pump action shotgun.

The issue of "whitewash" casting inevitably comes up - although the popular answer would be that Sean Connery's star persona transcends racial boundaries - he could play anyone, although that person would always be Sean Connery.

The cast includes a rogues gallery of great faces and character actors including John Huston, Geoffrey Lewis, Nadim Sawalha and Vladek Shaydal as the Bashar, best known to audiences as  Kronsteen in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).

Seeing THE WIND AND THE LION

Unfortunately it has never been officially available in the UK on home video on any format. The BBFC required a number of deliberate horse-falls to be cut to enable certification for a video release in 1990, but Milius refused to make them. Oddly though,  the film is often shown on television uncut. It is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray via import.

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