Seminole/The Golden Blade/Bengal Brigade
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 8, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Following form with recent three-film box-set releases spotlighting such luminaries as Carole Lombard and Audie Murphy (not to mention a raft of Film Noir sets) is Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ latest such offering, its Rock Hudson Collection. The set focuses on the earliest days of Hudson having been anointed “leading man” status at Universal International. This trio of titles from three different directors sidesteps the actor’s keen melodramatic utilization at the studio by the great Douglas Sirk as well as his later rom-com pairings with Doris Day. Beyond this launching phase, Hudson remained a company man, rocketing to major stardom in the latter half of the 1950s. Here we see Hudson quickly if not always smoothly finding his way.
Though the star of many dramas, dramatic charisma was never Hudson’s calling card. Monolithic and seemingly one-note, the undeniable allure of the actor upon audiences is of another register than that of most silver screen stars. Despite a certain repressed nature evident in his performances (which is not to infer any such quality carrying over from his suppression of his off-screen life), a felt earnestness shines through.
Even in these dawning forays as leading man- the Cavalry pseudo-fiction Seminole, the unintentionally silly ancient world actioner The Golden Blade (both from 1953), and the stiff-upper-lipped Colonialist potboiler Bengal Brigade (1954)- that “certain something” carries the work, sometimes even salvaging it. While these particular films have not aged well in several different ways, they are nevertheless worthy of consideration in how a talent such as Hudson, both conventionally handsome and notably aloof, was elevated in what would be the waning years of the studio system.
DIRECTED BY BUDD BOETTICHER/ 1953
These days, the great director Budd Boetticher is rightfully remembered for the series of unflinchingly minimalist Westerns he made beginning in the late 1950s with actor Randolph Scott. (The Tall T, Comanche Station, and more that are well worth seeking out). Before that, however, he functioned as a studio director at Universal, making movies of a more ordinary caliber. Yet, even in this more conventional phase of his career, Boetticher was apt to weave a strong thread of social justice within the fabric of his work. One example would be his unusual WWII supply chain thriller The Red Ball Express. Another would be 1953’s “Florida Western” military period piece, Seminole.
Though Seminole falls prey to the certain shortcomings that have aged disastrously (white actors in “red face” portraying Native Americans; doses of white savior-ism), one would have a hard time denying that it has its heart very near the right place, if not in it. Taking place in 1835 in the Florida territory, the film tells the tale of a U.S. Cavalry regiment that finds itself at odds with the local Seminole Indian tribe.
Rock Hudson stars as Lt. Lance Caldwell, a man who becomes torn between his devotion to his military unit and defying the bloodthirsty orders of his superior. Further complicating things is the hopeless love triangle he’s wandered into, having finally reconnected with the love of his youth, Revere (Barbara Hale of Perry Mason fame) after five years away. In the meantime, however, she’s fallen for their mutual friend Osceola, a half-Caucasian/half-Native American, and now chief of the Seminole people (Anthony Quinn, playing a historical figure in this semi-historical tale). Revere, functioning as something of a love-driven double agent, would be the most interesting character of Seminole if the film had the wherewithal to give her more than cursory attention. The chosen drama works nonetheless, even as Hudson isn’t the exactly the portrait of charisma here.
Richard Carlson (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) plays Major Degan, the vindictive superior whom Caldwell spends the film at odds with. (Degan is a fictionalized version of real-life disgraced General Thomas Jesup). Carlson as Degan knows no subtlety in the Animal House Dean Wormer sense, going from zero to red-faced harrumphing in mere seconds. That his men are endlessly polishing their weaponry in any available downtime, but he never does, is perhaps symbolic of just how pent-up the character is. Degan drags his regiment through the swampy Everglades, huge cumbersome cannon in tow, with the focused endgame of massacring the Seminole. It is the worst mission these men have been on.
Caldwell ends up on trial for doing the right thing, which is no spoiler considering that the whole film is his flashback in this moment. This won’t be the last time in this box set that Hudson’s character finds himself between a figurative rock and a hard place in terms of sworn duty over righteousness. Seminole, while clearly landing with a time-tested moral framework, is happy to muddy the waters along the way to its own well-constructed big finish.
While Boetticher’s bold penchant for very darkly lit interiors and terribly hostile exteriors is satisfyingly forefronted in Seminole, it must be pointed out that the Technicolor transfer is far from perfect. Color alignment, particularly the red strip, is often thinly misaligned, and print damage is reoccurring throughout. That said, this is no doubt the best that Seminole has ever looked (and sounded) since its theatrical run. The disc has a new audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton, who unpacks the film in unflinching detail.
The Golden Blade
DIRECTED BY NATHAN JURAN/1953
As American audiences began to take an interest in the legitimate portraits of foreign cultures in its heightened acceptance of World Cinema, Hollywood kept right on producing embarrassingly gentrified studio visions of the Middle East and other afar lands. In director Nathan Juran’s (Jack the Giant Killer) 1953 swords-and-sand adventure toss-off The Golden Blade, we are whisked off to a claustrophobic and Caucasian Arabian Nights swashbuckler that, at its core, is more Arthurian legend or American Western.
Rock Hudson, still finding his way in what would become a powerhouse leading-man career, plays Harun al-Rashid (In reality the fifth Abbasid Caliph, though that doesn’t factor into much here), a dashingly generic action hero in waiting. Harun’s destiny kicks into high gear when A) his father is murdered by a violent bunch of raiding and ransacking roughians, and B) the magical titular sword finds its way into his chosen hands.
Fiery redhead Piper Laurie makes more of an impression as the feisty Princess Khairuzan. Though The Golden Blade wastes no time in careening into its central revenge plot for Harun, it only truly ramps up when Khairuzan is acting in defiance of her vindictive father who’s committed her to marrying a conniving underling (Gene Evans). None of it is any great shakes, though Laurie and Hudson do generate some quality sparks here and there. Juran himself (sometimes an actor) has a boisterous supporting role; look for not-yet-knowns Dennis Weaver and Anita Eckberg in blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em supporting roles.
Film historian Phillipa Berry provides a soft spoken but also tremendously informative audio commentary for the disc. Berry is upfront about the fact that this apparent two-and-a-half-week shoot, fleshed out with cobbled-together shots and musical cues from other, bigger Universal films, doesn’t exactly hit like Damascus steel. Even still, Juran does keep things moving, if also mercifully brief. At a scant eighty-one minutes, The Golden Blade barely has time to unsheathe the handful of retroactive gay innuendos that contemporary audiences love to take away from Hudson films. More to the movie’s original point, this “Arabian Nights of the Round Table” hardly has the scope to be both things, much less one of them.
DIRECTED BY LASLO BENEDEK/ 1954
On a perfectly romantic evening, Rock Hudson, dressed to the nines, cuddles and kisses the exceedingly glamourous Arlene Dahl). She plays his fiancée in 1954’s Bengal Brigade, in which his disgraced military man Captain Claybourne grapples with who he is, and what’s right for both of their futures.
“Vi… I can’t marry you.
“Why not, darling? Why not?”
“For a moment… I forgot what I am.”
And, cue the snickers from within The Celluloid Closet. Though this Blu-ray disc offers no audio commentary to decry any such tempting inferences, Phillipa Berry does broach the subject on his track for set-mate The Golden Blade. Though Hudson remained closeted for the duration of his career as a Hollywood leading man, on screen he never offered a blink of frustration while playing his many very hetero roles. When she’s left feeling rejected, she utters, “Then you really don’t want me.” He doesn’t hesitate to reply in full arm-clutching earnest, “I’ll never stop wanting you!”
Perhaps considerably more problematic, at least by current standards, is the tendency of stories such as this to present as pro-colonialism. While Bengal Brigade quickly veers into a kind of distrust of the ridged British military higher-ups, our protagonist remains “the good one” of the bunch. The higher-ups of the Indian military allies, by contrast, remain volatile and unpredictable in their superstitions. Even with the perceived moral wind out of its sails, the white English-speaking British can’t help but be the more relatable in this perilous and rickety framework.
This is India- mysterious turbulent land of conquest and adventure! At least, that’s the film’s trailer’s impression of India. Culturally, this mid-1950s recreation of the country and its customs has all the pop and extravagance of the meal scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, sans the horrifically xenophobic courses. Frankly, such nonsense might’ve livened things up a bit. As is, Bengal Brigade is just the kind of historically-derived straight-down-the-middle pablum that used to pass for an action movie. By that measure, the film is solidly so-so.
Hudson plays Englishman Claybourne as honorable, upright, and accent-free. He goes from wearing the popping bright red uniform of the British colonialists to wearing “the mark of death”. That’s after things go sideways for him when trying to cover for a fellow soldier in court. Loyalties ping-pong around for the rest of the film, particularly among the local Hindu contingency of Claybourne’s “Bengal Brigade”. When suspicion-driven distrust threatens to rupture the unit, Claybourne must assure his local Hindu soldiers that the British have no plans to steal their souls. Considering that his superiors have no souls of their own, they probably wouldn’t even know what they’d be looking for.
Bengal Brigade is an ideal inclusion in KL Studio Classics’ Rock Hudson Collection insofar as it’s unremarkable enough to drive single unit sales but should also be available on Blu-ray. By that easy metric, the disc is a success- Bengal Brigade is vibrant and colorful throughout. There are no bonus features to be found.
As evidenced by these three offerings, the thing Hudson excelled at is depicting devotion. Devotion to his uniform (Hudson was rarely poorly dressed, on or off screen), devotion to his country, and devotion to those he cares about and loves. While branding Hudson’s movie star quality as some sort of enigmatic mystery to be unraveled would be a hyperbolic overstatement, even his breakout work demonstrates that beyond the actor’s perceived stony exterior was the noble heart of a fully committed actor.