I hate it when they do that. And they're doing it again: namely, taking a unique foreign film, complete to its quirky attitudes, its alien cultural norms, its very strangeness, and turning it into a conventional Hollywood movie.
It seems to be a staple this year. Already, we've had "Sommersby," a largely respectful but subtly different version of "The Return of Martin Guerre," with Richard Gere in the role made famous by Gerard Depardieu. We've also had "The Vanishing," in which Dutch director George Sluizer actually collaborated in the Americanizing of his own masterpiece and turned it into a big-budget American moron movie and paid the price at the box office.
And tomorrow American remake No. 3 gets here. This is John Badham's "Point of No Return," with Bridget Fonda starring in a remake of the ultracool, ultrahip, ultraviolent "La Femme Nikita" of two years ago, with Annie Parillaud. Some might say: Why bother? "La Femme Nikita" already was an American film. It just happened to be made in France, that's all.
The answer is economic, not artistic or cultural. An art house success, as were "The Return of Martin Guerre," "The Vanishing" and even "La Femme Nikita," measures its audience in hundred of thousands and its box office take in ones of millions, if that. In fact, as bad as Sluizer's American remake of "The Vanishing" was, it was probably seen in a single weekend by more people than saw the original "The Return of Martin Guerre," "The Vanishing" and "La Femme Nikita" together. It's simply a matter of market proportion: That's why there are over 200 screens in the Baltimore area, but only one, and occasionally two or three others, dedicated to art products.
So Hollywood, the story monster, has learned that there's no penalty to be paid for taking a foreign film and shamelessly Americanizing it. It's the nature of the beast, which must -- rain or shine -- create 200 stories a year or die and will shamelessly eat up any form that offers a good tale or even the elements of a good tale: not merely foreign films but also books, comic books, board games, newspaper and magazine articles, true-life adventures and fairy stories, all of which have provided fodder for movies of late.
But when the source is a movie from another culture, the results can be spectacularly revealing. Anthropologists love to study the phenomenon, for the light it sheds on the cultures involved. One of the most famous of these transfers, but by no means the first, occurred in 1962 when John Sturges took the brilliant Japanese film "The Seven Samurai" by Akira Kurosawa and changed it into "The Magnificent Seven," also a brilliant but a decidedly different movie.
The story was great action stuff: In a time of strife, a small village was beset by marauders who annually pillaged the harvest. In despair, the villagers hired seven professional soldiers to train them and lead them in battle. The soldiers come to the village and some are seduced by the quiet ways of agriculture, or by various farm women. When the marauders arrive, war is waged in all its forms; at the end, the heroic soldiers prevail but move on. Only the farmers and the land remain.
It played equally well whether set in medieval Japan, where the soldiers were samurai and the weapons bows and wicked 3-foot slashing swords; or set in Mexico in the 1880s, where the soldiers were American gunfighters and the weapons six-guns and Winchesters. The differences were interesting, however. In the original and far richer Japanese film, Kurosawa (a great director and artist) refused to yield to the pious sentimentality of the "farmers." His villagers were mean and crabby, just as willing to betray the samurai as to fight with them. In the end, their victory was drenched in pathos and irony: One felt that the incredible heroics of the professionals were thrown away on these little people.
That last image -- one of the five or six great images in world cinema -- arrived laden with considerable rue and woe. It was the funeral mound where four of the seven samurai lay buried, their swords plunged point down, a harsh and forgetful wind rushing across them, raising a screen of dust. Kurosawa had no illusions about the fates of soldiers: It is to die for society and be forgotten.
By contrast, the Sturges films is infused with a product typical of the American film industry, a kind of infantile leftism that sentimentalizes the "little people" as a force of history, noble and implacable. This is abundantly clear when Sturges idealizes the villagers: such handsome, strong faces, the color of walnut; such white, straight teeth; such peasant heartiness and vitality. The village itself, far from being an outpost of squalor, is as picturesque as a Club Med. It's Club Mex, where the rural proletariat rusticates in the sun, happily drinking tequila until the sun sets, when the democratic town meeting starts and the wise elder comes in from the hills. There's no sense of the bleakness of such a place, or the crushing burden of poverty.
What Hollywood did was take a profound meditation on the use of force in society and transfer it into first-class entertainment: no sin, but not a lot to be proud of, either.
Curiously enough, this transfer took place in the midst of a much larger transfer. The Americans had invented the form of the western, the tale of the lone gunman usually matched against a corrupt institution. Kurosawa, among other directors, saw it and was moved. He appropriated the theme, yet made it succinctly Japanese by infusing the story materials and values into the tradition of the ronin, or masterless samurai, from Japan's medieval society.
Not only did he make "The Seven Samurai" about such men, but a host of others, notably, "Yojimbo" about a cynical samurai who plays two warring houses against each other. The Italian director Sergio Leone made an Italian version. It was called "A Fistful of Dollars," starring an out-of-work TV actor named Clint Eastwood.
"A Fistful of Dollars," with its cynicism, its stark pictorialism, its highly formalized use of icons like guns and clothes (all learned from the Japanese), went on to become a worldwide hit and spawn a whole cycle as well as two sequels on its own ("For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly").
Those films, with their specific look and their attitudes, then came back across the sea and began to influence American westerns! The western that many look upon as the form's ultimate expression, "The Wild Bunch," is surely one such: It's an American version of an Italian version of a Japanese version of an
American movie. Astonishing!
But such world migrations of form are rare in movie culture; "Sommersby" is a more mundane example of the equation. The original, "The Return of Martin Guerre," is a purer example of the complexities. The original tale evolves from late Middle Ages myths about soldiers returning from the wars in the guise of their fallen comrades-in-arms. Since no photographic record existed, such a transfer was possible. There being no medieval coefficient to American history, the filmmakers move the story to post-Civil War, at the dawn of photography. They just barely get away with it.
But the true difference between the films is more mechanical. It has to do with the power of the star. In "Martin Guerre," the great Depardieu was content to play a grunt, a peasant whose sole ambition was survival and then, upon returning, comfort and stability.
Hollywood, of course, is incapable of burying a star's charisma and sexual magnetism, or perhaps Gere is too narcissistic to take the humbler position. So the Formula is imposed, possibly involuntarily, that heroes cannot be quiet men of proletarian virtue but must be soaring charismatics. The movie promotes him to the officer caste, makes him a flamboyant agricultural visionary who takes over his community, teaches and leads it back to health. What's being argued in the two movies appears to be theories of history: The Europeans believe in the importance of everyday things, the Americans in the great-man theory of history. Needless to say, it takes an artist to make a movie about an everyday man, and only a Hollywood filmmaker to make a movie about a hero.
"The Vanishing" is a sadder story still. The original was clammy and biting, about the price of obsession. It ended on a terrifying note: the last image, which brought the whole movie into focus, ** also sent you out of the theater shaken profoundly. No, it was not happy-happy; it was scary-scary.
Alas, Sluizer, when he went to work for 20th Century Fox, was encouraged to forget that moment and produce an endgame of stupefying banality that drew its image from a tapestry of stupefyingly banal horror movies. In its insistence on the happy ending, the movie became somehow pathetic. The filmmakers may not have meant to do so, but as a work of cultural anthropology, the work seems to symbolize bullheaded American optimism: Things can be worked out. Send them home smiling. Alas, in real life, as in European movies, the endings aren't always happy.