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This symbolic impotence is compounded when, early on in the film, Wayne’s character, “Rusty” Ryan, gets a bit of shrapnel in his arm, and reluctantly heads to sick bay. When he arrives, the doctors tell him that he is suffering from blood poisoning and that, had he arrived any later, they would have had to amputate his arm. Instead, the appendage is saved and placed in a sling. (In Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks
, also screening in the Anthology series, Wayne similarly finds himself with a bandaged arm.) As Ryan rests idle for the first quarter of the film, he’s subjected to a series of humiliations that serve to deflate this hardened army vet. Lying helpless in bed, he’s sassed by a young nurse and then told to “unfasten [his] pants” by a round of orderlies (including a leering, “queer” type), his refusal to do so resulting in a forced stripping that augments the embarrassment of inaction during wartime with a deeper, more invasive shame.
Perhaps the real draw of the series is the chance to see two rare Fritz Lang films, 1938’s urban melodrama You and Me
(with musical numbers by Kurt Weill!) and the program highlight, 1955’s moody, Gothic-inflected adventure tale, Moonfleet
. Set in 1757 on the wind-swept shores of Dorsetshire, the film conjures a world of atmospheric ruins, darkly lowering skies and horror-film gargoyles, the fairy-tale artificiality of the setting brought to life by the inventive use of painted backdrops. The film stars Stewart Granger as Jeremy Fox — cynical lady’s man and leader of the local smuggling racket — who reluctantly takes into his charge the school-age son of an old friend who shows up mysteriously at his door. When John Mahune (Jon Whiteley), the perfectly-spoken, completely out-of-place young chap, crashes the older man’s dilapidated manor house, interrupting his nightly gypsy-dancing stein-swilling revels, Fox plans to send him back home, but eventually agrees to keep him on provisionally since the boy’s frank talk amuses him.
As Fox finds his authority with his smuggling underlings increasingly threatened, his bond with the boy begins to tighten, even as he’s loath to acknowledge the connection. Eventually the two threads come together when one of the smugglers openly challenges Fox’s leadership, threatening to kill John after the boy had been discovered eavesdropping on trade secrets. When Fox challenges the mutinous man to a duel with sabers, the latter instead picks up a 12-foot spear, whirling the oversized weapon around his head with an ear-splitting whoosh. Although he breaks Fox’s saber with the much more potent spear, our man is finally able to reassert his symbolically wounded manhood, disarming his antagonist and saving the boy. Still, not until the end of the film — and the suffering of, yes, a wounded hand — is Fox able to definitively overcome his patriarchal deficiencies and then only through an ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice.
And such is the pattern for most of the films in the program: the main (male) character suffers a blow to his sense of masculine self-worth, often symbolized through bodily injury or dismemberment, only to ultimately prove his valor on the battlefield (war films and westerns predominate the series), via bravery and natural talent, yes, but also through an understanding of the necessity of sacrifice. Along the way there’s plenty of time for rowdy antics (Lee Marvin and Wayne’s shit-kicking camaraderie in Donovan's Reef
), stunningly lit set-pieces (a nightmare hospital sequence in Expendable
with dimly glimpsed faces emerging from the darkness) and even musical interludes. And if all this isn’t enough to suggest, as the Anthology program notes posit, a “secret society” of one-eyed filmmakers, the series nonetheless offers a chance to draw some interesting auteurist parallels between the works of Ford, Walsh, Ray, Lang and (presumably) de Toth. In the films of these eye-patch auteurs, masculine insecurity may be a constant, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great fun to be had in its exposure.