Sunday, May 4, 2014

The 7 Greatest Adventure Films of the 1950s

Escapist fare has always been a staple of filmmaking, from the earliest shorts, such as Une voyage a la lune and The Great Train Robbery, to the recent boom in megahit superhero movies. In the 1950s, action and adventure filmmaking was one of the most lucrative genres, exploiting interest in the exotic with new advances in filmmaking technology and, increasingly, with on-location shooting, up until then a relative rarity. Here are the seven best adventure films of the 1950s. (I've excluded Westerns and film noir to keep the list at a manageable length.)

7. King Solomon's Mines (1950)
Filmed on location in Africa, this hugely successful film is rather dated today, particularly given its marginalization of black African characters and its foregrounding of white colonialist characters, but it remains an enormously entertaining film, worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography of diverse African landscapes alone. Stewart Granger plays Alan Quatermain, an explorer and hunter, who agrees to squire Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) on a search for her husband, who has disappeared into the uncharted wilderness while seeking King Solomon's legendary diamond mines. Though far from a masterpiece, it is a prime example of a Hollywood adventure film.

6. The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Robert Siodmak's swashbuckler has its tongue firmly in its cheek, its wacky sense of humor a means of playing with genre tropes while it creates threads of meta-commentary deconstructing them, and, it is really a very funny film. Burt Lancaster plays the Crimson Pirate, who along with his first mate Ojo (played by Nick Cravat, Lancaster's long-time physical trainer and friend), gets mixed up in an anti-royalist rebellion when the ship he captures turns out to hold Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), the king's envoy sent to crush the rebellion. Lancaster's physical prowess is shown to excellent effect in a film the closest analogue to which is really the recent Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

5. Treasure Island (1950)
The brilliant Robert Newton, outdoing every pirate performance before or since, plays Long John Silver and Bobby Driscoll, best known as the voice of Peter Pan, plays Jim Hawkins in Disney's first live action film. The screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin is a faithful rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, which translates spectacularly well to the screen, losing none of its suspense and moral complexity. Long John Silver befriends the innocent Jim, entangling the boy in his plot to retrieve a fabulous treasure stashed by his former superior Captain Flint by staging a mutiny.

4. The Court Jester (1956)
The Court Jester is one of Danny Kaye's best and funniest films, a marvelous swashbuckling adventure that pokes fun at the genre while still succeeding as a prime example. Kaye plays Hubert, a member of a resistance movement favoring the true infant king over a pretender to the throne, whose duties include changing the king's diapers and singing him lullabies. Hubert is in love with Maid Jean (the lovely Glynis Johns), a military commander in the resistance. Together they hatch a plan to infiltrate the castle and reinstate the monarchy by disguising Hubert as the new jester, who unbeknownst to them was actually supposed to be an assassin in disguise. Basil Rathbone has a supporting role and the film's gags, from the fast-motion knighting ceremony to the "Chalice from the palace" monologue, are pure genius.

3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Decades later, Disney's fabulous adaptation of the Jules Verne novel is still a technical tour de force, its special effects astonishing, especially given that they could not rely on computers or even earlier technologies, like the xerox machine. The all-star cast includes James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, and a singing and dancing Kirk Douglas (as well as a game pet seal), as the denizens of Captain Nemo's submarine the Nautilus. Nemo, embittered and loathing humanity after losing his wife and son, is determined to destroy all evidence of his fabulous scientific discoveries and is gleefully wreaking havoc on ships as he approaches his goal. Without doubt, one of the best adventure films ever made.

2. Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece (later the basis for the great western, The Magnificent Seven) is one of the greatest films of world cinema. Set in feudal Japan, the film follows seven master-less samurai, who are employed by a small farming community that has been terrorized by bandits. The cast, including Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Yoshio Inaba, is uniformly excellent and the music, cinematography, fighting choreography, and direction are flawless. Seven Samurai is a brilliant work and has my vote for the greatest Japanese film of all time, followed very closely by Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff.

1. The African Queen (1951)
One of the finest films Hollywood ever produced, The African Queen, filmed on location in Africa on one of the most notoriously troubled shoots ever, tells the story of strait-laced missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), who is stranded at her mission in the Belgian Congo at the beginning of World War I after her brother (Robert Morley) is killed. Humphrey Bogart (in his only Oscar-winning performance) plays Charlie Allnut, a drunken bum who takes her aboard his rickety river boat. Suspenseful, romantic, lush, and very, very funny, director John Huston delivers a work of perfection in this film.

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