Director Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian of Bulgarian extraction who has directed pictures like Life at the Top and Two Gentlemen Sharing, has relentlessly infused his film with characters who, in any normal society, would be considered totally adolescent, unregenerate, and flamboyantly boorish. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the picture is a compelling mood of joyous machismo, culminating in a horrifically bloody kangaroo hunt late one drunken night.
La Califfa is an Italian film starring Ugo Tognazzi and Romy Schnider that has been directed from his own novel by author Alberto Bevilacqua. Tognazzi is the self-made director of a large factory whose worker have gone on strike. He becomes fascinated with a young (female) worker, and suffers a crisis of conscience over the radical demands of his employees, while the girl, an ever more mystical figure, keeps appearing and disappearing from his life. Bevilacqua should stick to writing. His film keeps trying to make a political statement in the midst of lush romantic scenes more suited to daytime television. Romy Schneider has never looked more beautiful, and Tognazzi gives a fine performance, but those who were put off by the pretty politics in Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 21” -- as I was not – will find La Califfa even more offensive.
The next film shown at the Festival, Johnny Got His Gun, and American film, came as a total surprise and shock to me. It is one of the most compelling films I have seen, and until I saw Arrabal’s Viva la Muerte (see below) I thought nothing would come close to this picture or searing emotional impact. This is the story of a single war casualty who loses both arms, both legs and most of his face in a World War I shelling was directed by Dalton Trumbo from his own novel script. Luis Bunuel had originally agreed to direct the picture, but after the script was turned down by 17 major American companies Bunuel was engaged on another project when Trumbo finally raised the production money privately (the film currently has no distributor). Timothy Bottoms plays the soldier who idealistically went to war and was so severely wounded in an absurd mission to bury a fellow soldier. The doctors who amputate his limbs believe he has suffered brain damage and can feel nothing. Their report states that “there is no justification for his living unless we could learn from him how to help others.” So they push him into an emptied storeroom, and to keep the recovering patients from exercising too much morbid curiosity, order that the room be kept locked and the windows shut at all times. Thus begins the long process of trying to make contact with the outside world for the utterly immobile and absolutely lucid young soldier, who doesn’t understand why nobody helps him.
Set in the decade just after World War I, the film is structured with scenes in present tme (in black and white, adding to the inhuman mood) interspersed with flashbacks (in color) to show the boy’s background. As the film progresses, the frequent flash-backs become more and more laced with fantasy, first through the introduction of Donald Sutherland as a Christ figure who goes off to war with the troops, and then with a series of half-imagined incidents and allegorical characters. Jason Robards gives a fine performance as the boy’s father. While there are a few “heavily meaningful scenes early in the film – Trumbo has never been the most subtle of writers – the film is ultimately compelling, a terrifyingly strong indictment of war.