Myths of Empire

by Mark English

Even bad movies have their moments. The 1953 John Huston film, Beat the Devil, sustains itself well for about 35 minutes before descending into boring and predictable comedy-adventure territory.

Roger Ebert thought the film had “effortless charm”.

“Once we catch on that nothing much is going to happen,” he wrote, “we can relax and share the amusement of the actors, who are essentially being asked to share their playfulness.”

This is all very well, but it soon starts to wear a bit thin and, apart from Peter Lorre swinging a suitcase at a horse and maybe a couple of other moments, all the genuine spontaneity is in the early scenes.

“There is a scene on a veranda overlooking the sea,” writes Ebert (only it is a terrace, not a veranda), “where [Humphrey] Bogart and [Jennifer] Jones play out their first flirtation, and by the end of their dialogue you can see they’re all but cracking up; Bogart grins during the dissolve. The whole movie feels that way.”

The whole movie? Not to me. But Ebert makes a general point with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Now that movies have become fearsome engines designed to hammer us with entertainment, it is nice to recall those that simply wanted to be witty company.”

There are conflicting accounts concerning who actually wrote the screenplay. Official credits go to Truman Capote and John Huston. But Patrick Cockburn, son of Claud Cockburn who (writing under the pen name James Helvick) was the author of the book on which the film was based, points out that much of the dialogue is taken from the novel (with minimal changes) and that Capote’s contributions were very limited, and restricted to “a few concluding scenes”.

The film is a mix of character study, meandering, mildly amusing dialogue (generally along distinctly amoral lines), action sequences and slapstick. The latter elements soon take over and undermine the possibility of subtlety or serious character development.

The film begins promisingly, however, in a small, shabby Italian port town, where a mix of eccentric and criminal characters have gathered to board a ship bound for East Africa. Its departure is delayed. There is much sitting around and talking.

Humphrey Bogart narrates and plays a shady American-born businessman (Billy Dannreuther) who is down on his luck. He has been hired by the Robert Morley character to assist in Morley’s current project involving a crooked uranium deal.

Gina Lollobrigida, in her first English-language film, plays Bogart’s comically Anglophile wife. “Emotionally, I am English,” she insists in a heavy Italian accent.

Eton-educated Edward Underdown plays a middle-class Englishman on his way to British East Africa to take control of an inherited coffee plantation. Jennifer Jones plays his English wife, a fantasist and femme fatale.

Morley’s inner circle of thugs comprises Peter Lorre, Marco Tulli and Ivor Barnard.

Barnard died in the year of the film’s release. He plays a conflicted former army officer with fascist tendencies who, after the war, had been forced (as he saw it) into a life of crime which involved actions he perceived as being beneath his dignity.

As he puts it: “I simply want to state that things don’t happen to be what certain people imagine. An officer may find himself strapped for money and he may undertake certain things which in other circumstances, no, absolutely no.”

The Major is marvelously inarticulate: articulately inarticulate, you could say. A man of action. (And a knife-wielding maniac.)

His main scene (with Bogart and Underdown) takes place in a bar. He is sitting alone at a table, a small, tense, wiry man.

“Extraordinary creatures, women,” says Underdown to Bogart as they enter.

“Let’s drink to them,” says Bogart. They order (Pernod, Scotch).

“Come on, you tiny little wreck, we’re drinking to women,” says Bogart to Barnard.

“Take the drink but won’t join you in the toast. Glass of Irish. Hitler had the right idea, keep them in their place. Kleine Kinder Kirchen [mangling the old slogan Kinder, Küche, Kirche]. Babies in the kitchen. Say what you want about Hitler, he had his points.”

“Come, come!” objects Underdown. But the interjection only spurs the Major on.

“Look here, this generation has had its chance. Hitler, Mussolini, those were the men. Now it’s the age of the barbarians. The world is going up in smoke. I say, let it come, get it over with.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like another year or two of worry,” says Bogart. This sets Barnard off on another crazy tangent.

Worry? Just one minute, laddies. I’ve got two or three words to say to you laddies, and that’s, don’t worry, don’t ever worry. I’m in a position to know. Secret information. The Rosicrucians. The Great White Brotherhood. High secret orders. You have no faith. You must have faith. Faith in power, secret power. Men who guard trust from the deepest insides of the whatchamacallit. Mystic rulers, all one club, chained together by one purpose, one idea. Mankind’s champions. Follow me, Billy?

The Peter Lorre character also has a habit of giving rambling speeches. “It smokes, it drinks, it philosophizes,” comments Bogart in an aside to his wife. But the German-accented Lorre is made fun of mainly on account of his inappropriate surname.

“What’s our wide-eyed leprechaun doing outside my door?” Bogart asks at one point.

“Why do you always make jokes about my name, eh? Surely the name O’Hara is a tip-top name. Many Germans in Chile have become to be called O’Hara.”

There are very few movies I have seen which I would rate as masterpieces and not all that many I would rate as satisfying from an aesthetic or artistic point of view (i.e. as coherent and compelling wholes). Beat the Devil is neither masterpiece nor satisfying, as a whole. But there are other kinds of value.

Films – quite apart from their aesthetic value or lack of it – are invaluable historical documents, and old films are windows into lost cultures (attitudes, manners, ways of speaking, etc.). They tell us something about our past and our cultural trajectory.

A few final thoughts prompted by Beat the Devil

The style (of speech, of dress, etc.) has changed, but the beliefs and attitudes of most of the characters are representative of current beliefs and attitudes. Unhinged ideas like those of the Major are all over the internet. And the Jennifer Jones character’s fluid fantasies and rapidly-shifting moral perspectives are also quite in line with current realities.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film relates to the way it gives an American perspective on British culture during the last phase of the British Empire.

The Gina Lollobrigida character starts to tell her husband a story she had once heard about the lawns of English ancestral homes.

“An English gardener was showing some Americans one of those wonderful English lawns and they wanted to know how to make a lawn like that and this English gardener said…”

Bogart comes in: “He said all you have to do is to get some good grass and roll it every day for six hundred  years. I heard that story before you were born. Englishmen tell it when they are feeling down in the mouth.”

A couple of years later the Suez Crisis would precipitate the inevitable unraveling, but in 1953 the myths of Empire and immemorial Englishness still lingered.

This prompts a further thought. The projection of American power and influence was arguably at its height about the time the film was made. It has long been waning and appears now (like the British Empire in the 1950s) to be unraveling.

The big difference is, this time there is no friendly power to take the baton.


4 responses to “Myths of Empire”

  1. You’ve made me curious to see this movie. I have an English rose gardener in my ancestry. ❤️🦋🌀

  2. davidlduffy

    I started watching it too – I don’t know how I missed seeing it previously. I can see why it has a certain cult status.

  3. A rosarian but not a Rosicrucian, I trust.

  4. Some of those early scenes do stick in the mind. Good casting. In the book the Gina Lollobrigida character was Hungarian which makes more sense of the fondness for England. But the Italian actress is very funny and *almost* believable. “Tea for two and two for tea.”