Old Burt movies

I’ve half watched a couple of Burt Lancaster movies in the last few days. I turn the TV on, they’re halfway through, and I watch to the end.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favourite old-fashioned movie stars. He has great screen presence, a terrific voice, and was an underrated actor. The two movies I’ve seen show him in two very different roles.

In Elmer Gantry he’s an opportunistic drifter with a good heart who becomes a notorious preacher. He’s just great in it. He’s a smiling charmer, the loveable rogue, but when he gets up on stage and starts preaching he’s electrifying. He’s given some rousing words, but it’s hard to imagine anyone carrying it off as well as Lancaster. He’s got that great resonant voice, the physical charisma – a combination of good looks and athleticism, and he gets that spellbound, faraway look in his eye that seems so convincing. It’s a worthwhile film. It’s also worth checking out for the kick-ass rendition of the old hymn I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land, rousing as fuck as the varied voices join in with Lancaster taking the lead.

In Judgement at Nuremberg he plays a very different character. This is a great movie, and once more he’s terrific in it. He plays a German judge, Emil Jannings, being tried at the Nazi war trials war post-WW2. He’s a dignified figure, a renowned juror and man of probing intelligence. While his co-accused are a mix of the buffoon, the weak, and the ineffectual, Jannings represents the moral dilemma.

Spencer Tracy plays the judge, and in his judgement he touches upon this very aspect. If the Nazi’s were all just decadent barbarians then much of what happened could be seen as a tragic aberration – but when such a man as Emil Jannings’ is complicit then it becomes much more complex question that civilisation has to answer for. How is it such an intelligent, decent, and respected man can be caught up in such a thing as Nazi war crimes?

Jannings himself is repentant, aware of how he has failed and his part in the monstrous Nazi regime. He will brook no justification, and refuses to have anything to do with the defence tactics that echo the mistakes of the past. He makes a fine speech rejecting that – this is a movie of fine speeches – and accepts his final judgment as guilty as being just and correct.

It’s a classic movie, and a good one. I’ve probably seen it 3-4 times now over the space of 30+ years. Watching again last night I was caught up in it once more, but this time the rhetoric did not have the same compelling effect upon me. I understand that when the arguments and events contained in the issue are made into a movie then everything must be condensed into a few hours, and logically simplified.

I think my cynicism to modern news reporting has made me more critical, and so I found myself unmoved by some of the emotional manipulations, and questioning the broad application of the law. We presume the guilt of people like this, it’s human nature and understandable. They probably are guilty, but they have to be guilty of something specific, and those specific charges addressed, and ultimately proved. No matter who it is, process applies.

I digress. The movie ultimately is a piece of entertainment that makes a broad point well understood by the audience. It’s not about the legalistic to and fro, ultimately a movie such as this is about the much larger theme of good and evil, and more specifically, personal responsibility, and culpability. In many ways it’s the sort of theme I wish was more prevalent today.


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