Saturday, October 10, 2009

Campbell's Kingdom

Ah, the great and prolific actor/director relationships: John Wayne and John Ford, Robert de Niro and Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Dirk Bogarde and Basil Dearden Joseph Losey Ralph Thomas.


It pains me to discuss the Bogarde/Thomas relationship (nine films together compared to the five he made with Losey and the four with Dearden) since Thomas was a journeyman director and did little to tap into either the brooding sensuality or the tortured intensity of Bogarde as an actor. Nevertheless, it was the likes of the 'Doctor' films ('~ in the House', '~at Sea', '~ at Large', '~in Distress'*) which made him a matinee idol. His dreamy turns in 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'The Wind Cannot Read' went over big with his legions of fans, as well. 'Hot Enough for June' - considered elsewhere in this year's Dirk-fest - didn't quite recapture the mainstream magic, while their final collaboration, 'The High Bright Sun', is largely forgotten.

Which leaves 'Campbell's Kingdom' - certainly my favourite of a frankly not-that-remarkable canon. Adapted from Hammond Innes's bestseller, it opens with Bruce Campbell** (Bogarde) turning up at ramshackle Canadian mining town Come Lucky having inherited his late grandfather's land, a tract the old man was convinced was rich in oil. Old man Campbell's undoing was an unscrupulous partner who defrauded their backers, amscrayed with the money and left Campbell to take the fall ... and do some time. Bruce, recently given six months to live following (it transpires) something of a misdiagnosis, decides Campbell's Kingdom is a nice isolated spot to end his days.

He hasn't reckoned with crooked contractor Owen Morgan (Stanley Baker) who is cutting corners and using cheap materials in the building of a dam which will eventually flood Campbell's land. Prevented from even visiting the Kingdom (the only way to the high ground it occupies is a clanking industrial hoist which Morgan owns and controls), Bruce bristles at Morgan's assertion that the land is worth nothing and is suspicious of the geologist's report Morgan produces which indicates there was no oil. Refusing to sell Morgan the land, Bruce makes contact with the geologist, Bladon (Michael Craig), and discovers that Morgan falsified the report.

Never mind that he's pale, weary and at death's door, Bruce gets a new lease of life fending off Morgan's overtures (which graduate from fiscal imperatives to acts of sabotage) and determining to prove that his grandfather was right about oil under the Kingdom. To this end, he engages the services of roughneck driller MacDonald (a spendidly miscast but loving-every-minute James Robertson Justice) who in turn employs world-weary trucker Tim (an equally miscast Sid James) to head a convoy hauling his equipment from Calgary to the Kingdom. A five hour drive with the little matter of roadblocks and Morgan's hoist at the end of it.

What follows is the centrepiece of Thomas's proficient thriller: a contrived but decently executed quarter of an hour's worth of hairpin bends, vertiginous drops, rock falls and dynamited bridges as Campbell, Boyden and MacDonald strive to outwit Morgan and has vicious crew and get the convoy up to the Kingdom. Scenes of truck wheels spinning and failing to gain traction as chasms yawn beneath them homage Clouzot's 'Wages of Fear' (released three years earlier), while the mechanics of the hoist and its tense ascent of the unforgiving mountainside predate 'Where Eagles Dare' by more than a decade.

This and a couple of other set-pieces (a night attack on the Kingdom and the inevitable climax as the jerry-built dam bursts) tick the right boxes; Baker is rugged, menacing and properly hissable as the villain; the Rockies provide a dramatic backdrop (even if Ernest Steward's cinematography does tend to come on a bit like a tourist brochure); and at a tight 100 minutes it never outstays its welcome.

On the flipside, the presence of half of Thomas's usual stable of Rank Organisation bit-players is somewhat offputting - you know you're in Canada because of the mountains but it all seems a bit East End, dahnit? - and Bogarde resolutely fails to gel with Barbara Murray in the shoehorned-in romantic subplot. The ending's a bit of a cop-out, as well, but to be fair it's replicated more or less faithfully from the source material (the only false note in Innes's otherwise pacy and atmospheric novel). Thomas's worst sins, though, are his blithe rejection of the standard editing room modus operandi of actually having shots that match. I don't think I've ever seen more screamingly blatant day-for-night shots than in 'Campbell's Kingdom'. Day-for-night? More like bright-blue-sky-for-pitch-black. The high bright sun, indeed.

*The latter a belated, almost cameo-like, return to the role.

**No relation to the prominently-chinned actor.

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