The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.

Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971)

Of all the crazy fucked-up Euro potboilers of the 70s, Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill Kill!! is surely the only one that approaches a high art of jerk-off instruction. It's a sick, nasty film with a stellar cast - Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and James Mason - who give it their all. Directed by Romain Gary, it is ostensibly a drugs bust thriller with a good deal of violence and nudity thrown in; in fact it is Gary's treatise on just how short and brutal human life can be. Gary was a Holocaust survivor: the title of his book of horror stories Hissing Tales refers allegedly to the dialogue of gases which escapes from piles of human cadavers.

Stephen Boyd, wearing his death-mask ahead of time, storms through the film as Brad Killian, psychopathic rogue cop committed to the extermination of drug dealers - not the little guys, but major narcotics producers and distributors. To make his point he single-handedly invades Af-Pak leaving a trail of corpses that infuriates local law enforcement, and in the process embarrassing his police bosses. James Mason, Interpol's best agent according to Curd Jurgens, is despatched to confront the cartels in a more conventional fashion, and to lure Boyd back into the fold; his beautiful and unhappy wife Jean Seberg proves to be the bait. She follows Mason to Pakistan, gets promptly lost, and falls over some corpses left lying around by Boyd. They embark on a violent affair, based mostly around interrogation techniques. However, Boyd's bad guy costume is a little too convincing, and as Seberg begins to deconstruct him it becomes apparent that he is a much straighter man than her husband, who has in fact gone over to the other side. Wounded and exhausted, Mason is presented with a very straight choice by Boyd - die killing or be killed - Mason opts for the former, resulting in climactic scenes which must surely be among the most unique in the annals of Franco-Spanish-Wherever co-productions. The only possible reason to sit through Kill! is to put these scenes in context - to see how many bullets can be pumped into a human body before it falls down; or to find out how slow-motion may actually be an anti-gravity device. But this fails the start-up imagination - I suspect one must go back to the director's wartime experiences for a true context. Or forward to his death - because, unsurprisingly, Romain Gary shot himself in 1980. And yet again, even this fails - because Romain Gary, whose real name was Roman Kacew, existed inside a myriad of pseudonyms and lives and marriages. It is perhaps only possible to say that Kill! is the product of a refugee turned diplomat, a pilot turned author, a husband turned agent, love turned sex, despair turned human, human turned inhuman. As he wrote of himself - Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction.

Whoever he was, Gary is well-served by the cast and crew assembled for Kill! Boyd allows himself to be made up as a jungle beast and his middle age is suitably wild. Oddly, his original Northern Ireland accent is on display, and its sibilance is used to good effect. Seberg overcomes her usual problems with diction to present a pleasing incomprehension at the events overtaking her. James Mason adopts a cod transatlantic accent and delivers a perplexed and perplexing performance - for once he does not seem to be attuned to the material. This film is often cited as one of the low points in his career; but this was during the wandering period of the actor's life, when he was apt to accept any job that offered him a decent pay-cheque and an opportunity to travel. I suspect he was along for the ride. There are some problems with the film's continuity - the editing could be sharper. And, of course, the dubbed supporting roles are always grating on the ear. But they give the film much of its period charm. Lastly, a good deal of praise must be reserved for an often striking soundtrack by Berto Pisano and Jacques Beaumont.

All of this is of course bunkum compared to the film's final scenes, which can be watched as a stand-alone fantasia.

Raise the Titanic (1980)

Lew Grade's much denigrated adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel is that most satisfying of movie beasts - an experience that turns a bad read into a cinematic guilty pleasure. The film has rather a lot going for it now, though it's easy to see why it was panned on release - the plotting is poor, some of the model work is underwhelming, and the film has a curious atmosphere of reverence towards a ship "that never learned to do anything except sink."

American scientists attempting to build an anti-nuclear shield require copious amounts of a little-known mineral called Byzanium. After discovering a large quantity of said mineral had been transported in the hold of the Titanic, the US Navy makes arrangements to raise the infamous liner - but the Soviets have other ideas. That's it really.

Though the novel is not written in the manner of a Saturday morning serial (and Cussler would have been the first to object were it reviewed as such) the author allegedly cited "Dirk Pitt" as an Indiana Jones style character, an opinion he appears to have formed only after he had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. If it is a matter of casting - Harrison Ford v Richard Jordan - there's no doubt Ford wins hands down. Not on acting plaudits - Jordan and Ford are equally matched there - but because Ford was carrying the dash of Han Solo with him into Spielberg's film, as well as significant box office clout; whereas Jordan was simply too ambivalent an actor to care about stardom or box office. In fact Jordan is perfect casting for the film's continued afterlife as a guilty pleasure - an acclaimed stage actor, his persistent, almost perverse, appearances in such car crashes as Solarbabies (Hello, is this your ball?) and Timebomb, guarantee the film a cult infamy; after all, this was a man who spent his evenings away from the movie set doing Havel and Shakespeare off-Broadway. The truth is that "Dirk Pitt" is one of those generic macho creations so beloved of hack authors, and Jordan excises every trace of this from the character, much to Cussler's chagrin no doubt, and to my own delight. No, the casting is fine, superb even, from Jordan to Robards and Alec Guinness.

Another problem with the Indiana Jones flannel is that Mr Cussler's unobtainium doesn't have the same religious or mystical properties as the Ark of the Covenant, nor the ability to burn up Soviets the way the Ark burns up Nazis. Unobtainium is fissionable material and its destructive potential is placed at the theoretical remove of Mutually Assured Destruction rather than the more dramatic immediacy of lightning bolts from God. Which is a pity because, while the plot of Raise the Titanic is botched, the idea of writing a cold war scenario into Titanic lore is an interesting one, and a clever acknowledgement that the only way to meet the expense of raising something like the Titanic is through defence expenditure. Indiana Jones doesn't have these resources - Dirt Pitt does. I think we can safely set aside any ideas of Raise the Titanic as a missed opportunity for an action romp as delusion. Instead we have a fairly serious film which relies on the historical and novelty value of the Titanic to do justice to an incredible plot. The fact that the Titanic story is incredible in itself goes some way towards making it work.

As director Jerry Jameson is a quirky choice - he helmed several interesting television movies during the 70s - The Deadly Tower and A Fire in the Sky among them, and Raise the Titanic appears to have been his one shot at a big-budget film. He doesn't fail, but it is obvious that he locates the heart of the film on the ship, rather than with the accompanying cold war thriller. It's a deliberate choice that he devotes almost as much time to allowing Jordan to poignantly wander the Titanic's wrecked ballroom as he does to the inevitable confrontation with the Soviets. The Soviets, sadly, are portrayed as one-dimensional characters whose apparent obsession with unobtainium closes their eyes and ears even to the alleged majesty of John Barry's score.

And therein lies the point - the real unobtainium of Raise the Titanic is the ship; not the model, not its cargo or its physical aspect, but the wistful real world ship, which is already raised daily by the imagination.

Transition: by Algernon Blackwood

A few short years ago a certain film took a hoary old twist ending and gave it a new lease of life by selling it to a generation of illiterates as something new. The writer/director, one M Night Shyamalan, was then given a blank cheque to inflict on us a series of twists so predictable as to reveal that his first film was more fluke than assimilated reading. The dead-all-the-while gambit was a staple of pulp shockers for many years, and so badly abused that it fell out of use for generations. My first encounter with it is even more unfortunate for Mr Shyamalan - it was in a short, short story by the masterful Algernon Blackwood, published about 1916.

In Transition a clerk is knocked down by a trolley-bus while carrying home Christmas presents for his wife and children. He completes the journey as a ghost, but of course no-one can see him, or his gifts. Except, that is, for his youngest child, whose much-anticipated desire for the shiny, wrapped parcels under his arms allows her to see him. So much so, in fact, that his parcels drop at her feet, while he is escorted elsewhere by Minturn, who had gone down with the Titanic.

The difference between Shyamalan and Blackwood is that the latter attempts no deception. He doesn't litter his narrative with misdirection and false clues to distract from the single idea by which his story may succeed or fail - he invites the reader to share a dead man's poignant desire to play Father Christmas from beyond the grave so that he might personally deliver the tempting fortitude of consolation to his children.

Blackwood is perhaps my favourite writer of supernatural and weird fiction, and I tend to revisit his work at Christmas, a habit most probably programmed into me by the BBC. Transition is not even one of his better stories, but it is a useful example of an almost lost art of ghosts who cannot be auto-written by the living.

Harrison Bergeron (1995)

You haven't made everybody equal, you've made them all the same...

A flawed but interesting adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short, short story, made for television in the 1990s, scripted by Arthur Crimm, directed by Bruce Pittman, and starring Christopher Plummer and a miscast Sean Astin in the title role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War comes the great recession - called great because it is never-ending. The loss of defence expenditure to keep the world economy afloat, and ever increasing mechanisation in the workplace, leads to a second American revolution. The outcome of this revolution is the imposition of a curiously American form of "socialism" - or what they think or fear is socialism, which is something else altogether.

The film expands greatly on the original story and in doing so loses some of its satirical elements, though the fact that 2053 is presented as a nostalgia-driven 1950s, complete with retro-style cathode ray TVs and Oldsmobiles, goes some way towards amelioration if you retain the context of McCarthyism in mind: because this dystopia has much to do with America's perverse misunderstanding of socialism. In fact, Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that the US would do socialism in the same way it does capitalism - in a form so twisted as to be recognisable only by its omissions. To demonstrate: there are no free markets in America - there are only captive markets made available to corporations by government and regulated, or not, by same. Similarly, a socialist America would seek to entrench equality as a form of mediocrity which requires exceptions and exemptions to work, hence the ever present corporate elite. It quickly becomes apparent that if you choose intelligence to measure equality then eventually the society you create is only as smart as its biggest idiot: to this end the population is forced to wear electronic headbands which limit intelligence to the pre-determined average. But who determines the average?

The servicing of ideology requires a Commissar class and it is this class into which Harrison is recruited. He takes a job with the shadow government as a television executive, wherein he observes the true workings of the end of history. He is witness to the committees which decide the level at which the general run of life is to be pitched at the populace. But as he is gradually drawn into the elite's time and motion studies of eye-wash, a personal tragedy overtakes his training and he resolves to share his pain, and to show people how they are being duped and controlled at every turn. To go beyond this would be to spoil it, so I won't, except to say the film pulls none of its punches, none whatsoever - it even ends on a note of false optimism.

Harrison Bergeron came as a considerable surprise to me - I had long believed there were no 90s sf classics, as that particular decade was captured early by the awful X-Files. There is an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as a sort of benevolent Big Brother, and much of the dialogue is witty and inventive. The film has a horribly corporate atmosphere which suits its subject matter very well. Lastly I'm reminded of L.P. Hartley's fantastic novel Facial Justice, the lost link between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's just a great pity that Harrison Bergeron remains so obscure - it deserves a much wider audience and greater reputation. It was apparently remade as 2081, a short film which I haven't seen, but I doubt very much it can better the original.

The Edge: by Charles Beaumont

Charles Beaumont's name is fairly well-known amongst weird fiction and horror fans, perhaps because his books are irritatingly hard to track down and so remain on some infernal, unfulfilled wish-list. He was a chief writer on the original Twilight Zone series and penned the low-budget William Shatner film The Intruder, as well as a number of short stories which appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and were later collected in volumes like The Howling Man and The Edge.

The New People takes the well-worn theme of jaded suburbia and adds a reasonable (for the time) twist, but not a twist that could be used now. And perhaps not even then - because the story trades one suburban myth for another in a very effective way. Hank and Anne Prentice, and their adopted son Davey, take possession of their new home - rather uneasily, as the previous resident committed suicide. But they settle into a neighbourhood that appears otherwise respectable and modest. In fact, they themselves appear to be the only oddities: "He wondered what it would be like to sleep with her. Probably it would be very nice." She is, of course, his wife. Because Hank is impotent and Ann is a virgin. Here you can locate the twist in the story, the point being that suburbanites have a way of finding the one fatal weakness/strength in a stranger, usually to diabolical ends...

I'm sure The Howling Man has been anthologised by Pan or Fontana at some point. I have encountered it outside of the pages of The Edge, somewhere. Or maybe it's just that the atmosphere of the story is so immediately a classic that it provides its own afterlife. An American student, touring Europe before he takes a job with his family's legal practice, falls ill with pneumonia and wakes to find he has been nursed back to health by an order of monks in a timeless abbey. But the student is not their only guest - there is also the mysterious howling man of the title, of whom the monks decry all knowledge, refusing not only to hear his cries, but also to acknowledge his existence. The student resolves to help the man escape...  The Howling Man makes effective use of the New World meets Old World setup; its descriptions of the German landscape are almost medieval, treating Europe as an ancient forest that requires regime change.

Of the remainder, there is some energy and verve in Mother's Day, the story of an Irishman forced to mate with a stick-like Martian; The New Sound is the engaging story of the world's first (and last) practicing necroaudiophile; Song For a Lady is an atypical deathship story (depressingly this story reminded me that I'm one of the vanishingly small number of human beings who can put a face to the name C. Aubrey Smith); and in The Magic Man, a travelling magician in the Old West gives a little too much of his act away to strangers...

For the most part Beaumont's stories are very well-developed. They go where they need to go with minimum fuss and maximum gain. There is a good deal of attention to detail, and he has a talent for an apt phrase. As an author he makes no attempt to outsmart his reader; his conceits are such that we are delighted in short order, and spend the remainder of the story co-writing their conclusions. Sadly, Beaumont suffered a fairly odd and premature death in his late 30s from something called pre-senile dementia; perhaps he believed his own stories, which now resemble the grisly output of a cantankerous O'Henry gone impeccably to seed.

To Die in Italbar: by Roger Zelazny

The crime is life, the sentence is death...

To Die in Italbar has been somewhere described as the story of the walker in the valley of the shadow, an epithet which for once does justice to its subject. HvH (an interesting set of initials, almost a formula) is host to a deity named Aram-O-Myra (Miriam, also a formula), a Goddess whose powers encompass the microscopic world of germs, viruses and virulence of all kinds. Her presence inside HvH renders him literally both carrier and cure. When he achieves balance, and this seems to be related to the dynamics of his relationship with Miriam, he can cure; out of balance he is a world-killer. On a mission of mercy to one particular planet he is unable to leave a habitat before his balance tilts and he inadvertently starts an epidemic, resulting in his being stoned and beaten. This seems to be the vulnerable moment that Miriam has been waiting for, as she transforms from deity to devil and encourages HvH to commit revenge fantasy. They are a good match.

Zelazny then gets to work by introducing a host of characters, some old, some new, often dropped into the text mid-point with no previous introductions, but so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Because Zelazny's plots are organised over such swathes of time and distance, economies of scale are sought only in motivations: Malacar Miles, for example, wants HvH so that he can be used as a weapon in his own revenge fantasy to do justice by a destroyed Earth; Larmon Pels, suspended perpetually on the point of death, wants access to HvH for insight into his own condition; and Francis Sandow, late of Isle of the Dead, seems to be a point of continuity between both books and provides a story arc wherein life doesn't so much foreshadow death as stalk it across a universe that is poorly-lit by dissenting suns.

Italbar is not particularly well-regarded amongst Zelazny readers, mainly because the climax of the novel is related at some remove from the action; the confrontation between Sandow and Miriam is a piece of exposition by telepathy, something I first happened across in The Silent Speakers by Arthur Sellings, and which I regard as inventive enough to serve here; in fact, it couldn't be any other way. Also, the last chapter, a brief half-page, may contain a hidden denouement which is easily missed - Give it that much.

I came late to Zelazny, perhaps having been discouraged by his Amber series. But for a long time I had in my possession a copy of The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth, and one day on a whim I sat down to read it. And it wasn't very long before I was enthralled. In fact, I was so moved I resolved not to read any more Zelazny for fear of spoiling the experience, a reaction I had also had to Lucius Shepherd. Thankfully, those days have passed. These writers don't spoil with a paucity of good work. Quite the opposite. They are prolific by their excellence. And while I'm still not much enamoured of Amber, the remainder of Zelazny's work is... well, it's not earthly literature - really it's the dark matter of the universe, which the mainstream has yet to detect.