Roger Ebert Home

Movie Answer Man (12/15/2002)

Q. Recently I came across an Italian poster for the 1952 John Wayne movie "Big Jim McLain." In Italy, it seems, the movie was called "Marijuana." Fascinated, I rented the movie, and found out it was an anti-communist film that starred the Duke and James Arness as HUAC investigators out to break up a ring of communists in Hawaii. There was no mention whatsoever of marijuana in the movie. My guess is that, as communism was not considered inherently evil in Europe in the 1950s, they changed the plot of the film to have Wayne and Arness chasing a drug gang. But to do so, they would have had to reshoot a considerable amount of the movie. Is this what happened, or is there some other explanation for the Italian title? (Jeff Schwager, Seattle, WA)

A. I turned for an answer to Randy Roberts, professor of history at Purdue University and co-author with James S. Olson of John Wayne American (1995), a biographical study. He replies: "I really wish I could help you but the Italian version of the film is something I know nothing about. The conclusions of the questioner seem sound, but I don't believe anything was reshot. I know from living for a while in Europe that European titles often are quite different than American ones, but 'Marijuana' seems just way out there."

Q. Am I the only one knocked out by the work of Viola Davis this season? I just saw "Antwone Fisher," and her one-scene, near-wordless bit as Antwone's mother was absolutely jaw-dropping. That on top of her role as Julianne Moore's maid in "Far from Heaven" and the straight-talking scientist in "Solaris" (2002), convinces me she should be given the best-supporting actress Oscar right now for her body of work. (Joe Baltake, film critic, Sacramento Bee).

A. Davis won a 2001 Tony Award for August Wilson's "King Hedley II" and was also in the Steven Soderberg films "Out of Sight" and "Traffic," in addition to "Solaris." The three roles you mention, all within a few months, have made a strong impression.

Q. Many critics don't give "The Birth of a Nation" the credit that it deserves. It revolutionized cinema; it was like the "Citizen Kane" of the silent era. It may show racism, but so do many other films. Take "The Searchers" for instance; that movie is hailed by most critics to be one of the best movies ever made, and it is racism toward Indians. Do critics refuse to talk about or give credit to "The Birth of a Nation" because they're afraid they'll be called racist, or do they just think it's not a good movie? (Jay Liverman, Virginia Beach VA)

A. In writing my series of Great Movies reviews, I have postponed my inevitable confrontation with D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." The movie was enormously important and influential, but the second half, in particular, is racist to a degree far beyond anything contained in "The Searchers." The Griffith film I have included in my Great Movies series is "Broken Blossoms" (1919), which was Hollywood's first depiction, however timidly, of an interracial romance.

Griffith defended himself against charges of racism, writing to Sight and Sound magazine in 1947 to protest: "I am not now and never have been 'anti-Negro' or 'anti' any other race ... In filming 'The Birth of a Nation,' I gave my best knowledge to the proven facts, and presented the known truth, about the Reconstruction period in the American South." Nevertheless, the film's racist caricatures of African-Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan is there to be seen on the screen, and did much to revive the moribund Klan. The film was picketed on its release by the NAACP. Griffith himself made "Intolerance" (1916) the year after "Birth of a Nation" as a form of amends. My guess is he was not willfully racist so much as ignorant and naive, as many Americans were at the time; the film was even praised by President Woodrow Wilson--who was himself at one point in his life a member of the Klan.

Q. Re: the AM item about self-destructing DVDs, which can be watched once and then discarded: The natural market for this product is airports. Most of the laptops that travelers carry have DVD players these days, and increasing numbers of people own portable DVD players. A number of airports have booths that rent DVDs (and players) but the appeal is heavily limited by the need to return the DVD. A disposable DVD (dDVD) is the perfect solution. (Carl Zetie)

A. DVDs are unlikely to penetrate existing retail channels because they (1) make a return trip unnecessary, when stores want you to come back and rent again, and (2) put an end to late fees. But your airport idea makes perfect sense.

Q. Being a fan of DVD , I've been growing more and more uneasy with the saturation of "Full Frame" DVD titles into stores. Blockbuster and Wal-Mart are the worst offenders, rarely even offering the original theatrical widescreen at all. Does it cause you any worry that just when millions of DVD players will be under Christmas trees, people will still go on watching chopped up versions of movies? (Blake Smith, Kitchener Ont)

A. It does. The chains give their customers little credit for intelligence, and, incredibly, still believe many of them do not understand letterboxing. The obvious solution is to offer widescreen on one side of a disk, and "full frame" (sliced-and-diced) on the other side.

It's my belief that no true movie lover has any business going into Blockbuster in the first place, since its policies have done so much harm to modern American cinema. By refusing to handle NC-17 movies, Blockbuster has all but destroyed the freedom of American directors to make studio pictures intended for adults. At the same time, by killing the safety valve of the "adult" rating, Blockbuster has contributed to the downward leakage of unsuitable material into the R and PG-13 categories. Thus it corrupts youth while appearing sanctimonious.

A recent Boston Globe article by Geoff Edgers documents another Blockbuster transgression. Two of the most acclaimed recent foreign films, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "The Piano Teacher," have been "sanitized" for Blockbuster. Edgers notes many cuts in "Y Tu Mama" and adds that at the end: "The dramatic seduction scene is neutered in a way that completely alters the film." There is no point in seeing these films unless you see them in the theatrical version, so DVD renters should patronize stores that offer movies in their original forms.

Q. Why did Douglas Sirk, who's back on the pop culture radar thanks to "Far from Heaven," quit making movies from 1960 to the mid-'70s? Was he ill? Fed up with movie-making? Retired and living somewhere in Tahiti, with Marlon Brando's ex-girlfriends? (Laura Emerick, Chicago).

A. Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven" is set in 1957 and is a deliberate reconstruction of the look, feel and style of the melodramas Sirk made during that decade, such as "All that Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind" and "Magnificent Obsession." Born in 1900, Sirk was a German (real name Claus Detlev Sierck) who left Germany in 1937. Ill health forced his retirement after "Imitation of Life" in 1959 and he returned to Germany, where he was embraced by members of the German New Wave like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, himself heavily influenced by Sirk. Helped by this new generation, he made three short films between 1975 and 1978.

Q. In your most recent "Answer Man" column, you cite Charles Napier as playing the guard in "Silence of the Lambs" who gets his face stolen by Hannibal Lector. This is incorrect. Alex Coleman played the unfortunate victim, Pembrey, while Napier ended up being strung crucifix-style from the rafters. (Adam Lindsley, Santa Monica CA)

A. You are correct. That was a query about why Jonathan Demme, who almost always uses Napier in his films, did not have him in "The Truth About Charlie." Napier must have lots of fans; 11 readers, one from Argentina, pointed out the error.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Godzilla Minus One
Raging Grace
Silent Night
Candy Cane Lane
A Revolution on Canvas


comments powered by Disqus