Friday, September 21, 2007

Really Alternative Cinema III: Tiger! Tiger!

Even in the wonder-filled universe of alternative-reality cinema, science fiction enthusiasts will be disappointed more often than not. In my (admittedly limited) travels into parallel worlds, I have not yet been able to track down a timeline where Ridley Scott achieved his ambition of becoming the John Ford of sf, nor a movie version of Wyndham's The Chrysalids, nor any good feature film based on the work of Isaac Asimov - though I have found one where Akiva Goldsman was not allowed to wreak vengeance on a genre for which he apparently has a deep-seated hatred.

I did, however, find a film version of Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! aka The Stars My Destination, which came about under rather unlikely circumstances.

A little background. In 1958, The Amazing Colossal Man was unleashed on unsuspecting parallel worlds by Bert I. Gordon, aka Mr BiG, who had an obsession with gigantism which rivalled that of Catherine the Great. This spawned a sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, and production company Woolner Brothers (not to be confused with, etc.) decided to cash in on the publicity by making Attack of the 50' Woman, from a screenplay by Gordon's co-writer Mark Hana.

On timeline CRM-114, however, a typo led to this film being announced in Variety as Attack of the 50' Roman. Director Nathan Juran, apparently believing that he'd been selected because of his success with the Ray Harryhausen effects film 20 Million Miles to Earth, set partly in Rome, went looking for a science fiction writer who'd lived in Italy, and was referred to Alfred Bester, then writing TV scripts.

Attack of the 50' Roman, starring Steve Reeves, was remarkably successful commercially, thanks to an energetic and expensive publicity campaign by Joseph E. Levine. While filming, Bester had mentioned to Juran that important scenes of Tiger! Tiger! were set on Rome's Spanish Steps, and when the company decided to make another sf film set in Rome, they optioned Bester's novel.

Bester's original screenplay for The Stars My Destination is, unsurprisingly, brilliant, and many scenes have survived intact. The film overall has a pleasingly baroque look, though the spaceships and Ray Harryhausen's 'burning man' effects have dated badly. The cast, however, is a rather strange mix. Vincent Price gives one of his more restrained performances as Presteign, while Anita Ekberg played his icily aloof albino daughter. Boris Karloff, the first choice to play Saul Dagenham, was unavailable, so the role was given to a younger actor who had played minor roles in sf films, Clint Eastwood. Steve Reeves, then at the peak of his career, turned down the role of James Bond to play Gully Foyle: the role of Jisbella McQueen went to his sword-and-sandal co-star Sylva Koscina.

Reeves is "not too abysmal" for much of the film - as a stocky and brutish-looking Foyle before his encounter with the Scientific People, in the fight scenes where he demolishes the jack-jaunters, and as the Burning Man. The tiger mask 'tattooed' on his face increased his rather limited range of facial expressions, and in his scenes as Fourmyle, his rather wooden delivery is oddly appropriate for a man who cannot afford to show strong emotion for fear of bringing blood rushing to his face and highlighting his surgery scars. This works well until the film's climax, where Foyle has to deliver his impassioned "Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world?" speech. As in nearly all of his films, his lines were performed by another actor, but the poor job of dubbing only makes his performance look even worse. One critic unkindly remarked that given Reeves' restricted acting ability, he might better have been cast as the robot.

The Stars My Destination failed at the box office, putting an end to what might have been a succession of Italian-made movies based on sf novels. Instead, Italian film-makers turned to the safer genres of sword-and-sandal and spaghetti westerns. Juran teamed up with Harryhausen once more, making The First Men in the Moon from a script by Nigel Kneale, before moving back to the less demanding world of directing television shows, including episodes of 'Lost in Space' and 'Land of the Giants'. Bester stayed away from the film industry until the late 70s, when he was commissioned to write a story for the forthcoming 'Superman' movie. It was never used.

It's rumoured that a remake of The Stars My Destination is in pre-production stage in timeline CRM-114. Let's hope that this time, the lead role is given to someone with more talent than Reeves.

No comments: